Tag Archives: gain

Noise, ISO, Gain, S-Log2 v S-Log3 and exposure.

Even though I have written about these many times before the message still just doesn’t seem to be getting through to people.

Since the dawn of photography and video the only way to really change the signal to noise ratio and ultimately how noisy the pictures are is by changing how much light you put onto the sensor.

Gain, gamma, log, raw, etc etc only have a minimal effect on the signal to noise ratio. Modern cameras do admittedly employ a lot of noise reduction processes to help combat high noise levels, but these come at a price. Typically they soften the image or introduce artefacts such as banding, smear or edge tearing. So you always want to start off with the best possible image from the sensor with the least possible noise and the only way to achieve that is through good exposure – putting the optimum amount of light onto the sensor.

ISO is so confusing:

But just to confuse things the use of ISO to rate an electronic cameras sensitivity has become normal. But the problem is that most people have no clue about what this really means. On an electronic camera ISO is NOT a sensitivity measurement, it is nothing more than a number that you can put into an external light meter to allow you to use that light meter to obtain settings for the shutter speed and aperture that will give you the camera manufacturers suggest optimum exposure. That’s it – and that is very different to sensitivity.

Lets take Sony’s FS7 as an example (most other cameras behave in a very similar way).

If you set the FS7 up at 0dB gain, rec-709, it will have an exposure rating of 800 ISO. Use a light meter to expose with the meters ISO dial set to 800. Lets say the light meter says set the aperture to f8. When you do this the image is correctly exposed, looks good (well as good as 709 gets at least) and for most people has a perfectly acceptable amount of noise.

Now switch the camera to S-Log2 or S-Log3. With the camera still set to 0dB the ISO rating changes to 2000 which give the impression that the camera may have become more sensitive. But did we change the sensor? No.  Have we added any more gain? No, we have not, the camera is still at 0dB. But if you now expose at the recommended levels, after you have done your grading and you grade to levels similar to 709 the pictures will look quite a lot noisier than pictures shot using Rec-709.

So what’s going on?

If you now go back to the light meter to expose the very same scene, you turn the ISO dial on the light meter from 800 to 2000 ISO and the light meter will tell you to now set the aperture to f13 (approx). So starting at the f8 you had for 800 ISO, you close the aperture on the camera by 1.3 stops to f13 and you will have the “correct” exposure.

BUT: now you are putting 1.3 stops less light on to the sensor so the signal coming from the sensor is reduced by 9dB and as a result the sensor noise that is always there and never really changes is much more noticeable. As a result compared to 709 the graded S-Log looks noisy and it looks noisier by the equivalent of 9dB. This is not because you have changed the cameras sensitivity or changed because you have changed the amount of camera gain but because compared to when you shoot in 709 the sensor is being under exposed and as a result it is outputting a signal 9dB lower. So in post production when you grade or add a LUT you have to add 9dB of gain to get the same brightness as the original direct rec-709 recording and as well as making the desirable image brighter it also makes the noise 9dB higher (unless you do some very fancy noise reduction work in post).

So what do you do?

It’s common simply to open the aperture back up again, typically by 1.5 stops so that after post production grading the S-log looks no more noisy than the 709 from the FS7 – Because in reality the FS7’s sensor works best for most people when rated at the equivalent of 800 ISO rather than 2000 – probably because it’s real sensitivity is 800 ISO.

When you think about it, when you shoot with Rec-709 or some other gamma that won’t be graded it’s important that it looks good right out of the camera. So the camera manufacturer will ensure that the rec-709 noise and grain v sensitivity settings are optimum – so this is probably the optimum ISO rating for the camera in terms of noise, grain and sensitivity.

So don’t be fooled into thinking that the FS7 is more sensitive when shooting with log, because it isn’t. The only reason the ISO rating goes up as it does is so that if you were using a light meter it would make you put less light onto the sensor which then allows the sensor to handle a brighter highlight range. But of course if you put less light onto the sensor the sensor won’t be able to see so far into the shadows and the picture may be noisy which limits still further the use of any shadow information. So it’s a trade-off, more highlights but less shadows and more noise. But the sensitivity is actually the same. Its’s an exposure change not a sensitivity change.

So then we get into the S-Log2 or S-Log3 debate.

First of all lets just be absolutely clear that both have exactly the same highlight and shadow ranges. Both go to +6 stops and -8 stops, there is no difference in that regard. Period.

And lets also be very clear that both have exactly the same signal to noise ratios. S-log3 is NOT noisier than S-log2. S-log 3 records some of the mid range using higher code values than S-Log2 and before you grade it that can sometimes make it appear like it’s noisier, but the reality is, it is not noisier.  Just like the differing ISO ratings for different gamma curves, this isn’t a sensitivity change, it’s just different code values being used. See this article if you want the hard proof: http://www.xdcam-user.com/2014/03/understanding-sonys-slog3-it-isnt-really-noisy/

Don’t forget when you shoot with log you will be grading the image. So you will be adjusting the brightness of the image. If you grade S-Log2 and S-Log3 to the same brightness levels the cumulative gain (the gain added in camera and the gain added in post) ends up the same. So it doesn’t matter which you use in low light the final image, assuming a like for like grade will have the same amount of noise.

