Once upon a time the meaning of ISO was quite clear. It was a standardised sensitivity rating of the film stock you were using. If you wanted more sensitivity, you used film with a higher ISO rating. But today the meaning of ISO is less clear and we can’t swap our sensor out for more or less sensitive ones. So what does it mean?
ISO is short for International Standards Organisation. And they specify many, many different standards for many different things. For example ISO 3166 is for country codes, ISO 50001 is for energy management.
But in our world of film and TV there are two ISO standards that we have blended into one and we just call it “ISO”.
ISO 5800:2001 is the system used to determine the sensitivity of color negative film found by plotting the density of the film against exposure to light.
ISO 12232:2006 specifies the method for assigning and reporting ISO speed ratings, ISO speed latitude ratings, standard output sensitivity values, and recommended exposure index values, for digital still cameras.
Note a key difference: ISO 5800 is the measurement of the actual sensitivity to light of film. ISO 12232 is a standardised way to report the speed rating, it is not a direct sensitivity measurement.
Within the digital camera ISO rating system there are 5 different standards that a camera manufacturer can use when obtaining the ISO rating of a camera. The most commonly used method is the Recommended Exposure Index (REI) method, which allows the manufacturer to specify a camera model’s EI or base ISO arbitrarily based on what the manufacturer believes produces a satisfactory image. So it’s not really a measure of the cameras sensitivity, but a rating that if used with a standard external calibrated light meter to set the exposure will give a satisfactory looking image. This is very different to a sensitivity measurement and variations in the opinion as to what is a satisfactory image will vary from person to person. So there is a lot of scope for movement as to how an electronic camera might be rated.
As you cannot change the sensor in a digital camera, you cannot change the cameras efficiency at converting light into electrons (which is largely determined by the materials used and the physical construction). So you cannot change the actual sensitivity of the camera to light. But we have all seen how the ISO number of most digital cameras can normally be increased (and sometimes lowered) from the base ISO number.
Raising and lowering the ISO in an electronic camera is normally done by adjusting the amplification of the signal coming from the sensor, typically referred to as “gain” in the camera. It’s not actually a physical change in the cameras sensitivity to light, it like turning up the volume on a radio to make the music louder. Dual ISO cameras that claim not to add gain when switching between ISO’s typically do this by adjusting the way the signal from the sensor is converted from an analog signal to a digital one. While it is true that this is different to a gain shift it does typically alter the noise levels as to make the picture brighter you need to sample the sensors output lower down and closer to the noise floor. Once again though it is not an actual sensitivity change, it does not alter the sensors sensitivity to light, you are just picking a different part of it’s output range.
Noise and Signal To Noise Ratio.
Most of the noise in the pictures we shoot comes from the sensor and the level of this noise coming from the sensor is largely unchanged no matter what you do (some dual ISO cameras use variations in the way the sensor signal is sampled to shift the noise floor up and down a bit). So the biggest influence on the signal to noise ratio is the amount of light you put on the sensor. More light = More signal. The noise remains the same but the signal is bigger so you get a better signal to noise ratio, up to the point where the sensor overloads.
But what about low light?
To obtain a brighter image when there the light levels are low and the picture coming from the sensor looks dark the signal coming from the sensor is boosted or amplified (gain is added). This amplification makes both the desirable signal bigger but also the noise bigger. If we make the desirable picture 2 times brighter we also make the noise 2 x bigger. As a result the picture will be more noisy and grainy than one where we had enough light to get the brightness we want.
The signal to noise ratio deteriorates because the added amplification means the recording will clip more readily. Something that is close to the recordings clip point may be sent above the clip point by adding gain, so the range you can record reduces while the noise gets bigger. However the optimum exposure is now achieved with less light so the equivalent ISO number is increased. If you were using a light meter you would increase the ISO setting on the light meter to get the correct exposure. But the camera isn’t more sensitive, it’s just that the optimum amount of light for the “best” or “correct” exposure is reduced due to the added amplification.
So with an electronic camera, ISO is a rating that will give you the correct brightness of recording for the amount of light and the amount of gain that you have. This is different to sensitivity. Obviously the two are related, but they are not quite the same thing.
