I have been asked whether you should still expose log a bit brighter than the recommended base levels on the Sony PXW-FS5 now that Sony have released new firmware that gives it a slightly lower base ISO. In this article I take a look at why it might be a good idea to expose log (with any camera) a bit brighter than perhaps the manufacturer recommends.
There are a couple of reasons to expose log nice and bright, not just noise. Exposing log brighter makes no difference to the dynamic range. That’s determined by the sensor and the gain point at which the sensor is working. You want the camera to be at it’s native sensitivity or 0dB gain to get that maximum dynamic range.
Exposing brighter or darker doesn’t change the dynamic range but it does move the mid point of the exposure range up and down. Exposing brighter increases the under exposure range but decreases the over exposure range. Exposing darker decreases the under exposure range but increases the over exposure range.
Something that’s important when thinking about dynamic range and big dynamic ranges in particular is that dynamic range isn’t just about the highlights it’s also about the shadows, it isn’t just over exposure, it’s under exposure too, it’s RANGE.
So why is a little bit of extra light often beneficial? You might call it “over exposure” but that’s not a term I like to use as it implies “too much exposure”. I prefer to use “brighter exposure”.
It’s actually quite simple, it’s about putting a bit more light on to the sensor. Most sensors perform better when you put a little extra light on them. One thing you can be absolutely sure of – if you don’t put enough light on the sensor you won’t get the best pictures.
Put more light on to the sensor and the shadows come up out of the sensors noise floor. So you will see further into the shadows. I’ve had people comment that “why would I ever want to use the shadows, they are always noisy and grainy”? But that’s the whole point – expose a bit brighter and the shadows will be much less noisy, they will come up out of the noise. Expose 1 stop brighter and you halve the shadow noise (for the same shadows at the previous exposure). Shadows are are only ever noise ridden if you have under exposed them.
This is particularly relevant in controlled lighting. Say you light a scene for 9 stops. So you have 9 stops of dynamic range but a 14 stop sensor. Open up the aperture, put more light on the sensor, you get a better signal to noise ratio, less noisy shadows but no compromise of any type to the highlights because if the scene is 9 stops and you have 14 to play with, you can bring the exposure up by a couple of stops comfortably within the 14 stop capture range.
Look at the above diagram of Sony’s S-Log2 and S-Log3 curves. The vertical 0 line in the middle is middle grey. Note how above middle grey the log curves are more or less straight lines. That’s because above the nominal middle grey exposure level each stop is recorded with the same amount of data, this you get a straight line when you plot the curve against exposure stops. So that means that it makes very little difference where you expose the brighter parts of the image. Expose skin tones at stop + 1 or stop +3 and they will have a very similar amount of code values (I’m not considering the way dynamic range expands in the scene you shoot as you increase the light in the scene in this discussion). So it makes little difference whether you expose those skin tones at stop +1 or +3, after grading they will look the same.
Looking at the S-Log curve plots again note what happens below the “0” middle grey line. The curves roll off into the shadows. Each stop you go down has less data than the one before, roughly half as much. This mimics the way the light in a real scene behaves, but it also means there is less data for each stop. This is one of the key reasons why you never, ever want to be under exposed as if you are underexposed you mid range ends up in this roll off and will lack data making it not only noisy but also hard to grade as it will lack contrast and tonal information.
Open up by 1 additional stop and each of those darker stops is raised higher up the recording curve by one stop and every stop that was previously below middle grey doubles the amount of tonal values compared to before, so that’s 8 stops that will have 2x more data than before. This gives you a nice fat (lots of data) mid range that grades much better, not just because it has less noise but because you have a lot more data where you really need it – in the mid range.
Note: Skin tones can cover a wide exposure range, but typically the mid point is around 1 to 1.5 stops above middle grey. In a high contrast lighting situation skin tones will start just under middle grey and extend to about 2 stops over. If you accidentally under expose by 1 stop or perhaps don’t have enough light for the correct exposure you will seriously degrade the quality of your skin tones as half of your skin tones will be well below middle grey and in the data roll-off.
Now of course you do have to remember that if your scene does have a very large dynamic range opening up an extra stop might mean that some of the very brightest highlights might end up clipped. But I’d happily give up a couple of specular highlights for a richer more detailed mid range because when it comes to highlights – A: you can’t show them properly anyway because we don’t have 14 stop TV screens and B: because highlights are the least important part of our visual range.
A further consideration when we think about the highlights is that with log there is no highlight roll-off. Most conventional gamma curves incorporate a highlight roll-off to help increase the highlight range. These traditional highlight roll-offs reduce the contrast in the highlights as the levels are squeezed together and as a result the highlights contain very little tonal information. So even after grading they never look good, no matter what you do. But log has no highlight roll-off. So even the very brightest stop, the one right on the edge of clipping contains just as much tonal information as each of the other brighter than middle grey stops. As a result there is an amazingly large amount of detail than can be pulled out of these very bright stops, much more than you would ever be able to pull from most conventional gammas.
Compare log to standard gammas for a moment. Log has a shadow roll-off but no highlight roll-off. Most standard gammas have a strong highlight roll-off. Log is the opposite of standard gammas. With standard gammas, because of the highlight roll-off, we normally avoid over exposure because it doesn’t look good. With Log we need to avoid under exposure because of the shadow roll-off, it is the opposite to shooting with standard gammas.
As a result I strongly recommend you never, ever under expose log. I normally like to shoot log between 1 and 2 stops brighter than the manufacturers base recommendation.
Next week: Why is a Sony camera like the FS7,F5 800 ISO with standard gamma but 2000 ISO in log and how does that impact the image?