For 8 bit records S-Log2 has different benefits.

S-Log2 was designed from the outset for recording 14 stops with an electronic video camera. So it makes use of the cameras full recording range. S-Log3 is based on an old film log curve (cineon) designed to transfer 16 stops or more to a digital intermediate. So when the camera only has a 14 stop sensor you waste a large part of the available recording range. On a 10 bit camera this doesn’t make much difference. But on a 8 bit camera where you are already very limited with the number of tonal values you can record it isn’t ideal and as a result S-Log2 is often a better choice.

But if I shoot raw it’s all going to be so much better – isn’t it?

Yes, no, maybe…. For a start there are lot’s of different types of raw. There is linear raw, log raw, 10 bit log raw, 12 bit linear, 16 bit linear and they are all quite different.

But they are all limited by what the sensor can see and how noisy the sensor is. So raw won’t give you less noise (it might give different looking noise). Raw won’t give you a bigger dynamic range so it won’t allow you to capture deeper or brighter highlights.

But what raw does normally is to give you more data and normally less compression than the cameras internal recordings. In the case of Sony’s FS5 the internal UHD recordings are 8 bit and highly compressed while the raw output is 12 bit, that’s a 4 fold increase in the amount of tonal values. You can record the 12bit raw using uncompressed cDNG or Apples new ProResRaw codec which doesn’t introduce any appreciable compression artefacts and as a result the footage is much more flexible in post production. Go up to the Sony Venice, F5 or F55 cameras and you have 16 bit raw and X-OCN (which behaves exactly like raw) which has an absolutely incredible range of tonal values and is a real pleasure to work with in post production. But even with the Venice camera the raw does not have more dynamic range than the log. However because there are far more tonal values in the raw and X-OCN you can do more with it and it will hold up much better to aggressive grading.

It’s all about how you expose.

At the end of the day with all of these camera and formats how you expose is the limiting factor. A badly exposed Sony Venice probably won’t end up looking anywhere near as good as a well exposed FS7. A badly exposed FS7 won’t look as good as a well exposed FS5. No camera looks good when it isn’t exposed well.

Exposure isn’t brightness. You can add gain to make a picture brighter, you can also change the gamma curve to change how bright it is.  But these are not exposure changes. Exposure is all about putting the optimum amount of light onto the sensor. Enough light to produce a signal from the sensor that will overcome the sensors noise. But also not so much light that the sensor overloads. That’s what good exposure is. Fiddling around with gamma curves and gain settings will only every make a relatively small difference to noise levels compared to good exposure. There’s just no substitute for faster lenses, reflectors or actually adding light if you want clean images.

And don’t be fooled by ISO ratings. They don’t tell you how noisy the picture is going to be, they don’t tell you what the sensitivity is or even if it’s actually changing. All it tells you is what to set a light meter to.

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Firmware 4.30/1.20 for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7M2 Released. New ISO change in Cine-EI added.

Sony have just released a firmware update for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7 II cameras. This is a minor update with only one new feature being added which is the ability to alter the recorded ISO when shooting in the Cine-EI mode.

FS7: https://pro.sony/ue_US/support/software/pxw-fs7-software-v4-30

FS7 II: https://pro.sony/ue_US/support/software/pxw-fs7m2-v120

When the camera is set to CineEI, this new function is turned on and off in the menu under System – Base Settings – Rec/Out EI Applied.

What does it do?

When shooting normally using Cine EI, assuming that no LUT is applied to SDI1/Rec the camera always records at it’s base sensitivity (2000 ISO exposure rating) with no added gain. This is done to ensure that the cameras full dynamic range is always available and that the full recording range of either S-Log2 or S-Log3 is always available.

Then the EI system is used to apply a LUT just to the viewfinder or SDI 2 for monitoring. The gain of the LUT can then be changed to provide a brighter or darker viewfinder/monitor image. For example setting the EI to 1000 EI would make the viewfinder image darker than the base setting of 2000EI by 1 stop.

VF-side-by-side Firmware 4.30/1.20 for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7M2 Released. New ISO change in Cine-EI added.
2000EI and 1000EI as seen in the viewfinder with NO exposure change (image from PMW-F5, but the FS7 is more or less the same).

Because you are viewing this darker image you would then open the cameras aperture by 1 stop to compensate. Opening the aperture up results in a brighter recording. A brighter recording, achieved by putting more light onto the sensor will have less noise than a darker exposure, so the end result is brighter recorded images with less noise.