Getting rid of noise:
To combat the inevitable noise increase as you add gain/amplification most modern cameras use electronic noise reduction which is applied more and more aggressively as you increase the gain. At low levels this goes largely un-noticed. But as you start to add more gain and thus and more noise reduction you will start to degrade the image. It may become softer, it may become smeary. You may start to see banding ghosting or other artefacts.
Often as you increase the gain you may only see a very small increase in noise as the noise reduction does a very good job of hiding the noise. But for every bit of noise thats reduced there will be another artefact replacing it.
Technically the signal to noise ratio is improved by the use of noise reduction, but this typically comes at a price and NR can be very problematic if you later want to grade or adjust the footage as often you won’t see the artefacts until after the corrections or adjustments have been made. So be very careful when adding gain. It’s never good to have extra gain.
I’m going to keep bringing this up until people start to take note and understand that with an electronic camera ISO is NOT sensitivity.
With an electronic camera ISO is a guide to the required shutter speed and aperture needed to get the correct exposure. This is different to sensitivity. The ISO rating of a video camera and it’s sensitivity are closely related, but they are not quite the same thing. Because different gamma curves require different exposures the ISO rating for each gamma curve will be different even though the gain and actual sensitivity of the camera may be exactly the same.
Lets take the Sony PXW-FS5 as an example.
If you shoot using the standard camera settings you should expose white at 90%, middle grey will be around 42% and skin tones typically around 70%. At 0dB gain the camera the camera will display an ISO equivalent rating of 1000 ISO. So let’s say you are using a light meter. You set it to 1000 ISO and it tells you you need an aperture of f5.6 to get the right exposure.
Now you change to S-Log2. If you do nothing else your white card will now be at around 75% and middle grey will be around 40%. At 0dB gain the camera will show an equivalent ISO of 3200 ISO.
But hang on – The camera is still at 0dB gain, so there is no change in sensitivity. .But the camera is over exposed, S-Log2 is supposed to be exposed with white at 59% and middle grey at 32%.
So we go to our light meter and change the ISO on the light meter from 1000 ISO to 3200 ISO. Because the light meter now “thinks” the camera is more sensitive by almost 2 stops it will tell us to close the aperture by nearly 2 stops. So we go to the camera and stop down to f10 and bingo, the image is exposed correctly.
But here’s the important thing – The camera hasn’t become any more sensitive. We haven’t replaced the sensor with a different, more sensitive one (as you would do with a film camera where you actually change the film stock). We are still at 0dB gain (even though the camera tells us this is the equivalent to a higher ISO).
The only reason that ISO number changes is so that if we were using an external light meter we would get the recommended exposure levels for the gamma curve we are using. In this example closing the aperture increase the highlight range that the camera would be able to cope with and this helps us get that full 14 stop range from the camera, although closing the aperture means less light on the sensor so the pictures end up a little noisier as a result – That is unless you choose to rate the camera at a different ISO by over exposing the log a bit.
ISO is useful, but you need to understand that it isn’t really sensitivity. After all we can’t change the sensors on our video cameras and that would be the only way to truly change the sensitivity. Any “sensitivity” change is really nothing more than a gain or amplification change. Useful but not the same as changing the actual sensitivity. Gain will make a dark picture brighter but it won’t allow you to see something that the sensor can’t detect.
It is much easier to understand dB gain with an electronic camera as it actually tells you exactly what the camera is doing and it is actually my recommendation that people use gain rather than ISO for all of the above reasons. The use of ISO on electronic cameras is very badly understood, in part because it’s a largely meaningless term because it doesn’t tell us how sensitive the sensor is, how much gain we are using or how much noise we are adding. Give any experienced camera operator a camera and ask them how noisy will it be a 18dB gain and they will have a pretty good idea of what the pictures will look like. Give them the same camera and ask them how noisy will it be at 8000 ISO and they won’t have a clue.
The problem is ISO is trendy and fashionable as that’s what “cinematographers” use. But lets be honest with ourselves – we are using electronic video cameras, whether that’s a Red, Alexa or FS5 so really we should be using the correct terminology for an electronic camera which is gain. It would eliminate an aweful lot of confusion and tell us how much noise and grain our pictures will have. It’s noise and grain will levels will determine how good a clip looks and how much we can grade it, so we need to clearly understand how much gain is being added in camera and dB gian tells us this. ISO does not.
