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09 Nov Stark contrast: how your camera copes with dynamic range capture

Source: DP Review

Managing dynamic range is challenging. There are few things more disappointing than looking through the viewfinder of a DSLR at a colorful, vibrant scene, hitting the shutter then glancing at the rear screen only to see a JPEG image with clipped highlights, crushed blacks, or both.

Dynamic range limitations can catch you out at the most unexpected moments. In this instance, the yellow leaf is catching the light, clipping the green channel and meaning that its color is misrepresented.

There are two challenges that the camera faces: picking a tone curve that can include a wide range of the tones in the final image and choosing an exposure that captures this wide range of tones. As you might expect, all in-camera DR modes aim to address one or both of these issues.

The first challenge comes because cameras tend to use a single, fixed JPEG tone curve designed to make most images look attractively punchy when they’re viewed on the relatively low dynamic range of most monitors or prints. High contrast scenes can extend beyond the range of tones squeezed into these images, which results in the darker tones in your image crushed to black and your highlights being clipped, if you try to expose the mid tones of your image correctly.

Much of the problem is caused by the camera’s tone curve: a system that maps the brightness of tones captured in the Raw file to the brightness levels used in the final image.*1

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