How to Use Your Camera’s Dynamic Range in Post Processing

The dynamic range of a camera is something that is considered to be important. A large dynamic range is often preferred. But how can you make use of this in your photography? In this article I will explain how you can use your camera’s dynamic range in post processing.

Finally, you find yourself in a great looking landscape with amazing light. But no matter what exposure you use, a part of the image has blown out highlights, or completely black shadows. Do you recognize this? It is a situation where the dynamic range of the scenery is larger than the camera is capable of capturing.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, you won’t be able to capture highlights and shadows in one image. If you are shooting in jpeg, you will need to use exposure bracketing to capture the complete dynamic range. Or you can try to use gradient neutral density filters. If you are shooting in raw file format, you might be able to use the dynamic range of your camera.

How to Set Your Camera

If you want to use the dynamic range of your camera in the best possible way, it is important to set your exposure to the brightest parts in the image. Basically, there are three things you need to do. 

1. Shoot Raw

It might be obvious, but there are still people who shoot in jpeg. On most occasions this is fine, and you can achieve good results in normal situations. But when the dynamic range of the scenery becomes larger than a jpeg is capable of registering, you end up with extreme overexposure or underexposure. 

These clipped areas in the image can’t be corrected anymore. Only by shooting in raw file format, you have the opportunity to make use of the complete dynamic range of your sensor.

2. Exposure to the Right

It is important to tweak your exposure in such a way that you end up with the largest amount of image information. This can be achieved by exposure to the right (EttR). It means you need to set your exposure so that the histogram will be as much to the right as possible.

By using exposure to the right, the darkest parts of the image will be as light as possible, thus recording the maximum amount of image information in those parts. But you have to make sure no clipping occurs in the brighter areas of your image.

3. Do Not Overexpose Your Image

Perhaps the most important part of exposure to the right, and optimizing your exposure, is to prevent clipped highlights. These highlights cannot be recovered, no matter what. That is why you need to set the exposure based on the brightest parts of the image.

Clipped highlights are parts that are pure white. In digital photography it is impossible to recover these parts. After all, making pure white darker will just result in dull gray. That is why you may have to place the histogram to the right as far as possible, but never let the pixels touch the right side of the histogram.

How to Read and Use the Histogram in Lightroom Classic

After importing the image into Lightroom Classic, you can see the histogram, and a bunch of sliders to adjust the exposure or brightness of the image. These sliders are not random. Each will adjust a certain region of the histogram. By hovering your mouse over the histogram, you can see which slider you need to adjust for that part of the histogram.

Something most Lightroom Classic users don’t know is the ability to adjust the histogram by dragging the cursor over one of the five regions of the histogram. The corresponding slider will change at the same time. But perhaps this is not as accurate compared to the adjustment of the slider itself. You decide which method you prefer.

There are two little triangles in each top corner of the histogram. If you hover over the left triangle, you will see the parts in the image that are clipped black. By hovering the cursor over the right triangle, the clipped white parts are shown. If you don’t see this happening, just tap once on the triangle to activate this option. The triangles will be black if there is no clipping.

Steps to Post-Process the Image

The goal of this post-processing is to recover the darkest parts in the image, without clipping the highlights. To translate this to the histogram, most pixels will have to be relocated to the middle, the part that contains the midtones. This can be done in four basic steps.

1. Recover Shadows

This is the most obvious correction in the image. The shadows can be recovered by adjusting the Shadows slider. In this case, it is possible to adjust the slider to +100, but it can be different from other images. Look at the changes in the histogram. By adjusting the shadows, the corresponding part of the histogram is moved towards midtones.

2. Adjusting Midtones

After raising the shadows, the image still looks very dark. This is because the dynamic range in this particular scene is extreme. In this case the midtones need to be raised as well. The midtones adjustment is done with the Exposure slider. Again, look at the changes in the histogram.

3. Correcting the Highlights

By adjusting the exposure, parts of the sky have become too bright. In fact, parts are clipped. But this is only with the present adjustments. There is still image information in these clipped parts available. It is only clipped because we raised the exposure in Lightroom Classic.

By lowering the brightness in the highlights, it is possible to adjust these parts of the image. This can be done with the Highlights slider. Again, look at the changes in the histogram when adjusting the slider. You may notice how most of the pixels are now located around the midtones area of the histogram.

If you can’t recover the clipped white areas completely, you might have raised the exposure too much. Just turn down the exposure until you have recovered every bright part in the image.  

4. Optimizing Global Contrast

These post-processing steps will lower the contrast in the image significantly. After all, both the dark parts as well as bright parts have become midtones. This is rarely beneficial for the look of the image. So it’s wise to optimize the global contrast by setting the White point and Black point of the image.

These two sliders are stretching the histogram until it touches the sides. It will optimize the contrast in the image as much as possible. This can be done by holding down the ALT key (OPTION key if you are using a Mac) while adjusting the slider.

Adjusting the White point slider with the ALT key pressed, the image will turn black. Only the clipped areas will become visible as patches of white. You need to prevent these patches from showing. The same goes for the Black point slider, except the image will turn to white instead. The clipped black parts will show as darker patches. Try to prevent having clipped black, although this is less important compared to clipped white.

Perform Any Local Adjustments if Necessary

There is a strong possibility the image is not to your liking. The adjustments I have made are all global adjustments, meaning, the adjustments are equally applied over the whole image. In most images, different parts need slightly different post processing.

In this case, I would adjust brightness just beneath the clouds. This can be done with a Adjustment brush, or with a gradient mask. The latter will also brighten the water. A second gradient mask over the water can correct this again.

Often, local adjustments are preferred over global adjustments. But when using the complete dynamic range of the sensor, I think the global adjustment will give a good basic look for further fine-tuning. Just be careful not to perform too many adjustments that have to be partly corrected with other adjustments. You might lose track, which makes it difficult to change a setting without influencing another one. 

The end result of my post-processing example can be seen in the before-after image down below. It might not be to your liking, but remember, this is always a matter of personal taste. Perhaps you would have done things differently.

Downsides of This Kind of Post Processing

Raising the darkest parts of an image will increase noise levels, and banding might become visible. This is the biggest downside when using the dynamic range of the camera. This has limitations, which often become noticeable when the dynamic range of the scenery is very large, like the image in this example. How much noise or banding will appear depends on a few things.

First of all, every camera sensor has a certain amount of dynamic range. Some sensors perform poorly, others perform extremely well. Secondly, the quality of the image will degrade when shadows are raised too much. How far you can go also depends on the camera sensor. The last thing that has a big influence on quality is the ISO level. If you use a high ISO, the noise will kick in sooner when raising the shadows. If you don’t want to depend on these three limitations, just use exposure bracketing, or neutral density gradient filters.

Are you using the dynamic range of your camera a lot? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, and share your way of using the dynamic range if this is different compared to my example.


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