What the LUT? – HDSLRs, Picture Styles and Look Up Tables Give Your Footage More Color Grading Options in Post

I’ve spent the last three years shooting motion with my Canon 5D Mark II. It was a fairly easy transition for me because I could use the same lighting concepts and composition techniques I had become accustomed to in the years of shooting film and then digital still images.

Santorini, Greece - shot on Fuji Provia film

The closest comparison I can make between shooting HDSLR motion and my old film days is that shooting motion on an HDSLR is very much like shooting positive transparency film. Back in the ’90s, I used to shoot a lot of Velvia and Provia transparency film, both made by Fuji Film. The images were always vibrant and stunning, with a color saturation you just couldn’t get shooting color negative film.

The only challenge was that shooting transparency was much less forgiving then shooting negative if your exposure settings were off, even a little. You could usually “save” a negative that was off by a stop or two exposure-wise. but with positive transparency film, if you blew the exposure, you were more or less stuck with it.

The same is true shooting motion on the current crop of HDSLRs. With the advent of digital photography and RAW image files, we’ve become accustomed to being able to do a lot of saving in our digital darkrooms, much like we used to be able to do with color negative film. Even better, we didn’t really have to worry about light color temperature when shooting RAW, as we could always adjust the white balance settings after the fact.

In the old days, most of the film I was shooting was what was called daylight film, or film that was chemically treated to be color balanced for daylight at a color temperature of 5600 degrees Kelvin. If you were shooting in another color temperature light, such as artificial studio light, you very often were shooting in a color temperature environment of 3200 degrees Kelvin, sometimes referred to as tungsten light.

If you’ve ever noticed that many indoor snapshots have a reddish cast to them, it’s because the camera was loaded with daylight film or in the digital world, set to daylight white balance. To put it in very simplistic terms, daylight light is a little more blue and indoor tungsten light is more red. Your eyes and brain automatically compensate for this, so you would rarely notice if you walked from outdoors to indoors that the color temperature had changed from bluish to reddish, but it had.

Naples, Italy - shot on Fuji Velvia film

However, unlike your eyes, your camera, film or digital, simply records the light as it actually is. In the days I used to shoot daylight film indoors with tungsten lighting, that meant putting a blue filter on my camera to compensate for the reddish light. Or I could use a tungsten film that was color balanced for 3200 degrees Kelvin tungsten light. If I shot tungsten film outside in daylight, I would have to put an amber filter on my lens to compensate. Otherwise my photos would look very blue.

So what does all of this have to do with shooting motion with today’s HDSLR cameras? A lot.

When you shoot video on your Canon or Nikon DSLR, you can’t shoot in RAW. Your camera is instead taking that beautiful 5000 plus pixel image and resizing it down to less than 2000 pixels for High Definition video of 1920 by 1080 pixels. It’s also taking the white balance setting you currently have selected on your camera and applying that to your moving image. You can’t easily make white balance adjustments after the fact. You can try to fake it with color grading software or in a professional telecine suite, but you’re really pushing the pixels pretty hard for correcting what you baked into the image if you have selected the wrong white balance.

It’s like the difference in information between a file full of RAW camera data and one that has been converted to a heavily compressed JPG file. A lot of data gets thrown out during the in-camera conversion process from the camera sensor to the h.264 compressed QuickTime file that gets recorded to your compact flash card. High end profession digital motion cameras such as the RED or more recently, the Arri Alexa, can shoot in RAW and can also shoot in higher pixel resolutions such as 3000 or 4000 pixels, but they are much more expensive than an HDSLR. There is always a tradeoff.

Even if you do have the correct white balance setting on your HDSLR camera to match the light you’re shooting in, your camera is making adjustments electronically in terms of color, contrast and noise reduction and other things to make your images “pop.” But if you’re having your HDSLR add all of the pop right from the start, you’re baking in all of that contrast, losing valuable information in the shadows and highlights of your picture that you can never get back. Same with color. You’re baking in the rich saturation that looks great in your viewfinder, but may be difficult to change later if you’re going to do any color correction in post production.

Pompeii, Italy - shot on Fuji Velvia film

So how do we preserve as much information as possible in our moving HDSLR images, considering the amount of data that gets thrown out of our image from the time the light passes through the lens and onto the sensor to when it gets written to the CF card? The simple answer is to make the image being recorded to disk be as flat as possible.

What does flat mean?

Simply, it means boring. Not a lot of contrast or saturation. No “pop.”

But why in the wide, wide world of sports would we want to do that?! We want stunning motion images, right?

Yes. Eventually.

However, if you start with a bold but compressed image that is punchy and saturated, you may have already committed yourself to that look. Are you sure you want to commit to that look forever and ever?

A flat image, on the other hand retains as much information in your shadows, highlights and color as possible. You may not wow anyone on set playing your footage back in the camera viewfinder, but later, you’ll have so many more options! Trust me on this one. Your colorist will love your for it.

