The Zone System and Light Meters in Digital Photography (Podcast 503)

The Zone System and Light Meters in Digital Photography (Podcast 503)

The Zone System has kind of fallen into the shadows as digital enables us to see our images instantly, and view information like the invaluable histogram even before we release the shutter, but The Zone System is still a useful tool, and something worth taking the time to understand whether you use Ansel Adams’ original exposure techniques or not.

I’m sure most of you have heard of The Zone System, and some of you will already have a good understanding of what it means and how to use it, so this might not be new to you, but it’s a great topic to explore, and I find it totally relevant as a follow up to my recent episode about creating camera profiles for the Sekonic L-758D Digital Master light meter.

First, I’m going to explain what The Zone System is all about and intersperse my own take on its applications within digital imaging. We’ll also take a look at how you can use a light meter to evaluate your options in the field as you create your images and evaluate your images on the computer, both of which can be invaluable to help you understand exposure.

The Zone System

The Zone System was developed by Ansel Adams with Fred Archer way back in 1940. It is a system to map the various tonal regions or luminance of objects in any given scene to enable the photographer to reach the optimal exposure during the capture of the image, and the developing and printing of the negative.

OK, so in the last paragraph the word optimal is my take on this, but Adams’ goals were the same. It’s not so much about accurate exposure, because there really isn’t one. Adams phrases this as photographs being interpretations of the original subject values and subjective departures from reality.

The Zone System was most useful as initially intended, to control the exposure of individual sheets of film, rather than rolls of film, because the development and print process could be adjusted for each negative based on shifts applied during the initial exposure of each sheet of film. There are of course limitations on the developing process when using roll film, as all images on each roll are developed in exactly the same way.

Ironically, in the digital age, one could argue that the Zone System is more applicable again, as we go back to being able to adjust our processing of each frame individually, including during the digital printing process.

The Zone System basically maps tones into eleven ranges of values from pure black to pure white. How people associate these tonal ranges to numerical values seems to vary, but I’ve split two ranges into equal parts, as Adams did, and created a reference chart on which we’ll base parts of this discussion, including a slightly modified description of what each zone meant within The Zone System (below).

The Zone System

The Zone System

As you can see (above) the eleven zones are marked in roman numerals, from 0 (zero) to X (10). The reason for the roman numerals was to differentiate the zone values from exposure values (EV) or any other arbitrary numerical scale on the light meter which are usually written in regular Arabic numerals. I’ve added the two scales, from 0 to 255 for RGB color values, and 0 to 100 for Lightness values, and I’ll talk about how to use these ranges to evaluate your images in Photoshop later.

Definition of the Zones

Adams further defined groups of zones in the follow ways. Zones 0 through to X (10) represents the entire range of tones, from “full black to pure white”. Zones I (1) through IX (9) are what Adams referred to as the “dynamic range”, and this represents the darkest to lightest tones that can be considered “useful”. Zones II (2) through VIII (8) were referred to as the “textural range” which represents tones that convey a sense of texture and recognizable substance.

Although I’ve seen heated arguments as to whether or not a Zone is equal to one stop of EV or Exposure Value, Adams himself clearly states that this is how he intended the zones to be used in his book The Negative in which he fully describes The Zone System in glorious detail. If you still want to know more about this subject after today’s post, I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy and read it for yourself. In fact, it’s just a great read for any photographer, so I highly recommend it either way.

Now, in practice, we’ll find that as the dynamic range that our cameras can record increases, strict use of The Zone System requires that we will have to move away from thinking of each zone as one stop of exposure, or, simply use more zones, keeping the zone to EV stop relationship. But, as of 2015, most cameras have a dynamic range of about 12 stops.

As we found in my recent discussion about creating profiles for the Sekonic L-758D light meter, I actually have a measured range of 11.9 stops on my Canon EOS 5Ds R, and DxO Mark have it at 12.4 stops, so we’re at around 12 stops of dynamic range in digital terms. This is the full range from full black to pure white, and I consider almost that entire range to be useful, so it’s a bit wider than Adams’ definition, but in practice I’ve found that even now, thinking of each zone as a stop of exposure works fine.

Exposure “Stops”

Just in case this talk of “stops” has you scratching your head, this is how we talk about steps of exposure, controlled by three main camera settings, the aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We can also change exposure with filters such as neutral density filters, which we talked about in episode 391.

Modifying your camera’s exposure by one stop you could for example change your aperture from f/5.6 to f/8, or from f/11 to f/16, with some of the main full stops of aperture being f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 and f/32.

Because the aperture value represents the area of a circle, they are approximations of a sequence of numbers that are the power of the square route of 2. Although it can be confusing at first, this means that the smaller the number, the larger the area of the circle, and therefore the more light passes through the aperture and onto our camera’s sensor, increasing the exposure. Less is more.

This also has the effect of increasing or decreasing the depth of field of the scene or subject being photographed. For more information on how that works, check out episode 132 or episode 437 in which we discussed hyperfocal distance.

Shutter speeds are easier to grasp, because you simply halve or double the time to change up or down by a stop. One stop faster than 1/500 of a second is 1/1000 of a second and one stop slower is 1/250 of a second. A stop slower again is 1/125 but then the next stop slower is 1/60, so it’s not exactly half. In fact, the real shutter speed for 1/125 of a second is 1/128, and a stop slower should be 1/64. They are mostly adjusted slightly, but there’s no reason to be concerned about this. You get used to the actual numbers used.

The ISO range can also seem a little confusing, but again you get used to it. Film years ago was much slower, or less sensitive to light, but these days, although some digital cameras start at the expanded ISO 50, most start from ISO 100. To increase the ISO in full stops, you just double the value for each subsequent ISO, so one stop more sensitive than ISO 100 is 200. The next full stop is ISO 400, then 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 and so on.

A full “stop” increase or decrease in aperture, shutter speed or ISO will have the same effect on your exposure. For example, an exposure of f/8 for 1/250 of a second at ISO 200 can be made one stop brighter by changing our aperture from f/8 to f/5.6, one stop larger, or we could make our shutter speed twice as long by changing it from 1/250 of a second to 1/125 of a second, or we could make our ISO one stop more sensitive by changing from 200 to 400.

Identify Your Mid-Tone

OK, so back to The Zone System; Ansel Adams wanted a way to evaluate the exposure levels of a scene, so that he could place certain tones at certain places and calculate from that exposure whether or not the other tones in his scene would be too dark or too bright, and adjust the exposure if necessary to protect those extremes in contrast.

