Brewing up a Scene File: Gamma and Knee

workshops-275 Brewing up a Scene File: Gamma and Knee

Before anyone complains that I have missed stuff out or that some technical detail is not quite right, one of the things I’m trying to do here is simplify the hows and why’s to try and make it easier for the less technical people out there. Lets face it this is an art form, not a science (well actually a bit of both really).

So what is a gamma curve anyway? Well the good old fashioned cathode ray tube television was a very non-linear device. You put 1 unit of power in and get one unit of light out. You put 2 units in and get 1.5 units out, put 3 in and get 2 out… and so on. So in order to get a natural picture the output of the camera also has to be modified to compensate for this. This compensation is the gamma curve, an artificial modification of the output signal from the camera to make it match TV’s and monitors around the world. See Wikipedia for a fuller explaination:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma_correction

So, all video cameras will have a gamma curve, whether you can adjust it or not is another matter. Certainly most pro level cameras allow you some form of gamma adjustment.

The PMW-350 has 6 standard gamma curves, these are all pretty similar, they have to be otherwise the pictures wouldn’t look right, but small changes in the curve effect the relationship between dark and bright parts of the pictures. Todays modern cameras have a far greater dynamic range (range of dark to bright) than older cameras. This means that the full dynamic range of the sensor no longer fits within the gamma curves used for TV’s and monitors. In broadcast television any signal that goes over 100% gets clipped off and is discarded, so the cameras entire brightness range has to be squeezed into 0 to 100%. The PMW-350 sensors are capable of far more than this (at least 600%) so what can you do?

The older and simpler solution is called the “Knee”. The knee works because in most cases the brightest parts of a scene contains little detail and is generally ignored by our brains. We humans tend to focus on mid-tone faces, animals and plants rather than the bright sky. Because of this you can compress the highlights (bright) parts of the picture quite heavily without it looking hugely un-natural (most of the time at least). What the knee does is takes a standard gamma curve and up near it’s top, bends it over. This has the effect of compressing the brighter parts of the image, squashing a broad range of highlights (clouds for example) into a narrow range of brightness. While this works fairly well, it does tend to look rather “electronic” as the picture is either natural (below the knee) or compressed (above the knee).

The answer to this electronic video look is to replace the hard knee with gentle bend to the gamma curve. This bend starts some way down the gamma curve, very gentle at first but getting harder and harder as you go up the gamma curve. This has the effect of compressing the image gently at first with the compression getting stronger and stronger as you go up the curve. This looks a lot more natural than a hard knee and is far closer to the way film handles highlights. The downside is that because the compression starts earlier a wider tonal range is compressed. This makes the pictures look flat and uninteresting. You have to watch exposure on faces as these can creep into the compressed part of the curve. The plus point is that it’s possible to squeeze large amounts of latitude into the 100% video range. This video can then be worked on in post production by the editor or colorist who can pull out the tonal range that best suits the production.

These compressed gamma curves are given different names on different products. Panasonic call them “Film Rec”, on the EX1 they are “Cinegammas” on the PMW-350 they are “Hypergammas”. The 350 has four Hypergammas. The first is 3250. this takes a brightness range the equivalent to 325% and compresses it down to 100%. HG 4600 takes 460% and squeezes that down to 100%. Both of these Hypergammas are “broadcast safe” and the recordings made with them can be broadcast straight from the camera without any issues. The next Hypergamma is 3259. This takes a 325% range and squeezes this down to a 109% range, likewise 4609 takes 460% down to 109%. But why 109%? well the extra 9% gives you almost 10% more data to work with in post production compared to broadcast safe 100%. It also gives you the peak white level you need for display on the internet. Of course if you are doing a broadcast show you will need to ensure that the video levels in the finished programme don’t exceed 100%.

My preferred gamma is Hypergamma 4 (4609) as this gives the maximum dynamic range and gives a natural look, however the pictures can look a little flat so if I’m going direct from the camera to finished video without grading I use either a standard gamma or use the Black Gamma function to modify the curve. I’ll explain the Black Gamma in my next post.

There are 6 standard gammas to choose from. I like to stick with gamma 5 which is the ITU-709 HD standard gamma. To increase the dynamic range I use the Knee. The default knee point setting is 90, this is a reasonable setting, but if your shooting with clipping set to 100% you are not getting all the cameras latitude (the Knee at 90 works very well with clipping at 108%). Lowering the knee down to 83 gives you almost another stop of latitude, but you have to be careful as skin tones and faces can creep up towards 83%. It’s very noticeable if skin becomes compressed so you need to watch your exposure. This is also true of the Hypergammas and with them you may need to underexpose faces very slightly. The other option is to set the knee point to 88 and then also adjust the knee slope. The slope is the compression amount. A positive value is more compressed, negative less compressed. With the knee at 88 and slope set to +20 you get good latitude, albeit with quite highly compressed highlights.

If you want to play with the gammas and knee and see how they work one method you can use is to use a paint package on your PC (such as photoshop) to create a full screen left to right graduated image going from Black to white. Then shoot this with the camera (slightly out of focus) while making adjustments to the curves or knee and record the results along with a vocal description of each setting. Import the clips into your favorite editing package and use the waveform monitor or scopes you should be able to see a reasonable representation of the shape of the gamma curve and knee.

So my Gamma Choices are:

For material that will be post produced: Hypergamma 4609 (HG4)

For material that will be used straight from the camera: Standard Gamma 5 Knee at 90 with clip at 108% for non broadcast or Knee at 88 with slope +20 with white clip at 100% for direct to broadcast.

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