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Does Highlight Tone Priority Have Any Effect When Shooting Raw?

Most modern cameras have the option of highlight tone priority available. It will improve gradation in bright areas of the image. But does that function has any use when you are shooting raw images? Let’s find out.

Every camera brand has its own name for improving the gradation in highlights. Nikon uses the term Active D Lighting, for Canon users it is called Highlight Tone Priority, and Fujifilm prefers to call it Dynamic Range. Other brands may have different names. No matter what it is called, it will preserve the highlights, if possible.

Not every camera will have the same options available. For Canon, it is just on or off. Some Nikons have different gradations to choose from. Fujifilm also has different options available. But no matter what brand you have, activating the option will have an effect on the lower ISO setting. With Canon, you will lose the option of choosing ISO 100. With Fujifilm, it will depend on the strength. The minimum setting, D200, will use ISO 400 as the lowest setting. D400 means you need to use ISO 800 as the lowest setting.

Canon warns what will happen when you turn on the highlight tone priority. The lowest ISO level is raised, and it tells you about the risk of an increase in noise in the darkest parts, of course. This might not come as a surprise, since it uses a higher ISO level, especially when you use the D400 option in Fujifilm, forcing you to use at least ISO 800.

An increase in dynamic range is nice, and it will help you to keep the brightest parts of your image within the dynamic range. But does it also work when you are shooting in raw? After all, when you use raw images, you use the unedited sensor data. At least, that is what we all think, that by using raw sensor data, the highlight tone priority would have no effect. Instead of believing this without any doubt, I decided to do a test.

For this test, I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Fujifilm X100T. I went out and shot a series of images of situations with fairly large dynamic range. I shot both in raw and JPEG, first in the normal mode and second in the increased dynamic range mode, as mentioned above, the Highlight Tone Priority (D+) with the Canon, and the Dynamic Range (D400) with the Fujifilm. I needed to use ISO 200 for the Canon and ISO 800 for the Fujifilm.

Shooting JPEG With and Without the Enlarged Dynamic Range Option Activated

Below, you can find the unedited jpg files, only made smaller to fit the internet. On the left is the normal version, on the right is the increased dynamic range. I have mentioned all necessary information below every before/after image.

Left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, right side is the D400 setting. Both images are JPEG files. I used a manual setting of ISO 800, f/8, and 1/125 for both.

Left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, right side is the D400 setting. Both images are JPEG files. I used a manual setting of ISO 800, f/8. and 1/125 for both.

Left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, right side is the D400 setting. Both images are JPEG files. I used aperture priority with ISO 800, f/5 for both. The left one used 1/950 sec, the right side 1/1,250 sec.

Left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are unedited JPEG images, shot with manual setting, ISO 400, f/8, and 1/80 sec.

Left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are unedited JPEG images, shot with manual setting, ISO 400, f/8, and 1/80 sec.

Left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are unedited JPEG images, shot with manual setting, ISO 200, f/8, and 1/320 sec.

As you can see, increasing the dynamic range in the camera will have a positive effect on the highlights in the image. I have ignored any possible noise in the darkest parts of the image. That is not my intent. This comparison is just to see if the increase in dynamic range works and how well it works. Remember, it is a real-life situation, not a controlled laboratory environment. In other words, this is what you might expect when you would use this function.

Shooting Raw With and Without the Enlarged Dynamic Range Option Activated

Now, it is time to look at the raw images. I would expect these to be exactly the same, assuming the increased dynamic range would be something that is obtained when rendering a JPEG file from the raw sensor data.

For this test, I decided to do some post-processing in order to make the differences visible, if there were any. I used Lightroom to decrease the highlights and turn down the white point setting. This way, washed-out highlights would become easily visible. This is what I found with both Canon and Fujifilm.

The left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, the right side is the D400 setting. Both images are the edited raw files. I used a manual setting of ISO 800, f/8, and 1/125 for both and decreased the highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, right side is the D400 setting. Both images are the raw files. I used a manual setting of ISO 800, f/8, and 1/125 for both and decreased the highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The left side is the D100 setting on the Fujifilm X100T, right side is the D400 setting. Both images are the raw files. I used aperture priority with ISO 800, f/5 for both. The left one used 1/950 sec, the right side 1/1,250 sec. I decreased the highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are raw images, shot with manual setting, ISO 400, f/8, and 1/80 sec. I decreased highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are raw images, shot with manual setting, ISO 400, f/8, and 1/80 sec. I decreased highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The left side is shot with the normal settings on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the right side with the highlight tone priority (D+) turned on. Both images are raw images, shot with manual setting, ISO 200, f/8, and 1/320 sec. I decreased highlights and white point settings in Lightroom.

The Conclusion Surprised Me

As you can see, the highlight tone priority in Canon and increased dynamic range in Fujifilm also have an effect on raw images. This is something I had never expected. I had to check the files a second and third time to be sure I didn’t make any mistake.

I never used the Highlight Tone Priority with my Canon, believing it to be for JPEG shooters. I also believed it was just a way of how an in-camera jpeg is made from raw sensor data. Now I have found out it also affects the raw sensor data. When enabled, it will help you rescue highlights more easily.

You will be forced to set the ISO one, two, or perhaps three stops higher in order to use this function. Perhaps it will increase noise levels in the darker parts of the image, but with the amazing ISO performances of modern cameras, that won’t be a problem.

Do you use highlight tone priority for your photography, or did you believe it wasn’t of any effect when shooting raw? Please share your thoughts in the comment below. I am looking forward to reading about your experience with this.


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