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What Is Dynamic Range?

Johnathan Paul

Camera manufacturers constantly tout the dynamic range of their gear. What are they talking about? Here’s everything you need to know.

Top image via B&H Photo

What Is Dynamic Range?

Dynamic range is the “ratio between the largest and smallest values of a changeable quantity.”  This range between the largest and smallest can be measured with light or sound. With sound, it’s the measurement between the “noise floor and the maximum sound pressure level” and what a microphone can capture. In terms of light, it revolves around the ratio between the brightest to the darkest.

What Exactly is Dynamic Range? Dynamic Range ChartImage via Aversis 3D

In terms of photo and video, this is the range in which a camera can capture the brightest and darkest areas of an image without the loss of details in the image. If the camera moves beyond this dynamic range, then that’s when you’ll see the brights being washed out or the darks becoming noisy.

So, the more dynamic range your camera has, the more leeway you have to capture your image. If you’d like to know more, check out this great video from Lynda.com. The clip comes from more of a photography angle, but the theory and principles of dynamic range are the same.

Is It Really That Important?

Camera manufacturers are constantly upgrading their technology with the goal of getting closer to the capability of the human eye. While they end up falling short, it’s not for a lack of trying. The human eye is an amazing optical receiver — and if it was a camera, it would be the most expensive camera ever.

What Exactly is Dynamic Range? Human Eye Versus SensorImage via Photography-101

The dynamic range of the human eye is something that current camera technology just can’t match. However, dynamic range is vital to the filmmaking process in the digital age, especially as creators try to duplicate the look of film. Giving filmmakers wider dynamic range allows them to have so much more room to make adjustments and capture that desired look. Plus, with wider dynamic range, you won’t have to rely on artificial lighting to achieve the look you want.

Which Cameras Have the Best Dynamic Range?

Now that we have a solid understanding of dynamic range and how it works, let’s take a look at what options we have when it comes to camera technology. The interesting part about the table below: The varying dynamic range capabilities of prosumer cameras versus big-budget production cameras.

RED WEAPON 16.5 Stops*
URSA Mini 4.6K 15 Stops
ARRI ALEXA 14.5 Stops
Sony F55 14 Stops*
Sony a7S II 14 Stops
Panasonic VariCam LT 14 Stops*
Canon C500 12 Stops
BM Production Camera 12 Stops
Canon 5D Mark III 11 Stops
Panasonic GH4 11 Stops

*Measurement of dynamic range when using log or raw. 

Was this breakdown helpful to you? Is dynamic range something that is important to you? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!