Dynamic Range

Our new Dynamic Range measurement system involves shooting a calibrated Stouffer Step Wedge (13 stops total range) which is backlit using a daylight balanced lamp (98 CRI). A single shot of this produces a gray scale wedge from (the cameras) black to clipped white (example below). Each step of the scale is equivalent to 1/3 EV (a third of a stop), we select one step as 'middle gray' and measure outwards to define the dynamic range. Hence there are 'two sides' to our results, the amount of shadow range (below middle gray) and the amount of highlight range (above middle gray).

To most people highlight range is the first thing they think about when talking about dynamic range, that is the amount of highlight detail the camera can capture before it clips to white. Shadow range is more complicated, in our test we stop measuring values below middle gray as soon as the luminance value drops below our defined 'black point' (about 2% luminance) or the signal-to-noise ratio drops below a predefined value (where shadow detail would be swamped by noise), whichever comes first.

ISO Sensitivity and Dynamic Range

From ISO 100 to 400 the D200 returns a very respectable 8.2 EV (pretty much the same as other digital SLR's in JPEG mode). At ISO 1600 and 3200 however it suffers in our test due to high levels of noise which significantly cut the signal-to-noise ratio, at ISO 3200 (HI) we call the shadow range as just -3.0 EV (from middle gray), two stops less than at ISO 100.

Sensitivity Shadow range Highlight range Usable range
ISO 100 -5.0 EV 3.2 EV 8.2 EV
ISO 200 -5.0 EV 3.2 EV 8.2 EV
ISO 400 -4.9 EV 3.2 EV 8.1 EV
ISO 800 -4.0 EV 3.2 EV 7.2 EV
ISO 1600 -3.7 EV 3.2 EV 6.9 EV
ISO 3200 (HI) -3.0 EV 3.2 EV 6.2 EV

Obviously an ISO 1600 image would contain areas of shadow with a level below our 'shadow range' point however it would difficult to make out any detail because of noise, this can be seen more clearly in the 100% wedge crops below. Step 29 represents -3.7 EV on our graph above, each step represents +/- 0.3 EV. As you can see on the ISO 1600 crop it's difficult to make out the difference between the steps below step 29, the amount of noise now overtakes any useful 'signal'. (Note that the crops below have had their brightness boosted to make it easier to see the patches, for unmodified crops click on these links: ISO 100 crop, ISO 1600 crop).

ISO 100 (image brightness boosted)
ISO 1600 (image brightness boosted)

Dynamic Range compared

At lower sensitivities the D200 delivers almost exactly the same dynamic range as the Canon EOS 5D and just less than the EOS 20D. The main difference is the shape of the tone curve which just like the D2X is virtually straightfrom middle gray up to white (clipped). The biggest difference is that the D200 demonstrates half a stop more dynamic range above middle gray compared to the D2X.

Camera (ISO 100)
Shadow range
Highlight range
Usable range
Nikon D200 -5.0 EV 3.2 EV 8.2 EV
Canon EOS 5D -4.7 EV 3.5 EV 8.2 EV
Nikon D2X -5.5 EV 2.7 EV 8.2 EV
Canon EOS 20D -5.1 EV 3.4 EV 8.4 EV

The wedges below are created by our measurement system from the values read from the step wedge, the red lines indicate approximate shadow and highlight range to the nearest third of a stop (the exact range is calculated to sub-stop fractions and using calibration data).

RAW headroom

Next we will test the additional headroom available in RAW files. Experience has told us that there is typically around 1 EV (one stop) of extra information available at the highlight end in RAW files and that a negative digital exposure compensation when converting such files can recover detail lost to over-exposure. As with previous reviews we settled on Adobe Camera RAW for conversion to retrieve the maximum dynamic range from our test shots.

As you can see from the graph and wedges below Adobe Camera RAW in default mode actually returns a little less dynamic range because of its contrasty tone curve, this turns dark shadows to black much earlier than the camera would. The best we could achieve (with some pretty extreme ACR settings) was just over 11 stops total dynamic range, and more importantly about a stop more highlight range (although with no guarantee of color accuracy).

  • ACR Default: Exp. 0.0 EV, Shadows 5, Bright. 50, Contrast 25, Curve Medium (Default)
  • ACR Best: Exp. -1.3 EV, Shadows 0, Bright. 70, Contrast -50, Curve Linear

One thing to bear in mind is that although ACR was able to retrieve the 'luminance' (brightness) of wedge steps which were previously clipped there's no guarantee of color accuracy as individual channels may clip before others. (Note that the wedge below labeled as 'ISO 100' is of course a JPEG straight from the camera).