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Why Dynamic Range Is More Important Than Resolution For Achieving A Film Look

Camera manufacturers are in a resolution race right now. Everyone is trying to make a 4K camera – or in some cases a 5K or 6K camera, and they’re doing it because the market is demanding it. Filmmakers want more resolution at a reasonable price and that’s exactly what the major camera manufacturers are attempting to deliver. The new GH4 will likely shoot 4K (possibly with the help of the H.265 codec around the corner), the Canon 1DC of course shoots 4K, and it’s only a matter of time before many other DSLR’s and affordable camcorders start going 4K. But what about dynamic range? Will these cameras necessarily have a better image quality or will they merely have more lines of resolution.

For any of you out there that need these terms defined, think of resolution as the size of the image (1080p, 2K, 4K, etc.) and dynamic range (DR) as the amount of light and dark areas that can be captured by your camera. If you take a look at the sample below (which I shot on Red Epic this past weekend), you can really appreciate the wide dynamic range of the camera. It allows for bright areas of the image to exist without blowing out, and dark areas to retain detail as well.

3-2

If I was shooting the above shot on a camera with low dynamic range, I would have had to choose between exposing for the background or the foreground. If I were to expose for the background, the subjects would become silhouettes, or if I were to expose for the foreground, the beautiful scenery in the back would get completely blown out. This is what the image may have looked like with a camera that had less DR, choosing between either underexposing or overexposing certain areas:

under exposed

over exposed

Neither of these other two looks are terrible, and in fact in post you might want to push things to one extreme or the other for various reasons, but the key is having options. Wide DR allows you to push the colors while grading to get the exact look that you want in post without baking in the image on set.

While resolution and DR are both critical in achieving a nice final product, there is no question in my mind that I would choose DR any day over resolution. In fact I would take a 720p camera with wide DR (let’s say 14 stops) over a 5K camera with low DR (9 stops). The reason being that for the majority of what I shoot, DR is the element that is going to give me the look I want – the look of motion picture film. While there are some differences between various film stocks, generally film as a medium has a much higher capacity for wide DR than video ( although video is catching up) and ultimately to achieve the film look DR is absolutely critical and resolution is not.

When the RED one first came out, I was blown away by the camera and absolutely loved what RED was doing for digital cinema, but the image itself still didn’t look quite like film to me. It was missing an element that at the time I couldn’t put my finger on, but later pegged down as dynamic range. I believe the Red One is rated at about 11.5 stops of DR, and that’s a far cry from the 15 stop range of many film stocks. What really made this clear to me was the Arri Alexa, which boasted 14 stops of DR and always looked more pleasing to my eye, even when shot in 1080p mode.

From a strictly technical standpoint, getting a 4K or 5K image is always going to be preferable as you can capture a sharper image with more detail. But in a real world scenario, this doesn’t always translate to better results. One of the things I love about film is the fact that it is a very forgiving medium. If the makeup isn’t perfect or the lighting is a bit off, film sort of hides it. It’s softer and more refined in a lot of ways. Digital is harsh. The colors cut through definitively and the edges can be razor sharp which in many cases can be a bad thing and a dead give away that you’re shooting video. Often times when I shoot on Red Epic or any other really high resolution format, I will actually soften the images in post for this very reason.

Making a film is all about immersing your viewer in a world that you’re creating for them, and to do that there needs to be an element of surrealism in your imagery, no matter what the genre of your film. Audiences want to feel like they’re stepping into another world when they watch a narrative film, and digital in many cases can work against that. Take for example the extreme case of ‘The Hobbit’ shot in 3D at 48fps. This film upset more people visually than any I can ever remember, simply because it looked too real.

I’m by no means opposed to 4K/5K cameras – in fact the opposite is true. I think resolution is a great thing and for certain situations (like filming events, concerts, etc.) it may be more important than dynamic range. But for achieving a film look, there is no question that dynamic range is more essential. I’m certainly not the only one that feels this way and really hope that camera manufacturers will start to pay more attention to DR and stop trying to push higher resolution cameras that don’t necessarily offer better image quality.

For those of you that are eager to get the wide DR look, but don’t have a camera capable of achieving it, just remember that will good lighting you can make a camera with low DR look amazing. Having the extra range is incredible and it means you won’t have to be as intricate in your lighting setup to achieve the look you want, but with some extra fill light, bounce boards, and strong framing choices, you can get this look on just about any camera.

And for any of you looking to take the next step in achieving a cinematic look, be sure to check out my Guide For Capturing Cinematic Images With Your DSLR by clicking here.

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!

10 Comments

  • What Is Dynamic Range?
    June 16, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    […] try to duplicate the look of film. Giving filmmakers wider dynamic range allows them to have so much more room to make adjustments and capture that desired look. Plus, with wider dynamic range, you won’t have to rely on […]

    Reply
  • Aun
    May 26, 2016 at 10:01 am

    I have both GH4 and BMPCC. After using GH4 for my short films for a while, I am convinced that it can’t beat the cinematic look of the BMPCC. I would love to shoot in BMPCC’s full HD rather than GH4’s 4k.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 27, 2016 at 5:05 pm

      I agree. The GH4 is a great camera, but Blackmagic’s cameras are just more filmic. HD with great colors and high dynamic range will look better than 4K with poor colors and low DR any day!

      Reply
  • Bryson
    August 16, 2014 at 10:27 am

    If I were shooting a Sunrise I would blow out the background and If I were shooting a sunset I would make the actors a silhouette, if I were in your position in that location above.

    Reply
  • […] while back, I wrote a popular article titled Why Dynamic Range Is More Important Than Resolution For Achieving A Film Look which is worth checking out if you haven’t already read it. While I have always felt […]

    Reply
  • Hela
    May 6, 2014 at 5:13 am

    so the BMCC 13 stops of dynamic range is far better than any other affordable camera for cinematic look ?

    thanks man
    great article

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 15, 2014 at 9:50 pm

      It really comes down to the look that you’re after… If you want that really filmic, soft, high DR look, I think the BMCC is the camera to beat right now. That said, some films (even those shot on film) opt for a high contrast look, which many other cameras, DSLRs included are capable of producing.

      Reply
  • […] For more on the subject, check out my previous article on Why Dynamic Range Is More Important Than Resolution For Achieving A Film Look. […]

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  • Flaaandeeers
    March 21, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    That’s why for now I will stick to my BMPCC and don’t go crazy about GH4.
    I’m sure it’s a great camera and razor knife sharp, but I’m more than happy with the overall character of the image that I’m getting with the Pocket Camera and my set of fast SLR Magic glass.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 22, 2014 at 6:02 pm

      Yeah I have to agree, which is why I also haven’t jumped at the GH4 (although I am extremely interested)… Waiting to see what NAB holds next month. Glad to hear you are enjoying your SLR Magic lenses, I really like those guys.

      Reply
  • Luc
    November 20, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    I fully agree but there is also another point that seems to be forgotten by the industry: rolling shutter. And this could be a big improvment!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 23, 2013 at 7:57 am

      Very good point Luc, and yes there is a lot of room for improvement there!

      Reply

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