An Honest Question: How Much Dynamic Range Do You Really Need?

Since Trey Ratcliff’s earliest days of HDR on Flickr, photographers continue to geek out about dynamic range.

A question I’ve been wondering for many years is just how much dynamic range photographers truly need. We can geek out about it all day and night, but how far does it go before we completely neglect good picture taking methods? Lots of the magic of landscape photography can happen in post unless you have custom profiles on your camera. Photographers who do this are indeed landscape photographers but rely mostly on their post-production to get those images. Image bracketing and blending is a nice tool for creating beautiful HDR images, but we can all agree that any camera these days has a good enough range for most shooting purposes. But from a single image, I truly do wonder how much dynamic range we need.

The Versatility in Editing

The dynamic range is a nice thing. You can underexpose an image to get more details from the highlights and recover lots of details from the shadows. Alternatively, you can overexpose a photo a bit and then recover the highlights. By far though, the tendency is to do the former. For professional reasons, it’s a nice method, but photographers will also see unacceptable image noise when making prints for clients. In a situation like this I can understand the need for dynamic range. Where it is also needed is with photojournalism, weddings, etc. where a camera’s exposure was accidentally off or by impulse shooting. Photo editing is a great way to make sure this doesn’t ruin “the shot.”

Do You Need Dynamic Range or Color Depth?

Something a lot of photographers need to figure out is whether or not they need more dynamic range or more color depth. For years I’ve been obsessing over color depth: it’s the difference between making the blue in a sky pop or it looking drab. This can be done by working with the saturation, brightness, or hue of the color channel. I’ve championed using tools like editing the colors of the scene first after establishing a better white balance. In contrast, most folks work with dynamic range by adjusting highlights, shadows, mid-tones, etc. This tends to affect the overall image when we should instead be more selective with what a scene can look like.

A solid argument here can be made to say that they go hand in hand. After all, the more dynamic range you have, the better the color depth can be, right? Well, sort of. Sometimes it’s a balance. I often think photographers who need more dynamic range need clean results and sometimes more details in the scenes they’re photographing.

Why Not Just Meter “Right” in the First Place?

Though I alluded to the photographer who simply snaps a photo, I think there is something to be said for metering a scene correctly the first time around. When I say correctly, I mean one of these:

  • In a way that gets the most from the highlights and shadows
  • In a way that leans towards the editing strengths of the sensor’s ability to render highlights or shadows

Of course, I think a part of this can be done with in-camera editing techniques like HDR merging. Many cameras do a good enough job if you’re careful.

Why Not Just Use Tools to Increase Your Dynamic Range?

I think we’re not using the right tools enough. We should be utilizing things like lens filters, hoods, etc. Of course, tripods are also very useful in situations like this. Lens filters are still popular for pulling more dynamic range out of a scene. But I think many online tutorials instead just focus on the post-production aspect. Instead, we should be working to get the shot in-camera. Everyone can do post. But how many photographers can get a great shot without editing?

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.