Advanced Cinematography Techniques

What is a Waveform Monitor and How to read a Waveform Monitor

Confused? The simplest way to understand the waveform monitor and how to read it for exposure and grading.

The waveform monitor is the most important tool for exposure in a cinematographer’s arsenal. Single-handedly, it can do all the following tools can do, and more:

  • Histogram
  • Zebra
  • False Color
  • Camera meter
  • Reflective Light meter

Not only can the waveform monitor do all of the above, it can go beyond that, and will help you nail the shot all the way to final grading and beyond. In this two-part series I explain what a waveform monitor is, and more importantly, how do you read one.

What is a waveform monitor?

Simply put:

A waveform monitor is a tool (called a scope, graph) that shows you at a glance the Luma levels in a frame, based on a particular color space (Rec. 709, Rec. 2020, DCI-P3).

If this definition is confusing, don’t worry about it. The following video will make everything clear.

How do you read a waveform monitor?

My mission is to help you start using a waveform monitor right away. If you have a scope and/or external monitor handy, you’ll learn a lot faster.

Watch the videos:

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Now that you have watched it, quickly go over the following notes for a refresher:

Understanding the display

Let me repeat a statement I made in the video:

Your scene can never look better than your display.

Once the scene has passed, it is only living in your memory, and your media card. If you care about your work at all, then make sure you understand the display very well, because as far as how your footage is perceived, you are at its mercy.

Displays use different technologies – LCD, IPS, LED, AMOLED, Plasma, DLP, Laser, and so on. These technologies are different physically. The molecules change, the colors change.

Each display has its own color gamut. A color gamut is a unique thing, like a fingerprint. To know more about color gamuts and color spaces, read the following links:

To keep your display in shape, you need to calibrate it constantly. The cheapest and most consistent tool for this is the X-rite i1Display Pro.

Understanding exposure

You probably hate this statement by now, but here it is again:

Exposure is the art of fitting the scene to the display.

Funny how there’s no mention of the camera in it at all! No camera, no lenses, no filters, no sensor or codecs or RAW files no nothing. Those are like the paintbrushes used by great painters to paint their masterpieces, as important as toilet paper.

There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ exposure or standard exposure. Every scene is different, every circumstance is different, every camera is different. If all these were not enough, every cinematographer or shooter is different. Give the same scene and tools to a hundred DPs and it’s unlikely they’ll all expose the scene in the same way – unless they all use auto mode!

There’s a famous line of cartoons (anime) about robot mechas that join together to form a bigger mecha. My favorite, the one I grew up watching, is Starvengers (it’s not the best, but it’s the one my local channel could afford to syndicate). The smaller vehicles could combine to form different mechas, depending on the foe in front of them. The tools of exposure – aperture, shutter, ISO, filters, LUTs, presets, lenses and so on – can be combined in many ways. Among the mechas I have a favorite, but let’s not confuse ‘favorite’ with ‘best’. Stop looking for the best, unless it’s the best of you.

The four standards

Here are the four standards again:

StandardParent bodyOfficial documents
Rec. 709ITUITU Site
DCI P3Digital Cinema Initiatives, LLCDCI Site
ACESThe AcademyOscars Site, Wolfcrow article
Rec. 2020ITUOfficial PDF, Wolfcrow article

Please take the time to read and understand these standards. These standards include many specifications for audio-visual content, and color space is just one of them. However, for waveforms, we are more concerned with Luma levels.

Luma is gamma-encoded video. Without this encoding you can’t see the image on the screen. A waveform always shows the Luma, represented as Y’ (to know more about this, read: Chroma Subsampling Numbers Explained).

Rec. 2020 is still a long way off, because the specification is so difficult to achieve in reality. Monitors and standards have started including this, but its acceptance will be slow (my opinion) because visibly it won’t make a difference unless displays make a quantum leap in technology.

However, the good news is the Luma levels for Rec. 2020 are not too far off. From the official document, here are the levels for Rec. 2020:

  • 6.25 IRE is black
  • 50 IRE is white
  • 92 IRE is white

ACES is an archival standard so you can grade in that space and save your projects so.

DCI P3 is purely for cinema projection, and is not something that’s very relevant for exposure.

