HDR 101: 4 Things You Need to Know About High Dynamic Range

Technicolor senior colorist Mike Sowa discusses HDR, its impact on storytelling, and his collaborations with directors and cinematographers.

For filmmakers, it’s really important to understand the impact of all of the technology and tools at your disposal to create powerful, visually striking content. High Dynamic Range is an exciting new technology that opens up a whole new palette. Being limited in how you use color and light to tell your story can restrict you from realizing the fullest potential of your vision.

If you stay true to the photography, you can make a really pleasing image that makes SDR look almost embarrassing​.​

HDR, when managed by filmmakers (and especially cinematographers), allows the viewer to experience more immersive and vivid colors, much richer contrast, deeper shadows, and brighter highlights. Here's what you need to know.

1. What is HDR?

HDR is a viewing format that displays contrast, color, and luminance capable of producing an overall highlight brightness level of 1000 NITs (and more if so desired). SDR is 100 NITS. So HDR can be 10 times brighter with more dynamic range of the original image.

Of course, it's not to say that that level of luminance is always desirable. Cinematographers and directors are the best judge of HDR luminance based on their creative intent. Suffice to say, every filmmaker I’ve worked with so far goes crazy for HDR because suddenly their images are clearer, crisper, and feel more immersive.

2. How does HDR affect the viewer’s experience?

HDR creates a level of clarity as experienced in real life: brighter, clearer, sharper. It’s a more dynamic image, so it has more information in it. The image can be pushed into a place that’s hyper-reality, but if you stay true to the photography you can make a really pleasing image that makes SDR look almost embarrassing.

HDR creates a level of clarity as experienced in real life​.​

As a viewer, I love HDR images when they’re true to the photography. I’ve seen HDR be used as a marketing device where the highlights are just exploded. And the color and brightness are just an assault on the eyes. But when you are true to the artistry and make it look like the filmmakers intended this new environment, it looks awesome. What will be interesting is to see where the filmmakers take productions that know ahead of time that they are color finishing in HDR.

3. What is it like doing an HDR grade with a director and/or cinematographer?

When we start working, there’s such a "wow" factor it takes a moment to put that aside and start focusing on the story again. With HDR, we have a whole new set of circumstances that we have to address.

The first time I worked in HDR, I had a shot with clouds. In SDR, projected on a screen, the clouds were just kind of white. SDR was not capable of producing the contrast or the dynamic range to actually show you detailed information. In HDR, working with the same files, suddenly the skies were very clear; we had color from the setting sun in the background, different colors streaming through the cloudssome pinks and some orangesand I compared that back to the SDR, which was just kind of a blob of whiteness, or something you couldn’t quite make out.

Sowa's work includes coloring for the upcoming release "Kubo and the Two Strings"

In HDR, suddenly there’s a whole new set of information for the eyes to look at. In that case, it was okay because the clouds weren’t essential to the story. But this opens up a whole new set of creative choices that need to be made. For example, if we have a window in a shot, now, because of HDR, we see too much detail through the window. So we can blur it, blow it out, or make it darker. It’s all about keeping the attention and focus on the actors and story, which are now that much crisper because of HDR.

Most of my non-industry friends have heard of HDR but confuse it with 4K.​​

It’s all about storytelling. And that involves directing the audience’s eye. This is a new playground we’re working in; more information in the image means more to work with.

4. How long will it take for the film community to achieve fluency in HDR?

HDR is definitely the shiny new toy everybody wants once they see it. Most consumers that will ultimately drive the format have not yet been made aware of the differences between SDR and HDR. Most of my non-industry friends have heard of HDR but confuse it with 4K. When I explain what HDR really is I find it hard to describe without making it sound like the display is just brighter.

Once the marketing of HDR finds the right way to appeal to the average viewer, we will see the demand for it take off. If the public simply sees a side-by-side demonstration with matching footage in SDR and HDR, they will believe there is value in the HDR. It is so beautiful and compelling, it sells itself.     

Follow @TechnicolorCrea on Twitter for news about exciting new tools and technologies for filmmakers, as well as director, DP, colorist, and sound video interviews.

Top photo credit:  / Shutterstock

Your Comment

21 Comments

#5: overkilling a photo or a video with HDR is very very easy (and common), so keep your enthusiasm for the "wow" factor in check.

June 29, 2016 at 7:10AM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1595

You are confusing HDR capture/post processing with HDR display, you condescending ignoramus.

June 29, 2016 at 12:06PM

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Derek Olson
Directomatographeditor
700

The concept applies in the same exact way. We will have HDR capabilites, many people will do overkill grades just because they can and they "wow". HDR itself is an incredibly interesting technology for video, I'm just saying... what I already said in my first post. Oh and thanks for the "condescending ignoramus", you truly are one of the many keyboard phenoms who are so spectacularly quick to insult people they don't know through the internet.

