DSLRs: A Time Exposure
CreativeCOW presents DSLRs: A Time Exposure -- Cinematography Review

Hollywood California USA
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But as imperfect as these images might have been when compared to the quality of raw files from the same sensors, changing the image 24 times each second can hide a lot of sin. And of course there were some really significant virtues.

First and foremost, these cameras are really cheap. If you consider that all the development costs of the hugely successful Panavision Genesis camera were initially amortized over just 100 cameras, and that the RED ONE, arguably the motion picture marketing coup of our time, is rumored to have sold around 7,000 cameras, then the significance of selling 100,000 professional quality cameras in around a year becomes clear. This, in turn allows fantastic research and development costs to be amortized over so many cameras that they can be sold at a fraction of the cost of purpose-built professional movie gear.

Second, the cameras are small and inconspicuous. As one example, the wedding scene in Up in the Air was shot with DSLRs. Camera operators wearing tuxedos passed for guests shooting still pictures and could be seen working right in the middle of scenes without distracting viewers.

Third, they offer 35mm class selective focus. Sometimes better! This selective focus is achieved by having a limited depth of field which in turn is achieved by having a large diameter lens opening. For a given lighting condition, the lens diameter is directly proportional to the size of the image sensor. Therefore, it is much easier to achieve effective selective focus with a large sensor. DSLRs generally provide a large sensor in a relatively small camera, and there you have it: selective focus from a cheap, tiny camera. Brilliant!

Finally, despite their imperfect compression, modern high end DSLRs still have extraordinary sensitivity to low light levels. ISOs of 3200 and more are commonplace. We saw even greater ISOs in tests described in this article. This is astounding and allows cinematography in previously unthinkable venues.


Last year, the Producers Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers compared seven high quality digital cinema cameras to film, running a specific set of tests designed to reveal the characteristics of each camera. The cameras were the Sony F35 and F23 Cine Altas, a Panavision Genesis, an ARRI D21, a Panasonic 3700, a Grass Valley Viper, a RED ONE and a 35mm ARRI -- each of which had its own crew, generally including an ASC cinematographer. Eight challenging scenes were devised, each under the direction of another ASC cinematographer. By the time we were through we had a cast and crew of almost 400.

Dave Stump, ASC asked me to shoot a scene using a single bare light bulb on the Desperate Housewives set (Ed. Note: Be sure to check out our informative interview with Dave Stump in Creative COW Magazine's "Workflow 3.0" Issue, entitled "Metadata and the Future of Filmmaking.") I started with a close-up of a clear 150 watt light bulb with the filament showing, silhouetted against a small window. We dimmed up the bulb and an actor entered, becoming significantly overexposed due to his proximity to the bulb. We dollied with the actor as he walked to a more normally exposed spot. Dark objects in the background were significantly underexposed due to their distance from the globe. The challenge was to attempt to capture both the under and over exposed areas without adjusting the camera.

Robert Primes and his 'famous' light bulb. All photos courtesy of Zacuto, except for the title image.
Robert Primes and his 'famous' light bulb. All photos courtesy of Zacuto, except for the title image.

Although no formal judgments or conclusions were made, this body of camera assessments showed, in my personal opinion, that well-shot digital effectively rivals film.


I recently returned from Chicago where we completed a battery of resolution, latitude and sensitivity tests of the 5 top digital still cameras in HD movie mode vs. current Kodak and Fuji 35mm motion picture stocks.

The tests were originated and sponsored by Zacuto, a manufacturer of high-end accessories for DSLRs and camcorders. We had a Canon 5D Mk II, a 1D Mk IV, and a 7D. We also tested the Nikon 3Ds and the Panasonic GH1. All were directly compared to 2 Kodak and 2 Fuji 35mm film stocks.

Robert Primes ASC (left) setting up Zacuto tests with Gary Adcock, who is seen in the center of this and the photo below.
Robert Primes setting up Zacuto tests with Gary Adcock, who is seen in the center of this and the photo below.

We shot two main sets in addition to a precise 13-stop gray wedge latitude test shot by Apple guru and Creative COW Contributing Editor, Gary Adcock. The first set at Resolution Digital Studios was a large bathroom with a beautiful woman bathing and blowing soap bubbles in a huge circular tub lit primarily from a glass brick shower.

Gary Adcock and Robert Primes ASC testing lighting on a bathroom set.
Gary Adcock and Robert Primes ASC testing lighting on a bathroom set.

The second set was a darkened room with a man trying to read by the faint flame of a tiny oil lamp. He is rescued by the woman from the bath who turns on a bare light bulb -- that's right, the very same light bulb from the ASC PGA CAS test. Both these latitude challenging tests were directly compared to film and were shot at various ISO speeds to see how the DSLR's quality held up at low light levels.

Because the indicated ISOs on the top DSLRs were so astronomically high, Philip Bloom suggested we contrive a test to show how insanely light sensitive these cameras really were. We dueled the Canon ID Mk IV (1080P) against the Nikon 3Ds (720P). The lower resolution of the Nikon should have given the Nikon a 1 stop sensitivity advantage. We had our subject flick a Bic lighter at arm's length, and then slowly bring the tiny flame close to his face. With the same Zeiss lens wide open at f/1.4, we started each camera at ISO 640, where the man's face was so dark as to be completely invisible until he brought the flame close. We then increased the ISO a stop at a time to the maximum for each camera, ISO 25,000 (!) for the Canon and ISO 100,000 (!!!) for the Nikon.


