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Color Grading Rant: Why Protecting Your Dynamic Range Is Killing Your Aesthetic

As we all know, high dynamic range is one of the key ingredients needed to achieve a cinematic look.

This of course is because most of us really equate “cinematic” with “filmic” (whether we realize it or not), and images captured on film traditionally have had far more dynamic range than digital footage… With the exception being reversal film, but that’s for another article.

Until cameras like the Arri Alexa came out and proved high DR was possible on digital cameras, any sort of digital cinematography was always associated with low dynamic range, clipped highlights, and a low quality aesthetic.

A lot has changed in the past 5 years or so, and now we can buy cameras for as little as $1000 (see Blackmagic Pocket Cam) that are capable of delivering dynamic range in the same ballpark as what you might expect of film. This has been incredibly liberating for filmmakers on a budget who desperately want to create film-like images but don’t have the budget to shoot on real film.

At the same time, there has been one somewhat unpleasant side effect of this democratization of dynamic range…

With such a premium placed on DR in today’s filmmaking landscape, many filmmakers are afraid to sacrifice dynamic range for style when it comes to the color grade.

This is likely a result of being beaten over the head by camera manufacturers and marketing companies that preach that more dynamic range = more cinematic images.

And I would argue this is only half true…

While I do believe it’s crucial to capture as much DR as possible, I don’t believe it’s necessary to retain all of that DR in the grade. If anything, I think it can be counter productive when the main goal is to make something look “cinematic”.

Filmmaking isn’t just about what you see, it’s also about what you don’t.

In many cases, a higher contrast image with less dynamic range is going to register more profoundly with an audience member, when compared to the same image with lower contrast and more DR.

When you can see every last detail in the highlights and the shadows, there isn’t much room for the imagination. It also tends to look quite fake and synthetic… Or sometimes just plain boring.

For instance, below are two still images that I show in RAW on a Canon 6D. The first was graded to preserve the maximum amount of DR possible, and the second was graded for the most interesting look, even if it meant losing a lot of that coveted dynamic range –

While it’s certainly just a matter of preference, my pick would always be the latter of the two images. It’s so much more interesting to not see everything all at once, and to use DR – or lack of it – to draw the viewer into the image.

To use an analogy, consider shallow depth of field –

There are scenarios where deep DOF will work better (by allowing the viewer to see everything in the image with equal clarity), but more often than not, using selective focus is the better choice as it helps guide the audience to the most important part of the frame. It’s a more human and organic way to interact with an image.

While most filmmakers seem to understand this concept when it comes to depth of field, fewer seem to understand how the same logic applies to dynamic range…

Perhaps it’s the overemphasis on high DR in today’s filmmaking landscape (particularly thanks to marketing efforts by camera manufacturers) that’s led some filmmakers to prioritize the protection of their DR in the color grade above all else. Many are focused on the technical achievement of not losing any highlight or shadow detail, while neglecting the bigger question at play: How does the image make the audience feel?

It’s not uncommon to watch finished films today that appear to be made up of ungraded raw footage. This is often a direct result of filmmakers being so careful with their use of contrast (as a means to avoid losing even a tiny bit of dynamic range), that the final product remains so flat that it could almost look like it’s still in Log color space.

That’s not to say that this is a bad look. There are no right or wrong choices when it comes to your aesthetic… You just have to make sure the choices you’re making are purposeful and ultimately serve your story above all else.

So when it comes to your film, ask yourself – Does an ultra flat image evoke the mood in your audience that you’re looking for?

If so, great. More power to you. But if it isn’t the right look for your film, don’t feel like you need to go down that path just to prove how much dynamic range your camera’s sensor was capable of.

And just for the record, I love high dynamic range sensors. DR is one of the most critical factors for me when buying a camera… And I’ve even written multiple articles on that very topic on this blog.

But I seek out high DR cameras so I have options in post, not because I believe my final image needs to squeeze out as much range as humanly possible.

Assuming I plan to do an extensive color grade, having the maximum amount of DR possible means that I can really fine tune just how much of that DR makes it into my final image.

Even if I end up with crushed shadows and blown out highlights, and even if I could have achieved that look with a camera that only shoots 8 stops of DR, I would still like to have 13 or 14 stops so I can experiment in post.

It’s all about having options.

What it’s not about is preserving every last ounce of dynamic range in the color suite – unless there is a specific creative reason for it.

So as we wrap up, I’ll leave you with this –

Great filmmaking is born out of the unique creative choices that we make. Don’t let camera manufacturers tell you what looks good or what’s cinematic. Listen to your own voice and be your own judge of what is aesthetically pleasing. If that happens to be an ultra-flat look, then that’s great. But it’s just as acceptable to have a low DR final product if that’s what your story needs.

If you haven’t already checked out my cinematic color grading LUTs, be sure to do so by clicking here!