That leaves good ol’ Rec. 709, which will still be around for a few more years.

The specifications for Rec. 709 include the following Luma levels:

  • 0 is black
  • 45 IRE is approximately middle grey (as explained in the video, it’s relative)
  • 100 IRE is white, though broadcasters like white to be at 90 IRE so they have some headroom in their crappy old technologies. This is called ‘studio swing’. To know more, read this article.
  • Color bars have to be matched for these standards to look the same, though it’s hard to do nowadays without a professional Rec. 709-based monitor or software that can simulate the look on the fly. Also, most modern low-budget cameras don’t generate color bars, so it’s pointless to refer to it. If you want to know more about color bars, read the link in the previous point.

The waveform monitor

The width of the waveform is always the width of the image/frame. It doesn’t show us the resolution, which sort of makes it resolution agnostic. However, some scopes (waveform) tend to skip pixels because the engineers or developers were too lazy or thought we won’t need it. The good news is that no matter what the camera or frame size or shape or aspect ratio, the waveforms will all look similar.

The height of the waveform is a maximum of -40 IRE to 109 IRE, of which only the following are relevant:

  • 0 to 100 IRE – Full swing, what you should keep you final images down to so displays can show them accurately.
  • 0 to 109 IRE – what cameras use so they can cram in more dynamic range to an already limited range. The range from 100 to 109 IRE is called superwhites.
  • 0/7.5 to 90 IRE – Studio swing, what a typical broadcaster expects from your finished video so it will look okay on their systems. Check with your broadcaster on this.

The maximum dynamic range of Rec. 709 about 7 stops, though as shown in the video it’s relative.

For ‘straight-to’ videos, follow this:

  • Internet – Shoot 0 to 100 IRE
  • Broadcast – 0/7.5 to 90 IRE, or as specified by the broadcaster
  • Cinema – 0 to 100 IRE

For videos that will be color corrected or graded, you can use all of 0 to 109 IRE, if the camera supports it. The more information you can collect in your camera, the greater your choices in post.

You will find waveforms with different numbers:

  • IRE – the correct one
  • % – just a lazy way to write IRE – 109% sounds stupid
  • Bit-number – 0-255, 0-1023, etc., I don’t like this system because the numbers change from bit depth to bit depth, making comparisons painful at best. They base it on trying to be agnostic, but are following Rec. 709 anyway! Call it what it is, developers.
  • Voltage – usually from 0 to 1.2 V, which is a remnant from analog systems. To know more, read: A Quick look at Composite Video and IRE.

IRE is the right word, or at least, the most intuitive and useful one. It is normalized Luma, which means you can intuitively understand 0 to 100 is black to white. Leave everything else to people who don’t shoot in the real world.

Gamma and log curves

Gamma is a complex concept, though intuitive to understand, as explained in the video.

When gammas are represented by a single number, like 2.4, 2.2, 1.8, etc., the curve used is modeled after that. Though the curves are also tweaked a bit to maintain the S-shape – which is how the eye likes to see its images.

A log curve also tries to maintain the S-shape, but stretches the math to a compromise between the sensor (sensors also have individual gamuts, sometimes far higher than any display) and Rec. 709. This is important, because your footage will be viewed on traditional displays and will be manipulated on traditional softwares.

Here’s a list of some gammas with their corresponding color spaces (just examples from manufacturers, sometimes there are variations possible):

Log curveCamera color spaceWorking color space for gradingEnd Result
Sony S-Log2S-GamutRec. 709 or ACES or linear (Rec. 2020 in the future)Rec. 709 or DCI P3 (Rec. 2020 in the future)
Sony S-Log3S-Gamut
Arri LogCArri Wide Gamut
Canon C-Log 2/3Cinema Gamut
Panasonic V-LogV-Gamut
Red RedlogREDWideGamutRGB

Each log curve is usually accompanied with detailed instructions from manufacturers on how to use them, and where the Luma levels lie. Some manufacturers don’t think you need all this information, and their literature is vague. Either way, follow this rule of thumb as far as log curves are concerned:

If you don’t have the patience or the will to study log curves and test your camera, then don’t shoot log.