Side Note: Modern film stocks will often have 2 ratings, the ISO or actual measured sensitivity of the film stock plus the EI or Exposure Index which is the recommended setting for the light meter to get the best exposure. In some respects the ISO rating of a video camera is closer to the EI rating of a film stock. Perhaps we should stop calling it ISO and use the term EI instead, this would be me appropriate and signify that it is a reference for best exposure rather than true sensitivity.
UPDATE: A comment on facebook was why not display both ISO and Gain side by side. This is an obvious solution really. Why do camera manufacturers force us to choose either ISO or gain? Why can’t we use a hybrid of the 2? I see no technical reason why cameras can’t show both the gain and ISO at the same time – Problem solved.
The Signal to Noise ratio is one of the key factors in determining the quality of a video or stills image. A noisy, grainy picture rarely looks as good as a low noise “clean” image. In addition it’s noise in your images will limit how far you can grade them before the picture quality becomes unacceptably poor.
Almost always what you want is the biggest possible signal with the least possible noise. In a video or film camera the signal is the desired image information or in simple terms the picture. While the noise is…. well….. the noise.
Once upon a time, when film cameras were normal for both still photography and film the noise in the pictures came primarily from the grain structure of the film stock. One of the great features of film cameras is that you can actually change that film stock to suit the type of scene that you are shooting. For low light you could use a more sensitive film stock that was actually truly more sensitive to light. However, often a very sensitive film stock will show more noise as the grain of more sensitive film is normally larger.
With video and digital stills cameras however things are quite different. You can’t normally change the sensor in a video camera and it’s the sensor that determines the sensitivity of the camera and it is the sensor that is the source of the majority of the noise.
Modern CMOS video sensors consist of two parts. The light gathering part and the readout part. The size of the pixels on a sensor is one of the key factors in determining the sensitivity and dynamic range. Small pixels are not good at capturing, converting and storing large numbers of photons of light or electrons of electricity. Bigger pixels are much better at this, so big pixels typically mean better sensitivity and a better dynamic range. Each pixel is unique and as a result every pixel on the sensor will perform slightly differently. The signal stored in the pixels is a tiny analog signal that is easily disturbed by stray electric currents and variations in temperature. As a result of the small variations from pixel to pixel, the stray signals and heat, there is a small variation from moment to moment in the signal that comes off the pixel when it is read out and these variations are what we see as noise.
The analog signal from the pixels is passed to a circuit that converts it to a digital signal. The analog to digital conversion process normally includes some form of noise reduction circuitry to help minimise the noise. By carefully mapping the A to D circuity to the signal range the pixels provide, a sensor manufacturer can find the best combination of noise, dynamic and sensitivity. Once the signal has been converted to a digital one, the noise level, sensitivity and dynamic range is more or less locked in and can’t be changed (Some cameras have the ability to use slightly different A to D conversion ranges to help give improved noise levels at different brightness/dynamic ranges).
The bottom line of all this is that with the vast majority of video cameras the noise level is more or less fixed, as is the sensitivity as we can’t actually swap out the sensor.
But wait! I hear you say…. My camera allows me to change the ISO or gain. Well yes it probably does and in both cases, ISO or gain, with a digital video or stills camera what you are changing is the cameras internal signal amplification. You are NOT making the camera more sensitive, you are simply turning up the volume. As anyone with any type of sound system will know, when you turn up the gain you get more hiss. This is because gain makes not only the desired signal bigger but also the noise. As a result adding gain or increasing the ISO is rarely a great thing to do.
So normally we want to use a digital camera at it’s native sensitivity wherever possible. The native sensitivity is where no gain is being added by the camera or 0dB. In ISO, well you need to find out what the native ISO is and be aware that different gamma curves will have different base ISO’s (which is why I prefer to use dB gain as 0dB = native sensitivity, least noise, best dynamic range, no matter what gamma curve).