June 29, 2016 at 4:40PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1595

People are already doing overkill grades.

July 1, 2016 at 3:34PM

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sigh.

July 17, 2016 at 5:47AM

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Actually, "HDR" photography is not really HDR, because it doesn't display HDR. It takes an HDR picture and then squeezes it into the sRGB color space, so it can be viewed on normal sRGB panels. A real HDR picture would be one that can be shown without squeezing it into sRGB on a HDR-capable monitor. Which is what HDR video will be doing.
And usually, only amateurs overuse HDR and kill their photos with it. When pro photographers use HDR, you usually don't see it. You can actually use it to make pictures look more natural than without. Same with color grading: if you know how, it looks awesome. But it's always easy to totally mess up!

July 4, 2016 at 8:33AM, Edited July 4, 8:33AM

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The new UHD Premium TV standard announced last January is going to change things in a big way...

What is Ultra HD Premium? New HDR Standard Explained
http://www.trustedreviews.com/opinions/ultra-hd-premium

June 29, 2016 at 7:19AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32540

I personally believe that everytime someone try to make films "as experienced in real life" they fuck things up.

That's the case with 3D, with HFR, and I`m afraid it will be so with HDR (I hope I`m wrong tough)

A movie is not supposed to be like real life, a movie is supossed to be "larger than life". But therefore, it needs to be technically different from what we experience in real life. I don't see the current limit in dynamic range exhibition as a limiting factor, I see it as a creative tool. When I`m shooting a silhouette, I want the viewer to experience it as a silhouette, not to see detail on the shadow as he would if he were actually there. If I want a blow up window as a background, that's my choice, I don't want the viewer to see all the detail from outside (if I wanted it, I would light it to make it so). When it comes to technical innovation the scientists are so preoccupied whether they can that they don't stop to think if they should.

June 29, 2016 at 7:49AM, Edited June 29, 7:49AM

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Rodrigo Prata
Director of Photography
254

I think advancing technology is always good. It's always up to us to decide how to use it. We all shoot in a higher dynamic range (flat profile) not because it forces us to make it look a certain way. On the contrary, it gives that much more freedom to craft an image the way we want our audience to experience it.

June 29, 2016 at 8:32AM, Edited June 29, 8:32AM

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Sahit Anand
Director and Co-Founder of DO. Creative Labs
383

HDR is simply a new luminance standard which in other words is just a new "brightness" palette to create your images with. Because it delivers more luminance range your images are going to appear closer to "real life" than our current 8-bit limited brightness range imaging systems.

When you factor in the new REC 2020 color space along with HDR ( see the UHD Premium link I posted above ), then we've got a new and better image delivery platform than anything we've had up to now.

I see this as being equivalent to the change over from making black & white films in the 1950's to suddenly producing color films in the 1960's. It's just a new platform to deliver your film on, and unlike 3D TVs ( which I've always thought were kind of a silly gimmick ) I think this new UHD Premium standard is going to replace the old 8-bit limited dynamic range systems we've been using because that's all you will be able to buy in 3+ years. ( like how everything is slowly switching over to the 4K TV platform because that's all the stores will be selling in the future )

June 29, 2016 at 9:16AM, Edited June 29, 9:20AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32540

Hey Rodrigo.
I agree with some of your points, but differ on others :)
Just because you can, don't mean you should, I agree, however..
"A movie is not supposed to be like real life" - I'd suggest that depends on what the director wanted it to be like, no? If you want it to look exactly like real life then it's nice to have the tools to do so. HFR indeed makes things look ultra real and for my tastes distracts from the viewing experience in most cases, however, still a nice option to have if that is what you are going for. I recently checked out 48fps film on big screen and the landscape shots were BEAUTIFUL, however the actors make up and props looked like cheap amature stuff. If scientists want to come up with more options for filmmaking, I'd support that even if we as filmmakers choose not to use it. 4k (XK) is nice to have but colour space and dynamic range are (in my opinion) where camera tech should be going. 14 stops is similar to the eye, and in 4K is pretty rad. Too much DR looks weird though! Got to get that Goldilocks look!

June 30, 2016 at 5:30AM

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John-Jo Ritson
Producer / Director
81

Hello John,

I totally agree with you when you say that it depends on what the director wants. I totally support any director that thinks that his story will be better told at any technical specification he chooses to do it! Be it 3D, HFR, miniDV or whatever. look at dogville for instance. I think tha Lars Von Trier nailed it when he choose to shot it with no real scenario and using 30fps instead of 24. It totally fits his story. What I will never agree on, is when we are forced to accept new standards just because the are supposedly technically superior. of course 60 fps is more than 24 fps. But is ir better? Of course 4K is more than 2K, but is it better (I personally think that for acquisition, the more the better, but for home exhibition, 4K is too much), of course HDR is more than SDR, but is it better? Fore one thing, we know that HDR monitors must have brightness levels far superiors of what we have now, and I can't think how many one can think that looking at a 4.000 nits screen with lights of in the middle of the night is a good idea for instance. On the instance of HFR, here is the best explanation I have ever read on the subject: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-video-at-high-frame-rates-look-cheap/answ...

