One of the most incredible things about your eyes is the range of light that they can see in. When your eyes are completely adjusted to the dark, they can detect a single photon of light. But then you can take those same eyes out into bright daylight and discern details on brightly lit objects. What's more amazing though, is that you can see a huge range of dark to light at one time. This is referred to as dynamic range, and your eye has a dynamic range of around 18-20 stops worth of light. By comparison, your digital camera has a dynamic range of about 10-12 stops of light, maybe 14 if you are really lucky.
In other words, your eye can see almost double the range of light to dark that your camera can capture. It's very important to understand that just because a scene looks a particular way to your eye, that doesn't mean that your camera will be able to capture it. For example, I was hiking in the bottom of a canyon. It was dark on the canyon floor, but the sky was bright daylight. My eye had no trouble seeing detail from the canyon floor to the sky, but when I pointed my camera at the scene and took a shot, I ended up with a canyon floor that was plunged into darkness with bright sky up above.
In other words, my camera did not have the dynamic range required to capture the whole scene in the way that my eye was seeing it. By default, the camera metered with the idea of preserving the bright areas and so it exposed for the sky, leaving the canyon floor in darkness. Seeing that this wasn't working, I change my exposure settings to overexpose, so that I would brighten up the canyon floor, and I got this. Sure enough, you can see detail on the floor, but now the sky is blown out to complete white. In the end, there is no way that you can shoot a single frame of this scene that can capture the full dynamic range that you can see with your eyes.
Now, I can cheat, and I can composite those two images to arrive in a finished image that looks like this, but very often multiple shots aren't possible. If there are moving objects or people or waving trees, then multiple shots just may not work. Very often when in a high-dynamic- range situation, you will have to decide if it's the highlight or shadow detail that is more important, and expose accordingly. Expectation leads to as many bad photos as lack of technical skill. You see a scene. You take a picture. You expect the picture to look like the scene, because it looked fine to your eyes.
It's very important that you learn to recognize when your scene has more dynamic range than your camera can capture, so that you can make the appropriate exposure adjustments.
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