The HDR Fallacy

Several years ago, James Mathers wrote, “I’m no expert on the subject of HDR, but as a Cinematographer, I’m not sure I really need to be. To use an expression coined by my fellow Cinematographer friend, Bill Bennett, ASC, “we’ve been shooting HDR for years.” That’s because film and more recently high end Digital Cinema cameras have already been able to capture the necessary dynamic range. HDR is a display format rather than a capture format and the only problem is that the display technology has not previously been capable of properly showing HDR”. Not a few cinematographers and nearly all tech writers echo the same sentiment. But is it really true that filmmakers have been shooting HDR for the past century without even realizing it?

It just so happens that one of the major Hollywood studios has begun promoting their movies online in HDR and it’s hoped this sets a precedent for others to follow. Nevertheless, while it’s certainly encouraging to see Universal Pictures uploading HDR clips to YouTube, there’s nothing particularly high dynamic range about them at all (let’s not forget that Hard Target was shot on film!) and if anything, they demonstrate that filmmakers need to learn how to make compelling images in the new medium, which means: (1) exposing differently, (2) lighting differently, (3) moving the camera differently, (4) framing differently and (5) cutting differently. Exposing to the right to capture as much of the sensor’s dynamic range as possible; relying less on fill light and rather than making lighting choices informed by an SDR monitor and waveform, monitoring in HDR, as it directly impacts lighting decisions and exposure; panning more slowly, since the 7-second rule was based on traditional 2K 48-nit theatrical viewing at 24 fps with a 180° shutter angle, whereas the increased contrast, brightness and resolution of today’s HDR displays requires as much as triple that amount of time to avoid judder artifacts; framing differently to either include or exclude light sources in the shot (cinematographers have been known to regret not having shot scenes differently once they see the footage in HDR in the grading suite for the very first time); and cutting differently, as juxtaposing bright and dark scenes demands that the audience’s eyes have enough time to become acclimated. Needless to point out that filmmakers have assuredly not been shooting HDR for the past century and that cinematographers will either need to learn how or prepare to be replaced by those with the appropriate skills.

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