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Filmmaking Guide: What is dynamic range

Dynamic range refers to the ratio between the brightest and darkest elements found in any area of a shot.

When shooting digitally, the type of camera used plays a vital role in how wide or narrow the shot’s dynamic range can be. When shooting on film, the type of film stock used determines the dynamic range that can be used for a shot.


Whether shooting as an amateur or as a professional, knowing how your camera or film stock handles light in different conditions is always crucial to the look of your recorded footage. If you have a clear idea of how wide or narrow the dynamic range of the footage you can get using your camera, you can better utilize your lighting sources. You can also determine the best areas to block your actors and how to frame your shot.

The intensity of light in different parts of the scene affects the exposure and final look of the movie. You can show enough details or hide some details to create a more moody or atmospheric scene based on your knowledge of how your camera or film stock reacts to different lighting sources.

For instance, if you’re shooting inside a dark room without any practical light source available and you use the window where the sun’s midday light is seen in the background, the dynamic range provided by a low-end camera will most likely not work for the shot. The window will get blown out while the interiors will look underexposed or in silhouette. There won’t be any room for adjustments when colorgrading or altering some image attributes during post-production.

However, if you’re using a high-end digital cinema camera or shooting on 16mm or 35mm film, it is possible to have enough dynamic range to play around with the scene so there will be enough properly exposed details shown from outside the window and inside the room.

Shooting Digitally

Whether using consumer or broadcast-quality equipment, it is important to know how the camera reacts to the lighting sources in a scene. In digital filmmaking, you can accurately play back your final footage using the camera’s calibrated LCD screen or a larger professional video monitor. This gives you a general idea of the dynamic range your camera can handle. Your camera manufacturer, your owner’s manual, and the camera reviews from reputable websites can also provide you with helpful information about your camera’s dynamic range.

Shooting on Film

One of the major strengths of the film format over the digital format is its very wide dynamic range. Film can practically handle different kinds of lighting requirements. There are actually different film stocks meant for specific lighting conditions.

For instance, when shooting in a park during a bright day, you most likely need a roll of negative with film speed that is less sensitive to light. When shooting at night using a street lamp or a lampshade as the main light source, you most likely need a film stock that is more sensitive to light. If shooting in varying lighting conditions, there are also film stocks that can manage shooting both strong-lit and dark scenes without seriously compromising exposure details.

Shooting on film also means you won’t see the final footage until the negative gets developed, then printed or transferred into digital format. Although you can use a video monitor for playback of the footage shot, this won’t show the exact image attributes the final footage will provide you. This is why thorough knowledge of cinematography is required when shooting on film.

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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