This article discusses small sensor dynamic range and provides some approaches that can be used to help utilize as much dynamic range as possible. Some of the approaches covered in this article can be applied to other camera formats, while others are specific to Olympus cameras.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.
Dynamic range assumptions and realities
Physics come into play when considering sensor size and dynamic range. The larger the sensor format, the more dynamic range a camera will provide. It is important to remember that not all sensors of the same camera format perform equally well.
For example, my Nikon 1 kit includes V2, V3 and J5 bodies. Even though all of these cameras use 1” sensors, the J5 provides the highest amount of dynamic range. The base ISO for these three cameras is ISO-160. At that ISO value the J5 has 12 EV of dynamic range, the V3 has 10.7 EV and the V2 has 10.8 EV. According to DxOMark a difference of 0.5 EV is needed for a difference in dynamic range to begin to be noticeable for most people.
Brands can improve sensor performance over time. For example, Canon has improved the dynamic range performance of the sensors in its cameras in recent years. However, if we go back a few years Canon cameras (including full frame) lagged behind other brands to a reasonable degree. I’ve always found it interesting that few people criticized Canon full frame cameras such as the 6D Mark II for having below average dynamic range performance.
If we compare newer generation Olympus cameras like the E-M1 Mark II/ Mark III, E-M5 Mark III or E-M1X with some older Canon full frame cameras like the 5DS (launched February 2015), 6D Mark II (launched June 2017), or RP (launched February 2019) we discover something interesting. The 20.4 MP M4/3 sensors in the Olympus models have comparable, or better, maximum dynamic range performance to the Canon full frame models noted. This serves as a good reminder to examine test data and not just make assumptions based on camera sensor size.
Doing some homework on websites like DxOMark or Photonstophotos can be very instructive in this regard. As mentioned earlier, Canon has improved the dynamic range performance of the sensors in its newer model cameras. When buying used camera gear it can be helpful to reference old sensor test data so we understand the dynamic range performance of non-current models.
The most important thing is to investigate test data to avoid making assumptions about dynamic range performance. Depending on brand and model, sometimes we discover that newer generation sensors don’t provide any meaningful dynamic range performance improvement when compared to older sensors.
I looked at some Nikon APS-C cropped sensor cameras starting with the D7000 through to the D7500 and compared dynamic range test scores. Here’s how 14 different models scored on DxOMark.
- D7000 (launched Sept 2010) 13.9 EV
- D3100 (launched Oct 2010) 11.3 EV
- D5100 (launched April 2011) 13.6 EV
- D3200 (launched April 2012) 13.2 EV
- D5200 (launched Nov 2012) 13.9 EV
- D7100 (launched Feb 2013) 13.7 EV
- D5300 (launched Oct 2013) 13.9 EV
- D3300 (launched Jan 2014) 12.8 EV
- D5500 (launched Jan 2015) 14 EV
- D7200 (launched Mar 2015) 14.6 EV
- D500 (launched Jan 2016) 14 EV
- D3400 (launched Aug 2016) 13.9 EV
- D5600 (launched Nov 2016) 14 EV
- D7500 (launched April 2017) 14 EV
You can see that other than the D7200 there wasn’t any meaningful dynamic range improvement since 2010.
When we compare the Nikon D850 with the Nikon Z7II we see virtually no difference in sensor performance in terms of dynamic range with the D850 scoring 14.8 EV and the Z7II scoring 14.7 EV. I’m not ‘picking on’ Nikon. I happen to hold the brand in very high regard having used it for many years. This is simply information that points out that new model cameras with new generation sensors do not necessarily perform noticeably better in terms of dynamic range. There may be other features and capabilities that make upgrading worthwhile.
I find it quite odd that so many people become fixated on sensor size and sensor age when that ‘new sensor’ after which they lust, may not actually provide any material difference in dynamic range.
