How Much Does Dynamic Range Matter?

Dynamic range is sort of like the new megapixels in 2019: it is the camera spec that a lot of photographers use as a benchmark to compare different bodies. But how much does it really matter when it comes down to it? This great video examines the concept and if it is something you should obsess about. 

Coming to you from James Popsys, this interesting video examines the concept of dynamic range and if it really matters that much. Modern camera bodies generally have about 13 to 15 stops of dynamic range at their base ISOs, and that leaves a lot of room for pushing files around in post if needed or desired. This can be very useful for a few reasons. For landscape photographers looking to capture a scene with a wide range of tonal values, it can be the difference between capturing everything in one shot or having to go through the tedium of bracketing and blending. For events or portrait photographers, it can mean being able to protect the highlights and still pull up the shadows in post for a more balanced image. Nonetheless, there might be a point where enough is enough. Check out the video above for Popsys' full thoughts. 

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David Pavlich's picture

It certainly matters, but not to the point that it creates hard feelings between brand loyal photographers. I cite DPR as a fine example of DR being the end all to camera tech to many shooters.

Christian Fiore's picture

Don't forget all the Canon people there that claim "exposing properly" means you don't even need DR. 🙄

David Pavlich's picture

I'm a 'canon people' and know that the DR of my camera is a bit less than others. But I'm not one of those that makes excuses for Canon's sensor technology. I just go merrily along and sell prints that were taken with an inferior sensor in a terrific camera. ;-)

Matt Williams's picture

It matters, but at this point, we've reached sufficiency across most decently sized sensors (1" and up). Most sensors, especially APS-C upward, can cover the dynamic range of a vast majority of scenes.

More important than obsessing over DR, for most photographers, is learning how different metering works. A lot of people seem to leave their camera in Matrix (or whatever it's called in non-Nikon brands) metering - which is certainly optimal for a majority of scenes - but learning how to use center weighted and especially spot metering (and where to place the spot) is something I feel like a lot of photographers don't do and yet it would make a much bigger difference than one stop of DR.

Also, ETTRing.

Addendum: learning HOW your sensor allocates DR is also important. Some are more shadow biased, some highlight biased. If you ETTR on a D810 or D850 past the point of highlight clipping, you'll find that there are 2 or so extra stops of highlight recovery beyond what the histogram indicates (since it is based on JPEG, not raw). Even in the flattest picture profile this will be true. However, the shadows of the D810/850 can get some nasty chroma noise sooner than say a Nikon D750 if you push them. Thusly, I always overexposed those cameras a bit, past the histogram clipping point.

Christian Fiore's picture

Yup, I was kinda astonished to see my A6000 had about 1 stop more highlight recovery ability over my D750. So the D750 basically lost a stop of shadow recovery in the process of evening things out. The A6000's metering was more reliable in maintaining highlights, so I always kept the D750's EC set to -0.7 or -1, so it could keep up with the A6000 in most daylight scenes and avoid clipping the sky and clouds.

Having that extra 1 stop of highlight recovery is extremely helpful, and replaces a 1/8000 shutter for my use. I can shoot wide open F/1.4 and 1/4000 midday at weddings, and still not blow out the bride's dress. The only thing that might blow out is the sky if facing towards the sun earlier/later in the day. And at that point, not even 1/8000 would save the sky.

EL PIC's picture

Rather have camera w more dynamic range than less but you need to shoot for mood and not histograms.
Unfortunately there are no hardcore procedures on manufacturers reporting what their DR is and when in the field it’s up in the air and aerial haze. You might get 8 stops in actual field conditions no matter if your camera manufacturer quotes 10 or 15.

Simon Patterson's picture

Or, often, their Canon equipment...

Simon Patterson's picture

I didn't care much about dynamic range until I bought a camera with a Sony sensor in it. Then I discovered what I had been missing out on. Now I realise how useful a wide dynamic range is!

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Matters a lot to me to have more, but it does not mean it's always something to rely on.

Basia Kowalska's picture

Shooting sports and fast events in harsh daylight where you can't bracket, it does matter, but not to the point where it can't be supplemented with a filter or with anything newer than a D7000

Basia Kowalska's picture

Also I love Popsy's whimsical narrative style x)