Camera Useful Dynamic Range Test
Bertho Boman


This report is the result of measurement discrepancies found during evaluation of a system to produce accurate camera profiles. In the process of verifying the setup I discovered a problem with limited "Useful Dynamic Range".  At this point, I do not know if this problem is only occurring in my test camera or if I am seeing basic problems that are common to many users.  As I learn more, I will update this article. An addition covers measurements on four more lenses. It will be very helpful if readers can provide feedback on these problems.

Equipment and Setup

Camera Nikon D2H SLR
Lens #1 Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm  F 1.8 ”prime”
Lens #2 Pinhole lens, 74mm, 1.07mm, F 69
White Standard Optical standard traceable to NIST, 99% reflective from 400 to 900nm
Black Standard An opto-mechanical design with light traps and non-reflective internal surfaces”
Light Source Bowens Espirit 500 UV coated monolights with small 150mm reflectors
Computer Custom built PC running Windows-XP

Measurements and Data
The 50mm diameter White Standard was surrounded with a 150mm by 150mm white painted frame.   There was a black background completely filling the rest of the picture. The measurements were taken at night to avoid bright daylight conditions.  The target was illuminated with two strobes that were positioned at a 45 degrees angle to the target, 1.5 m from the target and the power setting was ¼.

The camera’s aperture was adjusted using the camera’s blinking high light warning.  It was set to just blink on the White Standard. The result was F18.  Then the aperture was changed to F20 before taking the pictures to make sure that no data was clipped.  The lights and settings were kept identical for the rest of the pictures. Speed and sensitivity was set at ISO 200 @ 1/125 second.  The camera sensor to target distance was 850mm.   The viewfinder shutter was closed for each picture to avoid any light leakage.

The pictures were taken in NEF format and converted to reduced size jpg and Tiff images in Phase One’s Capture 1 software using AdobeRGB workspace. White balancing was done on the White Standard and applying that setting to all remaining pictures.  They were slightly cropped.

All measurements were done in PhotoShop CS on the Tiff samples and after a 10 pixel Gaussian blur was applied to average any possible pixel to pixel variation.  The calculated average of the RGB values were used for the percentage calculations.

The White standard was measured and that value of 243/243/243 was used for the rest of the measurements as the 100% reference value.

White Standard
#1. White Standard with a white frame
White Standard 243/ 243/ 243 100%
White Paint 230/ 233/ 232 95.3%

Black Standard
#2. Black Standard with a black frame
Black Standard 0/ 0/ 0 0%
Black Paint 28/ 28/ 28 11.5%

Black + White
#3. Black Standard with a white frame
Black Standard 13/ 11/ 19 5.9%

This is exactly the same setup and settings as above except a white “foam core” frame was added.  It is hard to see that the black degraded since the eyes get fooled by the high contrast to the white frame.

Black center Black + White Center
#4. Just the black center sections of the above pictures.

The “curve command: 20 in-255 out” was used to visualize the error. Note that the black painted frame turned white because it exceeded the curve limit of 20.

Divide and Conquer
The degradation seen can be caused by many effects, the sensor itself, lens flare, extraneous internal reflections, light leakage through the view finder although it was closed, defects in the measurement setup or the ever-present "other unknown causes".

A good dividing line to find the problem would be to use a perfect flare-less lens. The easiest way to do that is to use a glass-less lens: a pinhole lens. I calculated the required pinhole size based on the full power strobe availability since I did not want to change the setup mechanically or change camera ISO setting. I then made a precision pinhole of the calculated size and assembled the system again and repeated the measurements and calculated as described above.

Success! The readings this time for the "Perfect" black with the interfering white frame was 0/0/0. This proves that it is not a sensor problem which is great news.

This last measurement series at least apparently (I got to be careful) eliminates the sensor, view finder, measurement setup and other causes. It looks like it is caused by either lens "fog" from internal lens reflections or internal camera body reflections. One suspected area is light bouncing off the sensor and then reflecting back off the rear elements of the lens.

