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Dynamic Range Defined

Riley Hooper
October 11, 2012 by Riley Hooper Alum

You know what they say — dynamic range doesn't grow on trees. Well maybe they don't say that. But it is true. It doesn't. If it did, we'd all be great cinematographers.

So if it doesn't grow on trees, what is it and how can I get more of it? Great question. Read on.

Dynamic range refers to the range of which a camera can successfully capture the lightest and darkest areas of an image without losing detail. Once this range is exceeded, the highlights will wash out to white and the darks will turn to black blobs. So the higher the dynamic range, the better!

Often dynamic range is confused with latitude. Latitude is related to dynamic range, but is not the same thing! Latitude refers to the exposure flexibility of your captured image — so how much you can alter it in post to attain the correct exposure. Latitude is dependent upon dynamic range. While dynamic range refers to a camera, latitude refers to the image it captures.

How to increase dynamic range:

Your Camera

Since dynamic range is a capability of your camera, the best way to attain high dynamic range is to buy a camera with high dynamic range. For example, the high end digital video cameras made by RED and ARRI fall under this category. The new Blackmagic Cinema Camera also has high dynamic range. This video from the good folks at OneRiver Media compares the dynamic range capabilities of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with that of the Canon 5D Mark III DSLR. It's a perfect way to visualize exactly what dynamic range is, and the limitations of any camera in terms of attaining the correct exposure. Let's watch:

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But as we all know, one thing they do say is that money doesn't grow on trees. So if you can't fork over the dough for a snazzy camera, consider the following options for increasing dynamic range:

Picture Style

Using the camera you have, making conscious decisions about in-camera image settings can help to give your footage more latitude. As a general rule, turning down contrast and similar settings will help to retain more information in your image. For example, if you were to turn up contrast very high, you run the risk of losing detail in your blacks. Once that contrast is baked in to the image, it's impossible to recover that detail in post. Alternately, if you turn contrast down, you'll have a flat, boring image, but all of that information will be retained, and you'll have more flexibility to tweak the contrast in post. That's why very "flat" picture styles such as Cinestyle from Technicolor, or Cine from Marvel have been developed. If my explanation is falling flat, watch this video from Luka for more details:

HDR

If you have an iPhone, you may be familiar with HDR. It stands for high dynamic range. When taking an HDR photo on your iPhone, it works by compositing two images, taken one right after another. One image will properly expose the highlights, while the other image will properly expose the dark areas. When composited together, you get the best of both worlds in an image where both are properly exposed! Using an image editing program like Photoshop, you can do the same thing on your own, and can use more than two images. This same process is used in timelapse videos, since they are made of photographs. You may be familiar with the popular HDR Skies video? Just as the title suggests, the beautiful skies and scenic foregrounds are able to coalesce in picturesque harmony due to HDR:

Watch this video to see how Phil Arntz uses his DSLR and Photomatix Pro to create an HDR timelapse:

In video, HDR works a little bit differently. The fact that you must roll video continuously, and that it's not physically possible to attain identical framing from two cameras at the same time without a fancy setup are both initial barriers that must be overcome.

Magic Lantern has developed a pretty neat firmware update for some Canon DSLRs, which alternates shooting between two different ISOs between frames. You then merge the two exposures using their software. I'll let Graham Wheeler explain the details:

You can also create multiple exposures of the same video file and fuse them together in post. Check out this tutorial video in which Jochem D uses Adobe AfterEffects CS4 and Photomatix Pro to do just that.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Last but not least, a more "old school" but just as effective trick is to use a graduated neutral density filter. To brush up on your neutral density knowledge, head on over to this Video School lesson. Unlike a regular ND filter, a graduated ND filter blocks out a varied range of light across its surface. One of these babies can come in handy when shooting a landscape scene. If you place the filter so that it blocks out more light at the top than the bottom, the effect is essentially as if you were shooting at a higher aperture at the top than the bottom, so that the brighter sky and the darker landscape are both properly exposed. Let's take a trip Down Under and let Aussie Vimean Pete Dobré explain in more detail:

So what have we learned today? That dynamic range doesn't grow on trees, yes. But I hope you've also learned ways in which you can increase your camera's dynamic range and the latitude of your footage.