Not surprisingly, 35mm film is dramatically sharper than 1080x1920 HD. But you really can't see it on a 1080x1920 HD monitor. The difference was clear though, when we blew up and compared the center sections of each medium. The astronomical speeds of the DSLRs frankly amazed us. Utilizing its internal noise reduction, the Nikon was quite usable at ISO 10,000 and ISO 25,000. This so exceeded our expectations that we felt we were on the cutting, bleeding edge of technology. Imagine shooting in real moonlight, or in 3D with extended depth of field in dim bars! The DSLRs also seemed to show considerably less exposure latitude than film, noticeably less than what was apparent in the 2009 camera assessment series. I suspected that the DSLRs weren't showing their full potential. This was verified by Canon representatives who acknowledged that the h.264 compression in the video mode lost some of the information accessible in the RAW still files.

Zacuto's Jens Bogehegn, Robert Primes and Gary Adcock, discussing their impressions of the test results.
Zacuto's Jens Bogehegn, Robert Primes and Gary Adcock, discussing their impressions of the test results.

Gary Adcock and Robert Primes take a closer look at the results.
Gary Adcock and Robert Primes take a closer look at the results.


Sitting in my home office thinking about all this, I was looking out the window to houses and trees in the hot sun of the Hollywood hills. The light in my unlit office rendered my dark gray desk and black plasma TV a stark silhouette against the exterior.

A truly malicious thought invaded my mind. I jumped up, threw my Canon 5D Mk II on some sticks and shot the silhouette with identical settings in both still (21 megapixel RAW) and movie (2 megapixel h.264 compressed) modes.

The still image was not only far sharper but it had dramatically better exposure latitude. I was now certain that the Canon imager held the potential to rock the entire movie establishment if its potential could be harvested at 24 frames per second. I added the comparison to the other tests that I had edited and began to show them at los Angeles screenings.


I screened the tests for uber-geeks from ARRI, Panavision, Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Clairmont, Kodak, Fuji, Band Pro, E-Film, Deluxe Labs, Zacuto, the Producer's Guild, AFI, members of the ASC etc. Among the mad scientists was Gary Demos, chairman of the Advanced Imaging subcommittee of the ASC technology Committee. Gary was particularly enthralled by the potential power of the RAW still imager.

Subsequently, Gary and I shot several time lapse scenes, both day and night, with an intervalometer attached to my Canon 5D Mk II. We created huge files that Gary is carefully processing to extract maximum quality. Having invented some of the planet's highest quality compression and noise reduction techniques, Gary speaks in a language far beyond my modest comprehension, but the bottom line is that our 4K movie projectors should soon be projecting some moving images of unprecedented quality!


Although many cinematographers including Vincent Laforet, Phillip Bloom, Rodney Charters, ASC ("24) and Gale Tattersall, ASC ("House MD") have made monumental advances in the nascent field of DSLR cinematography, at the moment I am most dazzled by the system developed by Shane Hurlbut, ASC ("Terminator Salvation").

Hired to shoot Act of Valor, an extreme action picture with real Navy Seals playing Navy Seals all around the world, Shane brought 15 Canon 5D Mk IIs to the party, and a brilliant rigger who turned them into helmet cams, gun sight cams, self portrait action body rigs, multi camera/multi lens "sports" packages and so much more.

It was all action -- run and gun -- bang bang -- cut cut -- you're dead. What totally blew my mind was the speed and ingenuity with which he could grab multiple simultaneous immersive angles. He broke every rule in the book -- transporting the cameras as carry-on luggage, shooting spontaneous street action without traffic control, shooting without rehearsals, interchanging crew positions at will....The studios are drooling and the craft unions are freaking out!


Every generation of artist seems compelled to make their own mark. The impressionist painters needed to distance themselves from the work of painters in the French Royal Academy. So instead of recreating the painfully detailed work of their predecessors, they smeared paint across the canvas creating emotional 'impressions' of scenes rather than fully rendered realizations. Of course the French Academy painters hated them, which was part of the fun.

To complete the analogy, the notion of using DLSRs to shoot multiple angles simultaneously, while sacrificing the ability to re-light each angle to perfection, is very much analogous to the spirit of impressionism. It's sure to rile some of the classicist old guard.


Having recently returned from the giant NAB show in Las Vegas, it seems to me that the future of high-end professional motion picture cameras is largely in the hands of ARRI and Sony. The new RED sensor is getting some positive buzz, but I have learned to wait until I can do my own tests before I believe everything I hear.

The ARRI Alexa seems to be the presumptive heir to the crown. Its stunning imagery, vast latitude and amazing mix of image quietness and sensitivity combine with superb ergonomics and an open architecture to win my vote. Alexa is not only a nail in film's coffin, but a double headed spike. I'll gladly genuflect in the direction of Munich.

But Sony is no sleeping giant. Their F35, F23 and new P1 and EX-350 cameras are state of the art and their investigation of future 12 bit and 4K cameras is simply off the charts, perhaps raising cinema to an extraordinary and unprecedented level of visual quality.


So who could possibly compete with such titans as ARRI and Sony?

CANON, that's who! Canon truly is the sleeping giant. They're a giant because their large chip technology may already be beyond what anyone else is currently planning. They're sleeping because until quite recently, their management hasn't seemed to have had much understanding of our professional movie industry. I believe they were caught unaware that their cameras had the potential to combine the resolution of 70mm, the latitude of film and the sensitivity of goddesses.

How best to awaken the giant? Can't say I really know. But I seriously doubt that whispering quietly is going to get the job done.



Robert Primes, Creative COW Magazine

Robert Primes, ASC
Hollywood, California USA

Robert Primes, ASC won cinematography Emmys for "My Antonia" and "Felicity," and the first ASC award given to a digitally shot show, "MDs." Along with several additional Emmy® and ASC Award nominations, Robert won the President's Award from the Society of Camera Operators in 2008. He serves on the boards of the American Society of Cinematographers, the International Cinematographers Guild and the Whitmore Eclectic (theatre company). He also serves on the cinematography faculty of the American Film Institute.

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