Many of you might have seen The Great Camera Shootout 2011 from Zacuto. Episode one, The Tipping Point, dealt with Dynamic Range: Film vs Digital:
The results of the test surprised many, and were supposed to herald the beginning of the end for film. Two years later, Kodak is out of business, but is film dead? Take a look at this year’s ‘important’ Oscar nominees:
|1||Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2||Lincoln||Kodak Vision3||4K|
|2||Anna Karenina||Kodak Vision3||2K|
|3||Django Unchained||Kodak Vision3||4K|
|4||Arricam||Les Misérables||Kodak Vision3||2K|
|6||Silver Linings Playbook||Kodak Vision3||2K|
|7||Arriflex 16mm||Beasts of the Southern Wild||Kodak Vision2/3||2K|
|10||Life of Pi||Arriraw||2K|
|11||Zero Dark Thirty||Arriraw||2K|
|12||Red Epic||The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey||Redcode||2K|
This table might not be entirely accurate, and is based on imdb.com.
Documentaries and shorts have been using video cameras to tell their stories since they first came out, so I haven’t included them in this list. The purpose of the list is to only show that many filmmakers still choose to shoot on film for aesthetic reasons.
The DI Master column was added to show that both film and digital are being mastered at 4K when needed. Note: Skyfall was shot on 3K but mastered on 4K – a perfectly acceptable interpolation.
Vision3 is the latest (last?) stock from Kodak, and is available for 8mm, 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film. Kodak presents detailed data sheets which charts MTF, granularity, color temperature and sensitivity information, like this one for 5219.
Kodak states Vision3 has a maximum dynamic range of 13 stops. The Zacuto test pegged this figure at 14.5 stops. I’d rather believe Kodak, they’ve been doing this for a hundred years. However, that is not to say Zacuto was wrong. Why?
The point is, sensors are linear devices, while film is non-linear in its exposure response to light. As I’ve explained in Dynamic Range of the Human Eye, the human eye is strictly neither (or more than both) linear or non-linear – it has its own rules. Furthermore, the way in which film is developed and scanned has a huge role to play in its contrast response. In this respect it behaves closer to the eye, which too, can change its behavior to the intensity of light.
For this reason, when comparing film to digital tests, it would be wise to give film an extra stop of ‘latitude’, if you will. Therefore, I have equated Vision3 with a dynamic range of 14 stops.
Dynamic Range: Film vs Digital
Who’s the boss?
Red carried out a test between the Epic and the Alexa back in 2010, when everyone (including me) was going gaga over the impending demise of film. In this test, the Red Epic checks in at an impressive 13.5 stops of dynamic range, while the Alexa does 14 stops (to my eyes at least).
Before we get to the list, let me get in a word about DSLRs. In my RAW vs video for DSLRs test, I noticed that RAW still images have a 3-4 stop advantage over the video mode. I have seen this time and again in practice, and the following table takes this into account.
Here is a list of cameras and their ‘claimed’ DR:
|Camera||Stops of DR|
|Red Dragon Sensor||18|
|Blackmagic Cinema Camera||13|
|Canon 5D Mark II||8.9|
|Canon 5D Mark III||8.7|
*See comments below post
Without splitting hairs over half a stop or so, let’s try to analyze the results. Only the Alexa actually comes close to Vision3. Whether or not the Epic ‘beats’ film is debatable. The F5/F55 have just landed and have not yet been tested for their ‘claimed’ 14-stop latitude.
My personal opinion? After having watched five movies shot on the Epic (the last of which was the Hobbit), I can say that the Epic still doesn’t have the kind of response film does – at least to my eyes. The Alexa comes damn close. While watching Skyfall, only on a few occasions were I reminded that this movie was shot on digital. I can’t say the same about the Epic.
In any case, even if one were to equate all the ‘RAW’ cameras, mainly the Alexa, the Epic and the BMCC, to film, it’s still a draw.
So, in the battle for dynamic range, film holds its own. It also has two advantages over digital that many find hard to disregard:
- The best skin tones
- Beautiful roll-off to highlights
Digital on the other hand, wins with:
- Shadow detail
- RAW images
What about the Red Dragon Upgrade?
If the Dragon upgrade proves as capable as advertised, it will truly be the end of film. Finally, we’ll have a camera that matches the ability of our eye. We’ll see soon, won’t we?