Last week I did an almost 2 hour long Webinar with Visual Impact on Gamma and gamma curves. The webinar was recorded and you can view the full session by following the link below.
Tomorrow (December 12th) I am doing an online webinar in association with Sony and Visual Impact on gamma curves, what they do, which to use etc. So if you want to know more follow the link below to sign up for this free online interactive session.
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.
Ultimate Guide to CineEI on the PXW-FS7 (Updated May 2016).
This guide to Cine-EI is based on my own experience with the Sony PXW-FS7. There are other methods of using LUT’s and CineEI. The method I describe below, to the best of my knowledge, follows standard industry practice for working with a camera that uses EI gain and LUT’s.
If you find the guide useful, please consider buying me a beer or a coffee. It took quite a while to prepare this guide and writing can be thirsty work.
This document has been prepared independently of Sony. It is based on my own findings having used the camera and tested various exposure levels and methods. Part 2 which explains how to use LUT’s to correct the footage in the edit suite or post production is here: http://www.xdcam-user.com/2014/10/using-s-log2-from-the-a7s-in-post-production/
If you find this useful please consider buying me a coffee or a beer. I’m not paid to write these articles.
One of the really nice features of the Sony A7s and Sony’s other Alpha cameras, including the A6300, A6500 etc is the ability to use different gamma curves and in particular the Sony S-Log2 gamma curve.
What are gamma curves?
All conventional cameras use gamma curves. The gamma curve is there to make the images captured easier to manage by making the file size smaller than it would be without a gamma curve. When TV was first developed the gamma curve in the camera made the signal small enough to be broadcast by a transmitter and then the gamma curve in the TV set (which is the inverse of the one in the camera) expanded the signal back to a normal viewing range. The current standard for broadcast TV is called “Recommendation BT-709”, often shortened to Rec-709. This gamma curve is based on standards developed over 60 years ago and camera technology has advanced a lot since then! Even so, almost every TV and monitor made today is made to the Rec-709 standard or something very similar. Many modern cameras can capture a brightness range, also known as dynamic range, that far exceed the Rec-709 standard.
The limitations of standard gammas.
As gamma effects the dark to light range of the image, it also effects the contrast of the image. Normal television gamma has a limited dynamic range (about 6 to 7 stops) and as a result also has a limited contrast range.
Normally the gamma curve used in the camera is designed to match the gamma curve used by the TV or monitor. This way the contrast range of the camera and the contrast range of the display will be matched. So the contrast on the TV screen will match the contrast of the scene being filmed and the picture will look “normal”. However the limited dynamic range may mean that very bright or very dark objects cannot be accurately reproduced as these may exceed the gammas dynamic range.
The over exposure typical of a restricted range gamma such as Rec-709 is commonly seen as bright clouds in the sky becoming white over exposed blobs or bright areas on faces becoming areas of flat white. Objects in shade or shadow areas of the scene are simply too dark to be seen. But between the overexposed areas and any under exposure the contrast looks natural and true to life.
Log gamma, such as Sony’s S-Log2, allows the camera to capture a much greater brightness range or dynamic range than is possible when shooting with conventional television gamma. Dynamic range is the range from light to dark that the camera can capture or the range that the monitor or TV can display within one image. It is the range from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites that can be captured or shown at the same time.
There are some things that need to be considered before you get too excited about the possibility of capturing this much greater dynamic range. The primary one being that if the camera is set to S-log2 and the TV or monitor is a normal Rec-709 TV (as most are) then there is no way the TV can correctly display the image being captured, the TV just doesn’t have the range to show everything that the camera with it’s high range log gamma can capture accurately.
Fixed Recording Range For Both Standard and Log Gamma.
The signal range and signal levels used to record a video signal are normally described in percent. Where black is 0% and the brightest thing that can be recorded is normally recorded at 100% to 109%. Most modern video cameras actually record the brightest objects at 109%. The important thing to remember though is that the recording range is fixed. Even when you change gamma curve the camera is still constrained by the zero to 109% recording range. The recording range does not change whether you are recording Rec-709 or S-log2. So log gamma’s like S-Log2 must squeeze a much bigger signal range into the same recording range as used by conventional Rec-709 recordings.
In order to record using S-log2 with the A7s you need to use a picture profile. The picture profiles give you several recording gamma options. For S-log2 you should use Picture Profile 7 which is already set up for S-log2 and S-Gamut by default (for information on gamuts see this article). In addition you should ALWAYS use the cameras native ISO which is 3200 ISO and it is normally preferable to use a preset white balance. Using any other ISO with S-log2 will not allow you to get the full benefit of the full 14 stops of dynamic range that S-log2 can deliver. In most of the Alpha cameras you now also have the ability to use a different version of S-log, – S-Log3 and this is found in picture profiles 8 and 9. You can use S-Log3 if you wish, but S-Log2 was designed from the outset by Sony to work with digital camera sensors. S-Log3 is based on an older curve designed for film transfers to a 10 bit recording. As a result when using a camera that only has 8 bit recording with a limited number of code values, S-Log2 tends to be more efficient and yield a better end result. This is what it was designed for.
Grey Cards and White Cards.
Before I go further let me introduce you to grey and white cards in case you have not come across them before. Don’t panic you don’t have to own one, although I would recommend getting a grey card such as the Lastolite EzyBalance if you don’t have one. But it is useful to understand what they are.
The 90% White Card.
The 90% white card is a card or chart that reflects 90% of the light falling on it. This will be a card that looks very similar in brightness to a piece of ordinary white paper, it should be pure white, some printer papers are bleached or coloured very slightly blue to make them appear “brilliant white” (as you will see later in many cases it is possible to use an ordinary piece of white paper in place of a 90% white card for exposure).
The Grey Card.
The 18% grey card, also often called “middle grey” card, is a card that reflects 18% of the light falling on it. Obviously it will appear much darker than the white card. Visually to us humans an 18% grey card appears to be half way between white and black, hence it’s other name, “middle grey”.
Middle grey is important because the average brightness level of most typical scenes tends to be around the middle grey brightness value. Another key thing about middle grey is that because it falls in the middle of our exposure range it makes it a very handy reference level when measuring exposure as it is less likely to be effected by highlight compression than a 90% white card.