Middle grey

Middle grey is a moving target, and even camera/light meters don’t always agree. You must decide for yourself where the middle grey lies on your camera. Maintaining a constant exposure during a scene is one of the great creative tools (and challenges) of cinematography. Don’t want to bother? Then maybe cinematography is not for you.

Here are some ideas:

  • While shooting RAW, middle grey lies at the exact middle, at 50%. A histogram is the best tool to see this (but not much else).
  • For Rec. 709, it’s about 45-55 – depending on what you’re shooting.
  • 18% middle grey is now just an idea – don’t use it carte blanche (No, I did not say Cate Blanchett) – by the way, all puns intended.

A color chart is an important tool to have in your arsenal, because it will help you find middle grey, white and black. I prefer the DSC Labs OneShot, though you can buy whatever you like. Just don’t buy the cheap cards, because designing and printing a calibrated and accurate chart is expensive, and there’s no way it can be so cheap.

The whole point of this exercise is to lay the groundwork of finding the black, white and middle grey points, and then matching them to your camera. Without this basic information, you can’t learn how to expose or grade correctly.

The standards of Rec. 709

We saw earlier that Rec. 709 requires white, black and 18% grey be the following values:

  • Black – 0 IRE
  • 18% or Middle Grey – 45 IRE
  • White – 90 IRE (broadcast), 100 IRE for everyone else

This is a standard, sort of a waypoint. Every other log curve or gamma variant (known in cameras as custom profiles, picture profiles, cine profiles, presets, gammas, etc.) must define its Luma values based on this waypoint.

Tools you need to expose correctly

You don’t need a lot of tools in your arsenal. To learn how to expose any camera, all you need are the following:

  • A day of your time
  • A color chart like the DSC Labs OneShot or other, as explained earlier.
  • A production monitor with a waveform scope and other scopes
  • An NLE or grading application with a waveform scope and other scopes

These tools are your bread and butter, and will come in handy on a daily basis, and will stay with you even when you change cameras. It’s wise to invest in good tools.

Steps to expose and grade any format correctly

Here it comes:

Exposure is the art of fitting the scene to the display.

Now the concept of “fitting” will make more sense. When you are faced with log curves, you are in fact fitting it to your vision of the final image. How you do it is the ‘exposure’ part.

First, shoot for Rec. 709. All cameras have a Rec. 709 setting. If there’s no setting, it’s probably Rec. 709!

  • Shoot a chart under constant lighting conditions. For Rec. 709, the black, white and middle grey points will lie as shown above. Change the aperture, shutter or ISO till you get that result.
  • Watch the waveform while you shoot, take a picture for your records
  • Overexpose and underexpose and repeat
  • Bring the shot footage (don’t shoot stills!) into your grading or editing application and study the waveform scopes
  • Do the scopes match?

Next, shoot for log curves or RAW or any other preset that’s not Rec. 709.

Not all cameras have this feature.

  • Shoot a chart under constant lighting conditions. Study the manufacturers’ documents on where black, white and middle grey should lie and make sure they do.
  • Watch the waveform while you shoot, take a picture for your records
  • Overexpose and underexpose and repeat
  • Bring the shot footage (don’t shoot stills!) into your grading or editing application and study the waveform scopes
  • Do the scopes match?

Thirdly, compare Rec. 709 and the other:

  • Where do the black, middle grey and white points lie for both? If you have done the first two steps right, they’ll lie where they are supposed to lie.
  • Now use a grading tool or plugin (a simple one like Levels is all you need) to make them match. You’re matching everything to Rec. 709, because that’s what displays expect.
  • You can work in greyscale mode if you like. The colors will not match, and that is not what we’re trying to accomplish here. We are only concerned with the Luma levels.
  • Without much effort, you should be able to match them very close.

Fourthly, shoot for ISO groups:

  • Shoot both Rec. 709 and every profile at different ISOs.
  • Repeat with an overexposure and underexposure of 3 stops.
  • Study the results on a large monitor and try to group noise according to how I’ve shown in the video.
  • You will find groups of ISOs where the noise levels match somewhat. When you’re shooting a scene, you’ll have to shoot all shots within the same ISO group to save post-headaches later. Even if the scene doesn’t allow you to do that, you at least know what you’re in for, and can take measures.

