Posted – Available light tests are finally online.

After screenings in Melbourne and Sydney I’ve had a lot of people asking to access these tests online.  Well here they are !

I would say though, that these are designed to be viewed in a cinema.  That was the whole point when Kate Dennis and I first set out to create this test.  Obviously there’s a lot lost in the encoding for the web as well.  I’ll go through the technical in a bit, but it’s also interesting to look at the feedback from those who actually attended the screenings and saw both the DCP and the 35mm print.  Because this was what we most wanted.  To see the results in a cinema, and to compare them screened as a print and as a DCP.

Which takes me back to the why.  It’s probably worth going over the thinking behind these tests again.

On the first season of Offspring, setup director Kate Dennis and I were shooting some night exterior scenes on the mean streets of Fitzroy with a then just released RED MX camera and some fast primes.  Both of us were simply amazed at how bright everything looked just using the available street lighting that was around from all the retailers.

We started to discuss the idea of shooting scenes for a cinema finish, for a film in the same way. Kate is ex-camaera department and she’d retained a scepticism for digital formats for a feature film but she was getting curious about just how good the new digital cinema cameras are.

Kate has a feature film in development that is largely set in Paris and would feature a lot of night scenes.  She was wondering if she could just let the mayor of Paris do the majority of her lighting.  Maybe there was a different model of shooting with her relatively modest budget that would enable a much freeier style of shooting.

And the common thinking now amongst most would go something like this.  Digital cameras have a distinct advantage when shooting at night and in low light over film acquisition.  I wanted to put that to the test.  I wondered if you could adapt a guerilla style of shooting that seems to go hand in hand with shooting on digital cameras.  Could film be treated in the same way ?

So Kate and I started to think about a test.  Something that would replicate some of the key scenes from her feature, shooting in an urban environment.  It also became obvious that we should use actors.  We wanted there to be scenes that would then inform the way they were shot.  We didn’t want to shoot test charts.  We wanted to replicate narrative drama.

As I was still in the middle of shooting the first season of Offspring, Kate began scouting and finding locations.  We came up with 6 locations that each offered their own challenge. Kate then wrote a sequence of scenes that would form a loose story that we could shoot.

So we wanted a short sequence of narrative drama that would be about 2 mins, that would have 6 locations featuring difficult available light situations.  We would then shoot the same short sequence 6 times over using 6 different cameras.  Each sequence would then be compiled together and screened as a 35mm print and then again as a DCP.

In a way, we were trying to de-intellectualise the usual kinds of tests one sees of charts and colour chips and make them more about the emotional reaction to a narrative sequence.  We were also prototyping the usability of each camera in the field.  So not only where we judging the end results, but the practicalities of each camera.

Rather ambitiously, we settled on 6 cameras to test.

We also adopted a style of shooting that would favour speed of setups.  To reduce the crew numbers we would shoot like a doco crew.  I pulled my own focus right off the lens.  We would stage the scene, work out the coverage, then shoot each setup six times with a different camera for each take, before moving on.

We decided on;

35mm.  Obviously the standard for cinema acquisition with 100+ years of history.  I was really interested to see how the format would go competing in this worst case scenario.  The lighting conditions would very much favour digital cameras.  We shot using 5219 500T and perhaps controversially, I didn’t push the stock on the advice of Kodak. (the advice being that with the modern stocks there’s very little to be gained in a push process)

Super 16mm.  Although considered by many to be a bit of a dead format, I was really interested to see what kind of look could be created with it.  A slew of successful mainstream films had featured super 16 recently so I was quietly confident it would give us some kind of look, even if it was a bit grainy.  We used the 7219 500T stock, also not pushed.

RED MX.  The digital camera that has certainly generated more debate than almost any other other camera, and the camera that had started the whole discussion off.

Arri Alexa.  The new kid.  when we shot these tests (december 2010) there were only a few of these around and RAW recording wasn’t enabled.  We shot 4:4:4 logC pro res.

