This is something that’s not well understood by many people. It helps explain why the PMW-F3 (and other cameras) EI S-Log function is so useful.
You see, camera gain does not normally actually change the cameras ability to capture photons of light. A CCD or CMOS sensor has a number of photo sites that capture photons of light and convert those photons into electrons or electrical charge. The efficiency of that capture and conversion process is fixed, it’s known as the QE or quantum efficiency. There are a lot of factors that effect this efficiency, such as the use of micro lenses, whether the sensor is back or front illuminated etc. But all of these factors are physical design factors that do not change when you add extra camera gain. The sensitivity of the sensor itself remains constant, no matter what the camera gain is set to.
Camera gain is applied to the signal coming out of the sensor. It’s a bit like turning up the volume on a stereo amplifier. If you have a quite piece of music, turning up the volume makes it louder, but the original piece of music is still a quiet piece of music. Turning up the volume on your stereo, as well as making the music louder will also make any hiss or background noise in the music louder and it’s exactly the same with a video camera. As you increase the gain, as well as the wanted video signal getting bigger (brighter) all the unwanted noise also get bigger. So adding gain on your video camera doesn’t actually make the camera more sensitive, but it does make what light the camera has captured brighter in the recordings and output, giving the impression that the camera has become more sensitive, however this is at the penalty of increased background noise.
As well as adding gain to the image in the camera, we can also add gain in post production. Traditionally gain has been added in camera because the gain is added before the recording process. In the uncompressed analog days the recording process itself added a lot of noise. In the digital age the process of compressing the image adds noise. 8 bit recordings have quite small number of grey shades. So any gain added in post production amplifies not only the camera signal but also the added recording or compression noise so generally gives an inferior result to adding gain in camera. With an 8 bit signal the stretching of the relatively few grey shades results in banding.
Now, however the use of lower noise sensors and much improved 10 bit or higher recording codecs or even uncompressed recording means that adding gain in post as opposed to in camera is not such a bad thing. In some cases you can use post production noise reduction prior to adding post gain and by leveraging the processing and rendering power of a computer, which will normally be of greater quality than the in camera processing, you can get a cleaner, lower noise output than you would using in camera gain. So before you flick on the gain switch of your camera, if your using only very light 10 bit or higher compression (HDCAM SR, Cineform, ProRes HQ) or uncompressed do consider that you may actually be better waiting until you get into post before you add gain.
Some modern cameras, like Red or the Sony F3 can use something called EI gain. EI gain does not actually add any gain to the recorded signal (or signal output in the case of the F3). Instead it adds gain to the monitor output only and adds metadata to the recording to tell the post facility or conversion software to add gain. This way you see on the monitor what the image should look like when the gain has been added, but the recording itself has no gain added giving the post production team the ability to fine tune exactly how much gain is applied.