Red RAW vs Canon ISO Sensitivity

As written about previously, I believe low-light capability is the killer app for video cameras in the new environment. Canon has created new HD video camera’s with sensors remarkably capable at shooting in low light conditions with high ISO settings. However, Canon’s HDSLR cameras records in the highly compressed, much less post-friendly H264 codec (comparable to JPG in stills in terms of locking in capture data and compressing). The Red camera’s claim to fame in the area of data capture is the RAW files it records, which as any still photographer knows provides a great deal of post-production latitude, including adjusting exposure levels extensively before the pixels start breaking.

I have also learned separately by two Red techs that the Red One camera actually only records at 1 ISO level (320), and the ISO adjustments you see are actually just metadata – meaning it’s essentially applying the post-production exposure slider to the one recorded setting to achieve the higher simulated ISO levels. This was very surprising to me. I’m digging deeper into the issue (let me bow if you have more info).

Canon camera’s do not actually record at every ISO setting either, but have a graduated range with metadata filling in the smaller increments in-between – so they record at ISO 320 and 640, with the 400 and 500 stops in-between being create by metadata. With recordings at 1250 ISO, you can get excellent low light footage without applying the metadata adjustment that inevitably degrades the recording by pushing the pixels away from their actual recorded level.

So this raises a stand-off on the low light capability front between two different approaches: Canon can record at higher ISO levels for better light sensitivity, but Red files are far more flexible and capable of post-production adjustment.

At this stage, the Canon has the edge but the world is evolving quickly. The Canon 1D Mark IV added two more usable stops over the already exceptional low light capability of the Canon 5D Mark II. Discussion from Red since the recent Red Day has indicated the standard Red ISO being around 800, a significant leap in low light sensitivity, with the RAW code improving at the same time, adding even more flexibility.

Then there is the speculation that Canon may introduce RAW file video of their own, an obvious and inevitable move, but Canon’s development process and approach to product releases is more cautious than Red’s while being less transparent.

So there’s a race from two divergent starting points.

Regardless, the trend is in a direction highly favorable to filmmakers on budgets, which includes every filmmaker I have ever met.



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