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What is HDR? High Dynamic Range explained

Article banner with text "WHAT IS HDR" and a photo of a TV with HDR logo on it.
Dario | Unsplash and Howbigg

Written by

Jacek Obst

8 min read

Have you ever looked at a photo or video and thought that it just didn't capture the vibrancy and richness of the real-life scene? That's where HDR comes in. HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a technology that expands the range of colors and brightness levels in images and videos to create more realistic and vibrant visuals.

HDR content requires devices that support HDR signals, such as HDR10, to display enhanced color and contrast. With HDR images and videos can display a wider range of colors and brightness levels, resulting in stunningly vivid visuals.

1. How does HDR actually work?

Combining Multiple Images for Greater Dynamic Range

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is a technique used in photography to capture more detail in both bright and dark areas of an image. It works by combining multiple images taken at different exposure levels, resulting in a single photo with a greater dynamic range.

For example, when taking a photo of a landscape on a sunny day, the sky may appear too bright while the shadows on the ground are too dark. By using HDR, multiple photos are taken at different exposure levels - one that captures details in the highlights (bright areas) and another that captures details in the shadows (dark areas). These images are then merged to create one photo that shows all of the details throughout the entire scene.

Different HDR Formats

There are several formats for saving HDR images including JPEG-HDR, TIFF-HDR, and RAW-HDR. Each format has its advantages and disadvantages.

JPEG-HDR is widely supported but has a limited dynamic range compared to other formats. TIFF-HDR offers higher quality but larger file sizes. RAW-HDR provides the highest quality but requires specialized software to process.

Why Use HDR?

HDR can be used in various situations where there is high contrast between light and dark areas such as landscapes, interiors with windows or bright lights, and portraits with backlighting. It can also be used creatively to achieve a specific look or style.

In addition to still photography, HDR can also be used in video production to capture more detail in high-contrast scenes.

2. Benefits of HDR for TV and Photography

Photo showing a hand holding camera, taking a photo Miha Jan Strehovec | Unsplash

Enhances Picture Quality

HDR technology utilizes dynamic metadata to adjust the performance of each scene, resulting in more accurate and vivid image quality. The human eye can perceive a much wider range of brightness than traditional cameras or displays can capture. This makes it difficult for them to reproduce what we see in real life on screen or in print. However, with HDR technology, images can be captured with greater detail in both highlights and shadows, making them appear more lifelike.

Wide Color Gamut

Another benefit of HDR is its ability to display a wide color gamut. Traditional displays are limited in their ability to show colors accurately because they have a smaller range of colors they can produce. However, with HDR technology, displays can produce millions more colors than before, making images look richer and more vibrant.

Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG)

Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) is another type of HDR that allows for backward compatibility with non-HDR TVs, making it an advantage for broadcasters. HLG uses dynamic metadata just like other types of HDR but also includes additional information that allows non-HDR TVs to display an acceptable version of the content without losing too much detail.

When To Use HDR Photography

HDR photography should be used when you want to capture an image with high-contrast lighting conditions such as sunsets or backlit subjects. It's also useful when you want to create a dramatic effect in your photos by exaggerating color saturation or contrast.

3. Why HDR Matters for Your TV

TV with a scene from Stranger Things Alicia Quan | Unsplash

What is an HDR TV?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, which is a technology that enhances the quality of your TV by providing brighter and more vivid colors. An HDR TV has a higher contrast ratio than a standard television, meaning it can display more shades of color and brightness levels.

Why is HDR important?

HDR is important because it provides a more realistic viewing experience. It allows you to see more details in dark scenes, making movies and shows like Stranger Things and Star Wars look even better.

With HDR, you'll notice that colors are more vibrant and accurate, which makes for a more immersive experience.

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and streaming services like Netflix offer HDR content for a better viewing experience

If you want to take full advantage of your HDR TV's capabilities, then you need content that supports it. Luckily, there are plenty of options available today.

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs offer some of the best picture quality available with support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10 formats. Streaming services like Netflix also offer a wide range of content in both formats.

4. Different HDR standards for your TV

HDR most often comes in three formats: HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision. Each format has its own set of features and advantages, but they all share the same goal of delivering a more realistic and immersive viewing experience to viewers.

When you're in the market for a new TV, don't stress about the supported formats. Instead, focus on the TV's overall performance to ensure optimal HDR picture quality. However, if you're eager to enhance your viewing experience, it's worth understanding how each format handles the essential elements of HDR.

Differences Between HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision

HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision are all high dynamic range (HDR) formats that enhance the visual experience by delivering improved color accuracy, contrast, and brightness to compatible displays.

What is HDR10?

HDR10 is the baseline HDR format and is widely supported across various devices and content. It utilizes a static metadata approach, meaning that it provides information about the maximum and minimum brightness levels for an entire movie or show.

