I'm So Baked

The level of control cinematographers have over the digital image is pretty remarkable. Cameras give users the ability to adjust and fine-tune the picture so that directors can get exactly the look they want. But then the question arises: is it better to "bake" in a particular look in camera, or is it better to achieve that look in post through color correction and grading?

The first HD camera I purchased was the Panasonic HVX-200a. I had used the Panasonic DVX-100 during the SD, MiniDV days, and absolutely loved the quality of the camera. So, when it came time to upgrade, the HVX was the perfect fit for what I needed at the time. My clients were just making the transition into HD, but some still needed tape. The HVX had slots for P2 cards, but also came with a MiniDV tape drive.

When I bought the HVX, I also purchased The HVX Book by Barry W. Green, a thorough examination of all that the camera has to offer. Included with the book was a list of picture profiles (or Scene Files) that Green had assembled, giving the user several pre-defined "looks" that could be baked into the camera by tweaking all of the Scene File settings. 

When I first started shooting with the camera, I really liked experimenting with these different looks. I enjoyed having that level of control over how the image looked. I started selecting a specific Scene File for each individual project, then shooting that project with the selected Scene File.

Fast forward to 2014. Through the years, after shooting several different projects with several different cameras, I have learned the value in going to the other end of the spectrum. Now, I mainly shoot with a flat, low-contrast image and then work on correcting and grading that image in post. Sometimes, you have no choice but to shoot flat. For example, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, when set to "Film" mode, will automatically shoot in a very flat, low-contrast mode. 

Here are two pros for "baking" in a specific look in-camera:

  • There is less time needed in post for color correction. I still shoot ENG projects that have very tight deadlines. Shooting these projects with a preset picture profile allows me to turn an edited piece around quickly. 
  • The client can instantly see how the final video will look, while still on set. Sometimes you might work with a client who has trouble visualizing the look you as the director are trying to achieve. By using a preset picture profile, you can get instant feedback from the client during the shoot. 

Here are two pros for shooting with a flat, low-contrast image:

  • More dynamic range is preserved. This means you will retain more detail in the shadows and in the highlights of your image. It's almost impossible to get those details back in post, if you crush out the blacks too much or clip the highlights.
  • You will have more flexibility in post. By preserving as much detail in the image as possible, you will have many more options available to you in post to correct and grade the image. This is especially helpful if you are part of a production team and you know that the footage you shoot could be re-purposed for other projects in the future. Giving other editors on your team a flat, low-contrast raw image will give them the chance to grade that footage to fit with other projects they are producing.

In summary, there are occasions when you may want to shoot with a preset picture profile and other times when you may need to shoot with a flat image. I lean towards a flat, low contrast image for my work today, but there is value in both.