Exposing White and Middle Grey.
Coming back to Rec-709 and conventional TV’s and monitors. If we want a piece of white paper to look bright and white on a TV we would record it and then show it at somewhere around 85% to 95% of the screens full brightness range. This doesn’t leave much room for things brighter than a white piece of paper! Things like clouds in the sky, a shiny car, a bright window or a direct light source such as a lamp or other light. In order to make it possible for S-log2 to record a much greater dynamic range the recording level for white and mid tones is shifted down. Instead of recording white at 85%-95%, when using S-log2 or S-Log3 it is recommended by Sony that white is recorded at around 60%. For S-Log2 Middle grey moves down too, instead of being recorded at 42%-43% (the normal level for Rec-709) it’s recorded at just 32% with S-Log2 (S-log3 uses 41%).
By recording everything white (ie a white piece of paper) and darker in a lower range, we free up lot of extra space above the white recording level, within the full recording range, to record all those bright highlights in any scene that would be impossible to record with conventional gammas where there is only 10% to 20% from white at 90% to the peak of the recording range at 100 to 109%.
As S-Log2 and S-Log3 normally shift a lot of the recording levels downwards, if we show a scene shot with S-Log2 or S-log3 that has been exposed correctly on a conventional TV or monitor it will look dark due to the lower recording levels. In addition it will look flat with very low contrast as we are now squeezing a much bigger dynamic range into the limited conventional Rec-709 display range of a normal TV or computer monitor.
This on screen reduction in contrast and the darker levels are actually perfectly normal when shooting using log gamma, this is how it is supposed to look on a normal monitor or TV. So don’t be alarmed if when shooting using S-Log your images look a little darker and flatter than perhaps you are used to when shooting with a standard gamma. You will adjust the S-Log footage in post production to restore the brightness and contrast later.
The post production adjustment of S-Log2 and S-log3 is very important and one of the keys to getting the very best finished images. The S-Log recording acts as a digital negative and by “processing” this digital negative in post production (normally referred to as “grading”) we manipulate the large 14 stop dynamic range of the captured image to fit within the limited display range of a Rec-709 TV in a pleasing manner. This may mean pulling up the mid range a bit, pulling down the highlights and bit and generally shifting the brightness and colour levels of different parts of the image around (see PART 2 for more post production information).
SLog-2 and 10 bit or 8 bit data.
Originally Slog-2 was designed for use on high end digital cinema cameras such as Sony’s F65 camera. These cameras have the ability to record using 10 bit data. A 10 bit recording can have up to around 1000 shades of grey from black to white. The A7s however uses 8 bit recording which only has a maximum of 235 shades from black to white. Normally 8 bit recording is perfectly OK as most transmission and display standards are also 8 bit. Shoot with an 8 bit camera and then display that image directly via an 8 bit system and nothing is lost. However when you start to grade and manipulate the image the difference between 8 bit and 10 bit becomes more significant. If you start to shift levels around, perhaps stretching out some parts of the image then the increased tonal resolution of a 10 bit recording helps maintain the very highest image quality. Photographers that have shot using both jpeg and raw will know how much more flexibility the 12 bit (or more) raw files have compared to the 8 bit jpeg’s. However they will also know that 8 bit jpeg’s can be also adjusted, provided you don’t need to make very large adjustments.
Contrary to popular belief heavy grading of 8 bit footage does not necessarily lead to banding in footage across smooth surfaces except in extreme cases. Banding is more commonly a result of compression artefacts such as macro blocking. This is especially common with very highly compressed codecs such as AVCHD. The 50Mbps XAVC-S codec used in the Sony Alpha cameras is a very good codec, far superior to AVCHD and as a result compression artefacts are significantly reduced, so banding will be less of an issue than with other lower quality codecs. If you’re going to shoot using S-Log2, some grading will be necessary and as we only have 8 bit recordings we must take care to expose our material in such a way as to minimise how far we will need to push and pull the material.
Getting Your Exposure Right.
When S-Log2 was developed the engineers at Sony produced tables that specified the correct exposure levels for s-Log2 which are:
As you can see the nominal “correct” exposure for S-Log2 is a lot lower than the levels used for display on a typical Rec-709 TV or monitor. This is why correctly exposed s-log2 looks dark on a conventional TV. The implication of this is that when you grade your footage in post production you will have to shift the S-log2 levels up quite a long way. This may not be ideal with an 8 bit codec, so I decided to carefully test this to determine the optimum exposure level for the A7s.
The panel of images below is from the A7s recording S-log2 and exposed at the Sony recommended “correct” 32% middle grey level. The correct exposure was determined using a grey card and an external waveform monitor connected to the cameras HDMI output. Then the S-log2 was corrected in post production to normal Rec-709 levels using a Look Up Table (LUT – more on LUT’s in part 2). You can also see the viewfinder display from the camera. If you click on the image below you can expand it to full size. Sorry about the shadow from the laundry line, I didn’t see this when I was shooting the test shots!
From this you can see just how dark and low contrast looking the original correctly exposed S-log2 is and how much more vibrant the corrected Rec-709 image is. I have also indicated where on the cameras histogram middle grey and white are. Note how much space there is to the right of white on the histogram. This is where the extra highlight or over exposure range of S-log2 can be recorded. When correctly exposed S-log2 has an exposure range of 6 stops above middle grey and 8 stops under.
Over Exposing or “Pushing” S-log2.
If we deliberately raise the exposure level above the Sony recommended levels (known as pushing the exposure), assuming you grade the image to the same final levels some interesting things happen.
For each stop we raise the exposure level you will have 1 stop (which is the same as 6db) less noise. So the final images will have half as much noise for each stop up you go. This is a result of exposing the image brighter and as a result not needing to raise the levels in post as far as you would if exposed at the normal level.
You will loose one stop of over exposure headroom, but gain one stop of under exposure headroom.
Bright highlights will be moved upwards into the most compressed part of the log gamma curve. This can result in a loss of texture in highlights.
Skin tones and mid tones move closer to normal Rec-709 levels, so less manipulation is need for this part of the image in post production.
This last point is important for the A7s with it’s 8 bit codec, so this is the area I looked at most closely. What happens to skin tones and textures when we raise the exposure?
