More on S-Log and Gamma Curves

advertise-here-275 More on S-Log and Gamma Curves

A lot of the issues with any camera and the dynamic range it can record are not due to limitations of the cameras hardware but to retain compatibility with existing display technologies, in particular the good old fashioned TV set that has been around for half a century. The issue being that in order for all TV owners to see a picture that looks “natural” there has to be a common standard for the signal sent to the TV’s that will work with all sets from the very oldest to the most recent.

As even the most recent TV’s and monitors often struggle to display a contrast range greater than 7 stops there is no point in attempting to  feed them with more, Taking 12 stops and simply squashing it into 7 stops will create a disappointing, flat and dull looking image. So for productions where extensive grading is not taking place, it is not desirable to record information beyond that which the existing broadcast system can handle. This is why the vast majority of modern camcorders with the knee off and using a standard gamma curve all exhibit very similar dynamic ranges (7 to 8 stops typically), because the limitation is generally not that of the sensor, but that of the gamma curves used in broadcast television. By adding a bit of highlight compression through a cameras knee circuit we can stretch out the dynamic range a bit as our visual system is most acute to inaccuracies in the the mid ranges of an image where faces, people and natural subjects normally appear so we don’t tend to notice strong compression occurring in highlights such as the sky or reflections. A well designed knee circuit can help gain an extra 2 or 3 stops by compressing the hell out of highlights, but as most of us are probably aware it can create it’s own issues with the near complete loss of real detail in clouds and the sky as well as color saturation issues on skin highlights, this is gamma curve compression rearing it’s ugly head. Moving on, we come to cinegammas, hypergammas and other similar extended range gammas. One of the issues with a traditional aggressive knee circuit is that it is either on or off, compressing or not compressing, there is no middle ground and this makes grading problematic as it is all but impossible to extract any meaningful data from very highly compressed highlights. Cinegammas etc address this by slowly increasing the amount of compression used as image brightness increases. In addition the gamma curve compression starts much earlier, long before you get to what would traditionally be regarded as “highlights”. This slow and gentle onset of compression grades in a more pleasing manner than a conventional knee. If you don’t grade the added mid-to-highlight compression results in a picture that looks a little flat and lacks “punch”, but is not overly objectionable to view. There is however a limit to just how much data you can cram into a compressed codec or recording system. Cinegammas and Hypergammas are tailored to give optimum performance with existing 8 bit and 10 bit high compression systems and workflows so the design engineers chose to only record a range of about 11 stops as trying to extract more than this from systems essentially designed to only record 7 to 8 stops will lead to visible compression artefacts. Technologies have continued to advance and now it’s remarkably easy (compared to just a couple of years ago) to record 10 bits of 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 data without compression or with only minimal compression. By eliminating or at least significantly reducing the compression artefacts it’s now possible to extract more meaningful data from a compressed gamma curve than was possible previously. S-Log is in effect nothing more than a heavily modified gamma curve, taking cinegammas and hypergammas to the next level. S-Log needs 10 bit recording to work as the curve compression starts much lower in the curve, so when grading those crucial skin tones and natural objects will need to be un-compressed to look natural and 8 bits of data just would not give enough range. As the image brightness increases the amount of gamma curve compression is increased logarithmically. If you look at the data being recorded this means that the majority of the 10 bit data is allocated to shadow areas then mid tones with less and less data being used to record highlights.
Most modern cameras, not just the XDCAM’s simply ignore highlight information beyond what can be recorded, this results in the image getting clipped at a given point depending on the gamma curve being used. Interestingly using negative gain on a camcorder can act as a low end clip as very small brightness changes will be reduced by the negative gain, possibly to the point where they are no longer visible. This  normally results in a reduction in dynamic range (as well as noise). I suspect this is why the F3 has less noise using standard gammas because the sensor has excess dynamic range for theses curves and good sensitivity, so Sony can afford to set the arbitrary 0db point in negative space without impacting the recorded DR but giving a low noise floor benefit. For S-Log however it’s possible to record a greater dynamic range so 0db is returned to true zero and as a result the noise floor increases a little.
LUT’s are just a reverse gamma curve applied to the S-Log curve to restore the curve to one that approximates a standard gamma, normally REC-709. They are there for convenience to provide an approximation of what the finished image might look like. However applying an off the shelf LUT will impact the dynamic range as an assumption has to be made as to which parts of the image to keep and which to discard as we are back to squeezing 12 bits into 7 bits. As every project, possibly every shot will have differing requirements you would need an infinite number of LUT’s to be able to simply hit an “add LUT” button to restore your footage to something sensible. Instead it is more usual for the colorist or grader to generate their own curves to apply to the footage. Most NLE’s already have the filters to do this, it’s simply a case of using a curves filter or gamma curve correction to generate your own curves that can be applied to your clips in lieu of a LUT.


3 thoughts on “More on S-Log and Gamma Curves”

  1. Another great explanation of gamma curves Alister, well done.

    With quality resources like this available to us there’s really no excuse for video professionals to be ignorant of some of the more technical sides of the industry.

    This business is increasingly as much science as art and we need to bring them both together to get the best results.

    I wish I could get my client’s into the habit of grading the material I shoot for them more often, rather than wanting everything shot REC-709…

    1. Depends on the scene, your post workflow, the look you are trying to achieve. Generally I like to protect my highlights as once over exposed, you can never get it back. A starting point would be to shoot with mid grey at 45%.

      I normally just use zebra 2 at 100% as a warning that highlights are about to clip.

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