This article provides a general overview of the HDR (High Dynamic Range) format, explaining what it is, what it isn’t, and giving some historical context as to why it’s such an important development for our industry.
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What is HDR?
The HDR (High Dynamic Range) format is an innovation in imaging technology that expands the possibilities for artistic expression, offering an extended palette in terms of color gamut, contrast, and dynamic range while allowing for the use of tool sets that ensure the preservation of creative intent.
While film and many digital cameras have been able to capture High Dynamic Range for quite some time, display technologies available in theaters and at home were only capable of presenting images in what is called SDR (Standard Dynamic Range). Dynamic Range is the range between the highest values and lowest values in an image, or the contrast between light and dark.
This disparity between a camera’s ability to capture HDR and the capabilities of the display technology used to recreate those images is due to the constraints of the monitoring technology itself. These constraints can include display performance considerations, heat management, power consumption, size, or cost. Because of the specific limitations of SDR displays, filmmakers had to choose what to keep and what to throw out in terms of dynamic range and color gamut, the range of colors that can be captured, stored, and displayed.
Advancements in display technology and the arrival of the HDR format have begun to close the gap between what a camera is capable of capturing and what can be displayed for audiences. This means that filmmakers no longer have to sacrifice color or dynamic range when it comes to crafting their images. Instead, they can work with the expanded toolset that HDR provides to ensure that their creative choices are preserved on millions of displays across the world.
What HDR Is Not
HDR is not a "look." HDR is a format that supports all manner of creative expression in terms of color gamut, contrast, and dynamic range. Previously, with SDR, filmmakers were obligated to throw image information away. With HDR, they have the freedom to choose. If they want to create images that utilize the technology’s full dynamic range, they can do it. Or if they wish to creatively limit their palette, they can do that. With HDR, they no longer have to sacrifice creative freedom and can see their choices accurately preserved and represented on displays worldwide.
HDR in still photography and HDR in motion picture technology are not the same. In still photography, HDR refers to the completely different process of combining multiple exposures to form a new image. HDR in motion picture technology does not involve the combination of multiple exposures, but rather provides the possibility to display the full dynamic range (HDR) that was originally captured.
For additional guidance on monitoring HDR on-set see: HDR On-Set Monitoring: Considerations & Best Practices.