Exposing at +1, +2 and +3 Stops.
Below are another 3 panels from the A7s, shot at +1 stop, +2 stops and +3 stops. Again you can click on the images if you wish to view them full size.
Looking at these results closely you can see that when you increase the exposure by 1 stop over the Sony specified correct level for S-log2 there is a very useful reduction in noise, not that the A7s is particularly noisy to start with, but you do get a noticeably cleaner image.
Below are 4 crops from the same images, after grading. I really recommend you view these images full size on a good quality monitor. Click on the image to view larger or full size.
The noise reduction at higher exposures compared to the base exposure is very clear to see if you look at the black edge of the colour checker chart (the coloured squares), although the difference between +2 and +3 stops is very small. You can also see further into the shadows in the +3 stop image compared to the base exposure. A more subtle but important effect is that as the exposure goes up the visible texture of the wooden clothes peg decreases. The grain can be clearly seen at the base level but by +3 stops it has vanished. This is caused by the highlights creeping into the more compressed part of the log gamma curve. The same thing is happening to the skin tones in the +3 stop image, there is some reduction of the most subtle textures.
From this we can see that for mid tones and skin tones you can afford to expose between 1 and 2 stops above the Sony recommended base level. More than 2 stops over and brighter skin tones and any other brighter textures start to be lost. The noise reduction gain by shooting between one and 2 stops over is certainly beneficial. The down side to this though is that we are reducing the over amount of exposure headroom.
Given everything I have seen with this 8 bit and almost every other 8 bit camera my recommendation is to shoot between the Sony recommended base S-log2 level and up to two stops over this level. I would try to avoid shooting more than 2 stops over as this is where you will start to see some loss of texture in brighter skin tones and brighter textures. Exactly where you set your exposure will depend on the highlights in the scene. If you are shooting a very bright scene you will possibly need to shoot at the Sony recommended level to get the very best over exposure headroom. If you are able to expose higher without significantly compromising any highlights then you should aim to be up to 2 stops over base. But whatever you do never expose darker than the Sony base level, this will normally look really nasty.
Determining The Correct Exposure.
The challenge of course is determining where your exposure actually is. Fortunately as we have seen, provided you in the right ball park, S-log2 is quite forgiving, so if you are a little bit over exposed it’s probably not going to hurt your images much. If you have a waveform monitor then you can use that to set your exposure according to the table below. If you don’t have proper white or grey cards you can use a piece of normal white paper. Although slightly less accurate this will get you very close to where you want to be. Do note that white paper tends to be a little brighter than a dedicated 90% reflectivity white card. If you don’t have any white paper then you can use skin tones, again a bit less accurate but you should end up in the right zone.
If you don’t have an external waveform monitor then you do still have some good options. Sadly although the camera does have zebras, these are not terribly useful for S-log2 as the lowest the zebras can go is 70%.
Light Meter: You could use a conventional photography light meter. If you do choose to use a light meter I would recommend checking the calibration of the light meter against the camera first.
Mark 1 Eyeball: You could simply eyeball the exposure looking at the viewfinder or rear screen but this is tricky when the image is very flat.
In Camera Metering: The cameras built in metering system, like the majority of DSLR’s is calibrated for middle grey. By default the camera uses multi-point metering to measure the average brightness of several points across the scene to determine the scenes average brightness and from there set the correct base S-log2 exposure.
When you are using S-Log2, auto exposure in most cases will be very close to the correct base exposure if you use the default Multi-Zone exposure metering. The camera will take an average exposure reading for the scene and automatically adjust the exposure to the Sony recommended 32% middle grey exposure level based on this average. In the P, A and S modes you can then use the exposure compensation dial to offset the exposure should you wish. My recommendation would be to add +1 or +2 stops via the dial. Then observe the histogram to ensure that you don’t have any significant over exposure. If you do then reduce the exposure compensation. Lots of peaks to the far right of the histogram is an indication of over exposure.
Manual Exposure And Internal Metering.
If you are exposing manually you will see a small M.M. indication at the bottom of the LCD display with a +/- number. In the eyepiece viewfinder this appears as a scale that runs from -5 to +5, in S-log2 only the -2 to +2 part of the scale is used. In both cases this is how far the camera thinks you are away from the optimum exposure. + meaning the camera is over exposed, – meaning under.
In the image above we can see the M.M. indication is +0.3, in the eyepiece you would see a small arrow one bar to the right of “0” , indicating the cameras multi zone metering thinks the shot is just a little over exposed, even though the shot has been carefully exposed using a grey card and external waveform monitor. This error is probably due to the large amount of white in the shot, white shirt, white card, test charts with a lot of brighter than grey shades. In practice an error of 0.3 of a stop is not going to cause any real issues, so even if this was exposed by setting the exposure so that you have “M.M. 0.0” the exposure would be accurate enough. But it shows that multi point exposure averaging is easily confused.
The scene above is a fairly normal scene, not excessively bright, not particularly dark. If shooting a snow scene for example the cameras multi point averaging would almost certainly result in an under exposed shot as the camera attempts to bring the bright snow in the scene down to the average middle grey level. If shooting a well lit face against a very dark background then the averaging might try to bring the background up and the shot may end up overexposed.
If you want really accurate exposure then you should put the cameras metering system into the spot metering mode where instead of taking an average of various points across the scene the camera will just measure the exposure at the very center of the image.
You can then use a grey card to very accurately set the exposure. Simply place the circular shaped symbol at the center of the viewfinder display over a grey card and set the exposure so that M.M is 0.0 for the correct S-Log2 base exposure. To expose 1 stop over with a grey card, set M.M. +1.0 and two stops over M.M. +2.0 (not flashing, flashing indicates more than +2 stops).
One small issue with this is that the camera will only display a M.M. range of -2.0 to +2.0 stops. Provided you don’t want to go more than 2 stops over base then you will be fine with a grey card.
Using White Instead of Grey:
If you don’t have a grey card then you can use a 90% reflectivity white target. As white is 2 stops brighter than middle grey when S-Log2 is correctly exposed the 90% white should indicate M.M +2.0.
