So before you get too critical of your viewfinders performance do also consider all of the above. Try to see how another similar viewfinder looks on your camera (for example an Alphatron on an FS7). Perhaps try a higher resolution viewfinder such as a Gratical, but don’t expect miracles from a small, relatively low resolution screen on a modern digital cinema camera. This really is one of those areas where you can’t beat a big, high resolution screen.
I often hear people talking about future proofing content or providing the best they can for their clients when talking about 4K. Comments such as “You’d be crazy not shoot shoot 4K for a professional production”. While on the whole I am a believer in shooting in 4K, I think you also need to qualify this by saying you need to shoot good 4K.
As always you must remember that bigger isn’t always better. Resolution is only one part of the image quality equation. Just take a look at how Arri’s cameras, the Alexa etc, continue to be incredibly popular for high end production even those these are in effect only HD/2K cameras.
Great images are a combination of many factors and frankly resolution comes some way down the list in my opinion. Just look at how DVD has managed to hang on for so long, feature films on DVD still look OK even though the resolution is very low. Contrast and dynamic range are more important, good color is vital and low noise and artefact levels are also essential.
A nice contrasty image with great color, low noise and minimal artefacts up scaled from HD to 4K may well look a lot better than a 4K originated image that lacks contrast or has other artefacts such as compression noise or poor color.
So it’s not just about the number of pixels that you have but also about the quality of those pixels. If you really want to future proof your content it has to be the best quality you can get today, not just the largest you can get today.
This is one of those topics that keeps coming back around time and time again. The link between contrast and resolution. So I thought I would take a few minutes to create some simple illustrations to demonstrate the point.
This first image represents a nice high contrast picture. The white background and dark lines have high contrast and as a result you can “see” resolution a long way to the right of the image as indicated by the arrow.
Now look at what happens as you slowly reduce the contrast in the image. As the contrast reduces the amount of resolution that you can see reduces. Keep reducing the contrast and the resolution continues to decrease.
Eventually if you keep reducing the contrast enough you end up with no resolution as you can no longer differentiate between light and dark.
Now look at what happens when you reduce the resolution by blurring the image, the equivalent of using a less “sharp” lower resolution lens for example. What happens to the black lines? Well the become less dark and start to look grey, the contrast is reducing.
Hopefully these simple images show that contrast and resolution are intrinsically linked. You can’t have one without the other. So when choosing lenses in particular you need to look at not just resolution but also contrast. Contrast in a lens is affected by many things including flare where brighter parts of the scene bleed into darker parts. Flare also comes from light sources that may not be in your shot but the light is still entering the lens, bouncing around inside and reducing contrast as a result. These things often don’t show up if you use just a simple resolution chart. A good lens hood or matte box with flags can be a big help reduce stray light and flare, so in fact a matte box could actually make your pictures sharper. They are not just for pimping up your rig, they really can improve the quality of your images.
The measurement for resolution and contrast is called the MTF or modulation transfer function. This is normally used to measure lens performance and the ability of a lens to pass the light from a scene or test chart to the film or sensor. It takes into account both resolution and contrast so tells you a lot about the lens or imaging systems performance and is normally presented as a graph of contrast levels over a scale of ever increasing resolution.
Clearly these will never be as good as, or as accurate as properly produced charts. Most home printers just don’t have the ability to produce true blacks with razor sharp edges and the paper you use is unlikely to be optimum. But, the link below takes you to a nice collection of zone plates and resolution charts that are useful for A/B comparisons. I split them up into quarters and then print each quarter on a sheet of A4 paper, joining them all back together to produce a nice large chart.
When is 4k really 4k, Bayer Sensors and resolution.
First lets clarify a couple of term. Resolution can be expressed two ways. It can be expressed as pixel resolution, ie how many individual pixels are there on the sensor. Or as TV lines or TVL/ph, or how many individual lines can I see. If you point a camera at a resolution chart, what you talking about is at what point can I no longer discern one black line from the next. TVL/ph is also the resolution normalised for the picture height, so aspect ratio does not confuse the equation. TVL/ph is a measure of the actual resolution of the camera system. With video cameras TVL/ph is the normally quoted term, while pixel resolution or pixel count is often quoted for film replacement cameras. I believe the TVL/ph term to be prefferable as it is a true measure of the visible resolution of the camera.
The term 4k started in film with the use af 4k digital intermediate files for post production and compositing. The exposed film is scanned using a single row scanner that is 4,096 pixels wide. Each line of the film is scanned 3 times, once each through a red, green and blue filter, so each line is made up of three 4K pixel scans, a total of just under 12k per line. Then the next line is scanned in the same manner all the way to the bottom of the frame. For a 35mm 1.33 aspect ratio film frame (4×3) that equates to roughly 4K x 3K. So the end result is that each 35mm film frame is sampled using 3 (RGB) x 4k x 3k, or 36 million samples. That is what 4k originally meant, a 4k x 3k x3 intermediate file.
