HDR (high dynamic range) imagery and higher display resolutions start with the camera. Unfortunately that’s also where the misinformation starts. That’s because the terminology is based on displays and not on camera sensors and lenses.
4K is pretty common, 8K products are here, and 16K may be around the corner. Resolution is commonly expressed as the horizontal dimension, but in fact, actual visual resolution is intended to be measured vertically. A resolution chart uses converging lines. The point at which you can no longer discern between the lines is the limit of the measurable resolution. That isn’t necessarily a pixel count.
The second point to mention is that camera sensors are built with photosites that only loosely equate to pixels. The hitch is that there is no 1:1 correlation between a sensor’s photosites and display pixels on a screen. This is made even more complicated by the design of a Bayer-pattern sensor that is used in most professional video cameras. In addition, not all 4K cameras look good when you analyze the image at 100%. For example, nearly all early and/or cheap drone and ‘action’ cameras appear substandard when you actually look at the image closely. The reasons include cheap plastic lenses and high compression levels.
The bottom line is that when a company like Netflix won’t accept an ARRI Alexa as a valid 4K camera for its original content guidelines – in spite of the number of blockbuster feature films captured using Alexas – you have to take it with a grain of salt. Ironically, if you shoot with an Alexa in its 4:3 mode (2880 x 2160) using anamorphic lenses (2:1 aspect squeeze), the expanded image results in a 5760 x 2160 (6K) frame. Trust me, this image looks great on a 4K display with plenty of room to crop left and right. Or, a great ‘scope image. Yes, there are anamorphic lens artifacts, but that’s part of the charm as to why creatives love to shoot that way in the first place.
Resolution is largely a non-issue for most camera owners these days. There are tons of 4K options and the only decision you need to make when shooting and editing is whether to record at 3840 or 4096 wide when working in a 4K mode.
Log, raw, and color correction
HDR is the ‘next big thing’ after resolution. Nearly every modern professional camera can shoot footage that can easily be graded into HDR imagery. That’s by recording the image as either camera raw or with a log color profile. This lets a colorist stretch the highlight information up to the peak luminance levels that HDR displays are capable of. Remember that HDR video is completely different from HDR photography, which can often be translated into very hyper-real photos. Of course, HDR will continue to be a moving target until one of the various competing standards gains sufficient traction in the consumer market.
It’s important to keep in mind that neither raw nor log is a panacea for all image issues. Both are ways to record the linear dynamic range that the camera ‘sees’ into a video colorspace. Log does this by applying a logarithmic curve to the video, which can then be selectively expanded again in post. Raw preserves the sensor data in the recording and pushes the transformation of that data to RGB video outside of the camera. Using either method, it is still possible to capture unrecoverable highlights in your recorded image. Or in some cases the highlights aren’t digitally clipped, but rather that there’s just no information in them other than bright whiteness. There is no substitute for proper lighting, exposure control, and shaping the image aesthetically through creative lighting design. In fact, if you carefully control the image, such as in a studio interview or a dramatic studio production, there’s no real reason to shoot log instead of Rec 709. Both are valid options.
I’ve graded camera raw (RED, Phantom, DJI) and log footage (Alexa, Canon, Panasonic, Sony) and it is my opinion that there isn’t that much magic to camera raw. Yes, you can have good iso/temp/tint latitude, but really not a lot more than with a log profile. In one, the sensor de-Bayering is done in post and in the other, it’s done in-camera. But if a shot was recorded underexposed, the raw image is still going to get noisy as you lift the iso and/or exposure settings. There’s no free lunch and I still stick to the mantra that you should ‘expose to the right’ during production. It’s easier to make a shot darker and get a nice image than going in the other direction.
Since NAB 2018, more camera raw options have hit the market with Apple’s ProRes RAW and Blackmagic RAW. While camera raw may not provide any new, magic capabilities, it does allow the camera manufacturer to record a less-compressed file at a lower data rate. However, neither of these new codecs will have much impact on post workflows until there’s a critical mass of production users, since these are camera recording codecs and not mezzanine or mastering codecs. At the moment, only Final Cut Pro X properly handles ProRes RAW, yet there are no actual camera raw controls for it as you would find with RED camera raw settings. So in that case, there’s actually little benefit to raw over log, except for file size.
One popular raw codec has been Cinema DNG, which is recorded as an image sequence rather than a single movie file. Blackmagic Design cameras had used that until replaced by Blackmagic RAW. Some drone cameras also use it. While I personally hate the workflow of dealing with image sequence files, there is one interesting aspect of cDNG. Because the format was originally developed by Adobe, processing is handled nicely by the Adobe Camera Raw module, which is designed for camera raw photographs. I’ve found that if you bring a cDNG sequence into After Effects (which uses the ACR module) as opposed to Resolve, you can actually dig more highlight detail out of the images in After Effects than in Resolve. Or at least with far less effort. Unfortunately, you are stuck making that setting decision on the first frame, as you import the sequence into After Effects.
The bottom line is that there is no way to make an educated decision about cameras without actually testing the images, the profile options, and the codecs with real-world footage. These have to be viewed on high quality displays at their native resolutions. Only then will you get an accurate reading of what that camera is capable of. The good news is that there are many excellent options on the market at various price points, so it’s hard to go wrong with any of the major brand name cameras.
©2019 Oliver Peters