Nikon D3300: Active D-Lighting
In the past, you had to choose between favoring the highlights or the shadows. But with the Nikon D3300, you can expand the possible tonal range — that’s photo-speak for the range of brightness values in an image — through the Active D-Lighting feature. It’s designed to give you a better chance of keeping your highlights intact while better exposing the darkest areas.
A scene like the one in this figure presents the classic photographer’s challenge: Choosing exposure settings that capture the darkest parts of the subject appropriately causes the brightest areas to be overexposed. And if you instead expose for the highlights — that is, set the exposure settings to capture the brightest regions properly — the darker areas are underexposed.
The D in Active D-Lighting is a reference to the term dynamic range, which is used to describe the range of brightness values that an imaging device can capture. By turning on this feature, you enable to camera to produce an image with a slightly greater dynamic range than usual.
In the seal scene, turning on Active D-Lighting produced a brighter rendition of the darkest parts of the rocks and the seals, for example, and yet the color in the sky didn’t get blown out as it did when the image was captured with Active D-Lighting turned off.
The highlights in the seal and in the rocks on the lower-right corner of the image also are toned down a tad in the Active D-Lighting version.
Active D-Lighting actually does its thing in two stages. First, it selects exposure settings that result in a slightly darker exposure than normal. This half of the equation guarantees that you retain details in your highlights. After you snap the photo, the camera brightens the darkest areas of the image. This adjustment rescues shadow detail.
A symbol at the top of the Information and Live View displays lets you know when Active D-Lighting is enabled. Look for the symbol in the spot indicated in this figure. You can control whether the feature is activated only in the P, S, A, and M modes.
It’s usually best to keep this option set to Off so that you can decide for yourself whether you want any adjustment instead of having the camera apply it to every shot. Even with a high-contrast scene that’s designed for the Active D-Lighting feature, you may decide that you prefer the contrasty look that results from disabling the option.
By default, there’s only one way to adjust the setting, which is via the Shooting menu, as shown in this next figure. However, if you like to experiment with the setting a lot, you may want to consider setting the Function (Fn) button to toggle the feature on and off. If you take that step, the button no longer accesses the ISO setting, as it does by default.
A few final pointers on Active D-Lighting:
You get the best results in matrix metering mode.
Active D-Lighting doesn’t work when the ISO Sensitivity is set to Hi 1.0.
Although Nikon doesn’t recommend that you use Active D-Lighting in the M exposure mode, the setting is enabled by default. So remember to turn the option off if you don't want the camera to futz with your selected exposure settings.
However, it’s worth taking a test shot with the featured turn on if you can’t get the results you like with the feature turned off.
In M mode, the camera doesn’t change the shutter speed or f-stop to achieve the darker exposure it needs for Active D-Lighting to work; instead, the meter readout guides you to select the right settings unless you have automatic ISO override enabled. In that case, the camera may instead adjust ISO to manipulate the exposure.
If you opt out of Active D-Lighting, remember that the camera’s Retouch menu offers a D-Lighting filter that applies a similar adjustment to existing pictures. Some photo-editing programs, including Nikon ViewNX 2, also have good shadow and highlight recovery filters. (In ViewNX 2, investigate the D-Lighting HS, Shadow Protection, and Highlight Protection filters; the program’s Help system explains how to use them.)
In any case, when you shoot with Active D-Lighting disabled, you’re better off setting the initial exposure settings to record the highlights as you want them. It’s very difficult to bring back lost highlight detail after the fact, but you typically can unearth at least a little bit of detail from the darkest areas of the image.