Dynamic range is a way of describing the range of brightness values your digital camera (or film) can faithfully record. Newer cameras, especially the ones from Nikon and Sony, have sensors that deliver as many as 14 stops of dynamic range. The trick, however, is how to extract that information when processing your shots.
If you use Adobe Lightroom, the Camera Profile (under the Camera Calibration Panel) will dictate the starting point for dynamic range. If you use the manufacturer’s RAW converter, then the as-shot settings (e.g., Nikon Picture Control) is applied by default. The in-camera settings set the contrast (tone curve) and color for how your images are processed. By using a low-contrast setting, you’ll be able to expand the dynamic range of your shot.
Here’s the shot from above processed with the out of camera (Nikon Standard) settings applied:
And here’s the same shot in Lightroom when I switched the profile to the Camera Flat setting:
Notice how much shadow detail appears when you change the camera profile setting!
Camera profiles in Lightroom will depend on the make an model of your digital camera. If you don’t have the “Camera Flat” option for your Nikon camera, choose “Camera Neutral.” Canon users can choose the Camera Neutral profile or use the default Adobe Standard. From there, I can adjust the tone sliders in the Basic Panel to further extract shadow and highlight details, and then send that image to Photoshop for more refined adjustments.
Watch me demonstrate how to apply this technique: