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Extensive RED Dragon Sensor Tests: Part 2 – Basic

  • April 8, 2015
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Extensive RED Dragon Sensor Tests: Part 2 – Basic

Understand its breaking point with ISOs, IREs and Latitude. Know when to use the Skin Tone OLPF or the Low Light OLPF and as many myths that an artist can uncover will be revealed!

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When you set out to do these tests with the Dragon sensor, you quickly get engulfed with the many possibilities that this camera offers you. It is dizzying to compare all the different options. My team and I will do our very best to break down what we learned, so that you can choose the best way to use this impressive tool.

In Part 2, these tests illustrate how to break the Dragon sensor. What compression can she handle? What ISO does she not deliver at? What amount of over and underexposure can she take? What do these different OLPFs mean?

The MYTH of RED’s RAW File

Let’s begin with why you should use a specific ISO and color temp with this camera, even though all of the ISO and color temp settings are just meta data and the RAW file never changes. The RAW file never changes no matter what ISO or color temp you select. But choosing an ISO and color temp allows you to light, compose and choose specifics tones, etc. It is incredibly hard, if not impossible, to light with a RAW file. So you need to infuse a look to your footage, and I am not talking about LUTs or RED Gammas. The ISO and Color temps are essential in lighting and lensing your creation. If you shoot at 800 and never change the ISO, you will find that when the RAW file needs more light, the image will become noisy and underexposed. If the RAW file has too much light, then highlights will clip and it will feel more like video and not digital film.

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There are a lot of detailed tech specs provided by DP Phil Holland on REDUSER.NET.

RED will tell you that there is no native ISO with this camera. I will tell you that every camera has a sliding scale. What is that? A sliding scale is at a specific ISO where you have the most latitude possible that the sensor can deliver. When you go lower or higher, the scale slides and shrinks in size. Your 15.5 stops of latitude with the Dragon sensor decreases to around 14 stops. Again, there is a very technical explanation that I will let your digital engineer go into. I try to know enough to make myself dangerous. HA HA! Ok, let’s get back to it.

So, the ability to hold highlights when you go to higher ISOs is reduced and your color depth starts to change. You will see this in our Night and Day ISO tests. But if I had to identify this camera’s Native ISO (that supposedly doesn’t exist), it would be 320 ISO for the Skin Tone OLPF and 800 ISO with the Low Light OLPF. Why a difference? Well, we found that the Skin Tone OLPF is not just skin tone enhancing, it is also highlight protecting. In Part 1 of our test, you could quickly see how the Low Light OLPF did not handle the Bokeh highlights behind Monette as well as the Skin Tone OLPF.

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What exactly is an OLPF?

Reference: Nikon Europe
Reference: Nikon Europe
Courtesy of DP Phil Holland - REDUSER.NET
Courtesy of DP Phil Holland – REDUSER.NET

The RED always had an OLPF, but it was not designed to deliver better skin tones or better highlight control. It did exactly what is described above.

This has been a huge development for RED and the reason that I am now even testing and talking about this camera. The skin tone OLPF delivered the first realistic skin tones out of this camera and this is what I showed you in Part 1.

DRAGON vs C500 6K vs 4K
DRAGON vs C500 6K vs 4K
DRAGON vs C500 6K vs 2K
DRAGON vs C500 6K vs 2K

Red Dragon vs C500 Test_3840x2160_DL.00_01_01_07.Still001_sm

Red Dragon vs C500 Test_3840x2160_DL.00_01_43_22.Still002_sm

Red Dragon vs C500 Test_3840x2160_DL.00_02_16_09.Still003_sm

Red Dragon vs C500 Test_3840x2160_DL.00_02_53_19.Still004_sm

RED Dragon DSMC Skin Tone-Highlight OLPF
RED Dragon DSMC Skin Tone-Highlight OLPF
RED Dragon DSMC Low Light Optimized OLPF
RED Dragon DSMC Low Light Optimized OLPF

The Dragon has two options for OLPF filters, where other cameras do not. It has a Skin Tone as well as a Low Light one. When we dive into the Night and Day ISO test, you will see how the Low Light delivers less digital noise in the higher ISOs and enables you to shoot with less light than the Skin Tone OLPF. This is a huge savings if you have to shoot with a ton of available light. If you are able to light, then I am going to go with the Skin Tone across the board.

Let’s dive into ROUND 2 of Dragon Tests. HANG ON, this gets squirrely.

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In-Camera Compression Test

I am not aware of one other camera system that offers so many Ks of resolution, so many different compression rates, or frames per second. It’s impressive. I want to dive into compression first. I know it will be very difficult for you to see the subtle nature of these compression tests with all the internet compression. These are really for a 60’ movie screen, but I will give you my advice on what I saw on that large screen as well as on the 50” plasma.

Having this option in your arsenal is awesome, especially if you do not want massive files and you need to limit your storage, download times, your quality is for the web or TV, etc. Having this unique ability to compress your image in camera is incredibly cool. Through our tests, I found that if you want to shrink your file size and deliver for TV and the web, it would be best to not go over 12:1 compression. It held up very well and was my limit of the test. Anything above this got soft very quickly. For features, I would stay around 3:1 and 4:1 compression values. I feel that the Dragon sensor has a beautiful softness to it that is very filmic, but the more you compress, the softer that quality gets. You can use this to your advantage on set. You are not going to believe that you have this ability with any other camera, but let’s break this down.

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Day ISO Noise Tests
Skin Tone OLPF vs Low Light OLPF

This test was pretty cool to really challenge and push the sensor to its breaking point with digital noise. The Epic was a noisy camera for me. You really could not go over 800 ISO without introducing noise. The Dragon has improved its noise and what I found was about a stop more of light required for the Skin Tone OLPF, so this limited its ability to go to higher ISOs. What would be my limit when shooting with the Skin Tone OLPF? That would be 1600 -2000 ISO. This would be my limit for acceptable noise that feels like a texture and not fixed pattern noise. It gets really noisy fast. The Canon C500 4000 ISO is as clean as the 800 ISO on the Dragon. But that camera is just impressive as hell in low light. Period.

I like to do Day ISO noise tests as well as Night because during the day, you cannot hide the noise in the blackness of the night. But Night ISOs are essential as well so you can see what you can get away with crushing your blacks a little and cleaning up that digital noise, one test to really see what you have there and another on how high you can go and use night to help.

Day ISO Noise Test (Membership Required)
With this test, it showed the digital noise in the sidewalk and it also showed the shift in skin tones that you get when you shoot higher ISOs. I would not shoot higher than 1600-2000 ISO with the Skin Tone OLPF or 3200 ISO with the Low Light OLPF. But I think the biggest take away from these tests is the ability not to be locked into shooting at 800 ISO to achieve the camera’s highest dynamic range like all the others. This is huge. I would never shoot at 800 ISO during the day ever again with this camera. This is such a great thing. These high ISOs have always been difficult to get your head around when coming from film. My ISO of choice during the day was 50 ISO. Not many digital cameras go there, not one actually.

Night ISO Noise Tests

With the Low Light OLPF, I feel I could shoot at 3200 ISO pretty comfortably. The noise felt like Kodak 5298 pushed a stop, which I did on a ton of movies, so that grain was not a problem for me. That stock only got me to 1000 ISO; we are talking 1 2/3 more stops of light to work with. This is a big deal when you have to use mostly available light. Look at our test. This is all available light in the background.

Night ISO Noise Test (Skin Tone OLPF vs Low Light OLPF) (Membership Required)

Night ISO Noise Test (Skin Tone OLPF) (Membership Required)

Night ISO Noise Test (Low Light OLPF) (Membership Required)

Our Lighting Setup for the Night ISO Tests
Our Lighting Setup for the Night ISO Tests
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Our backlight is adjusted on Camera Operator Jeremy before our model Monette steps in

We have added a Kino Flo Celeb 200 bouncing into a white card as her key light and added a Q500 Fiilex light as her back light. I set the Q500 to 2800K and then added 1/2 CTS along with swinging the hue control to add maximum green.

Fiilex Q500 available in the SIC Store
Fiilex Q500 available in the SIC Store

I love the abilities of these Fiilex lights. Not only can they match tungsten and daylight fixtures perfectly with their full color spectrum, but they have the ability to match urban lights perfectly where Tungsten and Daylight fixtures cannot. This is a big deal for all of you working the night streets. OK, back to the camera, not lighting.

Members of Shane’s Inner Circle who were members in April 2015 received this entire article as part of their membership.

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Latitude Test: Underexposure

These tests are the most difficult and take the most time. Accuracy has to be on point and you have to reduce your key light and fill light together so that your depth of field remains the same. What we found was amazing and cemented my view of where you want your skin tones. I did this test at 60-70 IRE, not because that is where I shoot my skin tones, but to show you as we underexpose from that specific level, we are effectively lowering her skin tone IRE level. I love it at -1/2 and -1 stop. This is at 50-55 IRE and I feel it looks beautiful on our model Monette. Her skin is alive, not too glowy. At -3 stops under, the sensor really works hard to keep a balanced image. But this is good, you see how far you can push this baby. It really starts to get noisy as we bring up the level to emulate what it was looking like at 60-70 IRE.

