Category Archives: Shooting Tips

Why Nailing Your Mid Range Will Make Post Production Happy. Even with Cingammas and Hypergammas.

One of the concepts that’s sometimes hard to understand is why mid range exposure is so critical with most video cameras, even cameras with extended dynamic range. Cameras that use Cinegammas, Hypergammas  may give you great dynamic range and extra latitude but it’s still vital that you get your mid range exposed correctly. In many cases, the greater you cameras ability to capture a wide dynamic range the more critical mid range exposure becomes. I’ve often heard comments from users of XDCAM cameras complaining that they find it harder to work with cinegammas and hypergammas than the standard REC-709 gamma.
So why is this, it seams counter intuitive, surely a greater dynamic range makes exposure more forgiving?

exposure1 Why Nailing Your Mid Range Will Make Post Production Happy. Even with Cingammas and Hypergammas.
Typical Standard Gamma

First lets take a look at a standard gamma curve. These graphs are not accurate, just thrown together to illustrate the point. The standard gamma for HD, REC-709 can be considered to be near linear. Certainly in terms of “what you see is what you get” the idea behind REC-709 is that if the camera is set to 709 and the TV or monitor is 709 compliant then we will get a linear 1:1 reproduction of the real world. However REC-709 is based on the gamma curves used at the very beginnings of television broadcasting where TV’s and cameras had very limited dynamic range. True REC-709 only allows for about 6 stops of dynamic range and as a result the version of REC-709 used in most video cameras is tweaked somewhat to allow a greater dynamic range in the region of 8 to 10 stops while still producing a pleasing image on most TV’s. Another way of increasing dynamic range is to introduce some form of signal compression. The simplest form of this in common use is the cameras knee circuit. This simply takes anything above a certain brightness level (typically between 80 and 95%) and compresses it. We normal get away with this compression because it’s only affecting highlights like clouds in a bright sky or a bright window or lamp in the shot. Our own visual system is tuned primarily to mid tones, faces, plants and things like that so we don’t tend to find highlight compression overly obtrusive.
When considering your post production workflow and grading in particular, it’s important to remember that in most cases whenever anything is compressed then some of the original data is being discarded. In addition if the amount of compression is non-linear (increases or decreases with amplitude) then when we add a linear function to that, like adjusting the signal gain the non-linearity is also increased.
Based on these assumptions, you should be able to understand that anything exposed in the linear part of a gamma curve will grade very well because there is no extra compression and gain adjustments will behave as expected. Now if you look at the graph of a typical standard gamma curve (as above) you can see that everything below the knee point is pretty linear, so anything exposed in this range will grade easily and well (assuming it isn’t actually overexposed). For this reason standard gamma can be very forgiving to small over exposure problems as a slightly bright face should still be in the linear part of the curve. However overexpose to the point where the face starts to enter the knee area and all is lost, you’ll never make it look natural.

exposure2 Why Nailing Your Mid Range Will Make Post Production Happy. Even with Cingammas and Hypergammas.
Typical Cinegamma or Hypergamma

Now look at the curve for a typical Cinegamma or Hypergamma. You can see that this curve starts to become more curved and less linear much earlier than a standard gamma. This is how the extra latitude is gained. Compression is used to allow the camera to record a greater brightness range. This extra compression though comes at a price and that is linearity. The further up the exposure range you go the less linear the response (it’s actually becoming logarithmic). The result is that even though you have more dynamic range, if you do overexpose faces and skin tones by even just a small amount they will start to creep into the non linear part of the curve and this makes them harder to grade naturally. You may be less likely to get those ugly blown out highlights on a shiny face typical of video knee compression with cine/hypergammas, but you must still be very careful not to overexpose.

So there you have it. Greater dynamic range does not necessarily equate to more exposure tolerance. In fact it’s often the opposite. You might get better highlight handling, but you may find you need to be even more careful with how you expose. As we go forwards (or sideways at least) and linear raw becomes more common place then you will be able to shift you mid tone exposure up and down with a lot more flexibility as with a linear raw camera the last stop of exposure has the same linearity as the first, so in theory your mid tones can sit anywhere in the exposure range. Sony’s F65 is a great example of this. It has 14 stops of linear dynamic range. A face lit with a 3 stop range could be placed in stops 11-14 and would grade down to wherever you want just perfectly.

