I’m going to keep bringing this up until people start to take note and understand that with an electronic camera ISO is NOT sensitivity.
With an electronic camera ISO is a guide to the required shutter speed and aperture needed to get the correct exposure. This is different to sensitivity. The ISO rating of a video camera and it’s sensitivity are closely related, but they are not quite the same thing. Because different gamma curves require different exposures the ISO rating for each gamma curve will be different even though the gain and actual sensitivity of the camera may be exactly the same.
Lets take the Sony PXW-FS5 as an example.
If you shoot using the standard camera settings you should expose white at 90%, middle grey will be around 42% and skin tones typically around 70%. At 0dB gain the camera the camera will display an ISO equivalent rating of 1000 ISO. So let’s say you are using a light meter. You set it to 1000 ISO and it tells you you need an aperture of f5.6 to get the right exposure.
Now you change to S-Log2. If you do nothing else your white card will now be at around 75% and middle grey will be around 40%. At 0dB gain the camera will show an equivalent ISO of 3200 ISO.
But hang on – The camera is still at 0dB gain, so there is no change in sensitivity. .But the camera is over exposed, S-Log2 is supposed to be exposed with white at 59% and middle grey at 32%.
So we go to our light meter and change the ISO on the light meter from 1000 ISO to 3200 ISO. Because the light meter now “thinks” the camera is more sensitive by almost 2 stops it will tell us to close the aperture by nearly 2 stops. So we go to the camera and stop down to f10 and bingo, the image is exposed correctly.
But here’s the important thing – The camera hasn’t become any more sensitive. We haven’t replaced the sensor with a different, more sensitive one (as you would do with a film camera where you actually change the film stock). We are still at 0dB gain (even though the camera tells us this is the equivalent to a higher ISO).
The only reason that ISO number changes is so that if we were using an external light meter we would get the recommended exposure levels for the gamma curve we are using. In this example closing the aperture increase the highlight range that the camera would be able to cope with and this helps us get that full 14 stop range from the camera, although closing the aperture means less light on the sensor so the pictures end up a little noisier as a result – That is unless you choose to rate the camera at a different ISO by over exposing the log a bit.
ISO is useful, but you need to understand that it isn’t really sensitivity. After all we can’t change the sensors on our video cameras and that would be the only way to truly change the sensitivity. Any “sensitivity” change is really nothing more than a gain or amplification change. Useful but not the same as changing the actual sensitivity. Gain will make a dark picture brighter but it won’t allow you to see something that the sensor can’t detect.
It is much easier to understand dB gain with an electronic camera as it actually tells you exactly what the camera is doing and it is actually my recommendation that people use gain rather than ISO for all of the above reasons. The use of ISO on electronic cameras is very badly understood, in part because it’s a largely meaningless term because it doesn’t tell us how sensitive the sensor is, how much gain we are using or how much noise we are adding. Give any experienced camera operator a camera and ask them how noisy will it be a 18dB gain and they will have a pretty good idea of what the pictures will look like. Give them the same camera and ask them how noisy will it be at 8000 ISO and they won’t have a clue.
The problem is ISO is trendy and fashionable as that’s what “cinematographers” use. But lets be honest with ourselves – we are using electronic video cameras, whether that’s a Red, Alexa or FS5 so really we should be using the correct terminology for an electronic camera which is gain. It would eliminate an aweful lot of confusion and tell us how much noise and grain our pictures will have. It’s noise and grain will levels will determine how good a clip looks and how much we can grade it, so we need to clearly understand how much gain is being added in camera and dB gian tells us this. ISO does not.
Side Note: Modern film stocks will often have 2 ratings, the ISO or actual measured sensitivity of the film stock plus the EI or Exposure Index which is the recommended setting for the light meter to get the best exposure. In some respects the ISO rating of a video camera is closer to the EI rating of a film stock. Perhaps we should stop calling it ISO and use the term EI instead, this would be me appropriate and signify that it is a reference for best exposure rather than true sensitivity.
UPDATE: A comment on facebook was why not display both ISO and Gain side by side. This is an obvious solution really. Why do camera manufacturers force us to choose either ISO or gain? Why can’t we use a hybrid of the 2? I see no technical reason why cameras can’t show both the gain and ISO at the same time – Problem solved.