This process is often referred to as “rating” the camera and it is in many cases preferable to “rate” the FS7 around a stop slower (Viewfinder is darker, less sensitive, so that means you end up opening up the aperture) than the base 2000 ISO rating to gain a cleaner image that typically gives much greater flexibility in post production. So many users will set the EI on an FS7 to 1000 or 800 (It’s no co-incidence that I find  get the sweet spot to be 800EI which happens to match the rating that Sony give the FS7 when shooting Rec-709).

Because in the normal EI mode there is no change to the cameras actual recording gain (the recordings take place at the equivalent of 2000 ISO) there is no change to the dynamic range. The camera will always capture 14 stops no matter what you set the EI to. However if you open the aperture by an extra stop (selecting 1000 EI, which results in a 1 stop darker viewfinder image, so to compensate you open up 1 stop) you move the mid point of the exposure up 1 stop. This means you will reduce the over exposure headroom by 1 stop but at the same time you gain one stop of under exposure range. You will see 1 stop further into the shadows, plus there will be less noise, so the shadow range becomes much more useable.

Conventional EI mode and Post Production.

In post production these brightly exposed images will need some degree of adjustment. If you are doing a virgin grade from scratch then you don’t really need to do anything extra or different, you will just grade it to taste.

If you are using a LUT you will need to either use an exposure compensated LUT (I always provide these in any of my free LUT sets) or you will need to correct the exposure before applying the LUT. If you apply a standard LUT and then try to correct the exposure the results will often not be satisfactory as the LUT determines many things such as where any highlight roll-off occurs. Correcting after this can result in washed out of flat looking skin tones. So really you need to make the exposure correction to the material before it is passed to the LUT.

No loss of dynamic range with conventional EI.

It’s worth noting that even though the levels are reduced to “normal” levels when applying an exposure compensated LUT or through grading this should not reduce the dynamic range. You do not just shift the range down (which would hard clip the blacks and cause a loss of DR at the low end). What you are typically doing is reducing the gain to bring the levels down and this allows the information in the new extended shadow range to be retained, so nothing is lost and your footage will still have 14 stops of DR along with nice clean shadows and mid tones.

Is this all too difficult?

However, some people find that the need to correct the exposure prior to adding the LUT difficult or time consuming (I don’t know why, they just do. It takes  no longer to add a compensated LUT than a normal LUT). Or some people find it difficult to get a good looking image from  brightly exposed footage (probably because they are grading after the LUT has been applied). For these reasons Sony have added the ability to bake the EI change directly into the recording by shifting the gain of the recordings to match the selected EI.

Rec/Out EI Applied:

So now if you enable Rec/Out EI Applied any change you make to the cameras EI settings will now also be applied as a gain change to the recordings. If you set the EI to 1000, then the recordings will take place at 1000 ISO and not 2000 ISO. This means that you do not have to make any exposure corrections in post production, just apply a standard LUT.

You will loose some of your dynamic range:

The down side to this is that you are now changing the gain of the camera. Changing the gain away from 0dB will reduce the dynamic range and affect the recording range. So, for example if you wish to shoot at 1000 EI have Rec/Out EI Applied you will be recording with -6dB gain and an effective ISO of 1000. You will have 1 stop less of shadow range as the cameras effective sensitivity is being reduced by 1 stop but the sensors clip/overload point remains the same. So when you open the aperture to compensate for the lower sensitivity you will have the same shadow range as base, but loose one stop off the top. The images will have less noise, but there will be no additional shadow information and a reduction in highlight range by 1 stop, the DR will be 13 stops.

Another side effect of this is that the peak recording level is also reduced. This is because the cameras clipping point is determined by the sensor. This sensor clip point is normally mapped to the peak recording level and the cameras noise floor is mapped to the black level (you can’t see things that are darker than the sensors noise floor no matter what level of gain you use as the noise will always be higher than the object brightness).

Slide2-1 Firmware 4.30/1.20 for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7M2 Released. New ISO change in Cine-EI added.If you reduce the gain of the signal this level must decrease as a result. This means that S-Log3 which normally gets to around ~94% will now only reach ~85%, the change to S-Log2 is even greater (S-Log3’s peak recording level will reduce by 8.9% for every stop down you go, S-Log2 will reduce by 12% for each stop you go down ).

Slide6-1 Firmware 4.30/1.20 for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7M2 Released. New ISO change in Cine-EI added.

 

Raising the EI/ISO will also reduce the dynamic range as the gain is applied after the sensor. So the sensors clip point remains the same, so the brightest highlight it handles remains fixed. Adding gain after this simply means the recordings will clip earlier, but you will get a brighter mid range, brighter (but not more) shadows and a noisier picture.

Slide4-1 Firmware 4.30/1.20 for the PXW-FS7 and PXW-FS7M2 Released. New ISO change in Cine-EI added.

 

What happens in post with Rec/Out EI Applied?

