23 Jan 2020

Understanding ISO: In digital cameras, it's not what you think it is

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Sony's A7S: normal exposure fairly far up the range Sony's A7S: normal exposure fairly far up the range Sony


RedShark Replay: ISO ratings made perfect sense in the days of photochemical film but only serve to muddy the waters when it comes to assessing camera performance in the digital age.

I'm going to regret saying this, I know I am, but things were simple in the days of film – you read the number off the film can, dialled it into your meter, read the light, set the lens and turned over. Well, okay, that's possibly the most grotesque oversimplification in the history of detail-skimming understatement, but the point is that the sensitivity of photochemical negative was a straightforward specification that wasn't, usually, subject to much question. A director of photography keen on a grain-free image might overexpose half a stop or so, or might, if he or she was feeling arty, subtract one from the number on the meter before setting it on the lens (two if feeling very arty). In general, though, an ISO rating was an ISO rating, even if previously it had been an ASA rating, and push processing aside, that was that.

It shouldn't therefore surprise us to find that when electronic cameras started to move from the workaday reality of mere camerawork up to the heady realms of cinematography that the incumbents of feature film and high-end television production began asking what the native ISO of the camera was. It's an understandable question, albeit perhaps provoking a scowl from broadcast people who had spent a career growing comfortably used to the precision of a waveform monitor, which, after all, treats a video camera as an array of reflectance meters. Even beyond considerations of experience and familiarity, however, there are some fairly serious problems with even using ISO to characterise digital cameras, let alone establishing which number works best.

Chemicals, not digits

The principal technical difficulty is that the ISO exposure rating system, the most familiar part of which is closely based on the previous ASA system, was designed to characterise photochemical emulsion and not digital sensors. The calculation involves an analysis of the optical density achieved on a negative with respect to the amount of light which struck it, which is complicated by the fact that this response is highly nonlinear both in film and electronic acquisition, and in completely different ways (for film, it's referred to as the Hurter-Driffield curve). Most manufacturers specify the ISO of digital cameras – both still and motion picture – based on the settings which tend to create an image of equivalent apparent brightness to a notional photochemical picture, but since both technologies have such wildly differing responses to light, particularly in deep shadow and bright highlight, there can never be a precise equivalency.

This represents a fundamental problem to anyone attempting to simply meter for exposure with a digital sensor, especially in circumstances where the photographer's experience is mainly photochemical. The circumstance of a solely photochemically experienced director of photography being caught off guard by this situation is of course rare and growing rarer, but the fact that the industry as a whole continues to attempt to use ISO means that it's still a problem we have to deal with if we want to compare the native sensitivity of cameras.

Native sensitivity

But electronic cameras have traditionally had a native sensitivity, regardless of what we call it. They generally offer gain settings, often +3dB and +6dB (equal to a one-stop increase in sensitivity), which may look fairly OK, and higher numbers such as +9dB and +18dB which are typically useful only in emergencies. The technical implementation is identical – it's all just amplification – but with the implied existence of a baseline, standard sensitivity when 0dB of gain is selected. In many cases, this is why a published native sensitivity is clamoured-after in cameras which offer only ISO as a setting: because the cinematographer wants to know what the manufacturer considers normal, which is likely to be a sensible tradeoff between sensitivity and noise. Some cameras, such as Sony's FS700, permit a selection of either in the user interface, which, if nothing else, permits us to evaluate the company's assessment of the camera's native ISO.

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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