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Do the images from my Sony camera have to look the way they do?

— And why do Sony cameras look the way they do?

It all about the color science.

“Color Science” is one of those currently in fashion phrases that gets thrown around all over the place today. First of all – what the heck is color science anyway? Simply put it’s how the camera sees the colors in a scene, mixes them together, records them – and then how your editing or grading software interprets what is in the recording and finally how the TV or other display device turns the digital values it receives back into a color image. It’s a combination of optical filters such as the low pass filter, color filters, sensor properties, how the sensor is read out and how the signals are electronically processed both in the camera, by your edit/grading system and by the display device. It is no one single thing, and it’s important to understand that your edit process also contributes to the overall color science.

Color Science is something we have been doing since the very first color cameras, it’s not anything new. However us end users now have a much greater ability to modify that color science thanks to better post production tools and in camera adjustments such as picture profiles or scene files.

Recently, Sony cameras have sometimes been seen by some as having less advanced or poor color science compared to cameras from some other manufacturers. Is this really the case? For Sony part of the color science issue is that historically Sony have deliberately designed their newest cameras to match previous generations of cameras so that a large organisation with multiple cameras can use new cameras without having them look radically different to their old ones. It has always been like this and all the manufacturers do this, Panasonic cameras have a certain look as do Canon etc. New and old Panasonics tend to look the same as do old and new Canon’s, but the Canon’s look different to the Panasonics which look different to the Sony’s.

Sony have a very long heritage in broadcast TV and that’s how their cameras look out of the box, like Rec-709 TV cameras with colors that are similar to the tube cameras they were producing 20 years ago. Sony’s broadcast color science is really very accurate – point one at a test chart such as a Chroma DuMonde and you’ll see highly repeatable, consistent and accurate color reproduction with all the vectors on a vector scope falling exactly where they should, including the skin tone line.

On the one hand this is great if you are that big multi-camera business wanting to add new cameras to old ones without problems, where you want your latest ENG or self-shooters cameras to have the same colors as your perhaps older studio cameras so that any video inserts into a studio show cut in and out smoothly with a consistent look.

But on the other hand it’s not so good if you are a one man band shooter that wants something that looks different. Plus accurate is not always “pretty” and you can’t get away from the fact that the pictures look like Rec-709 television pictures in a new world of digital cinematography where TV is perhaps seen as bad and the holy grail is now a very different kind of look that is more stylised and much less true to life.

So Sony have been a bit stuck. The standard look you get when you apply any of the standard off-the shelf S-Log3 or S-Log2 LUT’s will by design be based on the Sony color science of old, so you get the Sony look. Most edit and grading applications are using transforms for S-Log2/3 based on Sony’s old standard Rec-709 look to maintain this consistency of look. This isn’t a mistake. It’s by design, it’s a Sony camera so it’s supposed to look like other Sony cameras, not different.

But for many this isn’t what they want. They want a camera that looks different, perhaps the “film look” – whatever that is?

Recently we have seen two new cameras from Sony that out of the box look very different from all the others. Sony’s high end Venice camera and the lower cost FS5 MKII. The FS5 MKII in particular proves that it’s possible to have a very different look with Sony’s existing colour filters and sensors. The FS5 MK II has exactly the same sensor with exactly the same electronics as the MK I. The only difference is in the way the RGB data from the sensor is being processed and mixed together (determined by the different firmware in the Mk1 and mk2) to create the final output.

The sensors Sony manufacture and use are very good at capturing color. Sony sensors are found in cameras from many different manufacturers. The recording systems in the Sony cameras do a fine job of recording those colors as data within the files the camera records as data with different code values representing what the sensor saw. Take that data into almost any half decent grading software and you can change the way it looks by modifying the data values. In post production I can turn almost any color I want into any other color. It’s really up to us as to how we translate the code values in the files into the colors we see on the screen, especially when recording using Log or raw. A 3D LUT can change tones and hues very easily by shifting and modifying the code values. So really there is no reason why you have to have the Sony 709 look.

My Venice emulation LUT’s will make S-Log3 from an FS5 or FS7 look quite different to the old Sony Broadcast look. I also have LUT’s for Sony cameras that emulate different Fuji and Kodak film stocks, apply one of these and it really looks nothing like a Sony broadcast camera. Another alternative is to use a color managed workflow such as ACES which will attempt to make just about every camera on the market look the same applying the ACES film style look and highlight roll-off.

We have seen it time and time again where Sony footage has been graded well and it then becomes all but impossible to identify what camera shot it. If you have Netflix take a look at “The Crown” shot on Sony’s F55 (which has the same default Sony look as the FS5 MK1, FS7 etc). Most people find it hard to believe the Crown was shot with a Sony because it has not even the slightest hint of the old Sony broadcast look.

If you use default settings, standard LUT’s etc it will look like a Sony, it’s supposed to! But you have the freedom to choose from a vast range of alternative looks or better still create your own looks and styles with your own grading choices.

But for many this can prove tricky as often they will start with a standard Sony LUT or standard Sony transform. So the image they start with has the old Sony look. When you start to grade or adjust this it can sometimes look wrong because you have perhaps become used to the original Sony image and then anything else just doesn’t seem right, because it’s not what you are used to. In addition if you add a LUT and then grade, elements of the LUT’s look may be hard to remove, things like the highlight roll off will be hard baked into the material, so you need to do need to think carefully about how you use LUT’s. So try to break away from standard LUT’s. Try ACES or try some other starting point for your grade.

Going forward I think it is likely that we will see the new Venice look become standard across all of the Cinema style cameras from Sony, but it will take time for this to trickle down into all the grading and editing software that currently uses transforms for s-Log2/3 that are based on the old Sony Rec-709 broadcast look. But if you grade your footage for yourself you can create just about any look you want.

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Why rendering form 8 bit to 8 bit can be a bad thing to do.

When you transcode from 8 bit to 8 bit you will almost always have some issues with banding if there are any changes in the gamma or gain within the image. As you are starting with 8 bits or 240 shades of grey (bits 16 to 255 assuming recording to 109%) and encoding to 240 shades the smallest step you can ever have is 1/240th. If whatever you are encoding or rendering determines that lets say level 128 should now be level 128.5, this can’t be done, we can only record whole bits, so it’s rounded up or down to the closest whole bit. This rounding leads to a reduction in the number of shades recorded overall and can lead to banding.
DISCLAIMER: The numbers are for example only and may not be entirely correct or accurate, I’m just trying to demonstrate the principle.
Consider these original levels, a nice smooth graduation:

128,    129,   130,   131,   132,   133.

Imagine you are doing some grading and you plugin has calculated that these are the new desired values:

128.5, 129, 129.4, 131.5, 132, 133.5
But we cant record half bits, only whole ones so for 8 bit these get rounded to the nearest bit:

129,   129,   129,   132,   132,   134

You can see how easily banding will occur, our smooth gradation now has some marked steps.
If you are rendering to 10 bit you would get more in between steps.
If you render to 10 bit then when step 128 is determined to be be 128.5 by the plugin this can now actually be encoded as the closest 10 bit equivalent because for every 1 step in 8 bit there are 3.9 steps in 10 bit, so (approximately,translating to 10 bit) level 128 would be 499 and 128.5 would be 501
128.5 = 501

129 = 503

129.4 = 505

131.5 = 513

132 = 515

133.5 = 521

So you can see that we now retain in-between steps which are not present when we render to 8 bit so our gradation remains much smoother.