In post production these range and peak level changes mean that while a standard LUT will result in a correct looking mid range (because middle grey and skin tones will be at “normal” levels) there may be some problems with highlights never reaching 100% in the case of a low EI/ISO. Or being excessively clipped in the case of a high EI/ISO.  Remember LUT’s are designed to work over very specific ranges. So if the input to the LUT doesn’t reach the peak level the LUT is expecting then the output from the LUT will also be reduced. So often there will still be the need to do some additional grading of highlights prior to the application of the LUT, or the need to use LUT’s designed specifically for each ISO rating (and the design of these LUT’s is more complex than a simple exposure offset).

Is it really easier?

So while this new feature will simplify the workflow for some situations where an alternate ISO/EI has been used – because exposure correction in post production won’t be needed. It may actually make things more difficult if you have bright highlights or need to be sure that your finished video meets expected standards where highlights are at 100%. You will still need to do some grading.

I don’t recommend that you use it.

Personally I do not recommend that you use this new feature. There are plenty of exposure compensated LUT’s available online (I have lots here). Tweaking the exposure of log footage in post production isn’t that difficult, especially if you use a color managed workflow. My guess is that this is aimed at FCP-X users where FCP-X applies a default LUT as standard. In this instance footage shoot with an offset exposure will look over/under exposed while footage shoot with the EI/ISO Applied will look normal (except for the highlights). So on the face of things the workflow may appear simpler. But you are loosing dynamic range and surely the primary reason for shooting with log is to maximise the dynamic range and gain the greatest possible post production flexibility.  This new feature reduces dynamic range and as a result reduces post production flexibility.

Of course just because I don’t recommend it’s use, it doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t use it if it works for you, just make sure you fully understand what it is doing.

What does ISO mean with todays cameras?

Once upon a time the meaning of ISO was quite clear. It was a standardised sensitivity rating of the film stock you were using. If you wanted more sensitivity, you used film with a higher ISO rating. But today the meaning of ISO is less clear and we can’t swap our sensor out for more or less sensitive ones. So what does it mean?

ISO is short for International Standards Organisation. And they specify many, many different standards for many different things. For example ISO 3166 is for country codes, ISO 50001 is for energy management.

But in our world of film and TV there are two ISO standards that we have blended into one and we just call it “ISO”.

ISO 5800:2001 is the system used to determine the sensitivity of color negative film found by plotting the density of the film against exposure to light.

ISO 12232:2006 specifies the method for assigning and reporting ISO speed ratings, ISO speed latitude ratings, standard output sensitivity values, and recommended exposure index values, for digital still cameras.

Note a key difference: ISO 5800 is the measurement of the actual sensitivity to light of film.  ISO 12232 is a standardised way to report the speed rating, it is not a direct sensitivity measurement.

Within the digital camera ISO rating system there are 5 different standards that a camera manufacturer can use when obtaining the ISO rating of a camera. The most commonly used method is the Recommended Exposure Index (REI) method, which allows the manufacturer to specify a camera model’s EI or base ISO arbitrarily based on what the manufacturer believes produces a satisfactory image. So it’s not really a measure of the cameras sensitivity, but a rating that if used with a standard external calibrated light meter to set the exposure will give a satisfactory looking image. This is very different to a sensitivity measurement and variations in the opinion as to what is a satisfactory image will vary from person to person. So there is a lot of scope for movement as to how an electronic camera might be rated.

As you cannot change the sensor in a digital camera, you cannot change the cameras efficiency at converting light into electrons (which is largely determined by the materials used and the physical construction). So you cannot change the actual sensitivity of the camera to light. But we have all seen how the ISO number of most digital cameras can normally be increased (and sometimes lowered) from the base ISO number.

Raising and lowering the ISO in an electronic camera is normally done by adjusting the amplification of the signal coming from the sensor, typically referred to as “gain” in the camera. It’s not actually a physical change in the cameras sensitivity to light, it like turning up the volume on a radio to make the music louder. Dual ISO cameras that claim not to add gain when switching between ISO’s typically do this by adjusting the way the signal from the sensor is converted from an analog signal to a digital one. While it is true that this is different to a gain shift it does typically alter the noise levels as to make the picture brighter you need to sample the sensors output lower down and closer to the noise floor. Once again though it is not an actual sensitivity change, it does not alter the sensors sensitivity to light, you are just picking a different part of it’s output range.

Noise and Signal To Noise Ratio.

Most of the noise in the pictures we shoot comes from the sensor and the level of this noise coming from the sensor is largely unchanged no matter what you do (some dual ISO cameras use variations in the way the sensor signal is sampled to shift the noise floor up and down a bit). So the biggest influence on the signal to noise ratio is the amount of light you put on the sensor. More light = More signal. The noise remains the same but the signal is bigger so you get a better signal to noise ratio, up to the point where the sensor overloads.

But what about low light?

To obtain a brighter image when there the light levels are low and the picture coming from the sensor looks dark the signal coming from the sensor is boosted or amplified (gain is added). This amplification makes both the desirable signal bigger but also the noise bigger. If we make the desirable picture 2 times brighter we also make the noise 2 x bigger. As a result the picture will be more noisy and grainy than one where we had enough light to get the brightness we want.