To get the best possible image we then want to make our signal (picture information) as big as possible. As we can’t swap out the sensor, the only way to do that is to put as much light as possible onto the sensor. Obviously we don’t want to overload the sensor or exceed the limitations of the recording system, but generally the more light you get on the sensor, the better your pictures will be.
As the sensors noise output remains more or less constant, the best signal to noise ratio will be gained when you put a lot of light on the sensor. This generates a very large signal, so the signal becomes big compared to the noise and the noise becomes only a small percentage of the overall image.
If we are unable to get enough light onto the sensor to expose it fully then it is often tempting to add some gain to make the picture brighter. 6dB of gain is the equivalent to 1 stop of exposure. Just like f-stops, each time we go up a stop we are doubling. So adding 6db of gain doubles everything. It makes the picture the equivalent of one stop brighter, but it also doubles the noise. Adding 12dB gain multiplies the noise 4 times, adding 18dB multiplies the noise 8 times.
What if instead of adding gain to make the picture brighter we let 4x more light fall on the sensor (2 stops)? Well the image gets brighter by the equivalent of 2 stops but as we are not adding gain this means the desirable signal, the picture is now going to be the equivalent of 12dB bigger than the noise than it was before we added the 2 stops of light. That’s going to give you a much cleaner looking image.
How do you get more light onto the sensor? There are many ways such as using a faster lens with a larger aperture that will let more light through. Or you could try using a slower shutter speed (I often find it beneficial in low light to use a 1/24th or 1/25th shutter if there is not too much motion to cause the image to become excessively blurred). Then of course you can also add light to your scene by lighting it. It’s very rare to find noisy and grainy night scenes in feature films and that’s because the night scenes normally have well lit foregrounds but keep dark backgrounds to maintain the sensation of night time or darkness. High contrast is the key to good looking night scenes, well lit foregrounds or actors with deep, dark shadows and backgrounds.
The desire to have a good signal to noise ratio is one of the reasons why when shooting in log or raw you want to expose as brightly as you can (while still maintaining consistent exposure from shot to shot, scene to scene). It’s a little bit harder with standard gammas as we have things like the knee or highlight roll off to deal with. Plus the need to have a shot that looks correct straight out of the camera. But at the end of the day the best results are almost always gained when the gain is kept to a minimum (but don’t use negative gain as this can effect the dynamic range) and the amount of light falling on the sensor as high as possible.
In the next article I’ll give you an interesting experiment to try on a PMW-F5, F55 or PMW-FS7 that is very revealing about the way ISO, gain, exposure and noise behaves that will show why exposing log or raw at +1 to +2 stops is so important.
This is something that’s not well understood by many people. It helps explain why the PMW-F3 (and other cameras) EI S-Log function is so useful.
You see, camera gain does not normally actually change the cameras ability to capture photons of light. A CCD or CMOS sensor has a number of photo sites that capture photons of light and convert those photons into electrons or electrical charge. The efficiency of that capture and conversion process is fixed, it’s known as the QE or quantum efficiency. There are a lot of factors that effect this efficiency, such as the use of micro lenses, whether the sensor is back or front illuminated etc. But all of these factors are physical design factors that do not change when you add extra camera gain. The sensitivity of the sensor itself remains constant, no matter what the camera gain is set to.
Camera gain is applied to the signal coming out of the sensor. It’s a bit like turning up the volume on a stereo amplifier. If you have a quite piece of music, turning up the volume makes it louder, but the original piece of music is still a quiet piece of music. Turning up the volume on your stereo, as well as making the music louder will also make any hiss or background noise in the music louder and it’s exactly the same with a video camera. As you increase the gain, as well as the wanted video signal getting bigger (brighter) all the unwanted noise also get bigger. So adding gain on your video camera doesn’t actually make the camera more sensitive, but it does make what light the camera has captured brighter in the recordings and output, giving the impression that the camera has become more sensitive, however this is at the penalty of increased background noise.
As well as adding gain to the image in the camera, we can also add gain in post production. Traditionally gain has been added in camera because the gain is added before the recording process. In the uncompressed analog days the recording process itself added a lot of noise. In the digital age the process of compressing the image adds noise. 8 bit recordings have quite small number of grey shades. So any gain added in post production amplifies not only the camera signal but also the added recording or compression noise so generally gives an inferior result to adding gain in camera. With an 8 bit signal the stretching of the relatively few grey shades results in banding.