Once you have established the correct exposure you can then open the iris by 1 or two stops to increase the exposure. Or halve the shutter speed to gain a one stop brighter exposure. Each time you halve the shutter speed your exposure becomes one stop brighter, so divide the shutter speed by 4 to gain a 2 stop increase in exposure. As always you should observe the histogram to check for any over exposure. White peaks at the far right of the histogram or disappearing completely off the right of the histogram is an indication of over-exposure. In this case reduce your exposure back down towards the base exposure level (M.M 0.0 with a a grey card).
I recommend using an exposure between the “correct” base S-Log2 exposure level of middle grey at 32% and two stops over this. I would not recommend going more than 2 stops over over base.
In the P, A and S auto exposure modes, when using the default multi-zone metering the camera will set the base S-log2 exposure based on the average scene brightness. For most typical scenes this average should be very close to middle grey. This exposure can then be increased (brightened) by up to 2 stops using the exposure compensation dial.
In manual exposure the “M.M.” number displayed at the bottom of the viewfinder display is how far you are from the correct base S-log2 exposure. M.M. +2.0 indicates +2 stops over base. If using multi zone metering (the cameras default) this exposure will be based on the scenes average brightness.
If you set the metering to “Spot” you can use a grey card centred in the image to determine the correct base exposure and up to 2 stops of over exposure via the M.M. indication when shooting manually.
In Part 2:
In part two I will take a look at grading the S-log2 from the A7s and how to get the very best from the S-log2 images by using Look Up Tables (LUT’s).
NORTHERN LIGHTS Tours and workshops.
Don’t forget I run storm chasing and Northern Lights expeditions every year. These are amazing expeditions by snowmobile up on to the Finnmarksvidda. We go ice fishing, dog sledding, exploring, cook a meal in a tent and enjoy traditional Norwegian saunas.
I have just published a major update to my guide to Cine-EI on the PMW-F55 and F5. The guide now goes in to a lot more depth. I have tried to make it easy to understand but it is also quite technical, I have deliberately included the technical background stuff so that hopefully you will understand why Cine-EI and LUT’s work the way they do. I’ve added a whole new section on exposure methods for some of the different LUT’s as well as how to create your own LUT’s.
Please take a look if you use these cameras. Soon I will add a section on post production.
Well I have set myself quite a challenge here as this is a tough one to describe and explain. Not so much perhaps because it’s difficult, but just because it’s hard to visualise, as you will see.
First of all the dictionary definition of Gamut is “The complete range or scope of something”.
In video terms what it means is normally the full range of colours and brightness that can be either captured or displayed.
I’m sure you have probably heard of the specification REC-709 before. Well REC-709, short for ITU-R Recommendation, Broadcast Television, number 709. This recommendation sets out the display of colours and brightness that a television set or monitor should be able to display. Note that it is a recommendation for display devices, not for cameras, it is a “display reference” and you might hear me talking about when things are “display referenced” ie meeting these display standards or “scene referenced” which would me shooting the light and colours in a scene as they really are, rather than what they will look like on a display.
Anyway…. Perhaps you have seen a chart or diagram that looks like the one below before.
Now this shows several things. The big outer oval shape is what is considered to be the equivalent to what we can see with our own eyes. Within that range are triangles that represent the boundaries of different colour gamuts or colour ranges. The grey coloured triangle for example is REC-709.
Something useful to know is that the 3 corners of each of the triangles are whats referred to as the “primaries”. You will hear this term a lot when people talk about colour spaces because if you know where the primaries (corners) are, by joining them together you can find the size of the colour space or Gamut and what the colour response will be.
Look closely at the chart. Look at the shades of red, green or blue shown at the primaries for the REC-709 triangle. Now compare these with the shades shown at the primaries for the much larger F65 and F55 primaries. Is there much difference? Well no, not really. Can you figure out why there is so little difference?
Think about it for a moment, what type of display device are you looking at this chart on? It’s most likely a computer display of some kind and the Gamut of most computer displays is the same size as that of REC-709. So given that the display device your looking at the chart on can’t actually show any of the extended colours outside of the grey triangle anyway, is it really any surprise that you can’t see much of a difference between the 709 primaries and the F65 and F55 primaries. That’s the problems with charts like this, they don’t really tell you everything that’s going on. It does however tell us some things. Lets have a look at another chart:
This chart is similar to the first one we looked at, but without the pretty colours. Blue is bottom left, Red is to the right and green top left.
What we are interested in here is the relationship between the different colour space triangles. Using the REC-709 triangle as our reference (as that’s the type of display most TV and video productions will be shown on) look at how S-Gamut and S-Gamut3 is much larger than 709. So S-Gamut will be able to record deeper, richer colours than 709 can ever hope to show. In addition, also note how S-Gamut isn’t just a bigger triangle, but it’s also twisted and distorted relative to 709. This is really important.
You may also want to refer to the top diagram as well as I do my best to explain this. The center of the overall gamut is white. As you draw a line out from the center towards the colour spaces primary the colour becomes more saturated (vivid). The position of the primary determines the exact hue or tone represented. Lets just consider green for the moment and lets pretend we are shooting a shot with 3 green apples. These apples have different amounts of green. The most vivid of the 3 apples has 8/10ths of what we can possibly see, the middle one 6/10ths and the least colourful one 4/10ths. The image below represents what the apples would look like to us if we saw them with our eyes.
If we were shooting with a camera designed to match the 709 display specification, which is often a good idea as we want the colours to look right on the TV, the the greenest, deepest green we can capture is the 709 green primary. lets consider the 709 green primary to be 6/10ths with 10/10ths being the greenest thing a human being can see. 6/10ths green will be recorded at our peak green recording level so that when we play back on a 709 TV it will display the greenest the most intense green that the display panel is capable of. So if we shoot the apples with a 709 compatible camera, 6/10ths green will be recorded at 100% as this is the richest green we can record (these are not real levels, I’m just using them to illustrate the principles involved) and this below is what the apples would look like on the TV screen.
So that’s rec-709, our 6/10ths green apple recorded at 100%. Everything above 6/10 will also be 100% so the 8/10th and 6/10ths green apples will look more or less the same.
