There may be a lot of detail in your photos that you aren’t seeing. The good news is that you can often recover this detail by expanding the dynamic range of your photos, making for more balanced and interesting shots.
What Is Dynamic Range?
In photography and videography, dynamic range refers to the range of light visible in a scene. It’s often measured in “stops” with the human eye being capable of seeing between 10 to 14 stops. Highlights that go beyond the bounds of a scene’s dynamic range may be blown out, while shadows will be dark and muddy.
You can see an example of highlights that have been blown out in the image below. Because the subject is dark and takes up much of the image, the camera has favored shadow detail (darker parts) over highlights (lighter parts). Since this was shot on a smartphone, dynamic range is fairly limited compared to cameras with larger sensors.
Many modern digital SLR and mirrorless cameras exceed the dynamic range visible by the human eye, while cinema cameras are favored for their high dynamic range and ability to capture “flat” images with lots of detail in them. Some image formats retain this invisible data, while other lossy formats like JPEG discard it to save space.
The more dynamic range your camera can capture, the more detail you have available to you when editing your photo. This allows you to do things like increase the luminance of shadows and reduce the intensity of highlights so that detail isn’t crushed or blown out.
The term dynamic range is used in many different fields. High dynamic range (or HDR) televisions and monitors are becoming more common, and many smartphones now have the feature too. These displays operate on a similar principle since they can display a higher range of highlights and shadows at any one time compared with older standard dynamic range (SDR) technology.
Maximizing Dynamic Range on the Camera
If you want to get the most out of a photograph, shoot in RAW where possible. This format captures as much detail as possible in a scene, including detail you can’t necessarily see using a preview. For this reason, RAW photos are much larger than their JPEG or HEIC counterparts.
For example, a RAW photo of around 24 megapixels from a Sony APS-C mirrorless camera takes up around 25MB of space, while a JPEG on the “Fine” setting from the same camera is only around 7MB. Smaller images from a smartphone in HEIC or JPEG format only take up a few megabytes of space.
Shooting RAW should be a conscious choice when you know you want to take the photo further in post. You probably don’t want to use RAW for most of your smartphone shots since you would quickly run out of space on your device.
You can shoot in ProRAW on newer iPhones or use an app that enables RAW capture on older iPhones. Android devices can also capture RAW, usually enabled via a toggle on the camera interface. If your stock camera doesn’t support RAW, Android apps like ProCam X and Open Camera will enable the feature on most devices.
Smartphones are small and convenient, but they don’t compare to shooting on a digital SLR or mirrorless camera. These devices have much larger sensors which allow more light in, capturing more detail and higher image quality. Many compact cameras including Sony’s RX100 range and Ricoh’s GR cameras shoot RAW too.
Consider exposure when shooting too. If you’re shooting a scene that has both bright highlights and deep shadows, try and place the exposure right in the middle. If you expose for the highlights, the shadows may be harder to recover (and vice versa). You can use your camera’s exposure compensation to tweak the scene, and you may want to consult the histogram if your camera offers that feature.
How to Recover Dynamic Range in your Photo Editor
There’s no single “right way” to edit a photo. You might prefer to do things different from the steps below, and that’s ok. What’s most important is that you understand how the different adjustments affect your photo. The best way to learn is to experiment.
These steps should work on just about any photo editing software, from premium options like Adobe Camera RAW (Photoshop and Lightroom) to more reasonable options like Affinity Photo. You can even use free software like GIMP, Apple’s Photos apps on macOS or mobile, or Google’s Snapseed for Android or iOS.
To demonstrate, we’ll be using this photo of a campsite at sunset, which already looks pretty good straight out of the camera (a Sony A6500 shot in RAW):
While the scene is pleasant to look at, a lot of detail is hard to make out. We’ll start by bringing some of that detail back by decreasing the highlights and increasing the shadows:
The idea here is to “flatten” the image somewhat and reintroduce some of the detail that was missing in the first shot. If we zoom in a little closer, you’ll now be able to see the shape of the sun through the trees:
It’s also a lot easier to make out the detail in the tent on the left side of the photo:
But the image now looks washed out and lacks contrast, so it’s time to reintroduce some of that contrast using (you guessed it) the contrast slider.
Be careful that you don’t go too far since you risk undoing much of the work we did in the first step. Depending on the look you’re going for, you may want to adjust a few additional settings to give the image some pop. You may want to decrease the black point a little, tweak the clarity slider (but not too much) or even adjust the exposure of the image taking care not to blow out highlights or darken the shadows too much.
We have our final image, and it only took a few minutes to get here. We can now see more detail in the tent, the shape of the sun, the color of the sky, and a warmer tone in the leaves:
This technique is great for images shot in harsh lighting conditions, where bright highlights are contrasted with dark shadows.
Go Even Further with HDR and Multiple Exposures
You can take this technique much further by shooting multiple photos and combining them into a single image, known as HDR (high dynamic range) photography. There are several drawbacks to this technique, however.
For good results, the image needs to be identical in each shot. If you have moving elements like waves or leaves, you may end up with weird artifacts where the software has struggled to combine the images. It’s also easy to go overboard and make something that looks over-processed and unnatural.
If you’re interested, read our guide to HDR photography and how you can use it.
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