Maximizing dynamic range can be a key consideration when we are out with our cameras photographing a wide range of subject matter. It can be of prime importance with landscape photography. This article provides a quick overview of some of the things we can do to help maximize the available dynamic range that our cameras provide.
Understand our camera’s ISO curve
Understanding our camera’s ISO curve can help us decide how far we are willing to push our ISO value given the exposure we want to achieve and the dynamic range we want to maintain. Sometimes environmental considerations like wind strength, or the amount of dynamic subject movement, may necessitate higher shutter speeds. These can negatively affect ISO settings and related dynamic range performance.
While the vast majority of cameras will have the most dynamic range at their lowest ISO setting, this is not always the case. For example some Olympus/OM System cameras provide the most amount of dynamic range at base ISO-200, even though lower ISO values can be used.
Unless a photographer is purposely trying to create a slower shutter speed for their image capture, there is no dynamic range reason to shoot M4/3 cameras like the OM-1, OM-D E-M1X or OM-D E-M1 Mark III below base ISO-200. In a similar vein, there is no dynamic range reason to shoot some full frame cameras like a Canon R3 or a Sony 7R Mark IV below ISO-100, or a Nikon Z7 II below ISO-64.
It is normal for cameras to have their dynamic range performance drop off as higher ISO values are used. We should note that reported camera sensor dynamic range test scores can vary by testing organization.
The rate of dynamic range drop off varies by camera, and can also vary depending on where along a camera’s ISO curve a photographer is shooting. According to DxOMark, a difference of 0.5 EV in dynamic range is needed to become noticeable for most people.
Let’s look at three popular full frame cameras to illustrate the potential for dynamic range performance drop off.
- Shooting a Nikon Z7II at ISO-400 rather than at ISO-64 would result in a total dynamic range loss of 1.3 to 1.8 EV.
- Shooting the Sony 7R Mark IV at ISO-400 rather than at ISO-50 would result in a loss of dynamic range of about 1.4 to 1.6 EV,
- Using a Canon R3 at ISO-400 versus ISO-50 would result in a dynamic range loss of about 1.3 to 1.8 EV.
Smaller sensor cameras also suffer from dynamic range loss as ISO values are increased. For example, a Nikon 1 J5 loses about 0.9 to 1.2 EV going from ISO-160 to ISO-400. An OM-D E-M1X loses about 1.0 EV when shot at ISO-400 rather than base ISO-200. The new OM-1 loses about 0.85 EV when shot at ISO-400 rather than at ISO-200.
Some of the difference between the E-M1X and OM-1 dynamic range loss may be the result of the E-M1X having marginally more dynamic range at base ISO-200 than the OM-1 in reported test data.
The first step in maximizing dynamic range is understanding the ISO curve of our camera. Other factors include learning where it provides the highest level of dynamic range, and then setting a practical ISO limit based on the type of photography we are doing.
For example, when using my Nikon 1 kit to create travel landscape images I would use a J5 body at ISO-160 whenever possible. From a dynamic range standpoint my practical limit with that camera was ISO-800 for landscape images.
Use shorter focal lengths
As we know, a shorter focal length lens will always have more depth-of-field at the same aperture and distance to subject than will a longer focal length lens. While I appreciate the composition convenience and flexibility of using zoom lenses, I also prefer using them as they help me quickly adjust to my depth-of-field requirements. As you can see in the photograph above, deep depth-of-field was achieved using an aperture of f/4. This was possible because a focal length of 7 mm was used.
We wouldn’t normally associate an aperture of f/4 being able to deliver deep depth-of-field. That’s because we often overlook the impact of lens focal length. When using a M4/3 Olympus camera at f/4 with a 7 mm focal length, we can achieve a depth-of-field near limit of 0.45 metres… and a far limit of depth-of-field to infinity when our subject is 1 metre away.
If I had been shooting with full frame gear at the same subject distance, with an equivalent field-of-view (i.e. 14 mm), I would have needed to stop my lens down to f/6.7 to achieve a far limit of depth-of-field to infinity.
Using identical shutter speeds would have caused me to use an ISO value approximately 1.5 stops higher with the full frame gear. Assuming I was using a full frame Nikon Z6 II versus a M4/3 Olympus E-M1X in this specific scenario, the E-M1X would have delivered more dynamic range (i.e. 9.71 EV versus approximately 8.82-9.46 EV) than the full frame camera. This would have been the result of being able to use a shorter focal length lens to create the photograph.
Using shorter focal lengths can help a photographer use more wide open apertures to achieve depth-of-field to infinity when required, and thus keep ISO values at lower levels. Maximizing dynamic range can be achieved with this technique regardless of the camera gear that we may happen to own.
We need to keep in mind that when using a smaller sensor camera the optical properties of our lens are based on its actual focal length, not its equivalent field-of-view. Deep depth-of-field in the photograph above was achieved with an aperture setting of f/2.8 because a 7 mm focal length was used. We need to remember that sensor size does not directly impact depth-of-field.
Use Focus Stacking or Focus Bracketing
Maximizing dynamic range can also be achieved by combining images using focus stacking or focus bracketing. Some cameras like my E-M1X have the capability to combine focus stacked images in camera and produce a finished, full resolution jpeg. Focus stacking or focus bracketing can allow us to use more open apertures and still achieve the depth-of-field required. This approach can allow for the use of lower ISO values… which helps with maximizing dynamic range. This technique can be used with cameras of any sensor size.
Another technique used when maximizing dynamic range is to utilize HDR (high dynamic range) techniques and technologies. Some cameras will combine various exposures in-camera to create an HDR photograph. Another approach is for a photographer to manually capture a series of photographs using different exposure values, then combine them in post using appropriate software. This technique is typically tripod assisted. Either approach yields a final image with an increase in dynamic range.
Use High Resolution Technologies
Some cameras are able to combine a series of photographs in camera and produce a high resolution RAW file. This is most commonly available as a tripod-assisted technology.
Some cameras like the OM-1, E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III have HHHR (handheld hi res) capability. This allows a photographer to shoot a series of 16 RAW handheld images that are then combined automatically in camera to produce a 50 MP RAW file from the cameras’ 20.4 MP M4/3 sensors. This not only provides increased image detail, but also increases dynamic range by about 1.8 EV and reduces high ISO image noise.
Improve Handheld Technique or Use a Tripod
The performance of IBIS (in body image stabilization) and in-lens VR (vibration reduction) technologies have improved over time. These technologies can be used to significantly lower shutter speeds which allows photographers to use lower ISO values, thus maximizing dynamic range. If we look at the sample image above, we can see that it was captured handheld using a shutter speed of 5 seconds. This allowed me to me to maximize dynamic range by shooting at ISO-200.
Handheld technique can vary significantly by photographer. Some folks may find it more beneficial to use a tripod when shooting at slower shutter speeds. The result is the same in terms of slower shutter speeds facilitating lower ISO values and maximizing dynamic range.
When maximizing dynamic range it is important that we consider a range of techniques and technologies that help allow us to use low ISO values, or to combine multiple images. These approaches enable us to capitalize on the available dynamic range of our cameras.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files or from in-camera jpegs, using my standard approach in post. This is the 1,236 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.
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