The signal to noise ratio deteriorates because the added amplification means the recording will clip more readily. Something that is close to the recordings clip point may be sent above the clip point by adding gain, so the range you can record reduces while the noise gets bigger. However the optimum exposure is now achieved with less light so the equivalent ISO number is increased. If you were using a light meter you would increase the ISO setting on the light meter to get the correct exposure. But the camera isn’t more sensitive, it’s just that the optimum amount of light for the “best” or “correct” exposure is reduced due to the added amplification.

So with an electronic camera, ISO is a rating that will give you the correct brightness of recording for the amount of light and the amount of gain that you have. This is different to sensitivity. Obviously the two are related, but they are not quite the same thing.

Getting rid of noise:

To combat the inevitable noise increase as you add gain/amplification most modern cameras use electronic noise reduction which is applied more and more aggressively as you increase the gain. At low levels this goes largely un-noticed. But as you start to add more gain and thus and more noise reduction you will start to degrade the image. It may become softer, it may become smeary. You may start to see banding ghosting or other artefacts.

Often as you increase the gain you may only see a very small increase in noise as the noise reduction does a very good job of hiding the noise. But for every bit of noise thats reduced there will be another artefact replacing it.

Technically the signal to noise ratio is improved by the use of noise reduction, but this typically comes at a price and NR can be very problematic if you later want to grade or adjust the footage as often you won’t see the artefacts until after the corrections or adjustments have been made. So be very careful when adding gain. It’s never good to have extra gain.

ISO Confusion Once Again!

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.

PXW-FS5 Native ISO’s

THIS DOCUMENT IS OUT OF DATE NEW FIRMWARE HAS CHANGED THE CAMERAS ISO”S.

This is as much for my benefit as yours as I can never remember what the native ISO (0dB) is for each of the gamma curves in the FS5.

Standard 1000 ISO
Still 800 ISO
Cinegamma 1  800 ISO
Cinegamma 2  640 ISO
Cinegamma 3  1000 ISO
Cinegamma 4  1000 ISO
ITU709 1000 ISO
ITU709(800) 3200 ISO
S-Log2 3200 ISO
S-Log3 3200 ISO

Using dB and setting it to 0dB really is so much easier with this camera!

Understanding the all important “Signal to Noise Ratio”.

The Signal to Noise ratio is one of the key factors in determining the quality of a video or stills image. A noisy, grainy picture rarely looks as good as a low noise “clean” image. In addition it’s noise in your images will limit how far you can grade them before the picture quality becomes unacceptably poor.

Almost always what you want is the biggest possible signal with the least possible noise. In a video or film camera the signal is the desired image information or in simple terms the picture. While the noise is…. well….. the noise.

Once upon a time, when film cameras were normal for both still photography and film the noise in the pictures came primarily from the grain structure of the film stock. One of the great features of film cameras is that you can actually change that film stock to suit the type of scene that you are shooting. For low light you could use a more sensitive film stock that was actually truly more sensitive to light. However, often a very sensitive film stock will show more noise as the grain of more sensitive film is normally larger.

With video and digital stills cameras however things are quite different. You can’t normally change the sensor in a video camera and it’s the sensor that determines the sensitivity of the camera and it is the sensor that is the source of the majority of the noise.

Modern CMOS video sensors consist of two parts. The light gathering part and the readout part. The size of the pixels on a sensor is one of the key factors in determining the sensitivity and dynamic range. Small pixels are not good at capturing, converting and storing large numbers of photons of light or electrons of electricity.  Bigger pixels are much better at this, so big pixels typically mean better sensitivity and a better dynamic range. Each pixel is unique and as a result every pixel on the sensor will perform slightly differently. The signal stored in the pixels is a tiny analog signal that is easily disturbed by stray electric currents and variations in temperature. As a result of the small variations from pixel to pixel, the stray signals and heat, there is a small variation from moment to moment in the signal that comes off the pixel when it is read out and these variations are what we see as noise.

The analog signal from the pixels is passed to a circuit that converts it to a digital signal. The analog to digital conversion process normally includes some form of noise reduction circuitry to help minimise the noise. By carefully mapping the A to D circuity to the signal range the pixels provide, a sensor manufacturer can find the best combination of noise, dynamic and sensitivity. Once the signal has been converted to a digital one, the noise level, sensitivity and dynamic range is more or less locked in and can’t be changed (Some cameras have the ability to use slightly different A to D conversion ranges to help give improved noise levels at different brightness/dynamic ranges).

The bottom line of all this is that with the vast majority of video cameras the noise level is more or less fixed,  as is the sensitivity as we can’t actually swap out the sensor.