Understand your camera’s dynamic range
Regardless of the camera that we may own it is important to look at test data to understand its dynamic range characteristics. We will typically find that a camera’s dynamic range will decrease as ISO values increase. Understanding how quickly the dynamic range in your camera falls off can be critical when developing your photographic technique.
For example there is about a 1 EV loss in dynamic range when shooting at ISO-400 compared to ISO-200 with my E-M1X. When composing images where dynamic range may be critical knowing how our camera’s sensor performs may cause us to hesitate rather than just crank up our ISO.
Use the lowest ISO that is practical
A general rule of thumb is to always use the lowest ISO that is practical given lighting and shooting conditions. This will enable you to utilize the most amount of dynamic range that is possible under specific shooting scenarios.
Occasionally there are caveats that we need to consider. For example, if we look at the dynamic range performance of Olympus cameras like the E-M1 Mark II/Mark III, E-M5 Mark III, or E-M1X we discover that there is no advantage in using ISO values below the base ISO-200. Shooting at ISO-64 or ISO-100 may help us slow down our shutter speed when needed, but there is no dynamic range improvement in doing so. For the best dynamic range performance, its best to shoot your Olympus camera at base ISO-200.
The dynamic range that most camera manufacturers feature in their communications, are based on their lowest ISO values. Some full frame cameras use ISO-50 or lower as their base. In some situations these very low ISO values are difficult to use from a practical standpoint. No doubt there will be occasions when a photographer is using a tripod to capture very still scenes where these very low ISO values can be used effectively, and thus utilize all of the camera’s available dynamic range. We just need to keep in mind that the maximum dynamic range available may be an ISO value that can be challenging to actually use.
Use a tripod
As a handheld photographer I found that I couldn’t use the lowest ISO value that my full frame cameras had to offer unless I was shooting in decent light. Quite often I was shooting at ISO-400 to ISO-800 under moderate lighting conditions. I had to adjust my camera settings and ISO values to the limits of my handheld ability, composition requirements, and environmental conditions like wind.
As expected, I paid a penalty in dynamic range loss. My D800 was a very competent camera with a dynamic range of 14.3 EV at its base ISO-100. The dynamic range was reduced to 12.8 EV at ISO-400 and 12 EV at ISO-800. If you are comfortable using a tripod then by all means do so. This can help you utilize more of your camera’s available dynamic range by shooting at slower shutter speeds, and correspondingly lower ISO values. Other folks who hate tripods (like me) will need to find their own approaches to try to maximum dynamic range with their camera gear.
Understand the impact of focal length on depth-of-field
When many photographers compare cameras of different sensor formats they typically talk about equivalent field-of-view and the related ‘crop factor’. What is often missed in these comparisons is that the optical characteristics of a lens do not change based on a camera’s sensor size. It is true that a 7 mm focal length lens on a M4/3 camera has the same field-of-view as a 14 mm focal length lens on a full frame camera. The key point is that the M4/3 lens is still a 7 mm lens in terms of its optical properties.
As we all know, the shorter (i.e. wider) the focal length of a lens, the more depth-of-field it will have at the same apertures compared to lenses with longer focal lengths. So, a 7 mm lens will always have more depth-of-field than a 14 mm lens when shot at the same aperture and from the same physical distance from the subject… regardless of the sensor size of the camera.
In an earlier article I demonstrated how deep depth-of-field could be achieved when creating landscape images using the M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 zoom lens when shot wide open using a 7 mm focal length. Leveraging the inherent depth-of-field advantages of wide angle lenses designed for smaller sensor systems can help a photographer maximize the dynamic range available with their small sensor camera by using more wide open apertures.
Use histogram and exposure warnings
If your camera has a histogram and/or exposure warnings that notify you when you’re clipping highlights or shadows, be sure to use them. Getting the best exposure possible at the time of image capture is fundamental to using as much of the dynamic range that your camera has to offer.
Experiment with metering
Our cameras have a selection of metering modes to help us get the best exposure possible in difficult lighting. Experimenting with metering modes can help us squeeze dynamic range out of tricky photographic situations.