What happens then if we record with a bigger Gamut. Lets say that the green primary for S-Gamut is 8/10ths of visible green. Now when recording this more vibrant 8/10ths green in S-Gamut it will be recorded at 100% because this is the most vibrant green that S-Gamut can record and everything less than 8/10 will be recorded at a lower percentage.
But what happens if we play back S-Gamut on a 709 display? Well when the 709 display sees that 100% signal it will show 6/10ths green, a paler less vibrant shade of green than the 8/10ths shade the camera captured because 6/10ths is the most vibrant green the display is capable of. All of our colours will be paler and less rich than they should be.
So that’s the first issue when shooting with a larger colour Gamut than the Gamut of the display device, the saturation will be incorrect, a dark green apple will be pale green. OK, that doesn’t sound like too big a problem, why don’t we just boost the saturation of the image in post production? Well if the display is already showing our 100% green S-Gamut signal at the maximum it can show (6/10ths for Rec-709) then boosting the saturation won’t help colours that are already at the limit of what the display can show simply because it isn’t capable of showing them any greener than they already look. Boosting the saturation will make those colours not at the limit of the display technology richer, but those already at the limit won’t get any more colourful. So as we boost the saturation any pale green apples become greener while the deep green apples stay the same so we loose colour contrast between the pale and deep green apples. The end result is an image that doesn’t really look any different that it would have done if shot in Rec-709.
But, it’s even worse that just a difference to the saturation. Look at the triangles again and compare 709 with S-Gamut. Look at how much more green there is within the S-Gamut colour soace than the 709 colour space compared to red or blue. So what do you think will happen if we try to take that S-Gamut range and squeeze it in to the 709 range? Well there will be a distinct colour shift towards green as we have a greater percentage of green in S-Gamut than we should have in Rec-709 and that will generate a noticeable colour shift and the skewing of colours.
This is where Sony have been very clever with S-Gamut3. If you do take S-Gamut and squeeze it in to 709 then you will see a colour shift (as well as the saturation shift discussed earlier). But with S-Gamut3 Sony have altered the colour sampling within the colour space so that there is a better match between 709 and S-Gamut3. This means that when you squeeze S-Gamut3 into 709 there is virtually no colour shift. However S-Gamut3 is still a very big colour space so to correctly use it in a 709 environment you really need to use a Look Up Table (LUT) to re-map it into the smaller space without an appreciable saturation loss, mapping the colours in such a way that a dark green apple will still look darker green than a light green apple but keeping within the boundaries of what a 709 display can show.
Taking this one step further, realising that there are very few, if any display devices that can actually show a gamut as large as S-Gamut or S-Gamut3, Sony have developed a smaller Gamut known as S-Gamut3.cine that is a subset of S-Gamut3.
The benefit of this smaller gamut is that the red green and blue ratios are very close to 709. If you look at the triangles you can see that S-Gamut3.cine is more or less just a larger version of the 709 triangle. This means that colours shifts are almost totally eliminated making this gammut much easier to work with in post production. It’s still a large gamut, bigger than the DCI-P3 specification for digital cinema, so it still has a bigger colour range than we can ever normally hope to see, but as it is better aligned to both P3 and rec-709 colourists will find it much easier to work with. For productions that will end up as DCI-P3 a slight saturation boost is all that will be needed in many cases.
So as you can see, having a huge Gamut may not always be beneficial as often we don’t have any way to show it and simply adding more saturation to a seemingly de-saturated big gamut image may actually reduce the colour contrast as our already fully saturated objects, limited by what a 709 display can show, can’t get any more saturated. In addition a gamut such as S-Gamut that has a very different ratio of R, G and B to that of 709 will introduce colour shifts if it isn’t correctly re-mapped. This is why Sony developed S-Gamut3.cine, a big but not excessively large colour space that lines up well with both DCI-P3 and Rec-709 and is thus easier to handle in post production.
These two words, latitude and dynamic range are often confused and are often used interchangeably. Sometimes they can be the same thing (although rare), sometimes they may be completely different. So what is the difference and why do you have to be careful to use the right term.
Lets start with dynamic range as this is the simplest to understand. When talking about a digital camera the dynamic range is quite simply the total range from the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight that the camera can resolve in a single shot. To be included in the dynamic range you must be able to discern visually or measure with a scope a brightness change at both ends of the range. So a camera that can resolve 14 stops will be able to shoot a scene with a 14 stop brightness range and show some information from stop 0 to stop 14. It is not just a measure of the cameras highlight handling, it includes both highlights and shadows. One camera may be very low noise, so see very far into the shadows but not be so good with highlights. While another may be noisy, so not able to see so far into the shadows but have excellent highlight handling. Despite these differences both might have the same dynamic range as it is the range we are looking at, not just one end or the other.
One note of caution with published dynamic range figures or measurements is that while you may be able to discern some picture information in those deepest shadows or brightest highlights, just how useable both ends of the range are will depend on just how the camera performs at it’s extremes. It is not uncommon for the darkest stop to be so close to the cameras noise floor that in reality it’s barely useable, but as it can be measured it will be included in the manufacturers dynamic range figures.
This brings us on to latitude because latitude is a measure of just how flexible you can be with your exposure without significantly compromising the finished picture. The latitude will always be less than the cameras dynamic range. With a film camera, the film stock would have a sensitivity value or ISO. You would then use an exposure meter to determine the optimum exposure. The latitude would then be how much can you over expose or under expose and still have an acceptable result. But what is “an acceptable result”? Here is one of the key problems with determining latitude, what some people may find unacceptable others may be happy with so it can be difficult to quantify the exact latitude of a film stock or video camera precisely. However what you can do is determine which cameras have bigger ranges for example camera “A” has a stop more latitude than camera “B” provide you use a consistent “acceptable quality” assesment.
Anyone that’s shot with a traditional ENG or home video camera will know that you really need to get your exposure right to get a decent looking picture. Take a simple interview shot, expose it right and it looks fine. Overexpose by 1 stop and it looks bad, even if you try to grade it it will still look bad. So in this example the camera would have less than 1 stop of over exposure latitude. But if you underexpose a video camera, the picture gets darker, but after a bit of work in post production it may well still look OK. It will depend in most cases on how noisy the picture becomes when you boost the levels in post to brighten the picture. But typically you might be able to go 1 to 1.5 stops under exposed and still have a useable image. So in this case the camera would have 1.5 stops of underexposure latitude. This then gives a total latitude for our hypothetical camera of around 2 to 2.5 stops.
