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Nikon Capture NX2 Techniques: Active D-Lighting Use Example

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on October 28, 2013

Keywords: guides, tips, tricks

There seems to be some confusion about the use of Active D-Lighting. As a reminder, Active D-Lighting (ADL) is a setting in the camera that is used for high contrast scenes. It potentially applies an exposure adjustment to reduce exposure, and applies a complex curve to brighten shadows while protecting highlights.

The camera used here is a D800E with a Nikon 24-70 lens. The camera settings were Aperture Priority, ISO 200, f/8, and 1/100 sec with -0.7 Exposure Comp.

The amount of the exposure adjustment varies depending on the setting, so the strength of the curve also varies with the setting. The exposure adjustment is in 1/3 stop increments starting with no adjustment at ADL LOW, -0.3 stops at ADL Normal, -0.7 at ADL High, -1.0 at ADL Extra High, and -1.3 at ADL Extra High 2.

The exposure adjustment is baked into the image - you can see changes in the exposure settings as you make changes in ADL. The exposure cannot be changed in post processing.

The complex curve to protect highlights and brighten shadows can be changed after the fact in Capture NX2 - but only if ADL was originally turned on in the camera. If ADL was turned off in the camera, it cannot be activated in post processing.

My position is that you should normally set Active D-Lighting to Low in the camera since it does not change exposure, applies a minimal curve that can be turned off, and it retains the ability to make further adjustments in Capture NX2 during post processing.

If you use Nikon View NX2 for post processing, the setting is applied but cannot be changed. If you use Adobe programs or other programs that do not use the camera settings, the curve is ignored and only the exposure adjustment is used.

Here are some examples to an image from a recent scouting trip.


Figure 1. This first image shows the image with ADL turned off.



Figure 2. The second image shows the image as shot - with ADL Low activated. 

The change is very subtle and therefore hard to see, so a comparison of the two images follows.


Figure 3. Comparison of the image shot with ADL set at Low (at left) and with no ADL at right.

The ADL Low image above (on the left) reduces highlights a little and slightly brightens the shadows. This is why I see no adverse impact of setting ADL Low in the camera as my default setting.


Figure 4. This image above shows ADL increased in Capture NX2 from Low (as shot) to Extra High 2.

This ADL increase applies the additional curve to the image, but the original exposure cannot be changed. This is an extreme setting, but it gives an idea of the potential impact. The highlights and sky are a little bright here, but can be pulled back down with other edit steps.


Figure 5.Gives an idea of maximum shadow recovery.

This image has the ADL setting changed from Lo (as shot) to Extra High 2, and D-Lighting is turned on with Better Quality and the default settings. The edit was applied selectively, only to the shadows area and not applied to the sky.


Figure 6. Comparison between the image with ADL Low, and the maximum recovery possible with ADL Extra High and D-Lighting Better Quality at default settings applied selectively.

In conclusion, using Active D-Lighting in camera, set at Low, can and should be a default setting, as the effects are minimal. This gives you an additional editing option and greater latitude for adjustments than just D-Lighting in post-processing when ADL is set to Off in camera.  



(11 Votes)
Eric Bowles Eric Bowles (ericbowles)

Atlanta, USA
Moderator, 8738 posts


Dr. Patrick Buick (profpb) on January 23, 2014

I'm late to learn again, but it's never too late. My ADL is on low. Thank you, Eric. I have lost highlights many times, but no more. I have been captured by Lightroom5 and PS CC but will try to re-Capture NX2.

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on November 5, 2013

Stephen - I think grad filters still have their place. Blown highlights are much harder to recover than shadows. If you have a dim foreground and bright sun hitting clouds at sunrise or sunset, your choices are limited. I think your best options are Grad filters, HDR, and possibly Shadow and Highlight tools in that order of preference.

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on November 5, 2013

Bob - I've tried a variety of Shadow and Highlight tools. It depends a bit on the image. My experience is that for clean, well-defined shadows most of the tools work pretty well. For fine detail such as great egret plumes or fine branches with lots of twigs, all the tools struggle with selectively choosing the highlight or shadow only - the effect tends to bleed over slightly. There is an art to choosing the right tool for the situation - and this simply provides an additional option.

Stephen Ragone (Seragone) on November 4, 2013

Given the capability of ADL in the camera and pp, is there any need to use graduated filters. I seems they might be useful in extremely dark and light situations but I am not sure they are worth the money and bother.

Bill Naiman (pixures) on November 2, 2013

Eric, Excellent article - clear and concise. After reading the article, I will give ADL a try with the camera set to "ADL LOW" as you have suggested which will provide new post processing options.

G. Sturgis (guystooges) on November 2, 2013

Excellent article, very informative!