Try different exposure techniques
ETTR (expose to the right) is an exposure technique that can help us utilize more dynamic range in specific situations. It can be fun to experiment with different exposure techniques and work with the files in post to find out if we can add a few techniques to our photography skill set.
Improve handheld technique to leverage IBIS performance
If you’re like me and hate using tripods, one of the most important things we can do to maximize available dynamic range is to improve our handheld technique. Shooting at slower shutter speeds helps to reduce the ISO value used, and increase the available dynamic range.
This can be especially important for owners of Olympus cameras as they feature outstanding IBIS performance. Being able to shoot handheld for multiple second exposures means that Olympus owners can routinely use their cameras at base ISO-200 in low light conditions. In many cases Olympus cameras can have a 2 stop or higher image stabilization advantage over other camera models. Under certain shooting conditions this can go a long way to equalize dynamic range performance with larger sensor cameras.
Use in-camera HDR technology
The IBIS performance in cameras like the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III performs remarkably well making it practical to capture multiple HDR exposures handheld. Depending on the feature used, these multiple exposures can be combined in camera with a jpeg as output. Or, multiple HDR exposures can be captured handheld, then the RAW files can be combined in post.
Use Handheld Hi Res
If you own an E-M1X or an E-M1 Mark III one of the most remarkable technologies that is available to you is Handheld Hi Res (HHHR). Not only does HHHR generate a 50 MP high resolution image, it produces higher dynamic range photographs, and reduces noise.
Photonstophotos has done some testing with the Olympus HHHR function with dynamic range results that compete favourably with full frame cameras. And, at high ISO values like ISO-6400 the dynamic range using HHHR is quite a bit higher than many full frame cameras. I’ve done some work with HHHR at ISO-6400 and found the images to be quite clean in terms of noise.
At ISO-200 my E-M1X has 11.54 EV of dynamic range when shot in Handheld Hi Res mode. At ISO-6400 this drops to 8.03 EV. Let’s look at a quick comparison to three full frame cameras.
- Nikon Z7II, 11.6 EV at ISO-63, 5.94 EV at ISO-6400
- Sony 7R Mark IV, 11.62 EV at ISO-100, 6.08 EV at ISO-6400
- Canon 5R, 11.85 EV at ISO-100, 6.27 EV at ISO-6400
Combine the advantages of IBIS with HHHR
Shooting in HHHR mode at slow shutter speeds, and at ISO-6400, is on my list of approaches with which to experiment. I am quite intrigued with the results that Chris Eyre-Walker was able to achieve using this approach under very dark conditions. If you are not aware of the work that Chris does, he specializes in extreme adventure and travel photography.
In his OM-D E-M1 Mark III review video Chris discusses and shows an HHHR image that he captured at ISO-6400 using a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds. This begins at about the 19:00 minute mark in the video. According to Chris, the image was not only remarkably sharp and detailed, but also very clean in terms of noise. Combining these two Olympus technologies could make handheld photography practical in very low light conditions when photographing landscapes and other still subjects.
Smaller sensor cameras have less available dynamic range than cameras that utilize larger sensors. To maximize the available dynamic range, owners of smaller sensor camera systems like Olympus M4/3, can focus on improving their handheld skills to take full advantage of the IBIS performance of their gear. Use wider angle lenses and more open apertures whenever possible. And, take advantage of technology like in-camera HDR and Handheld Hi Res (HHHR) mode. Using histograms, exposure techniques and warnings, can also help us utilize the most dynamic range our cameras provide.
A poorly composed and executed photograph will always be poorly composed and executed regardless of the amount of dynamic range provided by a photographer’s camera. In addition to doing our best to use as much of the dynamic range that our cameras provide, honing our photographic skills can often make a more significant difference to the quality of of our images than the equipment we are using.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. This is the 1,085th article published on this website since its original inception.
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