How to Get Better Dynamic Range from a Single Image

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We’ve talked before about getting better sharpness and about getting better colors in your images, but now we’re tackling the subject of dynamic range. We’re going to start off by saying that not every single image needs to be an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image in order for you to want to get better dynamic range. Sometimes it really just depends on what you want to accomplish creatively. But you should also know that this has everything to do with knowing how to meter with your camera to begin with.

Overall Understanding of Your Scene and Light

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Before you start to even figure out the exposure settings, the important thing to do is to look at your scene. Take a good, close look and figure out if the scene overall is very bright or very dark. If you’re a film shooter, use your knowledge of the Sunny 16 rule. Then figure out if the scene that you want to shoot is mostly dominated by highlights or by shadows. There is a specific route that you take with each.

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You’ll also need to figure out what your end result will be when you look at it. Do you want a scene with lots of details in the clouds and sky? Or maybe you want to get more out of the shadows in a dark area under a bridge.

When you look at the scene, don’t have your camera in your hand and make a major analysis of it. Answer these questions:

– Is there a big difference between the brightest brights in the scene and the darkest darks?

– What details do I really want to capture?

– What do I want my end result to look like?

– I can work with ISO, aperture and shutter speed. What parameters do I want to manipulate?

– Do I need to add a flash to the scene?

– How will the scene be handled by my camera? Can the sensor gather lots of information from the darkest parts of the scene?

– Should I use a graduated ND filter?

– Should I overexpose or underexpose this image?

– Is my camera in spot metering mode?

When you reach for your camera, a great idea is to switch it to spot metering mode and move the spot over the brightest part of the scene and the darkest part of the scene. Then figure out the difference between their exposure levels and come to a fair middle ground based on what your camera is capable of producing.

In general, full frame sensors from 2009 and on are capable of getting lots of details from the shadows. Cameras from 2012 and on generally have sensors that can get lots of information from the highlights.

As long as you remember that this entire game is about metering, then you shouldn’t have too much of a problem with the next steps.

When Dealing with Lots of Highlights In Your Scene

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To get more detail out of your highlights, you should generally underexpose your scene by around one to one-and-a-half stops when working in the evaluative metering mode. If you’re in spot metering mode, then you should meter for the highlights, then meter for the shadows, then figure out the middle ground between the balance of shadows and highlights and then come down somewhere in between the highlight exposure and the middle ground.

By doing this, you can then push the shadows in post-production to get the details that you need from there and pull the highlights just enough to render those details. Cameras tend to be able to get more information out of the shadows then they do the highlights, so keep that in mind when shooting.

When Dealing with Lots of Shadows in Your Scene

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To get more detail out of your shadows, you simply have to either shoot perfectly metered in evaluative metering mode or a bit overexposed. Modern cameras handle shadows very well.

In the post-production stage, you can push the details of the shadows with no real problems but you may run into noise issues. To eliminate these, work specifically with each color channel and desaturate and remove luminance as you see fit.

In all honestly, that’s really all that there is to getting more with the shadows. Modern cameras can easily pull three or sometimes more stops from the shadows when used with Adobe Lightroom.

You Need Low Contrast

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The major key to getting better dynamic range is to deliver a scene from the camera with low contrast. High contrast and overexposing or underexposing too much either way will bring you too much onto one side and not the other. That will make editing really tough no matter what kind of camera you have.