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I was wondering if there was a monitor that took HDR pictures as input and directly displayed them without mapping them back into LDR space. Is there one?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

HDR is about exposure, not about colour space. A monitor has no effect on exposure whatsoever. So your question is incorrectly stated, as there cannot be a "HDR" monitor.

However, there are monitors which can show more colours than the typical sRGB colour space. These are called wide gamut displays. They aren't all that uncommon, the MacBook Pros and the Unibody Macs ship with them, and some manufacturers sell them as stand-alone units, sometimes targeted at professionals (EIZO), sometimes just as a high-end home monitor (Dell). If you are professionally working with photography, you just cannot come around having one. The downside is that it shows sRGB material way oversaturated, and almost everything you encounter on the Web is in sRGB.

For further information, you may like to read the Wikipedia articles on exposure, HDR and colour spaces, they are pretty good IIRC.

Edit: Additional explanation because of your comment

To clarify things: HDR in itself has nothing to do with files. You can have HDR photography with film without ever creating a digital representation of your image. What you are describing in your comment is just one way to store the information about a HDR image using a digital technology.

My first sentence was quite poorly worded. Still, what I meant by it holds: monitors cannot represent big exposure differences, so there are no HDR monitors. To represent the big difference in exposure present in a HDR image, lighter and darker shades are used in lieu of getting the monitor to emit more or less light per pixel, but this conversion happens in the software which does the digital developing, not in the monitor. Using a monitor with a wide gamut would give you a better representation of the way the original looks, as long as your software doesn't downconvert the information somewhere on the way. Depending on what you understand under "LDR space", you can see this as a way to avoid the lossy mapping from 12-bit (or more) of image sensor data to a 8-bit colour space, or only as a better way of doing the inavoidable mapping. In any case, the result looks nearer to the origninal.

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I was under the impression that HDR is a file that stores its color and brightness data as relative brightness levels to the minimum brightness in a scene. Thus why it has to be "mapped" back into a color space. – RCIX Jul 27 '10 at 9:30
Your clarification helped a lot, thanks! – RCIX Jul 28 '10 at 18:28
"monitors cannot represent big exposure differences, so there are no HDR monitor" - why not? Is this a technological issue (not enough power for the monitor to suitably represent a wide dynamic range) or something else? Are there "medium dynamic range" monitors which are better than LDR while not still capable as displaying the entire dynamic range visible to humans, and do they look natural? – Thomas Jan 6 '14 at 2:23
@Thomas monitors work by sending out light into human eyes, and swallowing certain parts of the light in certain pixels. The light amount produced by the backlight is puny when compared to what the human eye can perceive. And the liquid crystals in front of it cannot change their opacity all that much, so even black pixels radiate quite a big part of the backlight's light, and white pixels still swallow a lot of light. No background lit display can be even medium-dynamic range. From Wikipedia, "A display emits between 50 and 300 cd/m2. The sun has luminance of 1.6×10^9 cd/m2 at noon" – rumtscho Jan 7 '14 at 15:55
@Thomas even if we should have the technology to push up the upper limit of monitor brightness, we shouldn't do it. The human eye is not sensitive to absolute light levels, but to differences. Staring for hours into a bright monitor in a dim room is very hard for the human visual signal processing neurons, in a way that getting different levels of reflected sunlight on a bright day isn't. Personally, when I set my monitor brightness at around 30%, I am much less tired after a workday. Reducing the lightness of black pixels is viable, but won't give us "natural" contrast levels. – rumtscho Jan 7 '14 at 16:19

The answer posted above is not completely accurate. HDR images have little to do with the sRGB color space. They are about contrast ranges. Most monitors do not have that much contrast range, they can only display a black that is so black/grey while at the same time displaying a white that has X-amount of brightness. The brighter you drive the display the greyer the blacks become.
Many contrastful images cannot be displayed with their full brightness and darkness. In HDR photography something called tone mapping is done. The brightest areas and darkest area are resolved to the detail level desired and all of the tones between them are then displayed in the so many steps available between them. In a 24 bit image you have 8-bits for each color (R,G,B). That means 255 steps for each color between their maximum and minimum.
In HDR images are sometimes used with higher color spaces, such as 16-bits for each color. This gives many more steps. However since these most often have to be displayed on a monitor that only supports 24-bits of color (or quite often less) the photographer maps the darkness detail and white detail he or she wants to display to fit into 16-bits. The full amount of steps between each color that were present in the original scene are not there, but in HDR you can see detail in both shadow and bright areas.

Color spaces come into this because there are many steps between bright white and the deepest black. A larger color space displaying monitor can display a brighter range, but when delivered that range still has to be mapped to the 8-bits of image for each color. If the monitor has a wider gamut than standard than its blue may be bluer or green greener. Mapping into that space means at maximum green the monitor may display more green than standard. This means the image you see is different than what the photographer captured. The image is supposed to have a green different than the one you're mapping to.
As the previous poster said, using a wide gamut monitor doesn't always distort the colors badly. Some software is color-space aware and performs the necessary mapping. Also some high end monitors use 14 or more bits per color which greatly increases the number of steps between each color to obtain a closer mapping.

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Actually, there is both chroma contrast and luma contrast. I agree that luminence contrast is more important, but a HDR image uses both (or should use both - maybe some algorithms disregard this), to deliver more "punch". So a wide-gamut monitor will display a HDR image better than a standard monitor, because the chroma contrast will be better represented. – rumtscho Jan 7 '14 at 16:14

There are some prototypes,and a few low-volume commercially available HDR displays. These work by using a grid of LEDs as the backlight to an otherwise traditional LCD panel. This allows the display to have a much wider dynamic range than a traditional LCD display with a uniform backlight.

A regular LCD display can handle between 2 to 3 stops of dynamic range. The HDR displays push this to around 5 stops. Even so, they can't yet come close to the human visual system, which can deal with about 14 stops (a "stop" is essentially a doubling of the amount of light emitted).

The technology was introduced by Brightside, and was acquired by Dolby Laboratories. A Google search for dolby hdr will reveal a fair amount of info.

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