One of the most common questions I get asked is “which gamma curve should I use?”.
Well it’s not an easy one to answer because it will depend on many things. There is no one-fits-all gamma curve. Different gamma curves offer different contrast and dynamic ranges.
So why not just use the gamma curve with the greatest dynamic range, maybe log? Log and S-Log are also gamma curves but even if you have Log or S-Log it’s not always going to be the best gamma to use. You see the problem is this: You have a limited size recording bucket into which you must fit all your data. Your data bucket, codec or recording medium will also effect your gamma choice.
If your shooting and recording with an 8 bit camera, anything that uses AVCHD or Mpeg 2 (including XDCAM), then you have 235 bits of data to record your signal. A 10 bit camera or 10 bit external recorder does a bit better with around 940 bits of data, but even so, it’s a limited size data bucket. The more dynamic range you try to record, the less data you will be using to record each stop. Lets take an 8 bit camera for example, try to record 8 stops and that’s about 30 bits per stop. Try to extend that dynamic range out to 11 stops and now you only have about 21 bits per stop. It’s not quite as simple as this as the more advanced gamma curves like hypergammas, cinegammas and S-Log all allocate more data to the mid range and less to highlights, but the greater the dynamic range you try to capture, the less recorded information there will be for each stop.
In a perfect world you would choose the gamma you use to match each scene you shoot. If shooting in a studio where you can control the lighting then it makes a lot of sense to use a standard gamma (no knee or knee off) with a range of up to 7 stops and then light your scene to suit. That way you are maximising the data per stop. Not only will this look good straight out of the camera, but it will also grade well provided your not over exposed.
However the real world is not always contained in a 7 stop range, so you often need to use a gamma with a greater dynamic range. If your going direct to air or will not be grading then the first consideration will be a standard gamma (Rec709 for HD) with a knee. The knee adds compression to just the highlights and extends the over-exposure range by up to 2 or 3 stops depending on the dynamic range of the camera. The problem with the knee is that because it’s either on or off, compressed or not compressed it can look quite electronic and it’s one of the dead giveaways of video over film.
If you don’t like the look of the knee yet still need a greater dynamic range, then there are the various extended range gammas like Cinegamma, Hypergamma or Cinestyle. These extend the dynamic range by compressing highlights, but unlike the knee, the amount of compression starts gradually and get progressively greater. This tends to look more film like than the on/off knee as it tends to roll off highlights much more gently. But, to get this gentle roll-off the compression starts lower in the exposure range so you have to be very careful not to over expose your mid-range as this can push faces and skin tones etc into the compressed part of the curve and things won’t look good. Another consideration is that as you are now moving away from the gamma used for display in most TV’s and monitors the pictures will be a little flat so a slight grade often helps with these extended gammas.
Finally we come to log gammas like S-Log, C-Log etc. These are a long way from display gamma, so will need to be graded to like right. In addition they are adding a lot of compression (log compression) to the image so exposure becomes super critical. Normally you’ll find the specified recording levels for middle grey and white to be much lower with log gammas than conventional gammas. White with S-Log for example should only be exposed at 68%. The reason for this is the extreme amount of mid to highlight compression, so your mid range needs to be recorded lower to keep it out of the heavily compressed part of the log gamma curve. Skin tones with log are often in the 40 – 50% range compared to the 60-70% range commonly used with standard gammas. Log curves do normally provide the very best dynamic range (apart from raw), but they will need grading and ideally you want to grade log footage in a dedicated grading package that supports log corrections. If you grade log in your edit suite using linear (normal gamma) effects your end results won’t be as good as they could be. The other thing with log is now your recording anything up to 13 or 14 stops of dynamic range. With an 8 bit codec that’s only 17 – 18 bits per stop, which really isn’t a lot, so for log really you want to be recording with a very high quality 10 bit codec and possibly an external recorder. Remember with a standard gamma your over 30 bits per stop, now were looking at almost half that with log!
Shooting flat: There is a lot of talk about shooting flat. Some of this comes from people that have seen high dynamic range images from cameras with S-Log or similar which do look very flat. You see, the bigger the captured dynamic range the flatter the images will look. Consider this: On a TV, with a camera with a 6 stop range, the brightest thing the camera can capture will appear as white and the darkest as black. There will be 5 stops between white and black. Now shoot the same scene with a camera with a 12 stop range and show it on the same TV. Again the brightest is white and black is black, but the original 6 stops that the first camera was able to capture are now only being shown using half of the available brightness range of the TV as the new camera is capturing 12 stops in total, so the first 6 stops will now have only half the maximum display contrast. The pictures would look flatter. If a camera truly has greater dynamic range then in general you will get a flatter looking image, but it’s also possible to get a flat looking picture by raising the black level or reducing the white level. In this case the picture looks flat, but in reality has no more dynamic range than the original. Be very careful of modified gammas said to give a flat look and greater dynamic range from cameras that otherwise don’t have great DR. Often these flat gammas don’t increase the true dynamic range, they just make a flat picture with raised blacks which results in less data being assigned to the mid range and as a result less pleasing finished images.
So the key points to consider are:
Where you can control your lighting, consider using standard gamma.
The bigger the dynamic range you try to capture, the less information per stop you will be recording.
The further you deviate from standard gamma, the more likely the need to grade the footage.
The bigger the dynamic range, the more compressed the gamma curve, the more critical accurate mid range exposure becomes.
Flat isn’t always better.