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How To Achieve The HDR Look In Post By Using Transfer Modes & Color Grading

The HDR (High Dynamic Range) look is something that has been around for quite some time in stills photography, but only recently has become more popular with video. There are only a handful of cinema cameras out there that shoot with a true HDR setting (such as the RED Dragon), but if you’re after this look and are working with limited resources, there are a number of things you can do in post to achieve a similar aesthetic. 

Before we jump in, for any of you that aren’t as familiar with what an HDR image looks like, take a look at this sample photo, pulled from realreeljournal.com:

HDR-Landscape

The way that HDR works is by exposing two images and then combining them in post to maintain as much latitude as possible. One of the images is overexposed, and the other is underexposed so when you merge the two images together you end up with a final shot like the one above, that has a lot of dynamic range – allowing the highlights and shadows to remain very detailed. This look should never be overused as it really only works well in certain situations, but it is a great tool to know how to use when you need it.

HDR is also an interesting technique to utilize on faces as well, as it brings out skin tone details that would otherwise not be noticeable on a regularly exposed photo. In many cases this is a bad thing, as HDR can bring out pores, imperfections, and other skin problems that can make the subject look pretty bad – but there are some circumstances where the look can work well, especially when you are doing something that is highly stylized. Here’s an example of how skin tones are affected by HDR, pulled from Willian Yu on Flickr:

HDR-Person

As you might imagine, achieving an HDR look with video is much more challenging than with stills. In stills photography, even if your camera doesn’t have an HDR mode you can simply take two different exposures and use photoshop to combine them. With video however, this isn’t usually an option since the action in the frame you are shooting will always vary to some degree. For instance, if you are shooting a person walking across the frame, you won’t be able to get that person to walk across with the exact same timing more than once (in order to get two identical shots to combine later), so the only option (as far as capturing this look in-camera goes) is to use a camera like the RED Dragon that does HDR internally.

The good news is that if you want to achieve the HDR look in post, there is a lot that you can do to simulate the effect – even if you didn’t shoot with an HDR cinema camera.

How To Achieve The HDR Look

The first thing that I’ll point out is that in order to get the best results with this technique, you need to start with footage that has been exposed very well. If you have a window that is blown out in the background, that detail will never be recovered – so if you really want to sell the HDR look, make sure that you shoot with the look in mind so that you can maintain as much dynamic range in camera as possible. From there, it all comes down to how you post-process.

There are a number of ways that you can achieve this look in post, but today I will share with you the process that I typically use which I picked up online by reading through a number of other blogs, forums, and tutorials.

For the context of this particular example, I happened to have used After Effects to accomplish the end result, but you can use any editing/compositing software out there that allows you to change your transfer mode (which is just about all of them).

Here is a screen grab of the before shot as a reference point:

Before HDR

 

Please click on the screenshots below to enlarge

Step 1

Drop your shot in the timeline.

Step-1

Step 2

Duplicate that shot, stack it on top of the first layer, and change the transfer mode to ‘Overlay’.

Step-2

Step 3

Desaturate the duplicated layer. You will notice that it still leaves some color in the image since there is saturation bleeding through from the original footage layer.

Step 3

Step 4

Invert the duplicated layer, and add a Gaussian blur to it.

Step-4

Step 5

Duplicate the original footage again, and stack it on top of the other two layers. Then change the transfer mode to ‘Linear Light’. Reduce the opacity of this layer to your liking. At this point, focus more on the texture of the image as you will adjust the color in the next step.

Step-5

Step 6

Make any other final color adjustments. In this scenario I desaturated it a bit more and brought down the highlights. Again, this will change from shot to shot.

Step-6

Before/After

Before-and-After-HDR

 

I want to quickly point out that although I used this shot as an example, this is normally a scenario where the HDR look isn’t a good idea… This film was about a Model, so to bring out skin detail intentionally works against everything I have ever known about shooting this type of content! But for the purpose of illustrating this point, it goes to show what is possible with some simple post-processing.

For the reasons stated above, I chose to make the effect noticeable without pushing it to the extreme. Personally, this is how I like to use the technique as it allows for a final image that doesn’t feel overly stylized, even though you can still sense the HDR effect. No, it’s not as obvious as it would be if you did it in camera, but it looks a lot more organic than pushing it even further and then having it come off as a faux-HDR look.

On first glance, you might think that you could get this effect simply by adding some contrast and reducing saturation, but the end result wouldn’t be the same – specifically (in this example) with regards to the skin tones. The texture and detail that it brings out for better or for worse are characteristics of this technique, and ultimately emulate the HDR look.

For more on color grading, be sure to check out my recent article on Color Grading For The Natural Look.

About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

6 Comments

  • Thomas
    July 14, 2015 at 5:07 am

    I have a simple App in my Sony Z3 wehere I can achieve this look in a second. So does anybody know such a plugin for Premiere?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      I’d be interested in this too! Good question…

      Reply
  • Stephen
    January 28, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    would doing something similar to what you explained above help get more cinematic rich skin tones?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 7, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      It might, but I always recommend trying to nail your skin tones in camera as much as possible, especially if you are shooting to a compressed format. Otherwise using ‘secondary grades’ or color keys within DaVinci Resolve or other color grading software will help as well. Sometimes I pull 2 or 3 different keys on someones skin tone and adjust them slightly to get the rich look that you are describing.

      Reply
  • Jer
    October 28, 2014 at 6:57 am

    This is great. Can you explain WHY it works though? I’m especially confused as to how the gaussian blur effect actually adds a sharpening to the layer in this case.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2014 at 6:37 pm

      Hi Jer –

      Thanks for checking this out! The way that the gaussian blur effect plays with the transfer mode of the stacked clip allows for this look. Scientifically speaking, I can’t tell you exactly why that is unfortunately! However, the net result is always favorable.

      Reply

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