As I said, this also carried over into the development process, which was adjusted as necessary as well, but we won’t go into detail on that here as it’s not relevant for digital. Again, if you want to understand this more Ansel Adams’ The Negative should be your first stop (no pun intended).

You would start metering your scene by identifying the tone that you would place in Zone V (5). In black and white terms this is called the mid-gray or middle-gray, but in color photography, let’s call it the mid-tone, as it’s referred to on my light meter. The beauty of this first step is that if you can’t easily identify what in your scene is a mid-tone, if you are outdoors with the same light falling on your scene as where you are, you can simply take a meter reading of an 18% gray card to get this exposure value.

There are lots of conversations around the web regarding whether cameras are calibrated to 18% gray, 12% gray, or 12.5, 13% or 14% etc. During the creation of my camera profile using my Sekonic L-758D light meter and the Sekonic (X-Rite Munsell Color) Exposure Profile Target II, I first took meter readings with both incident and reflected light from the 18% gray side of the target.

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile - Metering the Light - Incident

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile – Metering the Light – Incident

I then set my Canon EOS 5Ds R camera to the exact same settings that my Sekonic L-758D light meter measured and the exposure scale on the camera indicated that there was zero discrepancy from what the camera’s spot meter measured. The meter reading was exactly the same, and this tells me that Canon is using 18% gray.

This can vary depending on the light source, but this result is enough for me to proceed with this article using 18% gray as the middle-gray, and you’ll also learn why I don’t think this is totally important in the age of digital, and with the understanding that Ansel Adams adjusted exposure as necessary, we also know that it wasn’t something to get too bent out of shape about, even during Ansel Adams’ day.

Start With Your Mid-Tone

So, the starting point for setting your exposure with The Zone System was to identify your mid-tone or middle-gray. You can do this by viewing your scene, and taking meter readings from a number of subjects that you think would be close. Adams would look for something that he felt would spoil the photograph if it was allowed to become too dark, although he does talk about using an 18% gray card in The Negative as well, as a way to get an accurate exposure, if that is what you require.

When you first take a meter reading from your scene, the light meter will interpret the luminance value as though the substance being measured was a middle-gray. Although you can change this functionality, the meter will often assume that the first reading you take is the mid-tone, and start to record subsequent measurements in relation to this mid-tone, or middle gray.

I generally like to start my metering with an incident light measurement when I’m outdoors, assuming I’m in the same lighting conditions as the scene I’m photographing. This of course would not work if I was in shadow photographing a brighter area not under the same cover.

The Beauty of the Light Meter

The thing that I absolutely love about using a light meter though is, because they are measuring the luminance of a subject, unlike a camera’s built in metering system, they don’t try to convert everything to a mid-gray. If I take an incident meter reading of the light falling on a snow scene, then take a reflective meter reading of the snow itself, the snow will be around two stops brighter than the incident meter reading. I’d get the same two stop difference by taking a reflective meter reading from an 18% gray card as the base.

If this isn’t making much sense, get a piece of white paper and a piece of black paper, or anything that is black, but both need to be big enough to fill the frame of your camera. Put the camera in Aperture Priority mode an set the aperture to say f/5.6 and ensure that exposure compensation is at zero.

Fill the frame with the white paper, and take one photograph. Then, put the black object in the same place as the white one, under exactly the same light, and take a second photograph without changing the camera settings. Then, on the back of your camera, flick between the two images that you just shot. You’ll most likely find that they are both exactly the same. They’ll be a mid-gray. To actually make them black and white, you’d need to add +2 stops of exposure compensation when shooting the white paper, and -2 stops of exposure compensation when shooting the black paper.

Play the Metering Game

As another learning exercise with my light meter, I like to play a game where I measure the light falling on a scene with the incident meter, which is the method using the white dome on the light meter, and then press the Memory button on the meter to record that base measurement, and then try to meter something else in the scene that is as close to this incident meter reading as possible. You can do this in your living room, or outside, it doesn’t matter.

This helps to train your eye to find the mid-tones in your scene, and can actually be quite satisfying when, for example, you meter the light source, then find something that is within just a third or two thirds of a stop brighter or darker than the incident light measurement. A little geeky, maybe, but this is the sort of thing that I’ve done over the years to hone my skill in estimating exposure, and that is a big part of what this is all about.

Find Your Extreme Luminance Values

Back to metering your scene in the field now, it’s not important that your metered mid-tone is absolutely the middle-gray, as we’ll adjust this anyway, based on the following part of the exercise. You now need to identify and measure the lightest and darkest parts of your scene. If you are following along with me here with your own light meter, figure out how to memorize the tones that you are measuring.

The Sekonic L-758D can memorize up to 9 meter readings, by pressing the Memory button on the left side, underneath the spot metering lens. Once I have my incident light measurement saved, and probably one or two reflective measurements from what I thought were the mid-tones in the scene, I’ll start to measure and save the luminance values for the lightest and darkest parts of the scene.

If the sun is in your scene, there isn’t much point in taking a meter reading from the sun’s disk itself, and you also need to be careful not to look directly at the sun through the light meter’s spot meter viewfinder, as many of these are magnified so you could damage your eyes. In The Zone System, the sun would also be considered a specular highlight, falling in zone X (10), so we wouldn’t try to prevent it from over-exposing anyway.

Do take a reading though, for example, of bright cloud near to the sun, especially if it is important that there is some detail recorded in these areas. The same goes for the darkest parts of the scene. Record some values from foreground rocks for example, that might have their shadow side facing you. These might be very dark.

Protect Your Shadows?

If you find that the shadow areas in your scene are very dark, you have to make a decision as to whether or not the detail and texture in the rock is important. In the original Zone System, if your shadow areas were more than three stops darker than your mid-tone, you would start to lose the appearance of substance or texture in these areas.

This means for example, if your mid-tone Zone V (5) with the aperture set to f/8 was metered to give you a shutter speed of say 1/125 of a second, and your dark foreground rocks were metering at 1/8 of a second, that’s four stops darker, putting the rocks in Zone I (1), and that’s where The Zone System is defined to have slight tonality but no texture. If you were to go to 1/4 of a second that would put your rocks in zone 0 (zero) so they’d be completely black, with no visible texture.