Marc Koczwara (kuzzy) on November 1, 2013

Thanks Eric for the easy to understand explanation. I do not remember knowing the values of the ADL settings so for me that was very helpful.

Srinivasamurthy Prakash (niknac37) on November 1, 2013

Thank you Eric, in fact you gave me the ans for the question I had asked in my last posting. Thanks again.

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on October 30, 2013

Harry - this approach is specific to Capture NX2 as ACR will ignore the curve. But it does provide options if you use Capture NX2, View NX2 or shoot JPEG. Fine detail in high contrast situations is extremely challenging. Many of the selective tools spill over onto adjoining areas. The key is to find tools that can be applied selectively with minimal spillover and without creating excessive noise.

Harry Frank (hfrank) on October 30, 2013

I was experimenting with exactly this sort of lighting situation on an autumn color-change shoot earlier this month. Expose for the shadows and the blue sky becomes spectral white. Expose for the bright gold maple leaves, and the shadowed tree trunks become mere silhouettes with no bark texture. I wish I'd tried your strategy. FYI, my best results were actually the old fasioned way--manual settings and bracketing to get the best compromise. Very close behind was a tip passed on to me by a friend who's a photographer and TV cameraman (he shot most of BREAKING BAD). I just take my exposure reading on the sky. Some minor tinkering in Camera Raw allows almost ideal exposure throughout. When worst comes to absolute worst I make a couple of copies of the same NEF image using different fill light / restoration settings in Camera Raw and use layer masks. Your system seems a heckuva lot simpler.

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on October 29, 2013

Tim - ADL may slow the frame rate slightly - like noise reduction and other processing. The amount of slowing is very small, but for subjects where you need maximum frame rate, you'll need to judge whether ADL is useful or not.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on October 29, 2013

Very informative, thanks Eric.

Tim Marchant (timpsm) on October 29, 2013

Eric, as soon as I turn ADL on, my D300s frame rate slows down and so I seldom use it. Does ADL slow the D800e frame rate? tim

Richard Sloggett (NiteLite) on October 28, 2013

Very interesting article. Really appreciate the detail you went into.

Stephen Blakesley (lajolla) on October 28, 2013

Many thanks, again, Eric for the great info on the fascinating Nikon in-camera proprietary setting "ADL". I save images on my Nikon DSLR's both as NEF and JPEG optimal fine. I then import both of these image files as separate originals into my Aperture 3.5 library from the camera cards. Aperture applies a Mac OSX import algorithm to the NEF raw images for preview purposes, and likewise to the Nikon proprietary JPEG images, but it appears the curves applied by Nikon's ADL to the Nikon JPEG originals imported into Aperture are retained. It also appears to me that Mac OSX Mavericks ignores all Nikon in-camera proprietary presets when importing NEF (raw) original files into Aperture, but that all the Nikon proprietary in-camera presets are indeed retained when importing Nikon JPEG originals into Aperture. Thus the reason I continue to import both RAW and JPEG originals into Aperture prior to editing and post-processing. As you clearly have illustrated, the Nikon JPEG presets (like ADL) can be of valuable use when trying to match a RAW import to a proprietary preset in-camera Nikon JPEG import. Unfortunately, for me to test your articles premises, at this time it appears that the latest updated versions for Nikon View NX2 and Capture NX2 are incompatible with Mac OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.5 and the latest Mac OSX Mavericks 10.9

Mick Dooley (tanp) on October 28, 2013

Thanks for that very good explanation

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on October 28, 2013

Hi Bob - The shadow and highlight tools in Lightroom are pretty good, but not exactly the same. Both Nikon View NX2 and Capture NX2 also has Shadow and Highlight tools in hte Quiick Fix section. My experience is that the complex curve used by Nikon is very difficult to replicate with Shadow and Highlight tools, LCH adjustments, D-Lighting, or any of the similar manual adjustments. The problem is selectively choosing an area with fine detail - for example, blue sky showing through branches. For clean areas, selective editing is easy, but not for areas with fine detail. I have done a good bit of testing of shadow recovery and D-Lighting with various tools. They vary by image - sometimes they work but other times they can be a bit coarse and leave artifacts. So my suggestion is to experiment and find the best workflow for the shadow and highlight situations you encounter. You need to have several options as they will vary by image. That's the real value of ADL in this example - it provides a set of options that can be very useful for some images.

david berg (bergsli) on October 28, 2013

Love this kind of info! Thanks for the demonstration and comparison shots.

Robert Horner (Broadway Bob) on October 28, 2013

Eric, Thank you for this excellent explanation and demonstration. Do you think the Shadow and Highlight tools in Lightroom would give similar results? Bob

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