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

16 Comments

  • Jim Burnes
    December 14, 2018 at 1:57 am

    Noam,

    Totally agree. I once had to choose between blowing out the sky and crushing the blacks on a Sith costume. The Sith costume left something to be desired so I crushed the blacks and the sky turned into a gorgeous deep blue while the Sith in the foreground turned into a malevolent shade. Something like your example snapshot. For us it turned a bad costume and blown out sky into two dramatically better elements.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 17, 2019 at 1:05 am

      Perfect case in point! Thanks for this, Jim.

      Reply
  • Karl
    January 25, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Great topic indead. Was grading some footage in Davinci Resolve, and wondered if I could retain a bit or much more dynamic range from my 14bit video file and get a nice contrasty image, I often go with a crisp look/maybe to contrasty look. Anyways, realised quite soon and got a thought… if I would go and keep all the dynamic range from camera when export to a 8 bit format I would just have been creating a log video file from a raw 14 bit file, quite funny I think 🙂 Had to google it and found your blog and post.

    Think that both images from your 6D is nice 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 1, 2018 at 3:55 am

      Awesome – thanks so much for the feedback Karl! Hope to see you around the site again soon.

      Reply
  • Alvin Lu
    October 1, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Great topic which isn’t overly discussed in regards to taste. I currently still shoot on my Canon 60D for photography, and it doesn’t have the great dynamic almost all cameras boast nowadays or the iso-invariance I hear on dpreview, the images I get out of it is still way more than enough for me to play within Lightroom. Personally, know a photographer who brags about how amazing his a6000 is but till this day, I have yet to see something printed or shown on the web by him. Keep preaching narrative over specs, or else we’d just have coffee house photographers showing off their 15+ DR, 50MP, Native ISO whatever body.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      October 5, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      Thanks so much for the feedback and your input, Alvin. Much appreciated and hope to see you around the site again soon!

      Reply
  • […] Looking at Noam Kroll’s blogs when it comes to cinematography it is easy to see that he is very familiar with what he talks about when he posts blogs on his website frequently about lens’, different shots and when to use them, cameras and many other topics that early stage film makers such as myself would find useful. The post I found most interesting was Kroll’s ‘Color Grading Rant: Why Protecting Your Dynamic Range Is Killing Your Aesthetic’.  http://noamkroll.com/color-grading-rant-why-protecting-your-dynamic-range-is-killing-your-aesthetic/… […]

    Reply
  • Greg Greenhaw
    September 7, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Well thats where HDR TVs come in, since most TVs can only show around 6 stops of DR the HDR TVs can do around 12 I believe. But grading HDR is tricky so the colorist is a huge factor on the ballance of DR and looking fake or flat.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 7, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      Good point, Greg. It’s going to be really interesting to see how HDR monitors/TVs shape color grading moving ahead… I haven’t graded on an HDR setup yet myself, but will aim to do a post on that topic in the future once I do. Thanks for the note!

      Reply
  • Piotr Naumowicz
    September 7, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    I totally agree with Noam. That said, often highlight / mid-tones / blacks in online videos from vimeo or youtube are simply not where should be. The best way to learn how to grade is by opening some frames of your favorite and aesthetically pleasing film in NLE or Resolve and check scopes. How bright highlights are, how deep blacks are pushed down, and where are the skin-tones. This should give you general information how that particular film you love was graded and then you can apply a similar approach to your work. I’ve found that in most cases skin-tones are much lower than you think they should be, and contrast is much higher in the middle than in highlights and shadows.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 7, 2017 at 10:53 pm

      Thanks Piotr, and great points – It’s always good practice to use some reference images when grading. And midtone contrast is really what we should all be striving for, as you touched on… With natural looking shadows and highlights too of course.

      Reply
  • Christian Fiore
    September 7, 2017 at 11:11 am

    There’s more than one way to work with a RAW. If you know how to process them properly, you won’t run into this flat image issue.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 7, 2017 at 10:58 pm

      I totally agree, and I shoot almost everything in RAW – at least when it comes to narrative material. I also love shooting Log footage, but I’m just making the point here that high DR sensors are generating images that (while fantastic) can be tricky for some filmmakers to work with… Particularly because filmmakers today are often led to believe that losing any shadow/highlight detail in the grade is unacceptable.

      Reply
  • Shon
    September 6, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Totally agree, many major films use the lifted blacks look often when it isn’t appropriate. I did a couple of projects on the black magic cinema that was uncorrected log. Now I like a bolder look, especially in genres like action, with higher contrast and saturation with being technicolor.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 7, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      Thanks for the note, Shon… Definitely agree about the milky black look. I did a whole article on it a while back.

      Reply
  • Glenn Stillar
    September 6, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    I agree, Norm. Great points.

    Reply

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