Sony F3.  This was a late addition, but I thought it would be worth while.  It was an engineering sample, so it wasn’t finished and we recorded natively to the internal recorder.

Canon EOS 1dMKiv.  I knew that this camera had a slight sensitivity advantage over the 5D / 7D’s so we chose this camera as out DSLR entry.

All the lenses were the same, Cooke S4’s.  We approximately matched the focal lengths for the Super 16 and we couldn’t get a PL mount 1D so used compact primes instead.

On set we had myself and Kate, plus a Loader, a data wrangler, a low light gaffer and a runner.

Now I did say Gaffer didn’t I ?  I had someone to wrangle some poly bounce and I had a single LED battery light.  That was my lighting package !  Again, in keeping with a stealthy and small footprint style of shooting !

Originally, this was a test just for the interest of Kate and I.  As we went though post at Deluxe, a few people started to hear about it and wanted to see the results.  We started talking about organising a screening in Deluxe Melbourne’s 20 seat preview cinema.  We quickly ran out of room and ended up at ACMI where nearly 200 showed up !

Deluxe Melbourne who couldn’t have been more supportive of our experiment handled all the post and the excellent and experienced colourist Stanly Lopuszanski put in so much of his own time and brought so much to the end result we felt he had to credit him up the front.

So some numbers.  We had 6 cameras.  We shot this in a single night across 6 locations across the city of Melbourne.  We were on foot. We mostly only had a single take with each camera in each set up.  Even so, the final edit has on average 28 shots.  That means 168 takes.  Pretty impressive on any DPR.  It also meant that sometimes, there would be a take that wasn’t optimal for technical reasons used in the cut to maintain continuity.

We also made a definite choice to NOT edit them exactly the same way, but to favour each edit to be the best it could be with the available material.  This extended to the grade.  Instead of trying to match everything to one camera, we simply tried to make each camera look the best it could.

This clip was created as a Pro Res from the final DPX sequence that was created in Lustre.  I’ve then converted it to an MP4 using squeeze.

Now, as an extra challenge, I’ve only identified the cameras by a letter code.  So you’ll watch all 6 sequences and then your challenge is to try to pick which camera is which.

After the 6 sequences, I’ve put selected shots from each camera back to back so you can more readily make a direct comparisons.  I’ve also then done a 200% blow up on a selected shot, and the theory with this was to try to show how the resolution (or lack of resolution) stands up in a cinema environment.  It’s not quite the same at this small online scale but you’ll get the idea.  I then included a sequence that shows the ungraded and graded shots just to show how little we were working with.

I would say, looking at the end Vimeo encode, that the blacks are a little crushed and in the cinema versions of theses, they are a lot more “open”.

I also had a lot of trouble eye focussing with the 16mm material, and unfortunately the first setup is quote soft.

So enjoy the results.  Remember they were designed to be seen in a cinema where they do look quite different to how they look here.  We weren’t’ setting out to do a scientific test as such, but more just to compare the emotional story telling impact of these cameras in very difficult lighting situations without the usual lighting and gripping support of a *big* shoot.

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
This entry was posted in Available Light Test and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Posted – Available light tests are finally online.

  1. Pingback: Available-light Digital Cinema camera testing at FreshDV

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  3. Alex Corbor says:

    This is amazing.


    I was absolutely sure that A was the 35 mm one. There’s very few differences between the Alexa the Aaton 35 mm in the highlights, which for me is the dead giveawy between film and digital. Then again it’s hard to tell on a vimeo video, i would have loved to see the test in movie theatre.

  4. Pingback: Low & Available Light 6 Camera Tests | Cinema Technology News

  5. Eric says:

    The 200% blow-up at the bar scene clearly shows that the RED One MX is the winner.

    However, it had a problem with latitude in the scene by the river (palm trees on the left are a little too dark, and the sky and clouds are washed out).
    I wonder if it was graded correctly in that scene.