But wait! I hear you say…. My camera allows me to change the ISO or gain. Well yes it probably does and in both cases, ISO or gain, with a digital video or stills camera what you are changing is the cameras internal signal amplification. You are NOT making the camera more sensitive, you are simply turning up the volume. As anyone with any type of sound system will know, when you turn up the gain you get more hiss. This is because gain makes not only the desired signal bigger but also the noise. As a result adding gain or increasing the ISO is rarely a great thing to do.

So normally we want to use a digital camera at it’s native sensitivity wherever possible. The native sensitivity is where no gain is being added by the camera or 0dB. In ISO, well you need to find out what the native ISO is and be aware that different gamma curves will have different base ISO’s (which is why I prefer to use dB gain as 0dB = native sensitivity, least noise, best dynamic range, no matter what gamma curve).

To get the best possible image we then want to make our signal (picture information) as big as possible. As we can’t swap out the sensor, the only way to do that is to put as much light as possible onto the sensor. Obviously we don’t want to overload the sensor or exceed the limitations of the recording system, but generally the more light you get on the sensor, the better your pictures will be.

As the sensors noise output remains more or less constant, the best signal to noise ratio will be gained when you put a lot of light on the sensor. This generates a very large signal, so the signal becomes big compared to the noise and the noise becomes only a small percentage of the overall image.

If we are unable to get enough light onto the sensor to expose it fully then it is often tempting to add some gain to make the picture brighter. 6dB of gain is the equivalent to 1 stop of exposure. Just like f-stops, each time we go up a stop we are doubling. So adding 6db of gain doubles everything. It makes the picture the equivalent of one stop brighter, but it also doubles the noise. Adding 12dB gain multiplies the noise 4 times, adding 18dB multiplies the noise 8 times.

What if instead of adding gain to make the picture brighter we let 4x more light fall on the sensor (2 stops)? Well the image gets brighter by the equivalent of 2 stops but as we are not adding gain this means the desirable signal, the picture is now going to be the equivalent of 12dB bigger than the noise than it was before we added the 2 stops of light. That’s going to give you a much cleaner looking image.

How do you get more light onto the sensor? There are many ways such as using a faster lens with a larger aperture that will let more light through. Or you could try using a slower shutter speed (I often find it beneficial in low light to use a 1/24th or 1/25th shutter if there is not too much motion to cause the image to become excessively blurred). Then of course you can also add light to your scene by lighting it. It’s very rare to find noisy and grainy night scenes in feature films and that’s because the night scenes normally have well lit foregrounds but keep dark backgrounds to maintain the sensation of night time or darkness. High contrast is the key to good looking night scenes, well lit foregrounds or actors with deep, dark shadows and backgrounds.

The desire to have a good signal to noise ratio is one of the reasons why when shooting in log or raw you want to expose as brightly as you can (while still maintaining consistent exposure from shot to shot, scene to scene). It’s a little bit harder with standard gammas as we have things like the knee or highlight roll off to deal with. Plus the need to have a shot that looks correct straight out of the camera. But at the end of the day the best results are almost always gained when the gain is kept to a minimum (but don’t use negative gain as this can effect the dynamic range) and the amount of light falling on the sensor as high as possible.

In the next article I’ll give you an interesting experiment to try on a PMW-F5, F55 or PMW-FS7 that is very revealing  about the way ISO, gain, exposure and noise behaves that will show why exposing log or raw at +1 to +2 stops is so important.

Why gain is bad for your dynamic range.

One way to reduce the noise in a video camera image is to reduce the cameras gain. One way to increase the brightness of the image is to add gain.

We all know that increasing the gain to lets say +6db will increase noise and generally the reverse holds true when you reduce the gain, the noise typically reduces and this may be helpful if you are going to do a lot of effects work, or just want a clean image.

However in most cases adding or removing gain reduces the cameras dynamic range as it will artificially clip or limit your low key or high key parts of the image. The maximum illumination level that a camera can capture is limited by the sensor or the gamma curves that the camera has. The black level or darkest part of the image is the point where the actual image signal compared to the sensor noise level is high enough to allow you to see some actual picture information (also known as noise floor). So the dynamic range of the camera is normally the range between the sensors noise floor and recording or sensor clipping point.

To maximise the cameras dynamic range the designers will have carefully set the nominal zero db gain point (native ISO) so that the noise floor is at or very close to black and the peak recording level is reached at the point where the sensor itself starts to clip.

The gain of the camera controls the video output and recording level, relative to the sensors signal level. If you use -3db gain you attenuate (reduce) the relative output signal. The highlight handling doesn’t change (governed by the sensor clipping or gamma curve mapping) but your entire image output level gets shifted down in brightness and as a result you will clip off or loose some of your shadow and dark information, so your overall dynamic range is also reduced as you can’t “see” so far into the shadows. Dynamic range is not just highlight handling, it is the entire range from dark to light. 3db is half a stop (6db = 1 stop) so -3db gain reduces the dynamic range by half a stop, reducing the cameras underexposure range without (in most cases) any change to the over exposure range, so overall the total dynamic range is reduced.

gain-curves-1 Why gain is bad for your dynamic range.