As we’ll see later, this is one key area where modern digital imaging has exceeded the boundaries of The Zone System as defined by Ansel Adams, because it was based on old film, which had a much smaller dynamic range. This means that now we would need to either remap the zones to not mean one stop of EV per zone, or do what I do, which is to learn how far I can push my exposure, and work to new boundaries, but still keeping the Zone System in mind.

So, if you do need to protect your shadow areas for some reason, say they are even darker and you feel that there will be no detail there, even with the dynamic range of your camera, which we’ll talk about shortly, then you have to consider brightening up your image.

Protect Your Highlights for Digital

The major difference with the film based Zone System and how it is applied to digital imaging, is that in the film days, it was much easier recover detail in bright or over-exposed highlights than it was to recover lost shadow detail. In The Negative, Adams says “The low values (shadow areas) are controlled primarily by exposure, while the high values (light areas) are controlled by both exposure and development.

In digital imaging, once we’ve over-exposed our highlights, there is no way to get any detail back, so we have to do the reverse, and protect our highlights when shooting digital. If we look again at the graph showing data from my 5Ds R during the creation of my camera profile (below) we can see that the drop-off of information in my shadows is a much shallower curve than my highlights, so there is a much better chance of me saving my shadows, than salvaging detail from blown highlights.

Sekonic DTS Adjusted Profile Graph

Sekonic DTS Adjusted Profile Graph

Digital Place and Fall

If, like me, you use a technique called ETTR or Expose To The Right, this means that you set your exposure so that your highlights are almost or even just touching the right side of the histogram, and then let the mid-tones and shadows fall where they will. Adams uses the term Place and Fall when describing the Zone System, meaning that you find your mid-tone or Zone V (5) exposure tones, and then let the shadow and highlight detail fall where they will, unless you have to adjust exposure to protect either of the extremes.

You can do exactly this in digital as well, and with today’s image quality, your images won’t suffer much for this, but because of the way digital images are recorded, we get more and more grain as the mid-tones and shadow areas get darker and darker, so you will get better image quality by recording your image as brightly as possible, and this is exactly what ETTR does.

Even if my darkest shadows are only in Zone V (5) I still exposure for the highlights, and if necessary, I can darken the image down in post, getting the same exposure that I would have if I’d exposed with those mid-tones in the middle of the histogram, but I have much cleaner shadow areas using this technique. I place my highlights as close to the right as possible, and let the rest of the image fall where it will.

I use this technique pretty much across all of my photography, and I love the results I’m getting. Note too that even when my shadow areas seem incredibly dark, I am still getting detail from these areas, fully utilizing my 12 stops of dynamic range, as we’ll see in a moment. We can consider this digital place and fall.

In Meter Dynamic Range

If you recall from episode 501 in which we created the camera profile for my Canon EOS 5Ds R and transferred it to the Sekonic L-758D light meter, the reason I was so excited about this is because it enables me to show the dynamic range of my camera right there on the meter, so I can see if the luminance values in my scene fall inside the capability of my camera to record without over or underexposing my highlights and shadow areas.

In practice, because I’ve been using a meter for around 15 years, mostly as a learning and teaching tool, I don’t meter my scenes in the field all that often, especially as we can see the information we are capturing right there in the histogram, but I am really excited about having my dynamic range displayed right there on the L-758D light meters exposure scale, both to work with students, but also just to easily check the extremes of contrast in my scenes as I evaluate my options.

Evaluating Your Scene

Let’s now jump into Photoshop and evaluate a photograph that I made on my Hokkaido Landscape Photography Adventure Tour in January 2015. We’ll open the original photograph, straight out of the camera, and then I’ll show you the final image after converting it to black and white, and bringing out all the lovely detail from the tetra pods in the foreground, that I knew would be recorded, but really could not see in the image as I viewed it through the viewfinder or on the LCD display on my camera.

Photoshop Info Panel Options

Photoshop Info Panel Options

If you don’t have your Info panel displayed in Photoshop, hit the F8 key or click Info under the Window menu. Then click the button in the top right of the Info panel and select Panel Options… and you’ll see this dialog. I have my First Color Readout set to RGB Color and my Second Color Readout set to Lab color. Then, from the Photoshop tool bar select the Color Sampler Tool, which you’ll see when you click the Eyedropper Tool.

Now, as you roll your mouse over the image, you’ll see the numbers in the Info Panel change, showing you the values of the tones that you are rolling over. These numbers correspond to the ranges of numbers that I added to The Zone System chart that we looked at above, so you if you click on that image, then drag it to your desktop, you can open it as a reference.

The other cool thing about the Color Sampler Tool, is that when you click it, it adds a little marker to the image and you can see all of the Lightness values of the tones you click on. The L in Lab, as in the Lab Color that we selected earlier stands for Lightness, and ranges from 0 to 100.

Once you are at zero, you are recording pure black and at 100, you are recording pure white. These are the absolute extremes of The Zone System. After you’ve clicked to record a sample, if you right click it, you can change it to Lab if you prefer to reference the 0 to 100 scale, which I personally prefer for this exercise. Before you start to sample tones, change the Sample Size to 31 by 31 Average in the top toolbar, so that you aren’t sampling too small an area.

You’ll need to click on the below image to see these sample marks, and maybe even drag it to your desktop and open it on your computer to see, but in the middle of the image, you’ll find my first sample, which we can see in the top right has a Lightness of exactly 50, which is smack in the middle of Zone V (5). This is my mid-tone for this scene.

Photoshop Lab Samples

Photoshop Lab Samples

If you look at the second easier to see Sample 2 (above) you’ll see that this Lightness value is 99. It’s just a hair under 100, where all detail is lost. That’s the brightest part of the scene, and very close to being totally blown out. Down in the bottom left corner, you’ll see Sample 3 (above) which has a Lightness value of 1. This is the darkest shadows I can record and still have a chance of recovering any information.

Looking at this image, if you have your display calibrated and the correct Brightness, you really shouldn’t be able to see much, down there in the bottom left corner. That’s how it looked through the viewfinder and on my LCD display in the field as well. I went ahead and made this exposure though, because I knew that these values were close, but not totally out of my dynamic range.

Converting to Black and White

If you know my work, you’ll probably know that I’m a huge fan of black and white photographs, and even as I shot this image, I knew that I would take it into Silver Efex Pro 2 and convert it to black and white as my final image. I’ve done tutorials on Silver Efex Pro in the past, so we won’t look at that today, but I wanted to point out one important feature of Silver Efex Pro that I use before saving every image I convert to black and white with it.

