OPINION: HDR needs to take a step back

HDR. High Dynamic Range. It’s a promise of the next generation of 4K TVs, and it’s been out there for a few years (even though no one seems to care.) And now it’s become a problem.

The idea of HDR is that it allows you to see very, very dark objects with a degree of clarity that you never could before. “Dynamic Range” is the difference between the brightest bright and the darkest dark in a picture. It’s pretty easy to make a picture brighter, but if there’s not enough dynamic range, the shadow areas will look pale grey rather than black.

When people saw HDTV for the first time, for most of them it wasn’t the extra resolution they were impressed by, it was the dynamic range. That’s what made HDTV look like “you were looking out a window.”

If some dynamic range was good, more must be better, right? That’s the idea behind HDR TVs, which have the ability to show detail in dark areas almost as well as you see it in real life… or better which can be a problem. HDR includes a feature called “Deep Black” which puts a lot more detail into the shadows, and unless you’re properly set up to use it (most people aren’t) it can make viewing a nightmare of eyestrain and confusion.

Right now most people don’t have HDR TVs, and they don’t watch TV in fully darkened rooms. As a result, content that was designed for HDR TVs can look muddy and too dark to see details. Two perfect examples of late are HBO’s Westworld and FX’s American Horror Story. Both have lots of night scenes which must look fabulous on an HDR TV in a darkened room but in today’s average viewing conditions, they’re just dark messes. The latest season of AHS is, in my opinion, the worst yet — not because the plot or acting is bad, but because it’s darn near impossible to tell what’s going on.

The producers of these shows know they won’t be seen on HDR TVs yet, since no cable or satellite provider actually uses 4K HDR, not even DIRECTV. They should take this into account and produce HD versions of their programs that actually look decent on the TV’s they are viewed on, even if it makes the night scenes look a little light. For decades night scenes have been simulated with blue lights and camera tricks; it’s time to realize that those weren’t actually a bad idea.

This is just another case of someone doing something “just because they could.” Today’s cameras are so sensitive, and today’s 4K files are capable of so much detail, that the producers of these shows feel they can “really indulge their vision.” They forget that their vision is only part of the equation, and once a show is produced, it’s the audience’s vision, not theirs, that dictates its success.

Another thing these filmmakers don’t seem to understand is that it takes people’s eye time to adjust. Most of us see pretty well at night, once we’ve been in the dark for a while. The light of a full moon is good enough to read a book by for some people. But the older you get of course, the longer it takes your eyes to adjust. In the real world, we adjust to darkening skies in real time, but as TV producers bounce back and forth from light to dark, and commercials show us a brightly colored vision of consumer bliss, the eye must work extra hard to keep up. That takes people out of the experience, and forces them to confront their own limitations rather than being drawn into the filmmaker’s idea.

We’re still fairly early in the history of HDR on TV, and like all new technologies, there’s a period where it’s overused, followed by an eventual understanding of the best way to use it. Let’s hope that filmmakers work hard to improve the real viewing experience, fall out of love with “HDR for HDR’s sake” and begin producing programs with an understanding of how they’ll be viewed. It’s happened before, and it just needs to happen again.