What is HDR10+

HDR10+ is an enhanced version of HDR10 that employs dynamic metadata. This dynamic approach allows for scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame optimization of brightness levels, resulting in more precise and detailed HDR content.

What is Dolby Vision?

Dolby Vision, developed by Dolby Laboratories, is considered the most advanced HDR format available. It employs dynamic metadata like HDR10+ but also incorporates Dolby's proprietary algorithms for superior color grading and processing. Dolby Vision-enabled displays can deliver an unparalleled visual experience with astonishing highlights, deep blacks, and a wide color gamut.

Conclusion on choosing the right HDR format

It's hard to say which is better between Dolby Vision and HDR10+. They both use dynamic metadata to improve quality, but HDR10+ has less content and fewer supported TVs compared to Dolby Vision. On the other hand, HDR10 has more content and is supported by almost every 4K TV.

The quality of the TV has a more significant impact on HDR, so the difference between HDR formats is not essential. All the formats can create dynamic images and provide a more impactful movie experience, provided the TV displays it correctly.

5. Understanding Peak Brightness for HDR TVs

Key Factor in HDR TVs

One of the key factors in HDR TVs is peak brightness, which determines the luminance levels that can be achieved.

Peak brightness refers to the maximum amount of light that a TV can produce. The higher the peak brightness, the brighter and more vivid an image appears on the screen. This is particularly important for HDR content because it can contain much brighter highlights than standard dynamic range (SDR) content.

Local Dimming Technique

Another technique used to improve black levels and contrast ratio in HDR TVs is local dimming. This feature adjusts the backlighting behind different parts of the screen, allowing for deeper blacks and brighter whites within each scene.

Local dimming works by dividing a TV's backlight into zones that can be independently controlled. When an area of the screen needs to display black, local dimming will turn off or reduce the backlight in those specific zones while keeping other areas lit up as needed.

Wider Color Gamut and Color Accuracy

In addition to improved brightness and contrast, HDR TVs offer a wider color gamut and color accuracy than SDR TVs. A color gamut refers to the range of colors that a display can produce, while color accuracy refers to how closely those colors match their intended values.

HDR content uses a wider color gamut called Rec 2020 compared to SDR content's Rec 709 standard. This allows for more vibrant colors with greater saturation levels, resulting in more realistic-looking images onscreen.

Comparison of REC 709 and REC 2020 Wikipedia and Howbigg

Higher Dynamic Range

The dynamic range of HDR TVs is significantly higher than that of SDR TVs, with up to 10-bit color depth compared to SDR's 8-bit depth. This means that there are far more shades available between pure black and pure white, resulting in more nuanced and detailed images onscreen.

6. What You Need for HDR - TV and Content

Compatible TVs and Displaying HDR Content

To take advantage of this technology, you need a compatible TV that can display HDR content. While SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) content can still be viewed on an HDR TV, it won't have the same benefits.

Newer TVs often come with HDR capabilities built-in, but older models may require a media streamer or Apple TV to access the technology. Sony has been at the forefront of developing cutting-edge displays with HDR support.

Video Content Must Be Specifically Mastered in HDR

To fully appreciate the benefits of HDR technology, video content must be specifically mastered in HDR. This means that metadata is added to each frame of video to tell your TV how to display each shot. Without this metadata, your TV won't know how to properly display the image.

Streaming services like Netflix offer some titles in HDR format; however, not all titles are available in this format yet.

Other Considerations

It's important to note that streaming services may require higher internet speeds for optimal playback of 4K resolution with high dynamic range (HDR). You'll want to make sure you have sufficient bandwidth before investing in new equipment or signing up for these services.

7. Is HDR Worth It?

In conclusion, HDR is definitely worth it if you want to experience more vivid and lifelike images on your TV or in your photography.

Understanding how HDR works and its benefits for both TV and photography can help you appreciate the technology even more. It's important to note that having a TV with high peak brightness and compatible content is necessary to fully enjoy the HDR experience.


Does HDR really make a difference?

Yes, HDR can make a significant difference in image quality by allowing for a wider range of colors and brightness levels.

Can I watch non-HDR content on an HDR TV?

Yes, you can still watch non-HDR content on an HDR TV. However, it won't be displayed in true HDR format.

Do all TVs support HDR?

No, not all TVs support HDR. Make sure to check for compatibility before purchasing an HDR TV.

Is there enough content available in HDR?

While there may not be as much content available in HDR compared to standard definition or HD formats, more and more movies and shows are being released in HDR every year.

Will my current streaming service work with my new HDR TV?

It depends on the streaming service. Make sure to check for compatibility before subscribing to a streaming service.

How do I know if my photos are compatible with HDR?

Most modern cameras can capture images in multiple exposures which can then be combined into an HDR image using software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

Do I need special equipment for shooting photos in HDR?

While specialized equipment isn't necessary for taking photos in HD, using a tripod can help ensure that each exposure is aligned properly when combining the images later.

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