REC-709 – A true REC-709 camera should only have 5 stops of dynamic range!

workshops-275 REC-709 - A true REC-709 camera should only have 5 stops of dynamic range!

In theory if two cameras are both set to REC-709 then the dynamic range should be identical as both cameras responses will be limited to the REC-709 specifications. The original REC-709 specification only allows for 5 stops of dynamic range from 0 to 100%. The addition of superwhites at 109% gives a little more and then the knee on top gives a bit more again. The whole point behind REC-709 is that when a REC-709 camera captures something of a specific brightness, then when that image is shown on a TV or monitor, the apparent brightness will be exactly the same. As REC-709 is based on legacy television standards that go back to the very beginning of television broadcasting, it only allows for the dynamic range of older television sets. If a camera deviates from REC-709 then there will be a miss-match between the image the camera records and the image the viewer sees.

So, if we have two cameras with sensors capable of a dynamic range greater than the REC-709 specifications and then we restrict them to REC-709, they should exhibit identical dynamic range. Just like two cars fitted with speed limiters, they would both have identical maximum speeds.  In fact the REC-709 specification is actually a viewing and display specification, not a camera specification and in reality the REC-709 gamma curves in most cameras don’t correspond exactly to the true 709 monitor specs as everyone would be up in arms if the camera only had a 5 stop range.

With almost any reasonably up to date cameras, anyone comparing a couple of cameras dynamic range with REC-709 and saying A has more dynamic range than B is a bit of a misnomer. Yes there will be differences in the way the gamma curve has been interpreted by the manufacturer or the way the knee works and perhaps camera A will give a more pleasing picture than B, but this is unlikely to actually be due to the dynamic range of the camera, just different ways the manufacturer has chosen to interpret the restrictions imposed by REC-709.

In my opinion, the only times you would want to use 709 is when you are shooting direct for broadcast where there won’t be time for grading or if you have enough control over your lighting to stay within a 6 stop range and that 6 stop range gives you the look you want.

Otherwise, I would use one of the extended range gammas included in most cameras these days, log, cinegamma, hypergamma etc, as these extended range gammas don’t try to comply to the REC-709 specifications they are not restricted to the legacy dynamic range imposed on us by REC-709. As a result they can easily accommodate much greater dynamic ranges and get closer to utilising the camera sensors full range, but at the expense of requiring some grading to restore contrast.

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