Bit Depth vs. Dynamic Range in Layman’s Terms
Written by: Tiffany Joyce
Hi friends! A reader recently sent me an e-mail asking me to explain the difference between bit depth and dynamic range, so I thought I would post the explanation here for everyone’s benefit.
A bit is defined as the smallest unit of data. It’s binary – it can be either 1 or 0, “on” or “off”. Eight bits equals one byte, a thousand bytes equals one kilobyte (KB, or K), a thousand kilobytes equals one megabyte (MB), and a thousand megabytes equals a gigabyte (GB).
- An 8 bit image uses 8 bits of information to represent a single color.
- A 12 bit image uses 12 bits of information to represent a single color.
- A 24 bit image uses 24 bits of information to represent a single color.
- A 32 bit image uses 32 bits of information to represent a single color.
So what on Earth does all of THAT mean? It means that the higher the bit depth, the more color nuances are present in the image.
Let’s put it in layman’s terms in a purely illustrative fashion.
- An 8 bit image will be comprised of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, and white.
- That same image as 16 bits will be comprised of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, and white… but ALSO ecru, goldenrod, lemon, teal, azure, orchid, gray, and cream.
- The same image as 24 bits will be comprised of all of the colors of the 16 bit image PLUS crimson, tangerine, amber, mint, cornflower, lavender, dark gray, and vanilla.
- And so on.
Because an image of high bit depth uses so many bits of information to comprise a single color, the higher the bit depth the larger the image file size.
Dynamic Range refers to the ratio between maximum light intensities and minimum light intensities (lights and darks, highlights and shadows) that your camera can capture. A camera with a large sensor captures more of the dynamic range (you can see more of the shadows and highlights) than smaller sensors. So, a photograph will have a high dynamic range if there is a lot of variation in the lights and darks present in the image (lots of different colors, spots with reflected light, areas in the shade), and a low dynamic range if there is little variation between the lights and darks (monochromatic or following a single color scheme).
To achieve an image with a high dynamic range without buying a very expensive large sensor camera, create HDR images by taking several photos of the same scene at different exposure levels, then combine them in post-processing (this is why you have to convert to a higher bit depth when merging HDR photos – more shades of light also means more nuances of color). The dynamic range can also be compressed by adding light to dark areas (i.e. use a flash to pull a dark subject out of the background). Filters can also be used to darken portions of the scene, which would also compress the dynamic range.
Your camera’s dynamic range capabilities aren’t anywhere near the capabilities of the human eye. That’s why so often times the photo you take isn’t exactly what you saw “in real life”. The camera can only capture a certain range of light intensities. To once again illustrate in layman’s terms, think of dynamic range as a ruler. Your eyes can see everything from 1 to 12. But some cameras can only see 3 to 10, or 4 to 10, or 2 to 9. Click to enlarge:
Two Sentence Summary
To put it in even more basic terms, bit depth is related to color and dynamic range is related to light. So while they effect one another, they are not the same thing.
Do you have questions or comments about this article? Leave them in the comments or on our Facebook Page.
Previous Post: What is the Best Lens for Portrait Photography?