But what of we increase the dynamic range of the camera or have a camera with a very big dynamic range. Does my latitude increase?
Well the answer is maybe. In some cases the latitude may actually decrease. How can that be possible, surely with a bigger dynamic range my latitude must be greater?
Well, unless your shooting linear raw (more on that in a bit) you will be using some kind of gamma curve. The gamma curve is there to allow you to squeeze a large dynamic range into a small amount of data. It does this by mimicking the way we perceive light in a non linear manner and uses less data in highlights which are perceptually less important to us humans. Even uncompressed video normally has a gamma curve. Without a gamma curve the amount of data needed to record a decent looking picture would be huge as every additional stop of dynamic range actually needs twice as much data as the previous to be recorded faithfully.
With cameras with larger dynamic ranges then things such as knee compression or special gamma curves like Hypergamma, Cinegamma or Log are used. The critical thing with all of these is that the only way to squeeze that greater dynamic range into the same size recording bucket is by adding extra compression to the recorded image.
This compression is normally restricted to the highlights (which are perceptually less important). Highlight compression now presents us with an exposure problem, because if we over expose the shot then the picture won’t look good due to the compression. This means that even though we might have increased the cameras dynamic range (by squeezing and compressing more information into the highlight range) we may have reduced the exposure latitude as any over exposure places important mid range information into the highly compressed part of the gamma curve. So bigger dynamic range does not mean greater latitude, in fact in many cases it means less latitude.
Here’s the thing. Unless you make the recording data bucket significantly bigger (better codec and more bits, 10 bit 12 bit etc), you can’t put more data (dynamic range or stops) into that bucket without it overflowing or without squashing it. Given that most cameras used fixed 8 bit or 10 bit recording there is a finite limit to what can be squeezed into the codec without making some pretty big compromises.
With a standard gamma curve white is exposed around 90% to 95%, remember a white card only reflects 90% of the light falling on it not 100%. Middle grey perceptually appears half way between black and white so it’s around 40%-45%. Above 90% is where the knee normally acts to compress highlights to squeeze quite a large dynamic range into a very small recording range, so anything above 90% will be very highly compressed, but below 90% we are OK and we can safely use the full range up to 90%. Expose a face below 90% and it will look natural, above 90% it will look washed out, low contrast and generally nasty due to the squeezing together of the contrast and dynamic range.
But what about a Hypergamma or Cinegamma (or any other high dynamic range gamma curve)? Well these don’t have a knee, instead they start to gradually introduce compression much lower down the gamma curve. A little bit at first and then ever increasing amounts as we go up the exposure range. This allows them to squeeze in a much greater dynamic range in a pleasing way (provided you expose right). But this means that we can’t afford to let faces etc go as high as with the standard gamma because if we do they will start to creep in to the highly compressed part of the curve. So this means that even the slightest over exposure will hurt our image. So even thought they have greater dynamic range, these curves have less exposure latitude because we really really can’t afford to over expose them. Sony compensate for this to some degree by recommending a lower middle grey point between 32 and 40% depending on the curve you use. This then brings your overall exposure lower so your less likely to over expose, but that now means you have less under exposure range as your already shooting a bit darker (White with the hypergammas tends to fall lower, around 80%, so faces and skin tones that would normally be around 70% will be around 60%).
But what about Log?
Now lets look at S-Log2, S-log3. Most log curves are also similar, very highly compressed gamma curves with huge amounts of highlight compression to squeeze in an exceptionally large dynamic range. With Slog2 White is designed to be at 59% and middle grey at 32% and with S-log3 middle grey is 41% and white 61%. So faces will need to sit between around 40% and 50% to look their best. Now log is a little bit different. Log shooting is designed to be done in conjunction with LUT’s (Look Up Tables) in post production. These LUT’s convert the signal from Log gamma to conventional gamma. When you apply the correct LUT to correctly exposed Log everything comes out looking good. What about over exposed Log? This is where it can get tricky. If you have a good exposure correction LUT or really know how to grade log properly (which can be tricky) then you can expose Log by one or 2 stops, but no more (in my opinion at least, 2 stops is a lot of over exposure for Log, I would try to stay less than 2 stops over). Over expose too much and the image gets really hard to grade and may start to lack contrast. One thing to note is when I say over-exposed with respect to log, I’m not talking about about a clipped picture, but simply an image much brighter than it should be. For example with Slog3 faces will be around 52%. If you expose faces at 70% your actually just over 2 stops over exposed and grading is going to start to get tricky and you may find it hard to get your skin tones just right. So, when shooting log make sure you know what the recommended levels are for the curve you are using. I’m not saying you can’t over expose a bit, just be aware of what is correct and that level shifts of just a 7 or 8% may represent a whole stop of exposure change.
It’s only when you stop shooting with conventional gamma curves and start shooting linear that the latitude really starts to open up. Cameras like the Sony F5/F55 use linear raw recording that does not have a gamma curve. When you have no gamma curve then there is no highlight compression. So for example you could expose a face anywhere between in conventional terms between say 45% (the point where perhaps it becomes too noisy if you expose any darker) and 100% it will look just fine after grading because at no point does it become compressed. This is a massive latitude increase over a camera using a gamma curve. It gets even better if the camera is very low noise as you can afford to expose at an even lower level and bring it up in post. This is why raw is such a big deal. I find it much easier to work with and grade raw than log because raw just behaves nicely.
Dynamic range is the range the camera can see from the deepest darkest shadows to the brightest highlights in the same shot. Latitude is the range within the dynamic range where we can expose and still get a useable image.
A camera with lower noise will allow you to expose darker and bring your levels up in post, this gives an increase in under exposure range.
Most video cameras have a very limited over exposure latitude due to aggressive highlight compression. This is the opposite to a film camera.
Bigger dynamic range does not always mean greater latitude.
Cameras that shoot raw typically have a much greater latitude than a camera shooting with a gamma curve. For example an F5 shooting SLog2/3 has a much smaller exposure latitude than when shooting raw even though the dynamic range is the same in both cases.
