Which Dynamic Range option should I use?

November 15, 2013 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in News & Events, Q&A, Tips & Techniques by

My Nikon D5200 provides several options for Active D-Lighting in the menu with Automatic as the default. But I can also set it to High, Extra High, Normal, Low and Off. I’m not really sure why there are so many options and which would be the best one to use. Would I get better photos setting Active D-Lighting to Extra High?
—Cal J.

The Active D-Lighting feature is unique to Nikon, Cal, but DSLRs of other brands also provide a feature for increased dynamic range, such as Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimizer. All are designed to provide more detail in shadow areas and a bit more detail in highlight areas. The effect is achieved by extra in-camera processing, and it’s typically very mild at the Auto level. In the soft light of a cloudy day, even Auto is unnecessary in my experience. Any dynamic range expansion feature is most useful only in harsh, high-contrast light, when shadow areas tend to be too dark.

In a scene that includes both bright highlight areas (the windows in this case) and large shadow areas, a dynamic range expansion feature can definitely be useful. (At Off and at High level)  © 2010 Peter K. Burian

In a scene that includes both bright highlight areas (the windows in this case) and large shadow areas, a dynamic range expansion feature can definitely be useful. (At Off and at High level) © 2010 Peter K. Burian

Note: Many recent cameras, including the D5200, also provide a special High Dynamic Range feature, which produces a dramatic increase in highlight and shadow detail. Consider this to be a creative tool while Active D-Lighting (more typical dynamic range expansion) is a problem-solving tool.

Let’s say you’ll be taking a trip to the Caribbean this winter where you’ll be shooting in intense sunlight. In that situation, your Nikon camera’s Active D-Lighting will certainly be useful. (You can find an example of the effect that you can expect in such a situation on Nikon’s D5200 web page.) You’ll get more nicely balanced images without very dark shadow areas, especially at the Normal level, for a greater effect than you’d get with the (very mild) Auto level.

Most image-editing and RAW-conversion software also provide tools for lightening shadow areas and darkening highlight areas. While it's quicker to use an in-camera feature, the software offers more precise control to achieve the perfect effect with any camera. (Nikon Capture NX2) © 2012 Peter K. Burian

Most image-editing and RAW-conversion software also provide tools for lightening shadow areas and darkening highlight areas. While it's quicker to use an in-camera feature, the software offers more precise control to achieve the perfect effect with any camera. (Nikon Capture NX2) © 2012 Peter K. Burian

If the next photos you take still exhibit very dark shadow areas and intensely bright highlight areas, set Active D-Lighting to High. If it’s set to Extra High with the D5200 (or to level 5 with a Sony DSLR) the effect will be quite intense, not as natural looking. Of course, this is a subjective judgment. The next time you’re shooting in high-contrast lighting, take the same photo at every level of Active D-Lighting and examine them all later on a large computer monitor. You’ll soon appreciate the intensity produced by each option, and you’ll be able to make a well-educated decision as to the level that you personally prefer.