Tag Archives: low light

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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Using an FS5 to shoot in low light – what can I do?

The PXW-FS5 is a pretty good camera overall. Compared to cameras from 6 or 7 years ago it’s actually pretty sensitive. The exposure rating of 800 ISO for the standard rec-709 picture profile tells us that it is a little more than twice as sensitive as most old school shoulder cams. But it also suggests that it is only around half as sensitive as the king of low light, the Sony A7S. The A7S is so sensitive because it’s sensor is 1.5x bigger than the sensor in the FS5 and as a result the pixels in the A7S are almost twice the size, so are able to capture more light.

So what can you do if shooting in low light? 

The most important thing to do is to make the optical system as efficient as possible. You want to capture as much of the available light as you can and squeeze it down onto the FS5’s sensor. If you take a fast full frame lens and use it in conjunction with a Speed Booster type adapter you will end up with similar performance to using the same lens, without the speed booster on an A7S.

This is because the lens has a fixed light gathering capability. Use it on an A7S and all of the captured light is passed to all of those big pixels on the sensor. The light is split evenly across 4K’s worth of pixels.

Use it on an FS5 with a speedbooster and the same thing happens, all of the light is compressed down, which makes it brighter and all of this now brighter light falls on 4K’s worth of pixels. The smaller pixels are about half as sensitive, but now the light is twice as bright, so the end result is similar.

metabones_mb_spom_m43_bm3_speed_booster_ultra_0_71x_1259766-1024x1024 Using an FS5 to shoot in low light - what can I do?
A speedbooster adapter such as the Metabones makes a huge difference in low light. But you MUST use a full frame lens.

The biggest performance gains are to be had from using a very fast lens and then making sure all the light from the lens is used, none wasted. Anything slower than f2.8 will be a waste. If you are thinking of using the Sony f4 lens for very low light… well frankly you may as well not bother. The lens is THE most important factor in low light. When I go up to Norway to shoot the Aurora I use f1.4 and f1.8 lenses.

What about Picture Profiles?

The standard picture profile isn’t a bad choice for low light but you might want to look at using cinegamma 3. Although with a low light, low contrast scene none of the picture profiles will be significantly different from the others with the exception of PP2, PP7, PP8 or PP9. None of the profiles make the camera more sensitive, the sensitivity is governed by the sensor itself and all the profiles do is alter the way gain is distributed across the image.

PP2 will crush your shadows giving less to work with in post. The log curves in PP7,8,9 will roll off the darkest parts of the image, again giving you less in post. So I would probably avoid these.

For color I suggest using the Pro colour matrix. This works well for most situations and it will help limit the noise levels as it keeps the saturation fairly low keeping the noisy blue channel in check.

Gain or ISO?

I recommend you set the camera to gain rather than ISO as the ISO’s for each each gamma curve are different, so it can be difficult to understand how much gain is being added, especially if you are switching between gamma curves. Use gain and you will have a good idea of the noise levels as every time you add +6dB the image becomes one stop brighter and you double the noise in the image, +12 dB is 2 stops brighter and 4x noisier than 0dB etc. ISO is an exposure rating, it is not a sensitivity measurement. But don’t use too much gain or too high an ISO as this will affect you ability to use some of the very good post production noise reduction tools that are available.

Noise and Noise Reduction.

If shooting in very low light then you are quite probably going to want to use some noise reduction tools in post production. “Neat Video” works very well at cleaning up a noisy image as do the various NR tools in the paid versions of DaVinci Resolve.  These post production  tools work best when the noise is clean. By that I mean well defined. When using any of the 709 or Cinegamma curves a bit of gain can be used, but I wouldn’t go above 12dB as above this the NR starts to introduce a lot of smear and this than makes it hard for any post production NR processes like Neat Video to do a decent job without the image turning into a blurry mess. So don’t go crazy with the gain or use very high ISO’s as the post production NR won’t work as well on footage that already has a lot of in camera NR applied.

And if you can add a little light-

If you are adding any light use a daylight balanced light where you can. Video cameras are least sensitive in the blue channel. If you use a tungsten light which is predominantly warm/red to get a good white balance you have to increase the gain of the cameras least sensitive and as a result most noisy blue channel. This will add more noise than if you use a daylight balance light as for daylight you need less gain in the noisy blue channel.

There is no miracle cure for shooting in very low light levels. But with the right lens and a speedbooster the FS5 can do a very good job. But just in case yo haven’t worked it out already, I’ll say it one more time: The lens is the most important bit! Beyond this your next step would be adding an image intensifier for that green night vision look.

Low Light Performance – It’s all about the lens!

This post follows on from my previous post about sensors and was inspired by one of the questions asked following that post.