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Calibrating your viewfinder or LCD.

smpte-arib-bars-sample Calibrating your viewfinder or LCD.One of the most important things to do before you shoot anything is to make sure that any monitors, viewfinders or LCD panels are accurately calibrated. The majority of modern HD cameras have built in colour bars and these are ideal for checking your monitor. On most Sony cameras you have SMPTE ARIB colour bars like the ones in the image here. Note that I have raised the black level in the image so that you can see some of the key features more clearly. If your using a LCD or OLED monitor connected via HDSDI or HDMI then the main adjustments you will have are for Contrast, Brightness and Saturation.

First set up the monitor or viewfinder so that the 100% white square is shown as peak white on the monitor. This is done by increasing the contrast control until the white box stops getting brighter on the screen. Once it reaches maximum brightness, back the contrast level down until you can just perceive the tiniest of brightness changes on the screen.

Once this is set you now use the pluge bars to set up the black level. The pluge bars are the narrow near black bars that I’ve marked as -2% +2% and +4% in the picture they are each separated by black. The -2% bar is blacker than black so we should not be able to see this. Using the brightness control adjust the screen so that you can’t see the -2% bar but can just see the +2% bar. The 4% bar should also be visible separated from the 2% bar by black.

Color is harder to set accurately. Looking at the bars, the main upper bars are 75% bars so these are fully saturated, but only at 75% luma. The 4 coloured boxes, 2 on each side, two thirds of the way down the pattern are 100% fully saturated boxes. Using the outer 100% boxes increase the saturation or colour level until the color vibrance of the outer boxes stops increasing, then back the level down again until you just perceive the color decreasing. I find this easiest to see with the blue box.

Now you should have good, well saturated looking bars on you monitor or LCD and provided it is of reasonable quality it should be calibrated adequately well for judging exposure.

I find that on an EX or F3 the LCD panel ends up with the contrast at zero, colour at zero and brightness at about +28 on most cameras.

When should I use a Cinegamma or Hypergamma?

Cinegammas are designed to be graded. The shape of the curve with steadily increasing compression from around 65-70% upwards tends to lead to a flat looking image, but maximises the cameras latitude (although similar can be achieved with a standard gamma and careful knee setting). The beauty of the cinegammas is that the gentle onset of the highlight compression means that grading will be able to extract a more natural image from the highlights. Note than Cinegamma 2 is broadcast safe and has slightly reduced recording range than CG 1,3 and 4.

Standard gammas will give a more natural looking picture right up to the point where the knee kicks in. From there up the signal is heavily compressed, so trying to extract subtle textures from highlights in post is difficult. The issue with standard gammas and the knee is that the image is either heavily compressed or not, there’s no middle ground.

In a perfect world you would control your lighting (turning down the sun if necessary ;-o) so that you could use standard gamma 3 (ITU 709 standard HD gamma) with no knee. Everything would be linear and nothing blown out. This would equate to a roughly 7 stop range. This nice linear signal would grade very well and give you a fantastic result. Careful use of graduated filters or studio lighting might still allow you to do this, but the real world is rarely restricted to a 7 stop brightness range. So we must use the knee or Cinegamma to prevent our highlights from looking ugly.

If you are committed to a workflow that will include grading, then Cinegammas are best. If you use them be very careful with your exposure, you don’t want to overexpose, especially where faces are involved. getting the exposure just right with cinegammas is harder than with standard gammas. If anything err on the side of caution and come down 1/2 a stop.

If your workflow might not include grading then stick to the standard gammas. They are a little more tolerant of slight over exposure because skin and foliage won’t get compressed until it gets up to the 80% mark (depending on your knee setting). Plus the image looks nicer straight out of the camera as the cameras gamma should be a close match to the monitors gamma.