One of the most difficult tasks for a director of photography is controlling the contrast range between highlights and shadows. This technique usually separates the good cinematographers from the bad, and oftentimes differentiates the look of film versus video since one of the biggest giveaways for video is blown-out highlights.
So far this year, the big buzz word (or acronym) for cinematographers is HDR (high dynamic range), a photographic process that adds detail to an image that would be impossible to capture with a single exposure. HDR technology has been popular in the still photography world for many years and even has been implemented in the latest iPhone 4S. A typical HDR image is usually produced by capturing multiple photos separated by a large number of stops (low to high) and then combining them into one still that’s balanced in both the dark and bright areas of the image.
But not all photographers are onboard with HDR, with many comparing HDR images to the Velvet Elvis look of the ’70s because of its "blacklight colors and crispy edges." HDR images contain a lot of detail and saturation, and if done poorly, your images will look artificial and inorganic. But if done well, the technology can help tame your blown-out highlights and crushed blacks.
In the video world, we’re starting to see new HDR developments. The RED EPIC, which already has up to 12 stops of exposure range, has a new feature called HDRx. When shooting HDRx footage, the EPIC shoots an additional exposure that’s two to six stops darker. When you output your R3D files during post, you get a video file with two separate video tracks—one with well-exposed shadows and the other with well-exposed highlights. Keep in mind that two tracks for each file significantly ups your data capture, and at 5K, this is a lot.
AMP is a new company that has produced a compact video camera that captures HDR video. The camera uses technology that splits the light from a single lens onto three different sensors. From there, AMP outputs an HDR image for every frame in your shots. The images are captured using the same exposure time and the frames are spatially equal, the only difference being they’re separated by a large number of stops, typically over 3.5 stops. Once captured, AMP images are combined using proprietary merging algorithms.
Although I haven’t tested RED’s HDRx or the AMP camera system, HDR, in general, is revolutionary technology, and for many productions, it will save both time and money, especially for indie filmmakers working with small crews. For shooting day exteriors, one of the most time-consuming tasks for a crew is battling the sun. The gaffer and grips spend countless hours rigging diffusion material to help control highlights. A great cinematographer and his or her crew are able to control this, but it does take time—and time is money. With HDR applied, will this time-consuming process disappear? Will grip crews become smaller?
It’s tough to say, but in almost all cases, great craft almost always trumps technology. In the early days of HD video when the Sony F900 was first released, a lot of people thought you wouldn’t need to light anymore since HD cameras were able to capture more detail in low light. As digital became more popular, cinematographers realized that it actually took more time to light HD than it did with film. Although HDR is indeed breakthrough technology, great cinematography is more about artistic choices and clever craftsmanship in developing a great look.
Misinformation” is a joint effort between HDVideoPro and the Sachtler Academy. The Sachtler Academy is dedicated to promoting open knowledge exchange among production professionals worldwide. Initiated by renowned camera support manufacturer Sachtler, the Academy offers a nonpartisan venue by which cinematographers and videographers can hone their talents, discuss techniques and stay updated on technical advances from various manufacturers. To find out more, visit www.sachtler-academy.com/ and www.sachtler.us.