You’ll need to click on the image (below) and open up your browser window as wide as possible to see this full size, but if you look down in the bottom right corner, you’ll see 11 small boxes, ranging from black to white, numbered 0 to 10. You’ve guessed it. This is a dynamic indication of The Zone System, right there in Silver Efex Pro. (Remember that once you’ve clicked the image to view it larger, you’ll need to place your mouse over the image to stop it advancing to the next image automatically.)

Zone X (10) Indication

Zone X (10) Indication

As you can see (above) when I roll over Zone 10, there are some diagonal lines that have appeared over the brightest part of the sky where the sun’s rays are radiating from. If I wanted to I could have brought these down a little in my final image, but I actually consider these silver linings on the clouds as specular highlights, and decided to leave them this bright.

As long as I know which areas are very bright, I can make the decision as to whether or not I will change the image, and that is the beauty of these Zone System displays. I am though less likely to allow shadows to totally plug up, because blacks tend to print really dark anyway. For this image, when I rolled my mouse over Zone 0 (zero) there were no areas that are totally black. This screenshot shows areas in Zone 1, and they are basically limited to areas of deep shadow, which is exactly how I planned this photo.

Zone I (1) Indication

Zone I (1) Indication

Finally, once I saved the image and return to Photoshop (below), we can now see the new values from the black and white image, as the Color Sample markers are still in place. My darkest shadows have increased from 1 to 5, my brightest highlights have come down from 99 to 98, and my mid-tone has become very slightly brighter at 53.

Lab Samples from Black and White Image

Lab Samples from Black and White Image

The important thing to note here as well is that what appeared to be very deep shadows in my original image actually contained a lot more texture and detail that you might have thought, especially if you’d seen this on the back of the camera as I shot this image. It’s at times like this that many people start to think of HDR to increase the dynamic range, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, I rarely do HDR, as I don’t believe it’s necessary.

If HDR is a creative avenue for you, then that’s fine, but if you don’t particular enjoy the process, then hopefully some of what we’ve covered here will help you to rely a little more on your cameras ability to capture a full range of tones.

Just to clarify as well, before we finish, the image I’ve used in this example was shot with my 5D Mark III, not the 5Ds R. The 5D Mark III actually had very slightly less dynamic range than the 5Ds R, so we’d be looking at a very similar example anyway.

Conclusion

OK, so to wrap this up, I’d like to reiterate that you don’t necessarily need a light meter to make great photographs. I didn’t meter the above scene in the field. I relied totally on the histogram, which I do believe is an essential tool, especially when we are pushing the extremes of our cameras’ dynamic range.

I also find it very important to turn on highlight warnings on my camera. The highlight warnings are based on the in camera JPEG, so I tend to keep my Picture Style set to Neutral or Faithful, so as not to change this much, but it’s still an 8 bit JPEG and there is much more detail and information captured in the raw file.

I use the preview as a guide, and sometimes set the exposure so that I’m just starting to blow out my highlights, and then I find that the resulting images are actually just inside the limits, and very usable, right up to a point that would probably have had Ansel Adams rethinking his Zone System as well. If he was still with us though, he would have embraced digital with open arms, and I’m sure he’d be pushing exposure to extremes like this, pulling as much out of the technology as possible.

If you are thinking of buying a light meter, although it’s been on the market for a while now, I can’t recommend the Sekonic-L-758DR Digital Master light meter enough. The ability to create those camera profiles using the Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II takes it’s usefulness to a whole new level, as you can see right there on the meter exactly how your scene maps to your own camera’s dynamic range. If you haven’t already, check out episode 501 for more on that.

The other important feature of the Sekonic L-758D or DR in the US, is that it has a 1° spot meter, which is vitally important for taking accurate readings from your scene. Many other meters have 5° spot meters, which are too wide to really pick out and meter fine details in your scene.

Although the light meter is not 100% necessary today, as I’ve mentioned, I do find them very valuable as a way to learn about exposure, and light, and how it affects our images both in the field and in post processing. I also find the light meter to be a very useful teaching tool, so if you teach photography yourself, it’s also definitely worth considering, and I’ve included a number of exercises today that you can do yourself, so I hope that this whole post has been useful for you.


Show Notes

Ansel Adams’ The Negative on Amazon: https://mbp.ac/TheNegative

Sekonic L-758DR : https://mbp.ac/Sekonic-L-758DR

Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II: https://mbp.ac/ept2

Music by Martin Bailey


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Sekonic L-758D Light Meter Camera Profiles (Podcast 501)

Sekonic L-758D Light Meter Camera Profiles (Podcast 501)

In the age of digital with the histogram at our fingertips, the light meter is in many situations no longer as necessary as it was years ago, but there are a number of reasons why I continue to use one. I recently added another reason, by creating a camera profile for my Sekonic L-758D light meter which increases its usefulness even further, so today I’m going to walk you through that process and why I find having a camera specific profile in my light meter useful.

Before I go into details of the process for creating the profile, I’ll explain what this enables me to do, so that you don’t continue to wonder what this is all about. First of all, I’m using a Sekonic L-758D Digital Master Light Meter. In the States this is the L-758DR, which I believe has some extra Pocket Wizard features, but they are basically the same meter otherwise.

Why Am I Excited About Camera Profiles?

Take a look at this photo (below) and if necessary click on it to view as large as possible, and check out that scale between the bottom line of numbers from -7 to +7 and the five carets that indicate meter readings. There is a line of 23 upward pointing triangles, and then one more to the right, and a second a little further away on the far left. This line of dots represents the dynamic range of my camera, and is there because of the profiling process that I carried out a few weeks ago, and that I’m going to walk you through today.

Sekonic L-758D Digital Master Light Meter

Sekonic L-758D Digital Master Light Meter

How cool is that though, right!? I can actually see the dynamic range of my camera right there on the meter! What this means is that in the field I can take meter readings of the scene, and decide how to approach the exposure based on how high I take my highlights, and often more importantly, how dark I am prepared to let my shadow areas fall.

Light Meter as a Learning Tool

Now, yes, of course I can also do this with the histogram, but being able to measure and analyze this data as I shoot is an incredibly valuable tool for understanding exposure, especially when you start to take a look at images and map the tones in your images to understand why certain situations are possible, and when others simply wouldn’t work.