Second set of measurements

To speed thing up when taking many measurements, I simplified the test procedure as follows: The perfect white patch was not used to define 100%. The white foam board frame was used instead to adjust the illumination until the camera just started to blink the overexposure warning and then the aperture was reduced 1/3 step.

A further simplification was that normal JPGs were used instead of NEFs and sRGB mode selected. This slightly changes the setup and results but all the lenses in this second test were measured under the identical condition.

Another source of variation in the data is how to exactly select and specify the measured "flare" or "fog". Because of the blurring added, data can not be collected close to the edge. I use the eyedropper in PhotoShop and hunt for the worst section. Please do not use this as an selection tool like: "brand-X is 3.9% and brand-Y is 4.5%". Consider this testing as a wakeup call that there are problems with pictures with bright areas and dark shadows. The shadows are degraded by the lens and some lenses are worse than others. Look at the pictures and keep it in mind.

Also notice the big differences with the same lens depending on its zoom and aperture settings.

This also brings up an interesting thought: For cases when multiple pictures are taken and later combined in PhotoShop, covering up bright areas would increase the effective dynamic range by allowing real black values.

#1. Nikon AF NIKKOR
50mm  F1.8

Set to F20
#2. Nikon AF NIKKOR
50mm  F1.8

Set to F6.3
Black level= 4.7% Black level= 2.8%

#3. Tamron Aspherical XR
28-200mm  F3.8-5.6

Set to 58mm F5.6
#4. Tamron Aspherical XR
28-200mm  F3.8-5.6

Set to 28mm F5.6
Black level= 1.6% Black level= 2.0%
#5. Tamron Aspherical XR
28-200mm  F3.8-5.6

Set to 200mm F6.3
#6. Tamron Aspherical XR
28-200mm  F3.8-5.6

Set to 55mm F20
Black level= 1.0% Black level= 2.2%

#7. Nikon AF Micro Nikkor
60mm  F2.8

Set to F20
#8 Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor
18-70mm  F3.5-4.5

Set to 50mm F20
Black level= 3.3% Black level= 1.4%
#9. Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor
18-70mm  F3.5-4.5

Set to 18mm F20
#10. Nikon DX AF-S Nikkor
18-70mm F3.5-4.5

Set to 70mm F20
Black level= 2.4% Black level= 1.5%

#11. Nikon AF VR Nikkor
80-400mm F4.5-5.6

Set to 145mm F20
#12. Nikon AF VR Nikkor
80-400mm F4.5-5.6

Set to 400mm F20
Black level= 3.2% Black level= 4.2%

The accurately displayed black is significantly degraded when there is a bright white area in the picture. Note; there is no section in the image that is being blown out or exceeding the threshold limit. This effect was seen with a high quality "prime" lens so if it is caused by lens flare, it ought to be worse in complex zoom lenses. That assumption turned out to be false. It appears that there are reflections off the rear element that are causing most of the problem. How the sensor interacts with this effect will presumably vary from camera model to camera model.

The degradation was not seen when a pinhole lens was used in an identical test which proves that it is not caused by the sensor or electronics.

This problem ought to significantly affect the accuracy of camera profiling.

Further Testing
My next step in the quest for accuracy is to try several different lenses and to create a Do-it-yourself instruction for making a "Perfect Black" target.

Afterwards, I intend to finish the testing of an optically correct illumination system to be used while creating camera profiles and to write a description of profiling procedure. There are so many variables in profiling cameras and they often get mixed up or misunderstood. As a consequence there are claims that it does not work well to profile a camera or that it is useless. I think that is because the variables are often not sufficiently controlled and the result is in some cases poor.

Bertho Boman
Vinland Corporation
11600 NW 20th Street
Fort Lauderdale
FL 33323
(954) 475-9093
Email: boman at vinland dot com