Dynamic range is a complex issue. Comparisons between film and digital media should consider:
- Film type: For example, low-contrast print film has greater dynamic range than slide film's low dynamic range and higher contrast.
- Data format: Raw image format or JPEG?
- Pixel density of the sensor: The large sensors in DSLRs and medium format digital cameras generally have larger photosites which collect more light and therefore are generally more sensitive than their diminutive counterparts in compact digital cameras. The larger sensors tend to have better signal to noise characteristics. However signal processing and amplification improves with generation and small sensors of today approach the dynamic range of large sensors in the past.
- Scanner: Variations in optics, sensor resolution, scanner dynamic range and precision of the analogue to digital conversion circuit cause variations in image quality.
- Optical versus digital prints: Prints differ between media and between images shown on Visual display units.
- Signal/noise ratio: This defines the limits of dynamic range within a single photograph, and may vary with subject matter. A single comparison cannot demonstrate that digital or film has a smaller or greater dynamic range.
Dynamic range is of considerable importance to image quality in both the digital and emulsion domain. Both film and digital sensors exhibit non-linear responses to the amount of light, and at the edges of the dynamic range, close to underexposure and overexposure the media will exhibit particularly non-linear responses. The non-linear dynamic response or saturation qualities of emulsion film are often considered a desirable effect by photographers, and the distortion of colour, contrast and brightness varies considerably between film stocks. There is no limit to the number of possible levels of colour on emulsion film, whereas a digital sensor stores integer numbers, producing a limited and specific possible number of colours. Banding may be visible in the unusual case that it is not obscured by noise, and detail may be lost, particularly in shadow and highlight areas.
Some amateur authors have performed tests with inconclusive results. R. N. Clark, comparing a professional digital camera with scans of 35 mm film made using a consumer level scanner, concluded that "Digital cameras, like the Canon 1D Mark II, show a huge dynamic range compared to either print or slide film, at least for the films compared."
Ken Rockwell reached a different conclusion: "CCDs and the related capture electronics will need about ten times more dynamic range (three stops) than they have today to be able to simulate film's shoulder....This is the biggest image defect in digital cameras today."
Carson Wilson informally compared Kodak Gold 200 film with a Nikon D60 digital camera and concluded that "In this test a high-end consumer digicam fell short of normal consumer color print film in the area of dynamic range."
The digital camera industry is attempting to address the problem of dynamic range. Some cameras have an automatic exposure bracketing mode, to be used in conjunction with high dynamic range imaging software. Some CCDs including Fujifilm's Super CCD combine photosites of different sizes to give increased dynamic range. Other manufacturers use in-camera software to prevent highlight overexposure. Nikon calls this feature D-Lighting.
Presentation technology is also relevant, as different color printing methods, cathode-ray tubes, LCDs and other displays all have different dynamic range limits and degrees of linearity.
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