Finally, shoot real-world scenes typical of your normal work:

  • You are aware how much work it takes to get your images to match Rec. 709.
  • While matching real-world scenes, you’ll notice something you didn’t see with test charts: How much shadow or highlight detail is preserved. That’s the extended dynamic range advantage of a log curve or flat preset.
  • You’ll know when to overexpose your camera and when to underexpose it, and by how much.
  • You’ll also see how ISO groups work for skin tones in the real world.

Does all this sound like a lot of work? Yes, but why are you surprised? This is what a cinematographer does day in and day out. You signed up for this!

What does it feel like to use a waveform monitor correctly?

It’s like seeing the Matrix:

  • You can easily check for contrast ratio or even lighting in a scene, as explained in the video. All it takes is a glance.
  • You can calmly walk into a set with any camera and know where your exposure limits lie. All it took you was one day of testing. Sometimes, when you rent a camera, that’s all the time you get.
  • You will be in a better position to choose the right camera for the job, rather than make the camera you’re more comfortable with work (which is like using the wrong screwdriver).
  • You’re using a production monitor anyway so it won’t take up any extra space or weight in your kit!
  • Even when Rec. 2020 comes, the waveform monitor will still work like it does today. You’re set!
  • It also works for RAW footage, if you’re using LUTs.
  • You won’t be surprised in post production!

I hope this long and detailed tutorial has been beneficial to you, and I hope you are confident enough to start using a waveform monitor right away.

3 replies on “What is a Waveform Monitor and How to read a Waveform Monitor”

One of the best overall explinations I have heard and seen. What is so strong to it, are the things behind the scene. One if them why Rec709, although technology goes far beyond. The author makes it all clear in a good video. Further he knwows how to bring it. Although I know a lot of all these variables it cost me a lot of time, searching on the web, etc. He brings it as an exciting story. An exciting book. Every second he draw my attention. Not only the information, but the way he brings it, he tells it. Perfect.

shullfish You haven’t watched the video properly. Most of what you have written are already mentioned in the video – you just weren’t paying attention. E.g., I was referring to the molecules in the display, not to photons. I’m just too tired to point all of them out to someone who hasn’t done me the same courtesy.

You’ve just built a head full of steam to rant, and that’s okay. Regarding your disagreement and your comment on ACES, it shows a lack of understanding about ACES or about what this video was about.

Whatever makes you happy and successful.

I disagree COMPLETELY that video for broadcast needs to be 7.5 IRE to 90 IRE. First off, this (7.5 IRE) was only ever true for NTSC (US) color TV. Second it was only true for STANDARD DEF. In the world of HD video (and who isn’t shooting HD now?) this is completely incorrect information. Unless this was tutorial was created sometime in 1990, it’s just completely wrong. There has never been a restriction to 90IRE for white… well, some broadcasters like the white from CG elements to be at 100IRE, but that has nothing to do with footage that is shot.

I also disagree that your scene (footage) can never look better than your display, because the footage can be “perfect” essentially, the way it was shot and your monitor is always changing (the monitor the footage is shown on), so the footage CAN definitely look better than the monitor. If I show my beautifully shot footage on my grandma’s oversaturated, over contrast monitor, then my footage looks better than my monitor. Even if you are talking about your reference monitor on set – it you have a, your DP – with enough knowledge and skill – can create a beautiful image in the camera despite how crappy the monitor looks. Put it on a good monitor and you will see the beautiful DP’s work.

Also, you aren’t changing the “molecules” you are changing photons or pixels. These are two ENTIRELY different things.

You also don’t need to know your end display to set your levels. The whole point of ACES or even standard color grading is that you can grade based on the display and your grade should never really depend on the display because you are NOT in control of the display, so what you need to do about exposure is to expose for the, NOT the display. Exposure is NOT the art of fitting your scene to your display. That is ridiculous. You expose the scene based on the – or maybe the histogram if you don’t have a The display is constantly changing so it’s impossible to expose based on the display unless your work will only ever be shown on a single display.

Also, when you are SHOOTING you can shoot into superwhite, not just white. 

ALSO, percent and IRE are two different things.

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