Could you shoot your next project with stunning High Dynamic Range (HDR) Cinematography?

One of the problems with any image capture system, be it film or digital, is that of the available latitude. That is, the difference between absolute black and absolute white – latitude. This ‘scale’ is measured in photographic ‘stops’, (aka ‘F stop’ or ‘T stop’). As a film maker you will be familiar with these ‘stops’ on the camera lens.

Digital formats have traditionally had less latitude than film, but neither film nor digital can match the latitude that the human eye can ‘see’. That’s why when you are ona film set it can often look a little bland, but when you see the final ‘film’ image, there is much greater contrast and shadows.

The upshot is that when shooting either film or digital, detail will be lost in either the highlights or shadows. But if a human were there, their WOULD capture this detail.

There have been some recent developments with a process called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. Put simply, you shoot the subject with two cameras, one overexposed, one underexposed and merge the two in post production. The overexposed image maintains details in the shadows, the underexposed maintains details in the highlights. The two images are then combined to create a single HDR image.

The resulting images benefit from a capture system with significantly greater latitude than previously available and one that is much closer to what the human eye can resolve. These images can be quite stratling too, like this video clip above, shot in Moscow by these guys… 

Notice how in the first shot there are details in the shadows, as well as the bridge in the hazy distance.

Here’s what they said about it…

‘This video highlights several clips we've made using our new High Dynamic Range (HDR) process. Video is captured on two Canon 5D mark II DSLRs, each capturing the exact same subject via a beam splitter. The cameras are configured so that they record different exposure values, e.g., one camera is overexposed, the other underexposed. After the footage has been recorded, we use a variety of HDR processing tools to combine the video from the two cameras, yielding the clips you see above.’

I am not sure exactly what a ‘beam splitter’ actually is, but I first heard about this technique a few months back when Gone Fishing DP Vernon Layton called me and told me about this amazing new use for 3D cameras. Instead of shooting 3D, these camera systems captures the same image twice, just one underexposed, the other overexposed, yielding up to a monstrous 15 stops of latitude (that number is from memory so don’t hold me to it!)

So what does this mean for you and me?

Well I am not sure I would want to shoot an entire film in HDR (in these tests the shot of the guy is less successful than the shots of the city), but for some shots I can see it would certainly be worth it. For me it’s an exciting development as for once it’s not about CGI, digital effects and digital composites, it’s about capturing amazing images in-camera (sure there is a post production process but it’s all about getting it right on set).

I wonder how many HDR footage we will start to see in both indie and mainstream film? Below is an image from Wikipedia, a still of New York taken using the same technique. Original file here.


On another note, Vern Vernon was also recently featured in Kodaks’ magazine and he did say rather nice things about ‘Gone Fishing’. You can read the article here.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author


6 Responses to Could you shoot your next project with stunning High Dynamic Range (HDR) Cinematography?

  1. Adam T. Davis September 20, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Hey Chris, yeah I’d already seen this video. Very interesting stuff, the ghosting on the man is terrible though so a long way to go for HDR. I can quite easily see cameras have two or even three sensors capturing different exposures and combining them in-camera to give one image in the future, thought that would be pretty difficult to process for film so it might only be for photography at first.

    Have you seen the new Canon sensor? It’s pretty crazy!

    Here’s a link:

  2. Chris Jones September 20, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    That sensor its NUTS!

  3. Leilani September 20, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    I saw this and really didn’t like it. I think it’s quite ugly. It won’t be making an appearance in any of my films anytime soon.

    However, I’ve heard that the Scarlet when it comes out will have amazing HDR without needing a beam splitter which should make unreliable double camera setups redundant.

    Good resolution is good. The HDR look. Frankly I can live without it.

  4. Chris Pinches September 20, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Interesting thread this as we are due to shoot a short film using a prototype HDR camera next weekend.

    The beam splitter idea is a non starter for anything other than landscapes as the four stops difference between the two cameras will mean that the depth of field in the two images will be significantly different, making combining them difficult to say the least.

    The tone mapping in the above example looks poor and the clip is not a good advert for this technology, though it would appear to have successfully raised awareness of HDR in the film making community.

  5. Christopher Hughes September 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Quite interesting but again as you rightly put it it’s all about getting it right on set. Cinematography is painting with light and capturing it. I am sure it will be a godsend for fixing bad cinematography. Now if only someone can build something that has the latitude to compensate for bad scripts, acting, and sound in post.

    Give me the choice of a new HDR camera and a decent DOP with a cheap camera I would take the DOP every time.

  6. Chris Payne September 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    Leilani – it’s not intended as a final “look”. What HDR gives you is an enormous amount of latitude for grading in post, and a larger margin for error when setting your exposure on set. A HDR sensor can see further into the highlights and shadows before they blow out or disappear into the noise floor.
    Personally I think this beam-splitter setup is purely an experimental effort. Red and Canon are both developing sensors which naturally have higher latitude, so you won’t need the elaborate rig or the post-processing, and won’t suffer the issues Chris Pinches points out. The Canon 1Dmk4 already has incredible low-light sensitivity.

Leave a Reply

tumblr statistics