Also, quite often in my case, and maybe yours too, being able to look at the various exposure readings from a scene is an invaluable tool in the teaching environment. I walk people through exposure during workshops, and although this often works for Canon users, explaining exposure with a camera is not as useful as being able to actually show the readings right there on the meter. The meter is much more objective, and kind of removes the ambiguity that a camera can often introduce if the student isn’t familiar with my camera system.

I do use a meter practically in various situations too, both in the field and when I’m setting up studio lights, and the Sekonic L-758D (or L-758DR in the States) has some incredibly powerful features for measuring and comparing studio lights and ambient light conditions etc. but we aren’t going to get into that today. I’ve been using a meter for more than 15 years now though, and have always found them to be a very valuable tool to help me learn and teach exposure, so I’m looking forward to sharing this new development with you today.

Creating a Profile for the Sekonic L-758D Light Meter

I’ve had this Sekonic L-758D meter a while now, but have only just created a profile for it, to utilize it’s full power. To create the profile, you need a Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II. You can use a number of different targets, including some of the X-Rite color targets, but I bought the Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II, which is also made by X-Rite, but specifically for the Sekonic to create the profiles we’ll look at today.

You can create multiple profiles, including one’s specifically for flash and studio lighting, but today we’ll walk through creating a profile with ambient light.

Wait for an Overcast Day

To shoot the test target for an Expansion mode profile, which I found to be the best method, it’s best to wait for a heavily and evenly overcast day.  You need the cloud cover to be pretty even so that the light doesn’t change during your exposures, but you also need it to be really heavy overcast, because you have to shoot five bracketed images to create the Expansion mode profile, and the two extremes of these images are plus and minus 8 stops.

That means if your base exposure is lower than 1/8 of a second, 8 stops below will be longer than 30 seconds, which is fine, but requires using Bulb mode etc. and a timer. If you use a shutter speed faster than 1/30 of a second, your 8 stop above exposure is more than 1/8000 of a second, and that’s the fastest shutter speed available on most cameras, so you can’t start with a shutter speed faster than 1/30 of a second.

Meter Ambient Light

You have to set up the target so that it’s level with the camera, and has even light falling on it. I used a light stand and a pair of plant clamps to hold the target in place, as you can see in this photo (below). Once you have your camera and target in place, meter the light, first with the Incident meter, which is the white dome that you see here, and either take a photo like this, or note the ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings, down to that 10th of a stop that you see as zero in this image. You need to add this fraction into the software, so this is important.

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile - Metering the Light - Incident

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile – Metering the Light – Incident

Then you switch to the Reflected Spot metering mode, by rotating the band around the eyepiece on the the right side of the meter, and point the spot meter at the gray card, while looking through the spot meter viewfinder, and take another meter reading. Again, you need to note these settings or take a photo of them, like this (below). My light was at f/5.6 for a 30th of a second at ISO 160, so it was the same with both the Incident reading and Reflected Spot metering modes. I adjusted the ISO to 160 because the aperture and shutter speeds can only be selected in full stops in the software.

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile - Metering the Light - Reflected

Sekonic L-758D Creating Profile – Metering the Light – Reflected

Once you have the meter readings, with your camera in Manual mode, set the same values on your camera, and note where the exposure indicator is falling with the camera in Spot Metering mode. My camera was reading exactly the same exposure, with the caret on my meter at zero, which means there is no need to calibrate the meter to match my camera. If there was a discrepancy here, I could change my meter in 1/10 of a stop increments to ensure that they are both on the same page, but this was not necessary.

Set a Custom White Balance

We then take a photograph of the gray card side of the Exposure Profile Target II (below) with the metered exposure settings and use that photograph to set a custom white balance in the camera.

Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II Gray Card

Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II Gray Card

After you have your custom white balance set, turn the Exposure Profile Target II around, so that you can see the gray patch side, and check your exposure using the light meter in EV metering mode. You need to turn this on in the custom settings beforehand. Details of how to do this are in the manual.

Ensure Even Light is Falling on the Target

Then, take an Incident light reading with the meter in all four corners of the Target in EV mode. The light falling on the card cannot be any greater than 0.1 EV different across the face of the card. I have a wall behind me on my studio balcony, so I get 10.0 EV on the top of the card, and 9.9 EV at the bottom of the card, but that’s within the acceptable range, so I’ll go with this.

EV Meter Reading of Four Corners of Exposure Profile Target II

EV Meter Reading of Four Corners of Exposure Profile Target II

I found that the Sekonic Data Transfer Software that you use to create the profiles and transfer them to the meter could not handle the full sized 50 megapixel 5Ds R images. I received an error while creating the profile. Also, because you have to feed the software JPEGs and because I didn’t want Lightroom or Photoshop messing with the images, I set my camera to save small high quality JPEGs as well as raw images before I started these test shots, just for the purpose of creating this profile. I left it creating raw as well simply in case I forgot to turn this off again. It would not be good to get back from my next shoot to find that I shot it all in small JPEGs.

I also ensured that the Picture Style on my 5Ds R was set to Neutral before shooting my profile images. I don’t want the camera messing around with the images as it creates my JPEGs from the raw files, so Neutral is a good setting for that.

Shoot Your Profile Images

Once you are ready, and before the light changes, you can now shoot the five images to create an Expanded mode profile. Start with your base settings dialled in with the camera in Manual mode. These are the valued that we read with the meter earlier. My settings were a 30th of a second at f/5.6, ISO 160.

Shoot the first image, and then adjust your shutter speed time making it 4 stops longer. If you have your camera set up to adjust the exposure settings in 1/3 stops, you can just count out 12 clicks, which adjusted my shutter speed from 1/30 of a second to 0.5 seconds, and then shoot your second profile image. Then change the shutter speed a further four stops, which took me to 8 seconds, and shoot a third profile image. Then repeat this for a 4 stop faster shutter speed, which from my base exposure setting gave me 1/500 of a second, for my fourth profile image, and a fifth and final image with a 1/8000 of a second shutter speed.

Five Sekonic L-758D Light Meter Profile Shots

Five Sekonic L-758D Light Meter Profile Shots

As you can see in this image with all five photos merged into one (above) the under and over exposed shots are pretty much useless exposure-wise, but this information is what the software needs to find out just how much dynamic range your camera has, as it creates the profile.