    In 2nd place it’s a bit of tie: Sony F3 and ARRI Alexa have about the same (gorgeous) picture.

  6. Aron J says:

    Thanks! Why not post the DCP for download, so people with access to a post house or digitally equipped cinema could watch as intended?

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  9. Henrique Sales says:

    i think Camera B is lot of grain , the Camera C the Black is too buried in the corridor plann, and camera D Do you has a Blue on the Withe, Camera E the color black has very reD and the scale(range) black is bad.
    Camera FWorks great in low light, but is weak in high light…

    Camera A is winner !

  10. Henrique Sales says:

    CAMERA B – 16 mm
    CAMERA C- F 3
    CAMERA E – 1 D
    CAMERA F – 35mm

  11. Chris Swinbanks says:

    Hi John… great looking tests, would have loved to have seen them in Cinema….
    Blown away by the opening tribute, have been on extended leave and didn’t know about JB…. so sad.
    Pity about the wa$%#rs on Vimeo in comments.. but hey, thats the internet… good, bad & ugly.

  12. jakecarvey says:

    Great comparison test – this is going to generate a lot of interest for sure.

  13. As of my Opinion in terms of quality RED is the winner, in terms of worth for cost 1D is fabulous.

  14. Pingback: Available Light Test « Robin Moran | Blog

  15. Daniel Goldschlager says:

    John, we have a professional meet in july to discuss among colleagues the future of cinematography in our country (Venezuela). Your DCP and film would be invaluable. I can secure te best D-Cinema Theater here if there´s a way to get them. We´ll pay all expensese, of course.
    Anyway, it´s great wat you did and even the encoded video is very useful, but seeing it in a real theater wouls be very enlightening.
    Thank you,
    Daniel Goldschlager
    DRG New Media, Caracas, Venezuela

  16. Adam says:

    I’m wondering how the 16 and 35mm were transferred. The ungraded versions looks terrible like they were cheap one-light transfers.

  17. Floyd says:


    in the shot to shot comparisons the A cam closeup at the bar does not match the A cam closeup at the bar in the end sequence. The highlight on the out of focus lamp in the background looks very different.

    Also the color correction on the wide bridge shot seems unfair for comparison. It seems very obviously manipulated to give the appearance of a blue sky on a few of the cameras (the RED for sure), and also on 35mm. It’s evident in the discoloring of some of the other highlights in the shot (like the beach area on the RED camera).

    I would be interested to see what these cameras captured before color correction.

    • johnbrawley says:


      The wide shot at the bridge was shot under rapidly changing conditions. It rained very heavily and then was brightly sunny. I always intended for the grade to be what I thought was subjectively best for each individual camera, not something that was trying to match other cameras or some kind of common bench mark. There is a sequence at the end showing the ungraded and graded shots.

  18. Craig Phillpot says:

    Wondering why the Sony F35 was not part of the testing?

    • johnbrawley says:

      Hi Craig,

      I did have a genesis arranged initially, but it fell though for various reasons. Although there’s no doubt that the F35 is a great image, I’ve found the camera to be too freaking BIG myself. I don’t think it was as well suited to this style of shooting (hand held) for a whole film. When the Genesis fell though, I didn’t worry about trying to replace it.

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  22. Warren Eagles says:

    Great work John, what were your thoughts after viewing the film outs and DCP?

    Warren Eagles
    Freelance Colorist

  23. untitled artists says:

    amazing! nice test with a nerdieness of zero 😉
    my favorites were A and D, but i have to admit that i only watched it on an iphone 4 once, after i got the tip about a uncommon camera comparision from someone.