One of the most common questions I get asked is “which gamma curve should I use?”.
Well it’s not an easy one to answer because it will depend on many things. There is no one-fits-all gamma curve. Different gamma curves offer different contrast and dynamic ranges.
So why not just use the gamma curve with the greatest dynamic range, maybe log? Log and S-Log are also gamma curves but even if you have Log or S-Log it’s not always going to be the best gamma to use. You see the problem is this: You have a limited size recording bucket into which you must fit all your data. Your data bucket, codec or recording medium will also effect your gamma choice.
If your shooting and recording with an 8 bit camera, anything that uses AVCHD or Mpeg 2 (including XDCAM), then you have 235 bits of data to record your signal. A 10 bit camera or 10 bit external recorder does a bit better with around 940 bits of data, but even so, it’s a limited size data bucket. The more dynamic range you try to record, the less data you will be using to record each stop. Lets take an 8 bit camera for example, try to record 8 stops and that’s about 30 bits per stop. Try to extend that dynamic range out to 11 stops and now you only have about 21 bits per stop. It’s not quite as simple as this as the more advanced gamma curves like hypergammas, cinegammas and S-Log all allocate more data to the mid range and less to highlights, but the greater the dynamic range you try to capture, the less recorded information there will be for each stop.
In a perfect world you would choose the gamma you use to match each scene you shoot. If shooting in a studio where you can control the lighting then it makes a lot of sense to use a standard gamma (no knee or knee off) with a range of up to 7 stops and then light your scene to suit. That way you are maximising the data per stop. Not only will this look good straight out of the camera, but it will also grade well provided your not over exposed.
However the real world is not always contained in a 7 stop range, so you often need to use a gamma with a greater dynamic range. If your going direct to air or will not be grading then the first consideration will be a standard gamma (Rec709 for HD) with a knee. The knee adds compression to just the highlights and extends the over-exposure range by up to 2 or 3 stops depending on the dynamic range of the camera. The problem with the knee is that because it’s either on or off, compressed or not compressed it can look quite electronic and it’s one of the dead giveaways of video over film.
If you don’t like the look of the knee yet still need a greater dynamic range, then there are the various extended range gammas like Cinegamma, Hypergamma or Cinestyle. These extend the dynamic range by compressing highlights, but unlike the knee, the amount of compression starts gradually and get progressively greater. This tends to look more film like than the on/off knee as it tends to roll off highlights much more gently. But, to get this gentle roll-off the compression starts lower in the exposure range so you have to be very careful not to over expose your mid-range as this can push faces and skin tones etc into the compressed part of the curve and things won’t look good. Another consideration is that as you are now moving away from the gamma used for display in most TV’s and monitors the pictures will be a little flat so a slight grade often helps with these extended gammas.
Finally we come to log gammas like S-Log, C-Log etc. These are a long way from display gamma, so will need to be graded to like right. In addition they are adding a lot of compression (log compression) to the image so exposure becomes super critical. Normally you’ll find the specified recording levels for middle grey and white to be much lower with log gammas than conventional gammas. White with S-Log for example should only be exposed at 68%. The reason for this is the extreme amount of mid to highlight compression, so your mid range needs to be recorded lower to keep it out of the heavily compressed part of the log gamma curve. Skin tones with log are often in the 40 – 50% range compared to the 60-70% range commonly used with standard gammas. Log curves do normally provide the very best dynamic range (apart from raw), but they will need grading and ideally you want to grade log footage in a dedicated grading package that supports log corrections. If you grade log in your edit suite using linear (normal gamma) effects your end results won’t be as good as they could be. The other thing with log is now your recording anything up to 13 or 14 stops of dynamic range. With an 8 bit codec that’s only 17 – 18 bits per stop, which really isn’t a lot, so for log really you want to be recording with a very high quality 10 bit codec and possibly an external recorder. Remember with a standard gamma your over 30 bits per stop, now were looking at almost half that with log!
Shooting flat: There is a lot of talk about shooting flat. Some of this comes from people that have seen high dynamic range images from cameras with S-Log or similar which do look very flat. You see, the bigger the captured dynamic range the flatter the images will look. Consider this: On a TV, with a camera with a 6 stop range, the brightest thing the camera can capture will appear as white and the darkest as black. There will be 5 stops between white and black. Now shoot the same scene with a camera with a 12 stop range and show it on the same TV. Again the brightest is white and black is black, but the original 6 stops that the first camera was able to capture are now only being shown using half of the available brightness range of the TV as the new camera is capturing 12 stops in total, so the first 6 stops will now have only half the maximum display contrast. The pictures would look flatter. If a camera truly has greater dynamic range then in general you will get a flatter looking image, but it’s also possible to get a flat looking picture by raising the black level or reducing the white level. In this case the picture looks flat, but in reality has no more dynamic range than the original. Be very careful of modified gammas said to give a flat look and greater dynamic range from cameras that otherwise don’t have great DR. Often these flat gammas don’t increase the true dynamic range, they just make a flat picture with raised blacks which results in less data being assigned to the mid range and as a result less pleasing finished images.
So the key points to consider are:
Where you can control your lighting, consider using standard gamma.
The bigger the dynamic range you try to capture, the less information per stop you will be recording.
The further you deviate from standard gamma, the more likely the need to grade the footage.
The bigger the dynamic range, the more compressed the gamma curve, the more critical accurate mid range exposure becomes.
Flat isn’t always better.
There is a lot of hype around shooting flat. Shooting flat has become a fashionable way to shoot and many individuals and companies have released camera settings said to provide the flattest images or to maximise the camera dynamic range. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that shooting flat is necessarily wrong or that you shouldn’t shoot flat, but you do need to understand the compromises that can result from shooting flat.
First of all what is meant by shooting flat? The term comes from the fact that images shot flat look, err, well…. flat when viewed on a standard TV or monitor. They have low contrast and may often look milky or washed out. Why is this? Well most TV’s and monitors only have a contrast range that is the equivalent of about 6 stops. (Even a state of the art OLED monitor only has a range of about 10 to 11 stops). The whole way we broadcast and distribute video is based on this 6 stop range. The majority of HD TV’s and monitors use a gamma curve based on REC-709, which also only has a 6 to 7 stop range. Our own visual system has a dynamic range of up to 20 stops (there is a lot of debate over exactly how big the range really is and in bright light our dynamic range drops significantly). So we can see a bigger range than most TV’s can show, so we can see bright clouds in the sky as well as deep shadows while a TV would struggle to show the same scene.
