Tales of exposure from the grading suite.

I had the pleasure of listening to Pablo Garcia Soriano the resident DiT/Colorist at the Sony Digital Motion Picture Center at Pinewood Studios last week talk about grading modern digital cinema video cameras during the WTS event .

The thrust of his talk was about exposure and how getting the exposure right during the shoot makes a huge difference in how much you can grade the footage in post. His main observation was that many people are under exposing the camera and this leads to excessive noise which makes the pictures hard to grade.

There isn’t really any real way to reduce the noise in a video camera because nothing you normally do can change the sensitivity of the sensor or the amount of noise it produces. Sure, noise reduction can mask noise, but it doesn’t really get rid of it and it often introduces other artefacts. So the only way to change the all important signal to noise ratio, if you can’t change the noise, is to change the signal.

In a video camera that means opening the aperture and letting in more light. More light means a bigger video signal and as the noise remains more or less constant that means a better signal to noise ratio.

If you are shooting log or raw then you do have a fair amount of leeway with your exposure. You can’t go completely crazy with log, but you can often over expose by a stop or two with no major issues. You know, I really don’t like using the term “over-expose”  in these situations. But that’s what you might want to do, to let in up to 2 stops more light than you would normally.

In photography, photographers shooting raw have been using a technique called exposing to the right (ETTR) for a long time. The term comes from the use of a histogram to gauge exposure and then exposing so the the signal goes as far to the right on the histogram as possible (the right being the “bright” side of the scale). If you really wanted to have the best possible signal to noise ratio you could use this method for video too. But ETTR means setting your exposure based on your brightest highlights and as highlights will be different from shot to shot this means the mid range of you shot will go up and down in exposure depending on how bright the highlights are. This is a nightmare for the colorist as it’s the mid-tones and mid range that is the most important, this is what the viewer notices more than anything else. If these are all over the place the colorist has to work very hard to normalise the levels and it can lead to a lot of variability in the footage.  So while ETTR might be the best way to get the very best signal to noise ratio (SNR), you still need to be consistent from shot to shot so really you need to expose for mid range consistency, but shift that mid range a little brighter to get a better SNR.

Pablo told his audience that just about any modern digital cinema camera will happily tolerate at least 3/4 of a stop of over exposure and he would always prefer footage with very slightly clipped highlights rather than deep shadows lost in the noise. He showed a lovely example of a dark red car that was “correctly” exposed. The deep red body panels of the car were full of noise and this made grading the shot really tough even though it had been exposed by the book.

When I shoot with my F5 or FS7 I always rate them a stop slower that the native ISO of 2000. So I set my EI to 1000 or even 800 and this gives me great results. With the F55 I rate that at 800 or even 640EI. The F65 at 400EI.

If you ever get offered a chance to see one of Pablo’s demos at the DMPCE go and have a listen. He’s very good.

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