While sensor size does have some effect on low light performance, the biggest single factor is really the lens. It isn’t really bigger sensor that has revolutionised low light performance. It’s actually the lenses that we can use that has chnge our ability to shoot in low light. When we used to use 1/2″ or 2/3″ 3 chip cameras for most high end video production the most common lenses were the wide range zoom lenses. These were typically f1.8 lenses, reasonably fast lenses.

But the sensors were really small, so the pixels on those sensors were also relatively small, so having a fast lens was important.

Now we have larger sensors, super 35mm sensors are now common place. These larger sensors often have larger pixels than the old 1/2″ or 2/3″ sensors, even though we are now cramming more pixels onto the sensors. Bigger pixels do help increase sensitivity, but really the biggest change has been the types of lenses we use.

Let me explain:

The laws of physics play a large part in all of this.
We start off with the light in our scene which passes through a lens.

If we take a zoom lens of a certain physical size, with a fixed size front element and as a result fixed light gathering ability, for example a typical 2/3″ ENG zoom. You have a certain amount of light coming in to the lens.
When the size of the image projected by the rear of the lens is small it will be relatively bright and as a result you get an effective large aperture.

Increase the size of the sensor and you have to increase the size of the projected image. So if we were to modify the rear elements of this same lens to create a larger projected image (increase the image circle) so that it covers a super 35mm sensor what light we have. is spread out “thinner” and as a result the projected image is dimmer. So the effective aperture of the same lens becomes smaller and because the image is larger the focus more critical and as a result the DoF narrower.

But if we keep the sensor resolution the same, a bigger sensor will have bigger pixels that can capture more light and this makes up for dimmer image coming from the lens.

So where a small sensor camera (1/2″, 2/3″) will typically have a f1.8 zoom lens when you scale up to a s35mm sensor by altering the projected image from the lens, the same lens becomes the equivalent of around f5.6. But because for like for like resolution the pixels size is much bigger, the large sensor will be 2 to 3 stops more sensitive, so the low light performance is almost exactly the same, the DoF remains the same and the field of view remains the same (the sensor is larger, so DoF decreases, but the aperture becomes smaller so DoF increases again back to where we started). Basically it’s all governed by how much light the lens can capture and pass through to the sensor.

It’s actually the use of prime lenses that are much more efficient at capturing light has revolutionised low light shooting as the simplicity of a prime compared to a zoom makes fast lenses for large sensors affordable. When we moved to sensors that are much closer to the size of sensors used on stills cameras the range and choice of affordable lenses we could use increased dramatically. We were no longer restricted to expensive zooms designed specifically for video cameras.

Going the other way. If you were to take one of todays fast primes like a common and normally quite affordable 50mm f1.4 and build an optical adapter of the “speedbooster” type so you could use it on a 2/3″ sensor you would end up with a lens the equivalent of a f0.5 10mm lens that would turn that 2/3″ camera into a great low light system with performance similar to that of a s35mm camera with a 50mm f1.4.

Why hasn’t anyone brought out a super sensitive 4K camera?

Our current video cameras are operating at the limits of current sensor technology. As a result there isn’t much a camera manufacturer can do to improve sensitivity without compromising other aspects of the image quality.
Every sensor is made out of silicon and silicon is around 70% efficient at converting photons of light into electrons of electricity. So the only things you can do to alter the sensitivity is change the pixel size, reduce losses in the colour and low pass filters, use better micro lenses and use various methods to prevent the wires and other electronics on the face of the sensor from obstructing the light. But all of these will only ever make very small changes to the sensor performance as the key limiting factor is the silicon used to make the sensor.
 
This is why even though we have many different sensor manufacturers, if you take a similar sized sensor with a similar pixel count from different manufacturers the performance difference will only ever be small.
 
Better image processing with more advanced noise reduction can help reduce noise which can be used to mimic greater sensitivity. But NR rarely comes without introducing other artefacts such as smear, banding or a loss of subtle details. So there are limits as to how much noise reduction you want to apply. 
 

So, unless there is a new sensor technology breakthrough we are unlikely to see any new camera come out with a large, actual improvement in sensitivity. Also we are unlikely to see a sudden jump in resolution without a sensitivity or dynamic range penalty with a like for like sensor size. This is why Sony’s Venice and the Red cameras are moving to larger sensors as this is the only realistic way to increase resolution without compromising other aspects of the image. It’s why all the current crop of S35mm 4K cameras are all of very similar sensitivity, have similar dynamic range and similar noise levels.

 

A great example of this is the Sony A7s. It is more sensitive than most 4K S35 video cameras simply because it has a larger full frame sensor, so the pixels can be bigger, so each pixel can capture more light. It’s also why cameras with smaller 4K sensors will tend to be less sensitive and in addition have lower dynamic range (because the pixel size determines how many electrons it can store before it overloads).