The camera manufacturers are currently in a resolution race. Everyone tries to make a 4K camera – or in some cases a 5K or 6K camera, and they do it because the market demands it. Filmmakers want more resolution at a reasonable price, and that's what the big camera manufacturers are trying to deliver. The new GH4 will likely record 4K (possibly using the H.265 codec around the corner), the Canon 1DC, of course, 4K, and it's only a matter of time before many other DSLRs and affordable 4K camcorders launch. But what about the dynamic range? Do these cameras necessarily have better image quality or do they just have more resolution lines?
Think of the resolution as the size of the image (1080p, 2K, 4K, etc.) and the dynamic range (DR) as the number of light and dark areas that your camera can capture. If you look at the following example (which I recorded on Red Epic last weekend), you can really appreciate the camera's wide dynamic range. It allows bright areas of the image to exist without blowing out, and dark areas to maintain details.
If I had taken the above picture with a camera with a low dynamic range, I would have had to choose between exposure for the background or the foreground. If I would expose for the background, the motifs would become silhouettes, or if I would expose for the foreground, the beautiful landscape in the background would be completely blown out. This is how the image could have looked with a camera with less DR, whereby you can choose between underexposure or overexposure of certain areas:
Neither of these two other looks is terrible, and in fact you want to get things to one extreme or another in the post for various reasons, but the key is in the options. With Wide DR, you can shift the colors during sorting to get exactly the look you want in the mail without having to bake the picture on the set.
While dissolution and DR are both critical to achieving a beautiful end product, there is no question in my mind that I would prefer DR to dissolution every day. In fact, I would take a 720p wide DR camera (say 14 stops) over a 5K low DR camera (9 stops). The reason for this is that for most of my recordings, DR is the element that gives me the look I want – the look of a movie. While there are some differences between different film materials, film as a medium generally has a much higher capacity for wide DR than video (although video is catching up), and ultimately DR is absolutely critical to achieving the film look and the resolution is not.
When the RED came out, I was overwhelmed by the camera and absolutely loved what RED was doing for digital cinema, but the picture itself still didn't look like film to me. An element was missing that I could not put a finger on at the time, but which I later defined as the dynamic range. I think the red is rated at around 11.5 DR stops, which is a far cry from the 15 stop area of many film stocks. What really made this clear to me was the Arri Alexa, which had 14 DR stops and looked more and more comfortable to my eyes, even when it was shot in 1080p mode.
From a purely technical point of view, it is always preferable to get a 4K or 5K image because you can take a sharper image with more details. In a real scenario, however, this does not always lead to better results. One of the things I love about the film is the fact that it is a very forgiving medium. If the makeup is not perfect or the lighting turns out a little, it will be hidden by the film. It's softer and more sophisticated in many ways. Digital is tough. The colors are definitely cut and the edges can be razor sharp, which can be a bad thing in many cases and a dead person reveals that you are recording a video. For this reason, when I take pictures with Red Epic or another really high resolution format, the pictures in the post often become softer.
Creating a film is about immersing your viewer in a world that you create for him. To do this, your visual language must contain an element of surrealism, regardless of the genre of your film. The audience wants to feel like they are entering a different world when watching a narrative film, and digital can work against it in many cases. Take, for example, the extreme case "The Hobbit", which was recorded in 3D at 48 frames per second. This film visually annoyed more people than anyone I can remember, simply because it looked too real.
I am in no way against 4K / 5K cameras – in fact the opposite is the case. I think resolution is a great thing and for certain situations (like filming, concerts, etc.) it may be more important than the dynamic range. For a film look, however, there is no question that the dynamic range is more important. I'm certainly not the only one who feels that way, and I really hope that camera manufacturers are starting to pay more attention to DR and stop trying to develop higher resolution cameras that don't necessarily offer better image quality.
For those of you who want the wide DR look but don't have a camera that can achieve this, keep in mind that when the lighting is good you can make a low DR camera look amazing. The extra range is incredible, meaning you don't have to be that complicated in your lighting setup to get the look you want. With a little extra fill light, bounce boards, and strong frame options, you can get this look just about any camera.
And for any of you who want to take the next step towards a cinematic look, you should definitely check out mine Instructions for capturing movie images with your DSLR by clicking here.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!