Latitude Test: Underexposure (Membership Required)

Latitude Test: Underexposure
Taking into consideration that we feel the 60-70 IRE on the skin is a little too hot, you can see how far we can push this camera. I feel if I had shot this at 320 ISO we could have really pushed it even further. But I learned this while I was testing and could not double back. This is why we test. I test so you do not have to bear this expense. We learn together!

Latitude Test: Overexposure (Membership Required)

The camera performs incredibly well as we overexpose. Look at +4 stops over. When we bring it back, we are losing her skin tone detail, but at +3.5 stops over, we hold that detail perfectly. So if it was 1 stop less with the 50-55 IRE value, we could get +4 and 2/3 stops of overexposure latitude. This goes back to its amazing ability to handle highlights, enabling you to go faster during the day. Get much more risky with your light. Searing edges that bloom like film. YES! Hot overexposed backgrounds that blow and roll off like film. YES! The softness of film. YES! Creamy skin tones that resolve beautifully like film. YES! Hold the hot sky detail and your model in the foreground like film. YES!

Gaffer Larry Pinto throws in a 4x4 of 1/4 CTS on Eli’s backlight
Gaffer Larry Pinto throws in a 4×4 of 1/4 CTS on Eli’s backlight

Day Backlight Tests

With his test, I wanted to play around with exactly what I have been talking about with you on lighting faster and not having to fill so much but still retain sky detail as well as highlight detail in her hair. I got a little crazy and added some CTO to warm the back light up because I never like how the Epic saw warm tones. It really didn’t see warm tones. It saw them as green, yellow, brown. None of those colors are appealing to me, except yellow, but yellow needs red, which the Epic could never create. Kind of ironic isn’t it?

Day ISO Backlight Test (Skin Tone OLPF): Medium Shot (Membership Required)

Day ISO Backlight Test (Skin Tone OLPF): Close Up Shot (Membership Required)

So by adding the warmth in her backlight, we can see how the Dragon sensor sees it and it saw it just like my eye did. Nice rich warm, yellow, red tones that create a beautiful orange glow on Eli’s hair.

Setup of the Backlight Test
Setup of the Backlight Test
Mirror boards bounce the sun into a 12x12 of Ultra Bounce
Mirror boards bounce the sun into a 12×12 of Ultra Bounce

Look specifically at the color graded version and how we hold all the sky detail, color, the blue cyan sky and the white clouds. These are the most extreme conditions, the hot backlit sky with clouds and slight haze in the air. What that means is you can never hold or balance both without lighting. I added three reflector boards, bouncing off of a 6×6 silver lame. She looks gorgeous and we hold everything. This camera is impressive.

So where is the “Achilles heel” of this camera and its sensor? If I had to raise a complaint, it is how it zooms in on the sensor as your only option for different resolutions. I would love both. That way if I do need a 600mm lens and I only have a 300mm, I can go to 2K resolution and now I have a 600mm. This is awesome. But when you don’t want to always shoot in 5K to get the super 35mm frame size, it would be great to have super 35 framing over all resolutions. Other than this, the team at RED has addressed all of what I love about film and what it looks and feels like. Don’t get me started on the ergonomics of the camera, power ports, etc. They will all improve and address these in the new camera. It is a block and I love a block because that means I can build this baby however I want it.

HINT HINT- WEAPON anyone!


Video courtesy of RED and Jarred Land

<< Read Red Dragon Test Part 1

TECHNICAL SPECS
6K Digital Capture
Full-Frame 8:1 Compression for all tests except for the Compression test
4K UHD REDCODE Editing timeline
4K UHD H.264 Youtube Export
4K UHD REDCODE TIFF FILE EXPORTS
Color space during shooting: REDgamma4
Project Editing: Adobe Premiere CC 2014
Project Color Correction: Davinci Resolve 11

Camera


Camera AKS:



Monitors:


Flanders LM-0950W

Support:

Support:

Lenses:

Lighting:

1K Open Face (“Red head”)




Grip: 










 

Shot at Revolution Cinema Rentals

Model Monette Moio is represented by Melinda Jason.
Model Eli Jane is represented by CESD.

 

Members of Shane’s Inner Circle who were members in April 2015 received this entire article and 4K videos as part of their membership.

If you would like to view the rest of this article, it may be purchased in Shane’s Store, as can all other educational content of interest.

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  • Adobe
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  • cameras
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  • canon c500
  • Color Correction
  • DaVinci Resolve
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  • International Organization for Standardization
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  • Photographic techniques
  • RED Digital Cinema Company
  • RED Dragon Sensor
  • RED Dragon sensor tests
  • Red Epic
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