Why Dynamic Range Is My Favorite, and Why I Couldn't Care Less About Megapixel Count and ISO

Why Dynamic Range Is My Favorite, and Why I Couldn't Care Less About Megapixel Count and ISO

Over the years, camera companies have been going head to head in the battle for the best camera sensor. This battle has always focused around the amount of megapixels a camera has to offer, and as of lately, how high the ISO can go. Because of this most consumers, including a significant amount of photography veterans, think that megapixel count is the end-all be-all of sensor technology, with ISO following up as a close second. At this point in the game though, I wish the sensor battle would switch gears and focus more on the dynamic range.


What is Dynamic range?

To sum it up, dynamic range is basically the amount of light the sensor can capture when taking an exposure. In order to understand this, it helps to imagine a pixel on your sensor as a bucket. This bucket is being filled up with light as you take an image. When the bucket overflows with light, you are left with clipped highlights; likewise if the bucket does not gather enough light, you are left with clipped shadows. These clipped areas will be seen in the frame as solid white (clipped highlights) or solid black (clipped shadows) blobs that have zero detail. There is obviously a little more to it, but that’s the quick basics of it.

The below image shows an over dramatized example of this. The red areas represent the clipped highlights and the blue areas represent the clipped shadows. I obviously edited the image to look like this just to show what these loses in detail look like. Also, keep in mind that these clipped areas will look worse in print then they do on a screen.

You can see that the image has clipped highlights and shadows by looking at the histogram. Because the graph is pushed up against both end points, we know we are losing detail. 


Megapixel and ISO

When I say that I could care less about megapixel count and ISO range, I do not mean they are useless features, I just think that they have reached a point where they don't need to be as heavily developed. When I upgraded cameras, I specifically did not want one of the super high megapixel superstar cameras. I simply didn’t want to deal with that large of a file or the storage space that accompanies it. It definitely has its uses in certain aspects of photography, but the majority of people can do just fine with much less. As for ISO, I love the direction this is going and I do love the ability to shoot in lower light; however, It’s pretty rare that I’m in a situation where I’m at a high ISO limit and I’m not already planning to use my flash anyway. For what I do, low light is normally terrible light. It’s not that I can’t shoot in it, it’s that it is just not the look and feel I’m going for.


Why you should care

The reason this has become so apparent for me lately is due to my recent upgrade to the Nikon D750. This camera does not have the best dynamic range on the market, but it is only .3Evs away from it (according to DXOMark). When I first got this camera I was editing my files like I did with my old Sony A900 and I quickly realized how much more room I had to push the files. The detail hidden within the shadows of these files is amazing. Looking back at the bucket example, if you fill up the bucket to the point that it overflows, you get clipped highlights. Clipped highlights and shadows are unfixable (for the most part). However when dealing with this much dynamic range, we can fill the bucket right up to the point of clipped highlights and because there is so much info left in the shadows, the shadow detail can be brought back in post.


Here is an example, the below image was shot exposing for the grass. Imagine there is an interesting subject here that I want to be exposed properly. Since I exposed for the grass though, the sky now has blown highlights. This can be seen by dragging the exposure slider in Lightroom all the way down. With the exposure all the down, you can now see the solid white blobs of white that cannot be recovered.

Now let’s look at an image where I exposed for the sky instead. Because the sky is where all the bright highlights are, I no longer have the unrecoverable white blobs in the clouds and the sun has much better definition.  

The trick here, is that the shadows within the second image are not clipped. This is because of the high dynamic range that the sensor offers. What I did was fill the bucket right to the point that it was overflowing, which also filled up the shadows with as much detail as possible before losing detail in the highlights. I have basically taken in as much detail as possible without clipping on either side. Now with some basic adjustments within Lightroom, I can bring back detail from those shadows. Below is an example of bringing back shadow detail compared to trying to bring back highlight detail (unrecoverable clipped highlights). You can easily tell which is which.  

The above examples are extreme cases, but it gives you a good idea of the possibilities. When we take this into the real world, you can see the benefits that dynamic range has to offer.

Let’s bring it together

In conclusion, I’m not saying that megapixel count and ISO are pointless.  I just could care less about these, because from this point in time moving forward, they will always be equal or greater than what they are today. That’s why dynamic range is my favorite. It has the most potential to affect your final image with future improvements. The process I used to recover shadows in the examples above, do have their drawbacks, such as added noise (depending on how far you push the file), but imagine shooting in full sun and having full shadow detail without the need for extreme post production and added noise.


Has an improved sensor improved your photography? What is the next advancement you would like to see?  

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David Moore's picture

Yes oh god yes.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think for me, high megapixels and high dynamic range are both super desirable for the exact same reason: They give me more creative freedom in post. ISO I could care less about though hahaha, my camera rarely leaves 100. ;)

Caleb Whitaker's picture

With a higher megapixel camera, when adjusting the RAW image, wouldn't you have more room to play with? Allowing more dynamic range in the end?

Jason Vinson's picture

having more megapixels doesn't mean more dynamic range. My A900 had the same megapixel count as my D750, but has a lot better dynamic range. Same with the A7s, 12 megapixels, but has good dynamic range.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Higher megapixels provides more detail. Higher dynamic range provides more depth to that detail. Both represent more data in the image but in different ways.