You might also think that with the +/- 8 stop images being so far under and over exposed that we don’t need to do a five image profile, but I tried the three image profile, and it didn’t include the entire dynamic range of the 5Ds R, so I definitely recommend using the five image method if you pick up the newer Exposure Profile Target II.

Sekonic AutoUpdateUtility for El Capitan Support

Note that you can get the latest software from Sekonic’s web site, but at the time that I created this episode/blog post, they do not officially support Mac OS X El Capitan (10.11). I was not able to connect to my meter via USB with the latest version of the software.

However, I found that by running the AutoUpdateUtility in the Sekonic folder that is created when you install the DTS software, the auto-update downloaded what I suppose is an even newer version of the software, which did enable me to connect to the meter and transfer the profile I created. Hopefully this won’t be a problem for long, but if you cannot connect to the meter, try running the AutoUpdateUtility. It might work for you too.

I don’t know if there are similar issues with Windows, but the Web site only states support for up to Windows 8 as of Dec 2015, so Windows may be a little behind as well. When I called the Japan Support team at Sekonic didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about updating the software for the latest OS versions, for this meter at least. They said that they were updating the software for their newer meter with higher priority, although their newer meters are not as good as the L-758D, so I’m hoping that Sekonic changes this stance.

Creating Your Camera Profile

Now that we have the software installed and our five profile photos, it’s time to create the camera profile and transfer it to our light meter. Locate the JPEG images that you shot on your hard drive, and make a copy of these in a new folder on your desktop or somewhere that you can easily navigate to, then start the Sekonic Data Transfer Software. Select the option to Create New Profile in the first dialog, and then select Advanced Mode.

You can pretty much ignore that it says “+/- 10 steps” about Advanced Mode in terms of the images required if you are using the Exposure Profile Target II. After clicking Advanced Mode you’ll see the following dialog (below). Select the Extended mode radio button on the left and select the Exposure Profile Target II if that’s what you have, and click Next.

Sekonic DTS Select Target Dialog

Sekonic DTS Select Target Dialog

On the following screen select Ambient if you are also creating an ambient light profile, and click Next again. The process is very similar if you are creating a profile for Flash. You’ll just need to check the manual for the extra steps involved in setting up to shoot your profile images etc.

Sekonic DTS Select Light Source

Sekonic DTS Select Light Source

In the following screen, select the exposure settings that you either noted down or took a photo of earlier in the process (below). For me, this was ISO 160, Shutter Speed 30, Aperture 5.6 and zero for the 1/10 pulldown. My readings were the same for both Incident and Reflected metering, so I added this to both sets of pull downs, and click Next.

Sekonic DTS Enter Exposure Settings

Sekonic DTS Enter Exposure Settings

On the following screen you’ll be asked to point the software to the folder into which you saved your profile photo JPEGs. Once you show it that folder, you’ll see the following dialog (below). As long as you ensure that your image EXIF Data is not stripped from the images, the software will automatically detect the exposure settings, so you can ignore the Light output Correction Value (EV) field. Just ensure that the green checkbox is on for each image, and click Next.

Sekonic DTS Select Images Dialog

Sekonic DTS Select Images Dialog

In the Analyze Data screen, click each image and ensure that the software finds the registration crosses in each image, or adjust the green + marks as necessary, and ensure that the large green checks are all on, then click Next again.

Sekonic DTS Analyze Data Screen

Sekonic DTS Analyze Data Screen

After analyzing the information in your five profile images, you’ll be presented with a graph similar to this (below). The two green vertical lines represent Sekonic’s idea of where we should place our clipping points, which is where the information in our scene would start clipping, or in other words be under and over exposed. The red vertical lines are to represent the dynamic range of our camera’s sensor. Both of these values are initially way too conservative.

Sekonic DTS Initial Profile Graph

Sekonic DTS Initial Profile Graph

In Ansel Adams’ Zone System, the dynamic range is actually from zone 1 to 9, so zones 0 and 10 are not included, because they were considered too extreme to be useful. The initial dynamic range set by the Sekonic software is closer to this than what is actually useful in modern digital images. We’ll talk more about the Zone System in a follow-up episode, probably next week.

Digital Dynamic Range

For digital, especially if you are exposing to the right when shooting, our useful dynamic range is much closer to the full range from full black to pure white, because there is information being recorded right up to these values that can be used if necessary. So I choose to move both of the dynamic range pointers right out, to span from 0 to 255. I’d actually say that the only values that are truly useless in a well exposed digital image are 0 and 255, so I use these values because I want to see these exact points on my light meter scale.

The clipping points are more subjective, and will be up to you where you put these, but my tests show that I can push my images very close to the digital dynamic range extremes, so I’ve been setting the low clipping points to two stops above total black and the high clipping point to one stop below pure white, as you can see here (below).

Sekonic DTS Adjusted Profile Graph

Sekonic DTS Adjusted Profile Graph

If you shoot additional ISOs or Flash light source profile images as well, you can add these to the profile from this dialog, but if you keep your JPEGs you can play with that later too, so for now, click Save. I already have a profile at ISO 100, so I called this one “Canon EOS 5Ds R ISO 160” for now.

I actually found that adding multiple ISOs to the same profile leaves you with some funky settings showing up on the meter in between the two ISO settings, so I’ve not loaded any multi-ISO profiles to my meter at this point. If you use single ISO profiles the dynamic range and clipping points remain the same across all ISO and I think I’d rather see that as opposed to the funkiness I was seeing.

Transferring Profiles to the L-758D Light Meter

Sekonic Transfer Profile to L-758D

Sekonic Transfer Profile to L-758D

With your L-758D turned off, plug in the USB cable that it comes with, and you should then see the meter connect in the Data Transfer Software. Select the profile or profiles that you’d like to transfer and add them to the right Selected Profile list, and then when you’re ready, click the Transfer to Light Meter button.

You can also edit your profiles from this dialog, and change your clipping points etc. You could even create both an aggressive and conservative profile from the same profile data, and transfer different copies of the profile to your meter for comparison.

Note that when you start editing existing profiles, the clipping and dynamic range settings are saved separately for Incident and Reflected meter modes. You may actually want to set these differently, and these are displayed accordingly as you switch between these modes on the light meter, but if you want them to be the same, ensure to modify both settings in your profile before transferring it to the meter.

