Dynamic Range in Photography: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Maura Valentino

Maura has taught college information literacy and has a master's degree in library and information science.

In this lesson, you will learn about the importance of dynamic range in photography, and explore the ways in which photographers use it to take better photographs.

What is a Dynamic Range?

A dynamic range is a range of values. The range begins at the lowest possible value for the quantity being measured, and ends at the highest possible value. Dynamic ranges are used in many ways. For example, scientists measure human hearing using a dynamic range. In photography, it describes the range of light intensities.

Understanding dynamic range will help you take photographs filled with color and detail, while avoiding overly dark shadows and overly bright highlights.

Don't you want your photographs to look like this?

Image of cute dog

Instead of this?

Image of dog in shadow

Dynamic Ranges of the Camera and the Subject

A camera has a dynamic range of light intensities it is able to record. Different cameras have different dynamic ranges. For example, a professional digital camera might have a wide dynamic range, whereas a less expensive consumer model might have a much more limited one. This is important because many of the scenes we photograph contain a wide range of light intensities. The wider the dynamic range of your camera, the more of these scenes you will be able to photograph successfully.

A photographic subject with a wide range of light intensities
Image of sailboat at sunset

Another kind of dynamic range is the range of light intensities found in the subject of a photo. Imagine you want to photograph a mountain lake. The snow-covered mountain peaks are so bright they appear white, and the shadows beneath the trees are so dark they appear black. The rest of the scene is made up of a range of different light intensities that fall between those two points. Photographers call this the subject's dynamic range.

Light meters are used to determine the dynamic range of a photographic subject. Once the dynamic range of the subject is known, the correct exposure can be determined by the photographer, or automatically using the camera's built-in light meter and internal software. Determining the correct exposure is one of the fundamentals of both digital and film photography.

What is Exposure?

Exposure is the process of recording a photographic image onto film or a digital camera's sensor, by exposing the film or sensor to light. The greater the amount of light received, the brighter the recorded image becomes.

When the correct exposure is used, the result is a photograph with vibrant colors and crisp detail. If the photograph is underexposed (too little light recorded), the photograph will appear too dark. If the photograph is overexposed (too much light recorded), the photograph will appear too bright.

Overexposed (top), Correctly exposed (middle), Underexposed (bottom)
Exposure examples

Problems with Dynamic Range

As long as the dynamic range of the scene being photographed falls within the dynamic range of the camera, most modern cameras do a good job of recording the image accurately. However, when the dynamic range of a scene exceeds the dynamic range of the camera, the darkest parts of the scene may be underexposed, the lightest parts overexposed, or both.

Note how the darkest parts of this photograph are underexposed and how the brightest parts are overexposed.
Image with dynamic range problem

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