Managing Higher than Normal Dynamic Ranges with Onboard Solutions

Ever wonder why a beautiful sunny day doesn’t always translate to equally impressive results in your photos? One of the frustrations of going digital years ago was that too often my shots would have an undue amount of over-exposed or under-exposed areas. A beautiful sky was over-exposed and areas of shadow now appeared deep and void of detail. I was to later learn what Picture Controls (Nikon) and Picture Styles (Canon) were doing (unfortunately) behind the scenes to spoil chances at success.

Nikon, Canon et al have each incorporated on-board features that automatically darken the brightest areas and lighten the darkest areas to produce a more evenly distributed tonality with far less chance of clipping. Nikon’s Active D-Lighting (a real-time version of their playback option, D-lighting) and Canon’s Auto Lighting Optimizer (with a variation, Highlight Tone Priority) are their respective solutions.
To better cover the topic of contrast and onboard management let’s take a brief look at those models offering a fully-automated High Dynamic Range (HDR) shooting option that takes two or more images at different exposure settings and nicely merges them together for one final shot that make concerns about high dynamic range almost a thing of the past.

Picture Controls (Nikon), Picture Styles (Canon) and similar:

If you’re shooting in the Creative Modes (or even Creative Auto if you have an entry-level Canon camera) then there’s hope for you as your Picture Controls (Nikon), Picture Styles (Canon), Picture Modes, (Olympus), Custom Image (Pentax) and Creative Styles (Sony) are all available to you for use, and/or to modify, as needed. Note: In most other shooting modes they are automatically selected for you and are most likely not changeable. Many shooting modes, such as Portrait, automatically set lower than normal contrast in anticipation of the intended subject matter. The fact of the matter is that some Picture Controls, Picture Styles, etc. are more aggressive in how they manage (add or take away) contrast. For example Nikon and Canon’s Standard Picture Control enhances contrast (it boosts the dynamic range of the composition) and so will lighten already bright areas and darken already dark areas; not something you necessarily want. If you thought the Standard Picture Control was bad (I never use it, btw), Nikon’s Vivid picture control is even more aggressive in how it boosts overall contrast. Expect deep, dark shadows and lots of over-exposed skies! On the other hand, Nikon’s Neutral Picture Control (or Canon’s Neutral and Faithful Picture Styles) lowers contrast and is favoured by many who wish to add/manage contrast in post-production. I would always choose less contrast over more. Find out what your other Picture Controls (Picture Styles, etc.) do with respect to contrast and then use them, or even fine-tune them, according to the day’s contrast challenge. Note that if you’re shooting in RAW format, you can move on to the next step as Picture Controls are not recorded in this format.

Image 1a Showing the dramatic effect of Nikon’s Vivid and Neutral Picture Controls on contrast.

Image 1b Specifically shows how enhanced contrast of Nikon’s Vivid Picture Control compared to their Neutral Picture Control can result in a loss of detail in deep shadows. It goes without saying that this boosted contrast of an aggressive Picture Control such as Nikon’s Vivid one, would also adversely affect bright areas of a composition by causing undue amounts of blowout.


Active D-Lighting (Nikon), Auto Lighting Optimizer (Canon) and similar.

This option may be found on your model camera as simply an ON/OFF option. For more recent models or for prosumer-level models you’ll be offered a choice of levels such as Nikon’s Low, Normal, High, Extra High and AUTO. Many models display settings as representative icons (get used to what they look like early on in your photography) found on your LCD screen. I strongly suggest you begin by taking test shots at various levels starting with OFF, then LOW and gradually at higher and higher levels so that you can assess how it’s working to manage detail in the darkest and lightest sectors of your composition.

Image 2a The recovery effect of lost detail in shadows and highlights. Note also the more even overall tonalities using Nikon’s Active D-Lighting.

Image 2b The recovery effect of lost detail in shadows and highlights. Note also the more even overall tonalities using Canon’s Auto Lighting Optimizer.
Onboard High Dynamic Range (HDR) Merges:
One way to manage contrast is to have the camera take several images at different exposures and then merge/process them to produce one comprehensive shot that simulates the dynamic range that approximates what the human eye sees. Several models offer this as a single, fully-automated option such as:

  • Canon’s HDR Backlight Control option and/or their HDR mode,
  • Pentax’s HDR Capture mode, and
  • Nikon’s HDR mode.

The principle of the HDR merge is to first take a (hopefully) well-exposed shot quickly followed by a second, darker exposure (usually at an EV value of -1.0) which reveals detail in the bright sectors of the composition. This is then followed by a third, lighter shot (usually at +1.0 EV) which captures detail in the darkest sectors. The acquisition of these three images is then followed seamlessly by the automatic merging of all three into one single file which offers a close simulation of what we’ve actually seen.

Image 3a Standard image capture of a typical high dynamic range composition showing over-exposed areas in red.

Image 3b Three-frame onboard HDR merge using an exposure differential of + and – 1.0 EV. Note the significant reduction in blowout using this method.

Feeling a bit more confident about tackling high contrast situations? Bright light and deep shadows not such a threat to success? With these onboard solutions up your sleeve at the time you’re actually shooting you’re going to have lots of choices that’ll help you manage the most challenging of dynamic ranges and, in so doing, be well ahead of the game before you ever bring your JPGs into post-production editing. Btw, our third offering this week, the integrated onboard HDR function? It works just as easily with RAW files as with JPGs. Best of luck and keep shooting!


© 2015 by T. W. Cooper All images and blog content are the property of the author. All rights reserved.

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