When you add gain the reverse happens. Generally how far the sensor can see into the shadows is limited by the sensors noise floor. Add 6db of gain and you will make the darkest parts of the image brighter by 6db, but you will also raise the noise level by the same amount. So while you do end up with brighter shadow details you can’t actually see any more picture information because the noise level has increased by the same amount. At the top end as the brightest sensor output is mapped to the maximum recording level at 0db, when you add gain this pushes the recording level beyond what can be recorded, so you loose 6db off the top end of your recordings because the recordings and output clips 6db earlier. So positive gain maintains the same shadow range but reduces the highlight recording range by 6db.

However you use it gain tends to reduce your dynamic range. Adding gain to cope with poor lighting tends to be the lesser of the two evils as generally if your struggling for light then overexposure and blown out highlights is often the last of your worries.

Negative gain is sometimes used in camera to try to reduce noise, but the reality is that you are loosing dynamic range. Really a better solution would be to expose just a tiny bit brighter and then bring your levels down a bit in post production.

Camera Gain: It doesn’t make the camera more sensitive! (also relevant EI S-Log).

This is something that’s not well understood by many people. It helps explain why the PMW-F3 (and other cameras) EI S-Log function is so useful.

You see, camera gain does not normally actually change the cameras ability to capture photons of light. A CCD or CMOS sensor has a number of photo sites that capture photons of light and convert those photons into electrons or electrical charge. The efficiency of that capture and conversion process is fixed, it’s known as the QE or quantum efficiency. There are a  lot of factors that effect this efficiency, such as the use of micro lenses, whether the sensor is back or front illuminated etc. But all of these factors are physical design factors that do not change when you add extra camera gain. The sensitivity of the sensor itself remains constant, no matter what the camera gain is set to.

Camera gain is applied to the signal coming out of the sensor. It’s a bit like turning up the volume on a stereo amplifier. If you have a quite piece of music, turning up the volume makes it louder, but the original piece of music is still a quiet piece of music. Turning up the volume on your stereo, as well as making the music louder will also make any hiss or background noise in the music louder and it’s exactly the same with a video camera. As you increase the gain, as well as the wanted video signal getting bigger (brighter) all the unwanted noise also get bigger. So adding gain on your video camera doesn’t actually make the camera more sensitive, but it does make what light the camera has captured brighter in the recordings and output, giving the impression that the camera has become more sensitive, however this is at the penalty of increased background noise.

As well as adding gain to the image in the camera, we can also add gain in post production. Traditionally gain has been added in camera because the gain is added before the recording process. In the uncompressed analog days the recording process itself added a lot of noise. In the digital age the process of compressing the image adds noise.  8 bit recordings have quite small number of grey shades. So any gain added in post production amplifies not only the camera signal but also the added recording or compression noise so generally gives an inferior result to adding gain in camera. With an 8 bit signal the stretching of the relatively few grey shades results in banding.

Now, however the use of lower noise sensors and much improved 10 bit or higher recording codecs or even uncompressed recording means that adding gain in post as opposed to in camera is not such a bad thing. In some cases you can use post production noise reduction prior to adding post gain and by leveraging the processing and rendering power of a computer, which will normally be of greater quality than the in camera processing, you can get a cleaner, lower noise output than you would using in camera gain. So before you flick on the gain switch of your camera, if your using only very light 10 bit or higher compression (HDCAM SR, Cineform, ProRes HQ) or uncompressed do consider that you may actually be better waiting until you get into post before you add gain.

Some modern cameras, like Red or the Sony F3 can use something called EI gain. EI gain does not actually add any gain to the recorded signal (or signal output in the case of the F3). Instead it adds gain to the monitor output only and adds metadata to the recording to tell the post facility or conversion software to add gain. This way you see on the monitor what the image should look like when the gain has been added, but the recording itself has no gain added giving the post production team the ability to fine tune exactly how much gain is applied.

Why using negative gain can be bad, unless you have an F3.

One way to reduce the noise in a video camera image is to reduce the cameras gain. We all know that increasing the gain to lets say +6db will increase noise and generally the reverse holds true when you reduce the gain, the noise typically reduces and this may be helpful if you are going to do a lot of effects work, or just want a clean image.

However in most cases negative gain reduces dynamic range as it will artificially clip or limit your low key parts of the image. The maximum illumination level that a camera can capture is limited by the sensor or the amount of data used to transfer the signal from the sensor into the processing circuits, the cameras DSP (Digital Signal Processor). The black level or darkest part of the image is the point where the design engineers have deemed that the ratio of actual image signal to sensor noise is high enough to give a suitably noise free image (also known as noise floor). So the dynamic range of the camera is normally the range between the sensors noise floor and saturation point.

