An intellectually bereft commenter in the forums over at DPR claimed that the video I shared the other day wasn’t HDR, saying:

It just looks insanely grey and bland. In fact I think there’s something wrong with the video. Even the sun is not bright at all. Other HDR videos on YouTube look fine. That R5 clip also looks like proper HDR. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it turns out this video is mixed wrong and it’s not even HDR at all? Just slap A7SIII on it and everything looks “insane”, kind of like how price tags make wine taste better I guess.

Here’s my response.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the video I shared is inarguably HDR. The difference between viewing the video in SDR and on an HDR capable display like an LG OLED is like night and day: in the HDR version, colors are more saturated and in some instances can only be described as ‘sizzling’, and several of the more intense colors fall beyond the range of rec.709; contrast is greatly increased; reflections in windows and on steel and specular highlights in the water are thrillingly natural; and texture and detail that appear smudged in SDR are vividly reproduced in the HDR version. This is assuredly not ‘repackaged SDR’. 

I’ve been actively viewing, shooting, processing, uploading, writing about and promoting HDR content for the past several years; and it is in great part because of my interest in creating HDR videos that the a7s III caught my interest. So I think it’s fair to say at the very least that I’m pretty familiar with both Sony HLG HDR and what HDR is and is not.

As for your remark that the sun isn’t bright enough, or whatever your contention is: I found the balance between highlight and shadow to be perfectly judged; had the sun been any brighter it would have been uncomfortable to watch  – after all, this is not a demo video the likes of which one sees in the showrooms of department stores with brightness and saturation cranked up – this is a mini-portrait of central Shanghai at dawn, when the streets lined with tall buildings are still obscured in darkness and glints of sunlight are just making their way through an overcast sky, which on the whole is very evocative. It may be tempting to arbitrarily jack up the brightness just because the display is capable of it, but that’s the very opposite of exercising good taste. And any filmmaker knows that increasing the brightness of the sky would mean washing out the rest of the picture. HLG is similar to reversal film in photography in that exposure and white balance must be accurate at the time of recording, as there is little chance of salvaging a poorly exposed shot in post. HLG does not respond well to grading. Assuming you’re watching in a darkened room, if the image really looks too flat or dark, I’d recommend having your television calibrated.

There are no immutable laws governing where highlights, shadows and mid-tones must fall in HDR; and inevitably, these are creative choices. Darkness only enhances the dramatic effect of the imagery in this video. After all, HDR is not about making the entire image brighter – it’s about making decisions regarding which highlights to emphasize and by how much in order to tell a story or enhance the mood. Mid-tones and shadows fall pretty much in the same space as in an ordinary SDR video. The general rule is to master to a level of 1,000 nits: but that is no more a law than that all SDR content must arbitrarily contain 100 nits maximum brightness. In fact, many Hollywood films have a far lower threshold. Award-winning shows mastered in HDR, like Chef’s Table, don’t constantly assault our eyes with ferocious highlights or splashy colors for the very reason that restraint is typically more effective than excess in narrative filmmaking – and a little bit goes a long way. But I tend to prefer films that aren’t superficially flashy, as I find they just quickly outlast their welcome.

High-dynamic-range video is video having a dynamic range greater than that of SDR video. HDR is defined as having a dynamic range of no less than thirteen stops, so technically the R5 does not even meet the minimum requirements of HDR.

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