The graph to the left shows and idealised, normal gamma curve for a video production chain. The main thing to observe is that the curve is in fact pretty close to a straight line (actual gamma curves are very gentle, slight curves). This is important as what that means is that when the filmed scene gets twice as bright the output shown on the display also appears twice as bright, so the image we see on the display looks natural and normal. This is the type of gamma curve that would often be referred to as a standard gamma and it is very much what you see is what you get. In reality there are small variations of these standard gamma curves designed to suit different television standards, but those slight variations only make a small difference to the final viewed image. Standard gammas are typically restricted to around a 7 stop exposure range. These days this limited range is not so much to do with the lattitude of the camera but by the inability of most monitors and TV display systems to accurately reproduce more than a 7 stop range and to ensure that all viewers whether they have 20 year old TV or an ultra modern display get a sensible looking picture. This means that we have a problem. Modern cameras can capture great brightness ranges, helping the video maker or cinematographer capture high contrast scenes, but simply taking a 12 stop scene and showing it on a 7 stop display isn’t going to work. This is where modified gamma curves come in to play.
The second graph here shows a modified type of gamma curve. This is similar to the hypergamma or cinegamma curves found on many professional camcorders. What does the graph tell us? Well first of all we can see that the range of brightness or lattitude is greater as the curve extends out towards a range of 10 T stops compared to the 7 stops the standard gamma offers. Each additional stop is a doubling of lattitude. This means that a camera set up with this type of gamma curve can capture a far greater contrast range, but it’s not quite as simple as that.
Un-natural image response area
Look at the area shaded red on the graph. This is the area where the cameras capture gamma curve deviates from the standard gamma curve used not just for image capture but also for image display. What this means is that the area of the image shaded in red will not look natural because where something in that part of the filmed scene gets 100% brighter it will only be displayed as getting 50% brighter for example. In practice what this means is that while you are capturing a greater brightness range you will also need to grade or correct this range somewhat in the post production process to make the image look natural. Generally scenes shot using hypergammas or cinegammas can look a little washed out or flat. Cinegammas and Hypergammas keep the important central exposure range nice an linear, so the region from black up to around 75% is much like a standard gamma curve, so faces, skin, flora and fauna tend to have a natural contrast range, it is only really highlights such as the sky that is getting compressed and we don’t tend to notice this much in the end picture. This is because our visual system is very good at discerning fine detail in shadow and mid tones but less accurate in highlights, so we tend not to find this high light compression objectionable.
S-Log Gamma Curve
Taking things a step further this even more extreme gamma curve is similar to Sony’s S-Log gamma curve. As you can see this deviates greatly from the standard gamma curve. Now the entire linear output of the sensor is sampled using a logarithmic scale. This allows more of the data to be allocated to the shadows and midtones where the eye is most sensitive. The end result is a huge improvement in the recorded dynamic range (greater than 12 stops) combined with less data being used for highlights and more being used where it counts. However, the image when viewed on a standard monitor with no correction that looks very washed out, lacks contrast and generally looks incredibly flat and uninteresting.
Red area indicates where image will not look natural with S-Log without LUT
In fact the uncorrected image is so flat and washed out that it can make judging the optimum exposure difficult and crews using S-Log will often use traditional light meters to set the exposure rather than a monitor or rely on zebras and known references such as grey cards. For on set monitoring with S-Log you need to apply a LUT (look Up Table) to the cameras output. A LUT is in effect a reverse gamma curve that cancels out the S-Log curve so that the image you see on the monitor is closer to a standard gamma image or your desired final pictures. The problem with this though is that the monitor is now no longer showing the full contrast range being captured and recorded so accurate exposure assessment can be tricky as you may want to bias your exposure range towards light or dark depending on how you will grade the final production. In addition because you absolutely must adjust the image in post production quite heavily to get an acceptable and pleasing image it is vital that the recording method is up to the job. Highly compressed 8 bit codecs are not good enough for S-Log. That’s why S-Log is normally recorded using 10 bit 4:4:4 with very low compression ratios. Any compression artefacts can become exaggerated when the image is manipulated and pushed and pulled in the grade to give a pleasing image. You could use 4:2:2 10 bit at a push, but the chroma sub sampling may lead to banding in highly saturated areas, really Hypergammas and Cinegammas are better suited to 4:2:2 and S-Log is best reserved for 4:4:4.