Turn the power of the meter off before disconnecting it, but once you have your profiles loaded, you are ready to go have some fun with your new profile loaded to the L-758D light meter.

So What’s the Dynamic Range of the 5Ds R?

Well, my ISO 100 profile shows me a total dynamic range of 11.5 stops (-7.1 to 3.4 EV), and my ISO 160 profile shows me 11.9 stops (-7.4 to 3.5 EV). If I’d made both of these profile under exactly the same light, with exactly the same exposure settings, I’d be thinking that I have more dynamic range at the higher ISO, and that may be the case, but DxO Mark have the 5Ds R dynamic range at 12.4, larger than both of my profiles, so I’m not going to get too hung up on this.

It does mean though, that my current profiles, even with the dynamic range set right out at 0 to 255, is perhaps still a little bit on the conservative side, but we’ll look at an example from the field and check these values in Photoshop in a follow up episode, probably next week.

Do keep in mind that I’m talking about the full range of values captured when I use the term dynamic range here, not Ansel Adams’ definition of the term. In the follow up episode to this week’s post, I’ll talk a little more about the Zone System, and how we can analyze our scenes and images to get the most out of our camera’s digital dynamic range.


Show Notes

Sekonic L-758DR : https://mbp.ac/Sekonic-L-758DR

Sekonic Exposure Profile Target II: https://mbp.ac/ept2

Sekonic DTS (Data Transfer Software) : https://mbp.ac/sekonicDTS

Music by Martin Bailey


Audio

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Podcast 206 : Dynamic Range

Podcast 206 : Dynamic Range

Today we’re going to talk about Dynamic Range. Dynamic Range is one of those words that crops up a lot, but is sometimes not fully understood. Indeed, I don’t profess to fully understand all the fine details, but I know enough about Dynamic Range to be useful to me when making my own images, so I figured I’d share this today, along with some information from a couple of great online resources and some general observations.

What is Dynamic Range?
In simple terms, Dynamic Range is the difference between the darkest thing and the lightest thing that your camera can capture and still retain detail in these areas of the subject. I guess would could think of it as pure black and pure white, because that’s what will happen as you hit the boundaries, and that may often be fine, but most things in the real world have some level of texture and shades, tonal values other than pure black or pure white. If I am photographing a white object though, I am going to want to be able to make out the texture in that object or subject, and if I overexpose the subject, I lose that detail, and the information recorded in the image file becomes just pure white.

I should mention that if you shoot RAW, and you should if you care about the quality of your images, you can bring detail out of the highlights and shadows to the tune of around one stop over or underexposure, but this still depends on you having some detail in the over exposed highlights or deep, seemingly plugged up shadows. If you were to sample an area that’s overexposed in Photoshop and find that the RGB values have gone to #FFFFFF, or pure white, for any significant amount of the image, there’s no texture in there at all. There’s no way to bring any detail back in post processing. The same goes for something pure black in the deep shadow areas. Once the shadows go to #000000 for any significantly large area, the details are gone.

Shoot for the Highlights!
We’ve spoken before about exposing for the highlights, and most of the time this is going to be true. It’s of course always best to get the exposure as good as possible in camera, but if you lose control of your exposure for one reason or another, and your histogram starts to clip, hitting that right shoulder, then you’ll start to lose detail in those whites, or whatever color you are overexposing. It’s important to note that if you have an RGB histogram, use it. You can blow out just one channel, like the Red channel, and it doesn’t always show up in the black and white histogram, and it can look pretty bad to have just one channel blown out. Sometimes even worse than when you blow the whole thing out. The point is to try to get the brightest part of your scene close to, but not touching the right shoulder of your histogram. When you do this though, if the lightest and darkest values in your chosen scene are greater than that of your camera’s dynamic range, you are going to start to lose detail in your shadows as they start to plug up.

When NOT to Shoot for the Highlights
There are times when you will allow large parts of an image to blow out, for the sake of the main subject, as in image number 2308 (below). Here the histogram will spike to the right, as we see to the in this histogram, well and truly hitting the right shoulder. But when shooting this I knew that the sky was going to blow out, so I chose to ignore the histogram. I concerned myself only with getting nicely exposed, fresh green leaves. Had I exposed for the highlights, not only would the greens would be muddy, the bark on the tree trunks would have been very dark, and probably even under exposed.

Big Tree and Fresh Leaves

Big Tree and Fresh Leaves

You do have to be careful here mind, because when you do allow the sky to overexpose like this, it will gradually start to bleed into the important main subject. I like this effect to a degree, as you can see in this image. I think it even adds a little sparkle to the overall effect. But there are limits. If you ignore a bright light source too much, it can bleed into the main subject so badly that it becomes totally washed out, rendering the image pretty much useless.

EV Aperture
1.0 1.4 2.0 2.8 4.0 5.6 8.0 11 16 22 32
−6 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m 64 m 128 m 256 m 512 m 1024 m
−5 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m 64 m 128 m 256 m 512 m
−4 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m 64 m 128 m 256 m
−3 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m 64 m 128 m
−2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m 64 m
−1 2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m 32 m
0 1 2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m 16 m
1 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m 8 m
2 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m 4 m
3 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30 60 2 m
4 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30 60
5 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15 30
6 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8 15
7 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4 8
8 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2 4
9 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1 2
10 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2 1
11 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4 1/2
12 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8 1/4
13 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15 1/8
14 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30 1/15
15 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60 1/30
16 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125 1/60
17 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250 1/125
18 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500 1/250
19 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000 1/500
20 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000 1/1000
21 1/8000 1/4000 1/2000
22 1/8000 1/4000
23 1/8000

Exposure Value?
Before we can start to talk about how much dynamic range our camera’s have, let’s look at the units of measurement used. Dynamic Range is measured in EV, or Exposure Value, which can also be termed a “stop”. One “EV” is one “stop” in exposure terms. We know that there are three settings on our camera that affect the exposure, and that is the Aperture, the Shutter Speed and the ISO. Changing any combination of these settings will modify the EV. The chart to the right shows the shutter speeds required for each aperture from F1 to F32 to capture a subject with the Exposure Value from -6 to 23 EV at ISO 100. If we were to create a chart for ISO 200, basically all of the shutter speeds would be halved, and of course halved again for ISO 400, and so on.