Jeremy Jow's picture

You could care less?

Usman Dawood's picture

I agree however I care about ISO too, I'd prefer a lower base ISO.

Sean Molin's picture

The D810 goes down to ISO 32.

Usman Dawood's picture

I know, that's what kills me about Canon why can't they do the same or something better.

Tomas Ramoska's picture

You can go to ISO 50 on Canon

Usman Dawood's picture

Yes but that's expanded ISO and does nothing but change the exposure. The D810 base ISO goes down to 64 which is pretty awesome providing cleaner images plus its dynamic range is significantly better.

Tomas Ramoska's picture

ISO 32 on D810 also expanded.

Justin Haugen's picture

I made the move from 5Dmk3's to D750's last month and it's worth the nitpicky nuances and relearning muscle memory to have the improved sensor performance. The latitude in post is so remarkable. A lot of shooters don't know what they are missing.

David Moore's picture

The sensors on the other side of the wall (I'm a Canon guy) make it so tempting to swap. And I am thinking about upgrading the one real big ticket lens of mine anyway (70-200 2.8). It might happen in 2016.

Justin Haugen's picture

I've been shooting Canon DSLRs for 10 years with a 4 year stretch of using the D3S at my old day job so I wasn't making the jump completely blind.

What made the switch easier is that it didn't cost me much to upgrade. Used 5Dmk3's in fair condition can easily net $1500 to $1800. I bought the D750's grey market on eBay for $1500 each. I haven't sold them yet, but I should expect $1500 for m 85 1.2 L II and $1100 for my 24 1.4 L II. I bought the 85 1.4G Nikon from KEH for $1080 on sale in excellent+ condition, and I bought a new Sigma 24 1.4 for $750 on sale.

The hardest part in all this was pulling the trigger. No looking back now!

Dave Kavanagh's picture

Likewise I moved from a 5DmkII to a D750. Its just a different world of editing possibilities. I definitely don't believe that technology leaps like this make anyone a better photographer, but they make life a hell of a lot easier and create shot possibilities that wouldn't otherwise be feasible.

Tammie Lam's picture

Those "switch" stories are fun to read. People switch Canon to Nikon, Nikon to Canon, BMW to Mercedes, MacOS to Windows, Lightroom to C1, whatever makes them happy, but at the end it's all the same. I'm a Sony 'fanboy' that had all FF Sony cameras since the A99. As an E-mount user I had to buy lots of EF glass (Canon and Zeiss) to shoot via the Metabones adapter, since the E-mount selection was (and still is) quite poor. After having ~$25k in the EF lenses I decided to try the 5ds r. I would never adjust more than 1.5 stop exposure on my a7rii - the images look unacceptable noisy. No difference with the Canon - the same 1.5 stops. If I shoot landscapes I just use manual blending, the results are way superior. I think if you really want to feel the DR difference - a medium format camera with the Sony 50Mpx sensor is the way to go, otherwise it's just a waste of time and resources.

Justin Haugen's picture

It's all tools to me. Just need the best one for my uses. Same for anyone. I hardly think I'm wasting my time or resources. Rather self righteous of you to indicate otherwise. Good for you I guess.

Ricky Perrone's picture

Yeah man I made the change from a 5D3 to a D810 and never thought twice about it. the attitude of that camera is absolutely insane. Sometimes I go back and edit some of my 5d3 photos and forget how bad (relatively) they are to work with.

Justin Haugen's picture

I have a feeling you meant 'latitude', but I like attitude much better lol.

I shot with a friend's D800 on Friday and I know it's placebo at this point because the shine of working with new tools feels optimistic, but I had one of my best sessions of the year and I have so many images that I feel like are signature images for me.

I think sometimes we just get stagnant in shooting a certain way with certain tools and process. It's nice to shake things up every now and then and I'm always looking for a new challenge in my work.

Cédric Bloch's picture

A better Dynamic Range performance would be awesome. But doesn't it depend on the size of the sensor? or are there any other factors which reduce DR?

Jason Vinson's picture

There is more to it then that. I'm definitely not an expert in the science behind it. but look at a 80 megapixel medium format Phase One IQ180. That thing "only" has 13.6Evs of dynamic range.

Cédric Bloch's picture

interesting... i always thought that it's the size of the sensor which really makes the difference in Dynamic range...

Mr Blah's picture

I don't know who you came to this conclusion as their is 0 intuition behind it.

Dynamic range is a function of each receptor in the sensor. Having more of them doesn't make individual receptor better.

Cédric Bloch's picture

Some fellow photographer told me once.....

Mr Blah's picture

Well, I feel sorry for that guy/girl.

I hate when people spew random unproven fact as truths...

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Dynamic range (DR) mostly depends on pixel size rather than the sensor size (bigger the pixel more DR). However the technology is constantly improving, so it will be difficult to compare sensor from 2years ago to current technology.

Cédric Bloch's picture

So one could say that it somehow stays in relation with the sensorsize, because you a) must have a bigger sensor if you want a bigger pixelpitch or b) less Pixel on the same sensorsize.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Everything is relative but it comes down to one cell (pixel) capability of collecting light information in relation to other cells.
Another approach to increase DR is to increase light sensitivity without noise on lower end. Sony is doing that with their BI sensors. We have example of these two solutions together in 12MP full frame sensor a7s camera.

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