The gain of the camera controls the video output level, relative to the sensors signal level. If you use -3db gain you attenuate (reduce) the relative output signal. The highlight handling doesn’t change (governed by the sensor) but your entire image output level gets shifted down in brightness and as a result you will clip off or loose some of your shadow and dark information, so your overall dynamic range is also reduced as you can’t “see” so far into the shadows. Dynamic range is not just highlight handling, it is the entire range from dark to light. 3db is half a stop (6db = 1 stop) so -3db gain reduces the dynamic range by half a stop, reducing the cameras underexposure range.

gain-curves-1 Why using negative gain can be bad, unless you have an F3.

So for cameras like the EX1 and EX3 or even PMW-500/PDW-700 using negative gain can be a bad thing to do. You need to be aware that there is a trade off of noise against dynamic range and need to be sure that the small noise benefit are worth the sacrifice of some latitude.
Interestingly the PMW-F3 has an excess of dynamic range for the normal gammas and cinegammas and the processing appears to take advantage of this to keep the images very clean. When you shoot with the standard gammas and cinegammas on the F3 the cameras base ISO (sensitivity) is 400 asa at 25p. In effect the arbitrary black level is kept some way up the sensors output range to keep the images well clear of the noise floor. This gives a very clean, ultra low noise image with 11.5 stops of dynamic range. When you switch the camera to S-Log, which gives a greater dynamic range (approx 13 stops by my estimation) the base ISO increases to 800 asa.  When you increase the sensitivity like this you lower you black point lower down the sensors output range closer to the noise floor. Looking at some of my S-Log test footage a clear increase in under exposure latitude can be seen when you use S-Log. I suspect that the “0db” point in the F3 is actually 800 asa as used by S-Log, where maximising dynamic range and using the full sensor range is the priority. Meanwhile with standard gammas, which are limited to 11.5 stops anyway, you can reduce the gain by 6db (1 stop) sacrificing one stop of underexposure and raising the black point well above the noise floor but still have the full 11.5 stops but with 6db less noise.

What is ISO and how does it compare to gain?

With more and more people using 35mm size sensors, more of the old traditional filming styles and techniques are trickling down from the high end to lower and lower production levels. This is a good thing as it often involves slowing down the pace of the shoot and more time being taken over each shot. One of the key things with film is that you can’t see the actual exposure on a monitor as you can with a video camera. A good video assist system will help, but at the end of the day exposure for film is set by using a light meter to measure the light levels within the scene and then you calculate the optimum exposure using the films ISO rating.
So what exactly is an ISO rating?

Well it is a measure of sensitivity. It tells you how sensitive the film is to light, or in the case of a digital stills or video camera how sensitive the sensor is to light. Every time you double the ISO number you are looking at doubling the sensitivity. So ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100. ISO 1600 is twice as sensitive as ISO 800 etc.
Now one very important thing to remember is that ISO is a measure of sensitivity ONLY. It does not tell you how noisy the pictures are or how much grain there is.  So you could have two cameras rated at 800 ISO but one may have a lot more noise than the other. It’s important to remember this because if you are trying, for example, to shoot in low light you may have a choice of two cameras. Both rated with a native sensitivity of 800 ISO but one has twice as much noise as the other. This would mean that you could use gain (or an increased ISO) on the less noisy camera and get greater sensitivity, but with a final picture that is no more noisy than the noisier camera.
How does this relate to video cameras?

Well most video camera don’t have an ISO rating, although if you search online you can often find someone that has worked out an equivalent ISO rating. The EX1 is rated around 360 ISO. The sensitivity of a video camera is adjusted by adding or reducing electronic gain, for example +3db, +9db etc. Every 6db of gain you add, doubles the sensitivity of the camera. So taking an EX1 (360 ISO) if you add 6db of gain you double the sensitivity and you double the ISO to 720 ISO, but you also double the amount of noise.
Now lets compare two cameras. The already mentioned EX1 rated at approx 360 ISO and the PMW-350 rated at approx 600 ISO. As you can see from the numbers the 350 is already almost twice as sensitive as the EX1 at 0db gain. But when you also look at the noise figures for the cameras, EX1 at 54db and 350 at 59db we can see that the 350 has almost half as much noise as the EX1. In practice what this means is that if we add +6db gain to the 350 we add +6db of noise so that brings the noise level 53db, very close to the EX1. So for the same amount of noise the 350 is between 3 and 4 times as sensitive as the EX1.
Does your head hurt yet?
There is also a good correlation between sensitivity and iris setting or f-stop. Each f stop represents a doubling or halving of the amount of light going through the lens. So 1 f-stop is equal to 6db of gain, which is equal to a doubling (or halving) of the ISO. You may also hear another term in film circles and that is the T-stop. A T stop is a measured f-stop, it includes not only the light restriction created by the iris but also any losses in the lens. Each element in a lens will lead to a reduction in light and T stops take this into account.

So there you go. The key thing to take away is that ISO (and even the 0db gain setting on a video camera) tells you nothing about the amount of noise in the image. Ultimately it is the noise in the image that determines how much light you need in order to get a decent picture, not the ISO number.