An aperture of F1 is basically a lens that is as wide as it is long. What I mean is, if you have a 50mm focal length lens, to make it F1, it would have to have a 50mm wide aperture when it’s wide open. The common 50mm F1.4 lens has an aperture of about 36mm when used wide open. You get this by dividing 50 by 1.4. If you close the 50mm down to F2.8, the aperture will be around 18mm and so on. Another example I like to use to emphasize this calculation is the 600mm F4. If you divide 600 by 4, you get an aperture opening of 150mm, or 15cm, or about 6 inches. That sounds pretty wide, but if you’ve ever looked into the barrel of a 600mm F4 lens you’ll know that it has huge lens elements, but I digress.

If we start thinking about this from F1.4, you can see from the chart that at F1.4 an EV of one requires a one second exposure. As you increase the Exposure Value, you can see the shutter speed halve with each stop, until you get to the fastest shutter speed for most cameras on the market today, which is 1/8000 of a second at EV 14. If your scene is brighter than EV14, the only way you can shoot it without overexposing it is to close down your aperture, or if you don’t want to do that, say because you want to shoot with a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field, you can add a Neutral Density filter to cut out light and in turn reduce the EV. I hope I’m making sense. If I’m not, I suggest you study the EV chart on the blog a little more. It’s pretty straight forward.

How Much Dynamic Range?
The human eye can see around 24 stops of dynamic range because the pupil opens and closes dynamically as we scan a scene. If you think about it, we are pretty much stuck in Shutter Priority mode, with automatic ISO. As we look at the world around us, if we look at something bright, the pupil get small to stop the bright areas from being too bright and in our cases even possibly damaging our eyes. If we look into the shadows, our pupils open up to reveal some detail in the shadows, even at the expense of some very bright areas in our peripheral vision. When you open your eyes at night, way when you’re laid in bed, you’ll probably notice a lot of grain, and the world is pretty much black and white, because you lose the ability to record the colors and tonal values the higher our brain sets our ISO. This all amounts to around 24 stops of dynamic range in pretty much full auto, but If we could stop the pupil from opening or closing, essentially making just one frame, it is estimated that we see between 10 to 14 stops. If you are wondering where I got this information from, it’s from the Cambridgeincolour.com Web site. They have a great article on Dynamic Range, which I’ll link to in the show-notes.

I’m sure by now, those of you that have never investigated this are wondering what dynamic range modern digital SLR cameras are recording single images in. Well, the 5D Mark II is said to have a dynamic range of just under 12 EV, so it’s actually very similar to the human eye, if we could fix the aperture in our eyes. Like the human eye, the camera’s dynamic range reduces as you increase the ISO. The 5D Mark II captures just under 12 EV when the ISO is set between 50 and 200. As you increase the ISO, the dynamic range decreases, as does the tonal range of your images. It’s not a rapid decrease mind. You lose just under two stops to around 10 EV as you drop down through ISO 400 to 1600, then another EV for every stop of ISO from then on. That means you drop to 9 EV at ISO 3200, 8 EV at ISO 6400, 7 EV at ISO 12800 and just under 6 EV at ISO 25600.

This data by the way is from DxO labs, on their DxO Mark site. If you want to see all kinds of information on your own DSLR, go to dxomark.com and select your camera brand and model from the pull-downs on the top page. I also checked the information for my 1Ds Mark III, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it actually beats the 5D Mark II just by a hair with a dynamic range of 12. Nikon users will also be pleased to hear that the D3X has a dynamic range of 13.7, and the D3 and the D700, as well as the D3X all beat the 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II on dynamic range. The good thing is that we all beat the Hasselblad H3DII 50. The only camera that beats both the top of the range Nikon and Canon DSLRs as of August 2009 is the Phase One P65+. This is a 60MP medium format camera though, and will cost you in advance of $40,000 US, for the basic kit including an 80mm lens, so I don’t think many of us will be losing sleep over this.

Now, I know that some of you will be jumping up and down in your seats now wanting to talk about High Dynamic Range, but we’re not going to get into that today. Yes, you can shoot multiple images, or use multiple exposures from a single RAW file to create images with higher dynamic range than the current technology allows, but I personally don’t really shoot HDR, and I only like to talk about things that I either do myself or have a pretty good understanding of.

Flowering Lotus with Seed Pod

Do We Really Need More Dynamic Range?
When you think though, that modern DSLRs are now capturing roughly the same dynamic range as the human eye with a fixed aperture, do we really need much more Dynamic Range? I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and suggest that we probably don’t. I believe that the image above was enhanced by the sparkling highlights shining through the leaf canopy. There are times when the contrast in a scene is simply too great, and I’m sure we’ll enjoy it as camera manufactures find ways to increase the dynamic range of the sensors, but you know what? When that happens, I can definitely see myself grabbing that Blacks slider in Lightroom and deepening my shadows. I don’t think we necessarily need to see detail in shadows in every image. Take a look at image number 2333 to the right. This white Flowering Lotus stands out beautifully against the dark shadow background formed by some trees in the late afternoon. The only thing that was not pretty much pitch black was that area of grey that we can see to the right of the seed pod. I think this was the trunk of one of the trees. This is pretty much as my camera recorded the scene, except I’ve converted it to black and white.

(I’ve added three more color images to the album at the bottom of this post as other examples of where I’d deliberately plug the shadows by dragging the Blacks slider in Lightroom to the right, if of course, my camera had a wider dynamic range than it does. These shots are all pretty as the camera rendered the shot.)

If my camera was capturing say 24 EVs, like our eyes with their automatic aperture control, although it will be nice some of the time, I really think that there’ll be occasions when it’s just too much. It won’t feel natural to use. I’m sure I’d want a custom setting on my camera to restrict Live View and maybe even the preview images on the LCD to only display 12EV or any incremental value with a slider for example. I don’t necessarily want to see the full gamut on my LCD. I can see most of it through the lens of course, because I’m using my 24 EV dynamic range eyes, but I feel that the feedback we get on the LCD either in Live View or in the image we captured, can help us to use the shadows to effect, that I fear we could lose if dynamic range gets too great in every image. Of course we would adapt, and it may just become another aspect of the photograph that we pre-visualize. We might even just get totally accustomed to 24EV shots, and they start to look natural too us. Right now though, I like the deep shadows that we get in some situations with today’s cameras. Hopefully this will give you a little food for thought though.


Show Notes

Great Dynamic Range article: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/dynamic-range.htm

Camera dynamic range and other measured data: http://www.dxomark.com/

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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