23 Comments

Nicholas Eriksson Plus

We shouldn't forget that 35mm film still has the widest dynamic range available today.

Modern film stocks (motion picture & photographic) still beat digital sensors hands down, and that is why it is still used extensively in film industries and challenging photographic assignments throughout the world.

This article has missed a great opportunity to highlight the advantages of film origination over digital.

Yellow Arrow Film, Inc.

Thanks Nick. I was about to say the same thing but you beat me to it. Film = latitude.

Nicholas Eriksson Plus

@ Konstantin & Yellow Arrow - Glad you like my point guys!

On another note, I would like to add that dynamic range isn't everything, and wide dynamic range doesn't mean that you will have a 'better' image automatically. Learning how to expose properly, especially with a light meter, is a great way of deciding what it is you want to draw the audience's eye to, and isn't that one of the most important aspects of photography?

The great masters of photography and cinematography have always been very selective about what they want to show the viewer, and especially in conjunction with hard light, deep shadows etc.

I am not a big fan of seeing lots of detail in the shadow areas, as it becomes mushy and low-contrast. I like punchy images, with slick blacks.

One more thing, when did using an ND filter become 'old school'!? Using filters are key to controlling light!!!

Riley Hooper Staff

Hi Nick!
You are most certainly correct. I considered discussing film but didn't feel that just a mention would do it justice since the main focus of this lesson was digital. But thanks so much for contributing to the discussion. Your point about making informed and deliberate decisions on exposure is also a good one! Couldn't agree more.

Nicholas Eriksson Plus

Hi Riley,

Thank you for your response, it is certainly a very complex topic to cover in such a concise article, and I think on the whole it has covered the basics well.

How about we see some articles focussing specifically on originating on film? I bet there are many more people on Vimeo who are as passionate as I am about shooting a variety of film formats (both for photography and motion picture). Film shooters translate these skills to digital shoots, so it is all interchangeable information.

This type of article will aid beginner's starting out on their photographic journey, and confirm that you don't necessarily have to spend hundreds of dollars on a shiny new camera in order to capture beautiful images.

All the best,

Nick

Daniel Hayek Staff

Hi Nick, it sounds interesting, no doubt. In terms of uploads to Vimeo though an extremely small number is based on film transfers. I'm not opposed to the medium it's just becoming very niche. Happy to discuss this more though :)

Anthony Elliott

Nice lesson. Just a note about the third paragraph: where it says "Once the camera exceeds this range", should it not say "Once the scene exceeds this range", since the range is referring to the dynamic range the camera can capture? I.e. the camera exceeding its own dynamic range doesn't make sense.

Thanks,
Anthony

SAPC

I wonder how the 1DC would hold up agains the BMD in the same type of test as with the Mark III. Any thoughts?

Aaron Christopher E. Smith

I'm new to a lot of this but I'm really starting to understand what my camera does and why it does it so well compared to my older cameras. This was a great tutorial and definitely something that's going to make my films much better and richer because I can now understand what I'm actually working with. Thanks for the article and everyone else that left comments and contributed.

Hunter Reed Plus

So I'm attempting to understand something about Cinestyle from Technicolor, or Cine from Marvel. What exactly do custom picture styles change? Is it changing some programming in order to increase the dynamic range as opposed to neutral? The only other interpretation I was able to come up with was that it's simply a way to store pre-set values for contrast, saturation, sharpness, and color tone. If someone would please clarify I would be extremely grateful.

INTERCUTS Plus

it'd be more interesting if two of the videos weren't marked as Private!

PSL

several videos are set to private :(

New Vision Media Plus

Not sure if you realise but some of the links don't work and some of the videos are set to private.

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