July 4, 2016 at 10:56PM, Edited July 4, 11:08PM

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Rodrigo Prata
Director of Photography
254

I've been saying this for awhile now too and I'm really not interested in making my footage look true to life, that's boring. It's like comparing the look of the new Ghostbusters to the original, there was magic in the look of the original because it created a world.

But to be more specific, my favorite cinematic images come from 3 strip technicolor. In my opinion, that is the pinnacle of cinematic images. Technicolor films are not taking place in the same world we live in, they basically take place in "OZ". Those movies pull you into a world that you recognize, but can't experience anywhere else.

I would kill to be able to shoot something that looks like the old technicolor films. But it's more than just the film because so much effort went into set design and costume designs that worked with that type of film.

We we think about the loss of film, for me it happened when we stopped shooting 3 strip technicolor.

June 30, 2016 at 7:10AM

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Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director
469

"A movie is not supposed to be like real life".

Depends on the director's intention: a movie can be anything he wants.

Your quote is very narrow-minded.

July 1, 2016 at 3:37PM

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Hello Jocelyn,

I was being provocative with my sentence (maybe you were the one narrow-minded for not realizing it). I actually agree 100% with you. A movie should be anything the director wants it to be. The problem is, as I said above, it seens that in the future, the director won't have a say if he want's his film to be delivered in SDR. That's already the case when it comes to resolution. You can not have a 2K delivery for Netflix content for instance. It's a technical standard imposed by bureaucrats on the wrongly assumed belief that since 4K is a higher number than 2K, it's therefore better. And the Director and the DP can't have a say in it. For instance, I personally believe that acquisition in 4K + resolution is a good thing, but I hate 4K home exhibition with all my heart. I honestly believe that 1080P home exhibition is a more pleasant experience. And I am afraid that in the future, we won't have a say also on the issue of SDR vs HDR.

July 4, 2016 at 11:05PM

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Rodrigo Prata
Director of Photography
254

I would be interested in a follow up article that tackles the decision making process of grading for HDR vs. SDR in our current projects. For instance, if I grade for HDR will it clip like crazy on 99 percent of current display technology? Should I do two separate grades if I want to keep for future distribution when HDR becomes dominant? Are their any HDR distribution platforms yet available for consumers to view the content even if they had an HDR TV? What type of codecs will we use to display all this brightness, will it effect file size?

June 29, 2016 at 12:41PM, Edited June 29, 12:41PM

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Derek Olson
Directomatographeditor
700

Completely agree! Very curious WHERE this footage can be consumed! I like the idea of not tossing data away. I'm assuming this is not backward compatible like 4k footage is (play 4k footage on 1080p machine and get 1080p downscaled playback)

If, however, I can upload my 2020 HDR footage to vimeo/youtube and it creates different versions that defaults to the host computer's specs, that would be interesting indeed!

June 29, 2016 at 6:38PM, Edited June 29, 6:48PM

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1. You need HDR monitor to grade HDR content (Sony BVM-X300 for example).
2. SDR version can be derived from HDR version using manual trim pass and "Content Mapping Unit".
3. Several online streaming platforms such as Netflix, Vudu already support HDR.
4. HDR is mostly encoded in H.265 codec (in 4K HDR Bluray Disc), it must be minimum 10bit. There's a moderate increase in file size (4K HDR Bluray Disc is mostly 66GB currently)

June 29, 2016 at 8:41PM

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Driftwood
302

HDR is phenomenal for cinematographers.

The challenge will be to explain it to consumers. They'll need to see side-by-side comparison photos of standard dynamic range and HDR. And this comparison will have to be supported with clever ad copy.

June 30, 2016 at 5:18AM, Edited June 30, 5:18AM

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Glenn Bossik
Videographer
609

And on what will these comparison shots be displayed? You need a display device and delivery format that can deliver HDR in the first place, which nobody has in his home right now.

July 2, 2016 at 8:04PM

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David Gurney
DP
2401

This article totally fails to answer the first question you'd have: How are these images acquired, and in what format? You need a format that can contain HDR, such as EXR.

Without a minimum standard, the "HDR" label will be fraudulently slapped on every degraded piece of junk just as "4K" and "HD" are today.

July 2, 2016 at 8:03PM

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David Gurney
DP
2401