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?  

Jason Vinson's picture

Jason Vinson is a wedding and portrait photographer for Vinson Images based out of Bentonville, Arkansas. Ranked one of the Top 100 Wedding photographers in the World, he has a passion for educating and sharing his craft.

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Yes oh god yes.

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. ;)

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?

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.

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.

You could care less?


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

The D810 goes down to ISO 32.

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

You can go to ISO 50 on Canon

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.

ISO 32 on D810 also expanded.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

Some fellow photographer told me once.....

Well, I feel sorry for that guy/girl.

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

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.

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.

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.

The a7s has less DR than the a7r, in spite of huge photosites.

The dynamic range of the 750 is one of the things I'm looking most forward to when I eventually move to the 750 (assuming nothing else in the good/cheap sweet spot comes out by then). That and getting use of these FX lenses I bought in anticipation.

Me too. Who cares about even dynamic range of sensor when you can shoot in HDR mode or add it in post raw processing. Noise showing in images is non sequitur as is detail requirements beyond what with average lenses and camera shake and moving subjects can ACTUALLY be achieved and for ONLY online display and storage in any case. Using easy but uncertain AF rather than having to rely on manual focus protocols also moots the issue of fine control and image quality considerations!

The DR is far more imlortant to me. With my a7II, I just don't have to futz with filters or struggle with shadows like I used to. I am glad that good, clean high ISO comes with it. Pretty pleased with Sony and their sensors.

I think it really depends on what you shoot. I have the 1D X and the extra stop or so of usable ISO over the 5DIII allows me to start shooting wildlife before sunrise, something that seemed impossible several years ago. It allows me to capture owls, bears, and other critters that are only active at night and right around sunrise/sunset.

As for megapixels, I thought ~20MP was just fine until one of my clients wanted 40x60 prints. Most photos were fine, but they chose one that was highly cropped (it was originally a print campaign). Perfect Resize only does so much when you need the equivalent of 108 megapixels just to hit 150ppi. Of course you can always stitch, but that assumes you know that requirement upfront.

Finally, on the subject of DR, as a Canon shooter, I definitely appreciate the SoNikon sensors and would love more DR, but exposure blending of static subjects and careful exposure for everything else hasn't failed me yet.

IMHO, today's sensors, especially FF ones, are plenty good for 90% of what most people shoot. Ergonomics, menus, build quality, and lens selection mean a whole lot more to me than sensors.

Then again, it all depends on what you shoot...

It's one of those things where you have to shoot and edit the files to see what all the fuss is about. If you have a friend who can lend you one, or the time/money to rent a D750, it's worth a try just to see the results.

The sensor technology feels two or three generations ahead of the 1DX and 5Dmk3. I'm editing a backlog of weddings right now that were shot on 5Dmk3's and today I edited an engagement session shot with the D750, and it's like the files are invincible. I can push shots that are 3 to 5 stops underexposed and recover shadow detail that has zero to little noise. That doesn't even feel possible! It's like recording an audio clip with the gain set too low, but you push the gain to discernible levels and magically there is no noise affecting fidelity!

BUT, choosing a camera system also involves a lot more considerations than just one aspect. It's comfort, ecosystem, professional services, and perhaps a network of fellow pros/friends who can lend and support each other. That still didn't stop me from jumping ship, I was that impressed.

Funny, because the D750 is probably about 2 generations newer than the 5DIII. If Canon drop the ball on DR with their new cameras (5D4 / 1DX-II) then I think there will be a lot of Canon users that will jump ship.

I see so many of these "look how much detail I can recover" or "I can recover a shot that is 3-5 stops underexposed" posts and comments. I generally don't ever shoot anything so underexposed. That said, there are occasionally scenes during weddings that you can't avoid having to shoot, that have massive DR, and sometimes (on Canon gear) you need to choose what you're prepared to lose.

When I shoot in this way, it's not for the fun of it. It's just another tool in our kit to help us have as much latitude as possible when editing a file. I can have my way with the RAWs in post. If you're a photographer with a signature editing style and your post processing is strong, you'd want the best files to work with. Even my OCF work is benefiting because I can dictate the impact of light fall off with purposeful shooting and editing.

I'm not trying to fix bad images with sloppy shooting style. I would assume most photographers know their way around their cameras at this point. To shoot underexposed is to shoot with intent and creativity at heart.

At some time in the future, it will be a moot point and all of our sensors will be surpassing this performance. Then we'll recall these conversations and wonder what we were nitpicking about lol.

Ya the issue isn't that the images are super under exposed and they need to be fixed. It's that I know there will be detail in the shadows that I can recover in post, therefore i can underexpose in order to save my highlights. This doesn't work for every image since there may be to large of a swing from the brightest highlights to the shadows you are wanting to recover. But that boils down to knowing your gear and knowing what is and is not possible in post.

I'm on the fence as well about the switch. I have a close friend that made the switch from Canon to Nikon, and he said not only is the DR 2x ahead of canon, but he also comments on how amazing the focus capabilities are. I really don't mind my 5D Mark III, and I love the natural color/WB of Canon over Nikon. Waiting for the 5D Mark IV to make my decision.

3 to 5 stops with no noise? Really? Cool story bro ;)

I said no to little noise. The noise is acceptable and the pattern of the noise is more than passable for my purposes and final deliverables. I'm not pushing underexposed images with any regularity +3 to +5, just did some initial worst case tests at ISO 100 and was ultimately impressed with the results. Sorry if that doesn't hack it for you. No sweat off my back.

I wish I could say the same with my 7D in hand [about iso] :D

As another 7D owner I'd definitely recommend the Magic Lantern hack because their Dual ISO feature is super handy if you need more dynamic range.

Ever since I got my 645z, I routinely have "holy sh*t..." moments in post. I still love my Canon gear (I know, I know) and it took me a little while to trust shooting with the big box, but the combination of resolution and absurd shadow detail is kind of intoxicating.

Im pretty much in the same boat. the 645z is so far advanced beyond my 6Ds its like they are a child's toy. The details I extracted from a recent shoot in Venice have cemented why dynamic range has no equal and Canon will do well to even match the current Sony based offerings

Coming from Canon FF to the Pentax 645Z really made me see just how bad my Canon bodies were in dynamic range when shooting landscapes. Dont think I could ever go back.

Oh, for landscapes, definitely. I mostly shoot people, and I love the punchiness of the 5D for that, most of the time. Next year I'll start expanding the pentax lens collection and see how much my shooting ratio changes.

This is one reason I'm really glad that Magic Lantern developed their Dual ISO feature for some of the Canon cameras, because the limited DR of my 7D was a fairly consistent frustration for me. With the Dual ISO I can manage to pull out 2-3 more stops of range which is amazingly helpful. I especially love it for sunsets where I don't want to do HDR but still want the foreground to not be a completely black silhouette.

I don't even know what that is, but sounds cool!

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