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How to get the best out of Nikon Active D-Lighting

You may have seen the Active D-Lighting option on your Nikon DSLR, but do you know how to take advantage of it? Neil Freeman explains how and when to best use this system to improve your images

Difficult, complex lighting situations can be daunting to the inexperienced photographer. If you’re facing a high-contrast situation, with bright highlights and dark shadows, it can be challenging to work out how to expose for a balanced image.

This is where the Nikon Active D-Lighting system comes in handy. It’s a function that works in-camera to balance the shadows and highlights for a more pleasing exposure. It adjusts exposures by varying degrees depending on the situation, with the aim of avoiding blown highlights and lightening shadow areas.

Ever used an S-curve in Photoshop, dragging up the highlights and down the shadows to make an image pop with contrast? With Active D-Lighting, you’re essentially using a reverse S-curve to solve an opposite problem – dragging highlights and shadows down to rescue detail. Take a look at the two images above. The one on the right was taken with Active D-Lighting turned on, the one on the left with it turned off. What Active D-Lighting has done is balance the lighting in the image. Notice in the image on the right that the dark areas have been reduced, while detail has been retained in the bright areas of the image.

Active D-Lighting is an in-camera function, meaning its adjustments take place at the moment the photo is taken. It only applies processing to the areas of the image that require it. This enables you to photograph subjects with a wide dynamic range and still produce an image that has a natural-appearing level of contrast. In low contrast situations, Active D-Lighting uses localised tone control technology to prevent images from looking flat. It’s important to note, though, that terms such as ‘flat’ and ‘contrasty’ are subjective – I have seen threads on the internet complaining that Active D-Lighting left images a little flat through evening out the exposure a little over-zealously. I should point out that it has never, ever been a problem for me, but every photographer is different. Experiment with it!

Using Nikon Active D-Lighting

The Active D-Lighting options available to you will depend on which Nikon camera you own. Some cameras will only let you turn it on or off, while others are more sophisticated. More advanced Nikon cameras offer an Auto setting, as well as different intensities with which Active D-Lighting can be applied, ranging from Low to Extra High.

Though auto modes are generally regarded among photographers as something to avoid, I use Auto Active D-Lighting often and have never known it to let me down. To put it as simply as I can, it just works. If you’re concerned, though, some Nikon cameras allow you to set up a bracketing system that will produce one image with Active D-Lighting and one without.

When to use Nikon Active D-Lighting

Selecting the right amount of Active D-Lighting to apply is relative to the lighting conditions you are shooting in. In general, the stronger the contrast of the light you are photographing with, the higher the Active D-Lighting setting you will need to use. Don’t worry if you’re not sure – as I said earlier, this is one instance when you can trust your camera’s Auto mode to use good judgement.

Active D-Lighting will prove most effective in complex lighting situations, and this isn’t just limited to bright-sky landscapes. Take, for an example, sports photography. Imagine a stadium with the sun on one side, casting half the pitch in bright light and the other half in shadow. What Active D-Lighting will do is bring the exposure on the bright side of the pitch down, and lift it up in the areas that are in shadow. Once you start thinking about the possibilities of Active D-Lighting, you realise that it really can have its uses everywhere.

Nikon Active D-Lighting and D-Lighting: two different things

Even though their names may be similar, in fact, Active D-Lighting and D-Lighting are two very different things. Active D-Lighting is applied at the point of exposure, so it takes account of the camera settings used. D-Lighting, on the other hand, is only applied after an image is captured in post-production software, therefore it doesn’t use the camera’s exposure information in order to apply the correction.

An important point to note, though, is that D-Lighting is really designed for use with Nikon’s own post-processing software – and as a realist, I know most of you are probably using Lightroom! You won’t be able to take full advantage of D-Lighting features with Adobe software, which is why it’s best to use Active D-Lighting to achieve the effect in-camera.
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