Modern camera sensors have dynamic ranges larger than 6 stops, so we can almost always capture a greater dynamic range than the average monitor can show. Now consider this carefully: If you capture a scene with a 6 stop range and then show that scene on a monitor with a 6 stop range, you will have a very true to life and accurate contrast range. You will have a great looking high contrast image. This is where having matching gammas in the camera and on the monitor comes in to play. Match the camera to the monitor and the pictures will look great, 6 stops in, 6 stops out. But, and it’s a big BUT. Real world scenes very often have a greater range than 6 or 7 stops.
A point to remember here: A TV or monitor has a limited brightness range. It can only ever display at it’s maximum brightness and best darkness. Trying to drive it harder with a bigger signal will not make it any brighter.
Feed the monitor with an image with a 6 stop range and a Rec-709 signal and the monitor will be showing it’s blackest blacks and it’s brightest whites.
But what happens if we simply feed a 6 stop monitor with an 11 stop image? Well it can’t produce a brighter picture so the brightest parts of the displayed scene are no brighter and the darker, no darker so the image you see appears to have the same brightness range but with less contrast as 11 stops are being squeezed into a 6 stop brightness range, it starts to look flat and un-interesting. The bigger the dynamic range you try to show on your 6 stop monitor, the flatter the image will look. Clearly this is undesirable for direct TV broadcasting etc. So what is normally done is to map the first 5 stops from the camera more or less directly to the first 5 stops of the display so that the all important shadows and mid-tones have natural looking contrast. Then take the brighter extended range of the camera, which may be 3 or 4 stops and map those into the remaining 1 or 2 stops of the monitor. This is a form of compression. In most cases we don’t notice it as it is only effecting highlights and our own visual system tends to concentrate on shadows and mid-tones while largely ignoring highlights. This compression is achieved using techniques such as knee compression and is one of the things that gives video it’s distinctive electronic look.
A slightly different approach to just compressing the highlights is to compress much more of the cameras output. Gamma curves like Sony’s cinegammas or hypergammas use compression that gets progressively more aggressive as you go up the exposure range. This allows even greater dynamic ranges to be captured at the expense of a slight lack of contrast in the viewed image. Taking things to the maximum we have gamma curves that use log based compression where each brighter stop is in effect compressed twice as much as the previous one. Log gamma curves like S-Log or Log-C are capable of capturing massive dynamic ranges of anywhere up to 14 stops. View these log compressed images back on your conventional TV or monitor and because even the mid range is highly compressed they will look very low contrast and very flat indeed.
Note: Log gamma does not actually increase compression, in fact it allocates exactly the sane amount of data to every stop of exposure. However it must be remembered that for every stop you go up in exposure the brightness of the scene becomes 2 times brighter. So to record the scene accurately you should use twice as much data for every stop you add. But Log does not do this, it just adds a small amount of extra data. Thus in effect RELATIVE TO THE BRIGHTNESS RANGE OF THE SCENE the amount of data is halved for each stop you go up in exposure.
So, if you have followed this article so far you should understand that we can capture a greater dynamic range than most monitors can display, but when doing so the image looks un-interesting and flat.
So, if the images look bad, why do it? The benefits of capturing a big dynamic range are that highlights are less likely to look over exposed and your final image contrast can be adjusted in post production. These are the reasons why it is seen as desirable to shoot flat.
But there are several catches. One is that the amount of image noise that the camera produces will limit how far you can manipulate your image in post production. The codec that you use to record your pictures may also limit how much you can manipulate your image due to compression artefacts such as banding or blocking. Another is that it is quite easy to create a camera profile or setup that produces a flat looking image, for example by artificially raising the shadows, that superficially looks like a flat, high dynamic range image, but doesn’t actually provide a greater dynamic range, all that’s happened is that shadows have been made brighter but no extra dynamic range has actually been gained.
Of course there are different degrees of flat. There is super flat log style shooting as well as intermediate flat-ish cinegamma or hypergamma shooting. But it if you are going to shoot flat it is vital that the recorded image coming from the camera will stand up to the kind of post production manipulation you wish to apply to it. This is especially important when using highly compressed codecs.
When you use a high compression codec it adds noise to the image, this is in addition to any sensor noise etc. If you create a look in camera, the additional compression noise is added after the look has been created. As the look has been set, the compression noise is not really going to change as you won’t be making big changes to the image. But if you shoot flat, when you start manipulating the image the compression noise gets pushed, shoved and stretched, this can lead to degradation of the image compared to creating the look in camera. In addition you need more data to record a bigger dynamic range, so a very flat (wide dynamic range) image may be pushing the codec very hard resulting in even more compression noise and artefacts.
So if you do want to shoot flat you need a camera with very low noise. You also need a robust codec, preferably 10 bit (10 bit has more data levels than 8 bit so contains more tonal information) and you need to ensure that the camera setup or gamma is truly capturing a greater dynamic range, otherwise your really wasting your time.
Shooting flat is a great tool in the cinematographers tool box and with the right equipment can bring great benefits in post production flexibility. Most of the modern large sensor cameras with their low noise sensors and ability to record to high end 10 bit codecs either internally or externally are excellent tools for shooting flat. But small sensor cameras with their higher noise levels do not make the best candidates for shooting flat. In many cases a better result will be obtained by creating your desired look in camera. Or at least getting close to the desired look in camera and then just tweaking and fine tuning the look in post.
As always, test your workflow. Just because so and so shoots flat with camera A, it doesn’t mean that you will get the same result with camera B. Shoot a test before committing to shooting flat on a project, especially if the camera isn’t specifically designed and set up for flat shooting. Shooting flat will not turn a poor cinematographer into a great cinematographer, in fact it may make it harder for a less experienced operator as hitting the cameras exposure sweet spot can be harder and focussing is trickier when you have a flat low contrast image.