Putting that into Red One perspective, it has a sensor with 8 Million pixels, so the highest possible sample size would be 8 million samples. Red Epic 13.8 million. But it doesn’t stop there because Red (like the F3) use a Bayer sensor where the pixels have to sample the 3 primary colours. As the human eye is most sensitive to resolution in the middle of the colour spectrum, twice as many of these pixel are used for green compared to red and blue. So you have an array made up of blocks of 4 pixels, BG above GR.
Now all video cameras (at least all correctly designed ones) include a low pass filter in the optical path, right in front of the sensor. This is there to prevent moire that would be created by the fixed pattern of the pixels or samples. To work correctly and completely eliminate moire and aliasing you have to reduce the resolution of the image falling on the sensor below that of the pixel sample rate. You don’t want fine details that the sensor cannot resolve falling on to the sensor, because the missing picture information will create strange patterns called moire and aliasing.
It is impossible to produce an Optical Low Pass Filter that has an instant cut off point and we don’t want any picture detail that cannot be resolved falling on the sensor, so the filter cut-off must start below the sensor resolution. Next we have to consider that a 4k bayer sensor is in effect a 2K horizontal pixel Green sensor combined with a 1K Red and 1K Blue sensor, so where do you put the low pass cut-off? As information from the four pixels in the bayer patter is interpolated, left/right/up/down there is some room to have the low pass cut off above the 2k pixel of the green channel but this can lead to problems when shooting objects that contain lots of primary colours. If you set the low pass filter to satisfy the Green channel you will get strong aliasing in the R and B channels. If you put it so there would be no aliasing in the R and B channels the image would be very soft indeed. So camera manufacturers will put the low pass cut-off somewhere between the two leading to trade offs in resolution and aliasing. This is why with bayer cameras you often see those little coloured blue and red sparkles around edges in highly saturated parts of the image. It’s aliasing in the R and B channels. This problem is governed by the laws of physics and optics and there is very little that the camera manufacturers can do about it.
In the real world this means that a 4k bayer sensor cannot resolve more than about 1.5k to 1.8k TVL/ph without serious aliasing issues. Compare this with a 3 chip design with separate RGB sensors. With a three 1920×1080 pixel sensors, even with a sharp cut-off low pass filter to eliminate any aliasing in all the channels you should still get at 1k TVL/ph. That’s one reason why bayer sensors despite being around since the 70s and being cheaper to manufacture than 3 chip designs (with their own issues created by big thick prisms) have struggled to make serious inroads into professional equipment. This is starting to change now as it becomes cheaper to make high quality, high pixel count sensors allowing you to add ever more pixels to get higher resolution, like the F35 with it’s (non bayer) 14.4 million pixels.
This is a simplified look at whats going on with these sensors, but it highlights the fact that 4k does not mean 4k, in fact it doesn’t even mean 2k TVL/ph, the laws of physics prevent that. In reality even the very best 4k pixels bayer sensor should NOT be resolving more than 1.8k TVL/ph. If it is it will have serious aliasing issues.
After all that, those that I have not lost yet are probably thinking: well hang on a minute, what about that film scan, why doesn’t that alias as there is no low pass filter there? Well two things are going on. One is that the dynamic structure of all those particles used to create a film image, which is different from frame to frame reduces the fixed pattern effects of the sampling, which causes the aliasing to be totally different from frame to frame so it is far less noticeable. The other is that those particles are of a finite size so the film itself acts as the low pass filter, because it’s resolution is typically lower than that of the 4k scanner.
Another thing that you must consider when looking at sensor size is something called “Diffraction Limiting”. For Standard Definition this is not as big a problem as it is for HD. With HD it is a big issue.
Basically the problem is that light doesn’t always travel in straight lines. When a beam of light passes over a sharp edge it gets bent, this is called diffraction. So when the light passes through the lens of a camera the light around the edge of the iris ring gets bent and this means that some of the light hitting the sensor is slightly de-focussed. The smaller you make the iris the greater the percentage of diffracted light with respect to non diffracted light. Eventually the amount of diffracted and thus de-focussed light will become large enough to start to soften the image.
With a very small sensor even a tiny amount of diffraction will bend the light enough to fall on the pixel adjacent to the one it’s supposed to be focussed on. With a bigger sensor and bigger pixels the amount of diffraction required to bend the light to the next pixel is greater. In addition the small lenses on cameras with small sensors means the iris will be smaller.
In practice, this means that an HD camera with 1/3? sensors will noticeably soften if it is more stopped down (closed) more than f5.6, 1/2? cameras more than f8 and 2/3? f11. This is one of the reasons why most pro level cameras have adjustable ND filters. The ND filter acts like a pair of sunglasses cutting down the amount of light entering the lens and as a result allowing you to use a wider iris setting. This softening happens with both HD and SD cameras, the difference is that with the low resolution of SD it was much less noticeable.