What’s the difference between Latitude and Dynamic Range?

These two words, latitude and dynamic range are often confused and are often used interchangeably.  Sometimes they can be the same thing (although rare), sometimes they may be completely different. So what is the difference and why do you have to be careful to use the right term.

Lets start with dynamic range as this is the simplest to understand. When talking about a digital camera the dynamic range is quite simply the total range from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight that the camera can resolve in a single shot. To be included in the dynamic range you must be able to discern visually or measure with a scope a brightness change at both ends of the range. So a camera that can resolve 14 stops will be able to shoot a scene with a 14 stop brightness range and show some information from stop 0 to stop 14. It is not just a measure of the cameras highlight handling, it includes both highlights and shadows. One camera may be very low noise, so see very far into the shadows but not be so good with highlights. While another may be noisy, so not able to see so far into the shadows but have excellent highlight handling. Despite these differences both might have the same dynamic range as it is the range we are looking at, not just one end or the other.

One note of caution with published dynamic range figures or measurements is that while you may be able to discern some picture information in those deepest shadows or brightest highlights, just how useable both ends of the range are will depend on just how the camera performs at it’s extremes. It is not uncommon for the darkest stop to be so close to the cameras noise floor that in reality it’s barely useable, but as it can be measured it will be included in the manufacturers dynamic range figures.

This brings us on to latitude because latitude is a measure of just how flexible you can be with your exposure without significantly compromising the finished picture. The latitude will always be less than the cameras dynamic range. With a film camera, the film stock would have a sensitivity value or ISO. You would then use an exposure meter to determine the optimum exposure. The latitude would then be how much can you over expose or under expose and still have an acceptable result. But what is “an acceptable result”? Here is one of the key problems with determining latitude, what some people may find unacceptable others may be happy with so it can be difficult to quantify the exact latitude of a film stock or video camera precisely. However what you can do is determine which cameras have bigger ranges for example camera “A” has a stop more latitude than camera “B” provide you use a consistent “acceptable quality” assesment.

Anyone that’s shot with a traditional ENG or home video camera will know that you really need to get your exposure right to get a decent looking picture. Take a simple interview shot, expose it right and it looks fine. Overexpose by 1 stop and it looks bad, even if you try to grade it it will still look bad. So in this example the camera would have less than 1 stop of over exposure latitude. But if you underexpose a video camera, the picture gets darker, but after a bit of work in post production it may well still look OK. It will depend in most cases on how noisy the picture becomes when you boost the levels in post to brighten the picture. But typically you might be able to go 1 to 1.5 stops under exposed and still have a useable image. So in this case the camera would have 1.5 stops of underexposure latitude. This then gives a total latitude for our hypothetical camera of around 2 to 2.5 stops.

But what of we increase the dynamic range of the camera or have a camera with a very big dynamic range. Does my latitude increase?

Well the answer is maybe. In some cases the latitude may actually decrease. How can that be possible, surely with a bigger dynamic range my latitude must be greater?

Well, unless your shooting linear raw (more on that in a bit) you will be using some kind of gamma curve. The gamma curve is there to allow you to squeeze a large dynamic range into a small amount of data. It does this by mimicking the way we perceive light in a non linear manner and uses less data in highlights which are perceptually less important to us humans. Even uncompressed video normally has a gamma curve. Without a gamma curve the amount of data needed to record a decent looking picture would be huge as every additional stop of dynamic range actually needs twice as much data as the previous to be recorded faithfully.

With cameras with larger dynamic ranges then things such as knee compression or special gamma curves like Hypergamma, Cinegamma or Log are used. The critical thing with all of these is that the only way to squeeze that greater dynamic range into the same size recording bucket is by adding extra compression to the recorded image.

exposure1This compression is normally restricted to the highlights (which are perceptually less important). Highlight compression now presents us with an exposure problem, because if we over expose the shot then the picture won’t look good due to the compression. This means that even though we might have increased the cameras dynamic range (by squeezing and compressing more information into the highlight range) we may have reduced the exposure latitude as any over exposure places important mid range information into the highly compressed part of the gamma curve. So bigger dynamic range does not mean greater latitude, in fact in many cases it means less latitude.

Here’s the thing. Unless you make the recording data bucket significantly bigger (better codec and more bits, 10 bit 12 bit etc), you can’t put more data (dynamic range or stops) into that bucket without it overflowing or without squashing it. Given that most cameras used fixed 8 bit or 10 bit recording there is a finite limit to what can be squeezed into the codec without making some pretty big compromises.

Compression point with Hypergamma/Cinegamma.
Compression point with Hypergamma/Cinegamma.

