Sony's Blinding TV Tech Is So Intense I Can't Even Photograph It

Illustration for article titled Sony's Blinding TV Tech Is So Intense I Can't Even Photograph It

When I walked up to Sony’s new demo for its forthcoming Backlight Master Drive technology, a rep asked me to please not stand so close with my camera—the technology is still patent pending.


So I took a step back in the darkened corner of the Sony booth, held the viewfinder to my eye, and discovered that, actually, it was very hard to reconcile the images my camera was catching with the ridiculously high dynamic range picture I was seeing in front of my face. I’m not a great photographer or anything, but this was nuts.

HDR technology has been on the rise in the last few years. It’s got a varying definition depending on who you ask, but essentially it’s some combination of specially-produced content, software processing, and special hardware that in the end creates a picture with a very high difference between the darkest and lightest parts. (HDR is a common technique in photography, and it’s usually accomplished by combining multiple exposures—ever notice how it makes your iPhone photos look VIVID?)

The new Sony technology is a combination of hardware and software that creates an HDR effect so intense that I’ve only ever really seen something like it in professional editing monitors used by Hollywood directors. But Sony wants to bring this to people’s homes.

Illustration for article titled Sony's Blinding TV Tech Is So Intense I Can't Even Photograph It

In technical terms, what Sony will tell me is that the Backlight Master Drive uses “more than a hundred” local dimming zones, as well as sophisticated power shifting, to achieve the absurdly high dynamic range. Local dimming zones allow different parts of the TV to have different amounts of power, aka brightness, in them. Power shifting tech allows you to take the power not being used in one zone and give it to another.

According to Sony, the technology is capable of producing a brightness up to 4000 nits—current top flagship TV models top out at about 1000. The company also claims that Backlight Master Drive allows the prototypes to achieve the deep inky blackness usually reserved for OLED TVs—Sony doesn’t use that display technology, opting instead for LED.


I can only speak to the results, which are striking. In one clip from the movie Annie, I was blinded by sunlight reflecting off water. Later, while watching a scene shot over the flashing lights of the Las Vegas strip, the deep darkness of the night is still visible behind the gaudy casinos. (As always, you should be wary of company-controlled demos. Actual results may vary.)

Illustration for article titled Sony's Blinding TV Tech Is So Intense I Can't Even Photograph It

So yeah, despite the fact that I’ve been photographing TVs at CES for five years, I can’t seem to get my camera to take pictures that does them justice to reality. Take my word for it?

So far the tech is just a demo. There’s no word on when it might come to your home—but you can safely say it won’t be until after Sony gets that patent.


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So it’s super-high CONTRAST? Because that’s what you call the difference between light areas and dark areas. Not dynamic range. Dynamic range does refer to light and dark areas, but only when they’re being captured, and it refers to the detail you can see in the highlights and lowlights.

In a normal photograph (or movie), you have a single exposure value for the entire image. This means that you can focus on showing detail in your highlights, your lowlights, or somewhere in between. What you can’t do is show full detail throughout the dynamic range. If you focus on the highlights, you can’t see detail in the shadows. If you focus on the lowlights, the highlights get blown out.

HDR photography is great because it shows detail in both the highlights and the lowlights of a picture. Good HDR can look more true to how our eyes see things because our eyes don’t really have a fixed dynamic range, so we perceive things differently than a camera does. Some HDR forgoes trying to look natural and instead uses the increased dynamic range for a cool-looking effect, or to show details that you’d miss even with your eyes.

If this is really cool contrast, great! If it shows HDR video better than a normal TV (not sure why it would, but maybe), great! But saying that you need something special to show HDR video is wrong. I can go stitch together a bunch of HDR images into a film and it will display on any TV. This sounds like market gimmick mumbo jumbo to me.