December 2013

The Background
(If you want to cut to the chase, read "The Test" below.)

For those of you familiar with the original Camera vs. Log, you may have been wondering what the test would have been like had I shot the pictures in RAW with the D7000. 

A reader recently emailed me asking this very question, and I figured I'd get around to it sometime in the spring.  Well, it just so happens I had access to a very bright lamp, and I still had that piece o' corrugated metal still around (and that same log).  So I decided to pit the Nikon D7000 against the log again.  This particular log makes a very good test target, because it's sun-bleached almost to white in some areas.  That gives it a lot of tone detail that's close to 255 but not quite there.

It's time for Camera versus Log, Part Two.

Oh, this is gonna be a good one.   Better than pay per view, I reckon.

Just a refresher:  "Dynamic Highlight Range" (DHR) is the useful range above correctly-exposed neutral gray.  As I said in the original Camera vs. Log, DHR is the maximum number of stops between the correctly-exposed areas and the brightest areas that are not clipped.   So, if the brightest area is five stops above the neutral point, but the camera clips at three, then the DHR is only three. 

Right out of the box, most digital cameras can't even do three stops of DHR, and two stops is really a stretch.   I'm not talking about Stouffer wedges here.  I'm talking about your typical real-life situation.   This is where most of us actually photograph stuff, so it matters.

The Test

The original CVL test had the corrugated metal in the shade, and the log in bright sunlight. 

Instead of the difference in stops between the metal and the log, the test really concentrates on the bright area.  How many stops of overexposure can the camera tolerate?  This is the real question.  It gives us a working measure of the DHR.  That's because lot of things you photograph in real life will have areas that are a few stops above neutral.  Wherever you metered the camera, anything brighter than that is going to be overexposed.

Just a refresher:  in the original test, the D7000 got housed by a mere 2 stops above neutral.

Since the weather this December has been cold, cloudy, and miserable, it was either wait until spring... or do "CVL Part II" indoors with a very bright light.   Guess which one I picked.

Alright, we're all set.  Let's see if the Nikon D7000 can make a comeback in Camera vs. Log!!!

Round One:  NEF / RAW

D7000 steps into the ring this time with RAW mode.  I didn't shoot the first Camera vs. Log with RAW, mainly because so many people just shoot in JPG.  When I shoot digital, it's usually JPG too, unless there are large expanses of one color.  Nevertheless, some people think that RAW offers more dynamic range.

Let's see if that's true.

That's +2 stops, and there's the clipping already.  It's one aspect of that "digital" look that has wrecked so many otherwise-good photographs.

Now, you have to remember we're not dealing with the harsh afternoon sun we had in the original.  This is a simulation, using a localized source of light.  So it's even a bit of a softball for the D7000, because it's not going to blast out the whole area quite as radically.  You can see the upper portion of the log still has quite a bit of detail, and again, that's because this is not sunlight. 

At any rate, you can see the clipping is awful. 

Same basic result as we saw with JPG:  Two stops, and it's toast. Even with NEF / RAW.  (By the way, once you export it from there, there's no material difference in a 16-bit PNG or an 8-bit JPG.  Believe me, I compared.)

Now, you might be wondering, "Did you try highlight recovery?"  Yep.  It had no effect.  Once the highlights are gone, they're gone (which I've been saying all along).  There was nothing for "highlight reconstruction" to work with, because the tonal variations-- no matter how slight-- were all collapsed into one tone.  Pure white.

Next up:  +3 stops, shot with NEF / RAW.

Wow, yeah.  This is Nikon NEF / RAW, so I know a lot of people would expect some dynamic range advantage.  Well, +3 stops, and you can see what we have here.

As you can see, RAW mode doesn't provide any advantage by itself.  You have to "shoot for the highlights and develop for the shadows".  In other words, meter on the brightest thing in the scene.  Then, bring up the details in your RAW processing software.  Digital has pretty good shadow range, so it works out alright.  Unfortunately it's not a perfect way to shoot, because underexposure accentuates things like wrinkles and pores.  That can sort of be unpopular with some of your customers, know'msayin?.

Round Two:  The D7000 Pulls Out All The Stops

Okay, somehow that title ended up being a pun, which was totally unintentional. 

Where were we?   The D7000 was getting trounced in Round One.  Again. 
So Round Two begins, and does the 7000 have any other tricks up its sleeve? 

Let's see.

Oh, hey... what about this little setting here... it's called "Active D-Lighting"? 

This feature basically shifts the exposure to the left (think of a numberline, with 0 in the middle).  There is some processing in-camera, also.  Anyway, let's see if it helps... and by how much.

We're not gonna mamby-pamby around here.  Let's just crank Active D-Lighting to the max and try the test.   Running it at maximum will preserve highlights the best (later we'll talk about why).

So, let's try +2 stops again and see what happens.

That actually looks semi-OK.  The clipping is just starting to happen in one area.  As I mentioned before, there isn't much in those blown-out areas for "highlight recovery" to work with, so what you see is what you get. 

There's still a major reservation, though.  If you study the picture, something is different.

Oh yeah, the shadows.

Active D-Lighting is neat, but mostly it does the same thing you could have done manually.... just underexpose the shot.  Notice the corrugated metal is darker now.  You'd have to mess with the curves to get everything to look right.  If you run ADL on Low, it applies a little bit of highlight protection without underexposing the picture, but that wouldn't be enough to deal with the +2 stop situation.  Even on Extra High, it's barely enough.

