Tag Archives: sensitivity

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).

What does ISO mean with todays cameras?

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.

PXW-FS5, Version 4.0 and base ISO – BEWARE if you use ISO!!

The new version 4.0 firmware for the PXW-FS5 brings a new lower base ISO range to the camera. This very slightly reduces noise levels in the pictures. If you use “gain” in dB to indicate your gain level, then you shouldn’t have any problems, +6dB is still +6dB and will be twice as noisy as 0dB. However if you use ISO to indicate your gain level then be aware that as the base sensitivity is now lower, if you use the same ISO with version 4 as you did with version 3 you will be adding more gain than before.

Version 3 ISO  in black, version 4 ISO in Blue

Standard 1000 ISO – 800 ISO
Still 800 ISO- 640 ISO
Cinegamma 1  800 ISO – 640 ISO
Cinegamma 2  640 ISO – 500 ISO
Cinegamma 3  1000 ISO – 800 ISO
Cinegamma 4  1000 ISO – 800 ISO
ITU709 1000 ISO – 800 ISO
ITU709(800) 3200 ISO – 2000 ISO
S-Log2 3200 ISO – 3200/2000 ISO
S-Log3 3200 ISO- 3200/2000 ISO

At 0dB or the base ISO these small changes (a little under 3dB) won’t make much difference because the noise levels are pretty low in either case. But at higher gain levels the difference is more noticeable.

For example if you  often used Cinegamma 1 at 3200 ISO with Version 3 you would be adding 12dB gain and the pictures would be approx 4x noisier than the base ISO.

With Version 4, 3200 ISO with Cinegamma 1 is an extra 15dB gain and you will have pictures approx 6 time noisier than the base ISO.

Having said that, because 0dB in version 4 is now a little less noisy than in version 3, 3200 ISO in V3 looks quite similar to 3200 ISO in version 4 even though you are adding a bit more gain.

What is ISO and how does it compare to gain?

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.