Now, however the use of lower noise sensors and much improved 10 bit or higher recording codecs or even uncompressed recording means that adding gain in post as opposed to in camera is not such a bad thing. In some cases you can use post production noise reduction prior to adding post gain and by leveraging the processing and rendering power of a computer, which will normally be of greater quality than the in camera processing, you can get a cleaner, lower noise output than you would using in camera gain. So before you flick on the gain switch of your camera, if your using only very light 10 bit or higher compression (HDCAM SR, Cineform, ProRes HQ) or uncompressed do consider that you may actually be better waiting until you get into post before you add gain.
Some modern cameras, like Red or the Sony F3 can use something called EI gain. EI gain does not actually add any gain to the recorded signal (or signal output in the case of the F3). Instead it adds gain to the monitor output only and adds metadata to the recording to tell the post facility or conversion software to add gain. This way you see on the monitor what the image should look like when the gain has been added, but the recording itself has no gain added giving the post production team the ability to fine tune exactly how much gain is applied.
With more and more people using 35mm size sensors, more of the old traditional filming styles and techniques are trickling down from the high end to lower and lower production levels. This is a good thing as it often involves slowing down the pace of the shoot and more time being taken over each shot. One of the key things with film is that you can’t see the actual exposure on a monitor as you can with a video camera. A good video assist system will help, but at the end of the day exposure for film is set by using a light meter to measure the light levels within the scene and then you calculate the optimum exposure using the films ISO rating.
So what exactly is an ISO rating?
Well it is a measure of sensitivity. It tells you how sensitive the film is to light, or in the case of a digital stills or video camera how sensitive the sensor is to light. Every time you double the ISO number you are looking at doubling the sensitivity. So ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100. ISO 1600 is twice as sensitive as ISO 800 etc.
Now one very important thing to remember is that ISO is a measure of sensitivity ONLY. It does not tell you how noisy the pictures are or how much grain there is. So you could have two cameras rated at 800 ISO but one may have a lot more noise than the other. It’s important to remember this because if you are trying, for example, to shoot in low light you may have a choice of two cameras. Both rated with a native sensitivity of 800 ISO but one has twice as much noise as the other. This would mean that you could use gain (or an increased ISO) on the less noisy camera and get greater sensitivity, but with a final picture that is no more noisy than the noisier camera.
How does this relate to video cameras?
Well most video camera don’t have an ISO rating, although if you search online you can often find someone that has worked out an equivalent ISO rating. The EX1 is rated around 360 ISO. The sensitivity of a video camera is adjusted by adding or reducing electronic gain, for example +3db, +9db etc. Every 6db of gain you add, doubles the sensitivity of the camera. So taking an EX1 (360 ISO) if you add 6db of gain you double the sensitivity and you double the ISO to 720 ISO, but you also double the amount of noise.
Now lets compare two cameras. The already mentioned EX1 rated at approx 360 ISO and the PMW-350 rated at approx 600 ISO. As you can see from the numbers the 350 is already almost twice as sensitive as the EX1 at 0db gain. But when you also look at the noise figures for the cameras, EX1 at 54db and 350 at 59db we can see that the 350 has almost half as much noise as the EX1. In practice what this means is that if we add +6db gain to the 350 we add +6db of noise so that brings the noise level 53db, very close to the EX1. So for the same amount of noise the 350 is between 3 and 4 times as sensitive as the EX1.
Does your head hurt yet?
There is also a good correlation between sensitivity and iris setting or f-stop. Each f stop represents a doubling or halving of the amount of light going through the lens. So 1 f-stop is equal to 6db of gain, which is equal to a doubling (or halving) of the ISO. You may also hear another term in film circles and that is the T-stop. A T stop is a measured f-stop, it includes not only the light restriction created by the iris but also any losses in the lens. Each element in a lens will lead to a reduction in light and T stops take this into account.
So there you go. The key thing to take away is that ISO (and even the 0db gain setting on a video camera) tells you nothing about the amount of noise in the image. Ultimately it is the noise in the image that determines how much light you need in order to get a decent picture, not the ISO number.