So, ADL doesn't solve the dynamic highlight range problem.  It just offers a partial workaround.  

At +3 stops it really can't deal with the highlights.


And, you may remember in the original Camera vs. Log that film was doing great at +4 stops.  (Don't worry about the colors in the shade areas.  I like 'em, actually, but they're easy to white-balance out in the software, if you want.)

Wow, +7 stops, in the harshest, most contrasty lighting I could find.  And there's still tone detail in the bright area!!!

A reminder, once again, that digital can't even get near this. 
I expect Kodak Portra to do even better.  When I get around to it, I'll run the test and post the results.

Round 3:  One More Try

Active D-Lighting and RAW mode didn't help too much.  The digital camera just doesn't have the highlight range that film has. 

One last thing to try here.

I'll just shoot at +0 stops on the highlights, then I'll bring up the shadows and see what we get.   (The picture you'll see will already have the shadows adjusted.  We're starting to get a lot of pictures on this page and I just wanted to keep it down to a reasonable number.)

So anyway, here we go.  Metered at +0 on the log, then the darker regions were lightened in "post".

Thanks to a little tweaking, now the corrugated metal is about as bright as it was in the "+4 stops" photo with Active D-Lighting.   So, with some careful adjustment I was able to bring the shadows up at least 2 or 3 stops without wrecking the highlights. 

It helps if you shoot in RAW, but only because the greater color depth can withstand more adjustment without loss of quality.    Then again, for a shot like this, the RAW format probably wasn't strictly necessary.  That's because it wasn't a landscape with a big expanse of sky, so we don't have to worry about tone banding.

Some people think film is a hassle, but by the time you get done messing around with RAW files and doing all these curve adjustments, digital can be a real chore.  For me, the film workflow is more enjoyable, and at the end you still have the slides or negatives.  One other drawback I see for the digital is that curves / levels adjustment can lead to an unnatural look.  You have to be really careful tweaking these.  It's very easy to accentuate the wrong tones or make the image look oddly synthetic.

Here we have another major plus sign in the "film" column... film can provide a more contrasty look without blowing out the highlights.  There is something called a "characteristic curve", which some people call a dynamic range curve.  The characteristic curve shows how the density (tone) varies with stops or EV.  Film has a curve that's shaped vaguely like an "S".  Digital has more of a straight line, especially in the highlight region.  As I've said before, that's probably not the only reason that separates film from digital, but it counts for something.

With digital there's a passable workaround, if you're willing to mess with curve adjustments.  In the picture below, I managed to get some contrast with most of the highlights still intact.  There's no nasty clipping. 

As you can see, a good DSLR like the D7000 offers sort of an alternate strategy for avoiding the worst of "that digital look".  

The D7000 still can't top color negative film in Camera vs. Log.  Actually the 7000 was getting trounced according to the strict rules of the contest... but hey, this is my contest and I can set the rules.  (Speaking of contests... back in 2012, Nikon banned film images from their photo contest.  Maybe they read the original Camera vs. Log and just couldn't deal.  More thoughts on the photo contest in an upcoming article.)

So anyway, the D7000 manages to yield a nice photo, but only by avoiding the highlight range issue.  We have to do a workaround.  This is the same thing you'll encounter with most any other DSLR.  Not a huge obstacle, though, because it's something you can learn to do and just add that to your workflow.

This time, when I give back the D7000 to its owner, I don't have to be all like "Thanks, and don't look at that article."  There doesn't have to be that terrible feeling that the camera was totally, utterly defeated by a log.

I mean, a picture of a log. 

(And yeah, it was still sort of defeated anyway, because film still wins.)

Digital cameras are a type of tool, and like most tools, they have a set of uses at which they excel.  Even as we go into 2014, the Nikon D7000 is still among my favorite choices in a DSLR.  The D7000 has accessible controls;  it has a viewfinder with almost 100% coverage;  and it doesn't cost nearly as much as, say, a D800.  The 7000's DX sensor with its 16.2 megapixels is sufficient for most work.  Great camera, actually, even if it's not film.

I would go for the D7000 bundled with the 18-105mm VR lens.  For a DX camera, that's about the best all-around range of focal lengths I can think of for a zoom.  For somewhat more you can get the 24-megapixel D7100 with an 18-105 lens.  (You can really help support my website by using these links to purchase your gear). 


As for film vs. digital.... it doesn't matter how long digital has been around or how much it improves.  To me, it's an adjunct to film, not a replacement for it.  So, why not pick up a film camera and use both?   You can pick up a used Pentax K1000, the classic all-manual 35mm camera, through this link, or browse the 'bay for 35mm cameras through this link.  Also, these guys have a lot of film cameras in stock.

As I've said before:  digital will still be digital and film will still be film.  We know film is good, it's our photographic heritage, and we want to uphold that.   And we'll just have to have our own photo contests. 

I hope you enjoyed this article.  You can help me out by purchasing any of your gear through these links. 

Thanks again for reading!

One more thing.  I do my "post" in Linux, but for all my readers who use Microsoft and Apple OSes, Adobe Lightroom 5 is the last version you'll be able to buy as a perpetual software license where you can use it for as long as you want.  Starting with later versions, Adobe Lightroom software will be subscription-only.


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