This is where camera Picture Styles and Look Up Tables or LUTs come into play. A Picture Style is a series of settings for your camera that create a look before your HDSLR records the compressed h.264 file to CF card. You still have to set your white balance properly for the light you’re shooting in, but a Picture Style can then apply electronic settings to your image that can create a very flat and yes, boring look to your motion camera files. But combined with a companion LUT in post production, that flat, boring image can be twisted so many more ways in post production color grading than you can if you just use your standard camera settings. So many more color and tonality options will be available to you when you can catch your breath and really make those decisions away from the pressure and madness of your shoot.

A Picture Style can be used to create a flat picture in your camera before it’s recorded to your CF card. Then in post production color grading, a matching LUT can then bring the contrast and saturation that you love back into your motion footage in, and this is the key, a non-destructive and non-baked in way! Think of a LUT as an S-Curve in your Photohop or Lightroom curves panel. You can crush your blacks and blow out your whites to your hearts content after the fact in a much more controlled environment!

Okay, you’ve sold me on shooting boring and flat. But I’m an artist who just wants to make pretty pictures. Do I really have to learn all of those menus and sub menus on my camera to create a flat camera setting?

Well, you should take the time to know your tools and your camera menus, but there is an easy way to help you jump into the LUT pool without too much menu digging… and settings angst.

Whew.

Yes, I thought you’d appreciate that.

Technicolor has released a Picture Style and companion LUT for Canon HDSRLs called CineStyle. If you click on that CineStyle link, it will take you to Technicolor’s website where you can download instructions on how to install the CineStyle Picture Style to your Canon 5D Mark II or any of the other Canon EOS DSLR cameras. You’ll need the EOS Utility software that came with your camera and here is the Canon link to make sure your EOS Utility software and 5D Mark II Firmware is the latest version.

Technicolor's CineStyle Picture Style installed on the 5D MkII

 

The instructions are well written and you should be able to read through them, collect the necessary downloads and install the CineStyle Picture Style to your Canon EOS DSLR in under an hour.

Once you have everything installed, your camera Picture Style menu should look something like this. Technicolor also recommends that you make a few additional changes to the camera settings while in the CineStyle Picture Style by pressing the menu button while on the menu you see here:

Sharpness: 0

Contrast: -4

Saturation: -2

Color Tone: 0

ISO: a multiple of the camera’s native ISO (i.e. a multiple of 100 or 160 depending on the camera)

I know the 5D Mark II makes it’s least noisy images at its “native” ISO settings of 160 and multiples of that, i.e., ISO 320, 640, & 1250.

As far as shutter speed goes, if you’re interested in making your digital motion images have a similar motion blur as film does, set your shutter to something close to your motion frame rate x 2, i.e. 1/40th or 1/50th of a second for 24 or 25fps and 1/60th of a second for 29.97 frames per second.

You can certainly use a higher shutter speed if you wish, but you’ll start to get into that hyper-real sharpness like you’re trying to save Private Ryan. It depends on the look you’re going for.

So you’re all set. If you’re shooting RAW stills, you can easily switch back to one of the Standard Picture Style settings, although if you’re shooting RAW, you’ll always have all of your available data preserved in the RAW file, no matter your Picture Style, but your pictures will have more pop when you review them on your camera. It’s when you’re shooting motion that you’ll want to use the CineStyle Picture Setting to get that flat look that will give you as many options as possible in post.

Then in post your can use Technicolor’s companion LUT in color grading applications such as Apple’s Color to get your image back to what you’re used to seeing. Of course a LUT is just a starting point. And you don’t even need to work from a LUT. You can just start pushing pixels. You’ll be able to twist and manipulate your image in many ways in post because the original camera motion QuickTime file contains as much picture information as possible in a compressed h.264 codec.

I have more to say on this topic, but this is already very long and if you’ve read this far your brain is probably full.

In a future blog, I’ll talk about using white balance to set a specific look to convey a time of day or mood. And there are a few more tricks to squeeze every bit of information by avoiding QuickTime conversions or other direct import methods of your h.264 files.

Now get out there and shoot some flat, boring footage that you can make beautiful later!

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3 thoughts

  1. Pingback: My Chicago Final Cut Pro Users Group talk on 5D Mark II CineStyle and Neutral Density Filters | Billy Sheahan Photography Blog - Photo Tips, Stories, Information, Community

  2. Thanks Billy! I just recently started using a DSLR as an “in a pinch” camera when I don’t want to rent a higher end rig for a quick shoot. This will really help me to get the images I am used to getting with the higher end rigs. Your advice is greatly appreciated!

    Jim

  3. Hey Jim! That blog post is a few years old, but the basic information remains relevant. Currently, there are a lot of third party developers creating their own DSLR picture styles for both Canon and Nikon cameras these days. So Technicolor is not the only player in the game any longer.

    If you can stand a bit more information, a few weeks after the post you commented on, I added one about using Neutral Density filters to help overcome some of the depth of field issues that can sometimes arise when shooting motion with lower camera shutter speeds on DSLRs in bright lighting conditions. That post is here: http://billysheahan.com/blog/2011/06/my-chicago-final-cut-pro-users-group-talk-on-5d-mark-ii-cinestyle-and-neutral-density-filters/

    Wishing you continued success in your work.

    Billy

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