In this video, Ben Long walks us through the basics of dynamic range. For more LinkedIn Learning videos about photography, click here.

In the last movie, you learned about the difference in the dynamic range of your camera, and the dynamic range of your eye. Specifically, you learned that your camera has less dynamic range than your eye, quite a bit less. In that movie, I mentioned that such a difference is not necessarily a liability, and where I’m standing right now is a great example of what I mean by that. If you were standing where the camera is right now, you would be able to see almost as much detail on this shadowy side of my face, as you see on the lit part and that’s because of your eye’s tremendous dynamic range.

Like a still camera, this video camera that’s shooting has a smaller dynamic range than the eye. Right now, we’re exposed for the bright areas, and so the shadow areas are falling into darkness. Is that a bad thing? It might be if you were trying to present an image of me that was gentle and friendly. But if you’re trying to create a different mood, maybe one that has more drama or weight to it, then this exposure treatment is very powerful.

This video is from Photography Foundations: Exposure (part 1) by Ben Long

I called this movie “The Aesthetics of Dynamic Range” because as you shoot more, and learn to see more like your camera does, you will start to understand when dark shadows or bright highlights are useful composition tools.

The tricky thing is that when you’re standing at a scene, you don’t see the world like this, so you need to start recognizing that any shadow can be made to appear darker, and any highlight brighter. You need to start learning to recognize potential subject matter by noticing that the smaller dynamic range of your camera is actually an asset.

Photographers have been exploiting the limited dynamic range of their cameras since the dawn of photography. If you watch my Photography Foundations: Composition course you’ll hear me rant a lot about the necessity of simplicity in an image. The world is a visually busy place, and as photographers, we’re constantly struggling with how to get things that we don’t want out of our frame. Plunging things into shadows are blowing them out to white is a great way to reduce clutter in your image.

We use the term photographic to mean a perfect representation of something. We speak of people with photographic memories or a painting that is so realistic that it looks like a photo. So it may seem odd to intentionally leave detail out of an image, but it’s very important to remember that a photo is not a realistic representation of something. It’s flat, it’s two-dimensional, and it’s just a crop of the actual scene that you saw. What’s more, as we’ve seen, it lacks the full dynamic range of the scene, and the color might not be as accurate. And the rest of your sense of smell, hearing, your emotional state at the time, none of those are being recorded.

Photography can be less abstract than a painting. It can have more details and be more technically accurate than a painting. But it’s important to remember that photography is an abstraction, it’s representational. It is not a perfect capture of the visual experience. It’s important to remember that because it’s up to you to make the exposure choices that will represent the scene as a photograph in the most effective way. And you have a lot of creative power when making those choices. Choosing which part of the dynamic range to capture is one of those powers. As we’ll see in the next movie, there is a way to capture a broader dynamic range, however as we’ll see, for the reasons that we just discussed, you may not always want to capture a broader dynamic range.

Lead photo by v2osk on Unsplash