With a standard gamma curve white is exposed around 90% to 95%, remember a white card only reflects 90% of the light falling on it not 100%. Middle grey perceptually appears half way between black and white so it’s around 40%-45%. Above 90% is where the knee normally acts to compress highlights to squeeze quite a large dynamic range into a very small recording range, so anything above 90% will be very highly compressed, but below 90% we are OK and we can safely use the full range up to 90%. Expose a face below 90% and it will look natural, above 90% it will look washed out, low contrast and generally nasty due to the squeezing together of the contrast and dynamic range.

But what about a Hypergamma or Cinegamma (or any other high dynamic range gamma curve)? Well these don’t have a knee, instead they start to gradually introduce compression much lower down the gamma curve. A little bit at first and then ever increasing amounts as we go up the exposure range. This allows them to squeeze in a much greater dynamic range in a pleasing way (provided you expose right). But this means that we can’t afford to let faces etc go as high as with the standard gamma because if we do they will start to creep in to the highly compressed part of the curve. So this means that even the slightest over exposure will hurt our image.  So even thought they have greater dynamic range, these curves have less exposure latitude because we really really can’t afford to over expose them. Sony compensate for this to some degree by recommending a lower middle grey point between 32 and 40% depending on the curve you use. This then brings your overall exposure lower so your less likely to over expose, but that now means you have less under exposure range as your already shooting a bit darker (White with the hypergammas tends to fall lower, around 80%, so faces and skin tones that would normally be around 70% will be around 60%).

More highlight compression means exposure is still critical despite greater dynamic range
More highlight compression means exposure is still critical despite greater dynamic range

But what about Log?

Now lets look at S-Log2, S-log3. Most  log curves are also similar, very highly compressed gamma curves with huge amounts of highlight compression to squeeze in an exceptionally large dynamic range. With Slog2 White is designed to be at 59% and middle grey at 32% and with S-log3 middle grey is 41% and white 61%. So faces will need to sit between around 40% and 50% to look their best. Now log is a little bit different. Log shooting is designed to be done in conjunction with LUT’s (Look Up Tables) in post production. These LUT’s convert the signal from Log gamma to conventional gamma. When you apply the correct LUT to correctly exposed Log everything comes out looking good. What about over exposed Log? This is where it can get tricky. If you have a good exposure correction LUT or really know how to grade log properly (which can be tricky) then you can expose Log by one or 2 stops, but no more (in my opinion at least, 2 stops is a lot of over exposure for Log, I would try to stay less than 2 stops over). Over expose too much and the image gets really hard to grade and may start to lack contrast. One thing to note is when I say over-exposed with respect to log, I’m not talking about about a clipped picture, but simply an image much brighter than it should be. For example with Slog3 faces will be around 52%. If you expose faces at 70% your actually just over 2 stops over exposed and grading is going to start to get tricky and you may find it hard to get your skin tones just right. So, when shooting log make sure you know what the recommended levels are for the curve you are using. I’m not saying you can’t over expose a bit, just be aware of what is correct and that level shifts of just a 7 or 8% may represent a whole stop of exposure change.

It’s only when you stop shooting with conventional gamma curves and start shooting linear that the latitude really starts to open up. Cameras like the Sony F5/F55 use linear raw recording that does not have a gamma curve. When you have no gamma curve then there is no highlight compression. So for example you could expose a face anywhere between in conventional terms between say 45% (the point where perhaps it becomes too noisy if you expose any darker) and 100% it will look just fine after grading because at no point does it become compressed. This is a massive latitude increase over a camera using a gamma curve. It gets even better if the camera is very low noise as you can afford to expose at an even lower level and bring it up in post. This is why raw is such a big deal. I find it much easier to work with and grade raw than log because raw just behaves nicely.

In Conclusion:

Dynamic range is the range the camera can see from the deepest darkest shadows to the brightest highlights in the same shot. Latitude is the range within the dynamic range where we can expose and still get a useable image.

A camera with lower noise will allow you to expose darker and bring your levels up in post, this gives an increase in under exposure range.

Most video cameras have a very limited over exposure latitude due to aggressive highlight compression. This is the opposite to a film camera.

Bigger dynamic range does not always mean greater latitude.

Cameras that shoot raw typically have a much greater latitude than a camera shooting with a gamma curve. For example an F5 shooting SLog2/3 has a much smaller exposure latitude than when shooting raw even though the dynamic range is the same in both cases.


2 thoughts on “What’s the difference between Latitude and Dynamic Range?”

  1. Thank you Alister. We all benefit from the dynamic range of your brain cells and your desire to demystify such concepts for the common good of us photographic artists.

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