  24. untitled artists says:

    amazing! nice test with a nerdieness of zero 😉
    my favorites were A and D, but i have to admit that i only watched it on an iphone 4 once, after i got the tip about a uncommon camera comparision from someone.
    the only one i guessed right, was the 16mm

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  26. fernando demello macedo says:

    i was amazed with the 16 mm… just beautiful. the 35mmm of course…stands out. alex and red go good together, i think… i was very disappointed with the results from the f3… was the slog available? i noted much more contrast specially in the scene of the traveling out of the couple walking in the direction of the camera… cup cake and all… it looked very bad in that scene. i thought the mark iv was ok…. you did a great job composing the shots and with your choices man… thanks for sharing …

  27. fernando demello macedo says:

    its funny to see the comments… couse some guys really liked some cameras i hated… like my own… the f3! at the end its really about what makes you feel good looking at… i just love film… there is no competition…

  28. Eugenio says:

    It´s the first time I see a so interesting test comparison in movies. I support 100% your choice of not trying to match the cameras and being in some way subjective when you look to get the better of them. As far I can see in this internet video the Arri is a really great camera… In some aspects better than film. But film continues to be a BIG option (at least the film you used in the way you used). It’s so nice with its wide tonal range and deepness. However, I felt more natural the Arri colors, specially the greens. I guessed which was super 16mm, 35mm, Sony and Canon. The two last ones didn’t convince me: unnatural color rendition, bad in highlights…. too much video felling! And well, super 16mm is super 16mm… lots of grain, but it’s a choice for some features and I liked it in a certain way. Great work. Obviously in a cinema it should be still more interesting… congratulations and thanks so much!

  29. Oron C says:

    Great test!
    Really liked the approach you guys used, basically trying to make each camera look as good as possible, as every professional that uses those camera will try.
    I agree with the reply of Eugenio, 35mm stands out, the flares, the colours, the way it holds the highlights and the organic look that I personally favour as it reminds me of the way our own eyes sees things. The super16, even though it’s grainy still have this beautiful film look, The F3 and Canon are not really suitable for real feature film making, to my opinion, (unless the look is needed, like the dogma movement used DV aesthetics).
    Both the RED MX ( which I used a lot) and the Alexa, look really good and there valid options for filmmakers today, but for me their image lack some “soul” and the film look I like.

    Brilliant test, keep it on!

  30. Rod says:

    My filmic choice: A, D, C – and with a distance F, E, B

  31. Simon T says:

    My choice was first A (Alexa), 2nd C (RED MX), 3rd E (F3). I have shot on all of these cameras. This was a great test, but a nice affirmation for me that my choice in camera for lighting conditions or subject choice was as i expected. The Alexa was the clear winner for skin tones and color space. F3 had outstanding low noise as expected. The MX sensor and huge information (detail) on the RED is unparallelled as seen when blown up. I own a RED EPIC but admittedly the Alexa was the best looking image of the lot.
    Well done guys.

  32. Ryan Gibb says:

    I can tell from the grading that the outdoor Red footage wasn’t graded properly as there should have been a lot more detail in the sky.

  33. Barbara Bedont says:

    It’s very generous of you to make this public. So great when filmmakers help each other to improve their craft. Thanks!!

  34. Really useful test; thank you so much for posting! Like most others, I guessed them all except switching the F3 and 1D cause of the aliasing. Totally curious to see how the C300 would stack up (owning one myself)! Most interesting to me was that though both the Alexa and Red were gorgeous, and the 5219 equally gorgeous but more organic (but grainier and less sensitive), the 7219 seemed even more organic than the 5219! Totally subjective, I know, but really curious to me. Again, thanks for posting!

  35. JuanPC says:

    A Arri Alexa++++++++++++
    B 16mm+++++++++++++
    C Red MX
    D 35mm
    E Sony F3————
    F Canon 1D+++++++++++



    In this test i like more Aaton XTR PROD (Super 16), than 35-3
    probably the lenses, or the 2-perf vs. 3-perf vs. 4-perf.

  36. JuanPC says:

    ups- wrong mail.

  37. Pingback: Double Blind Camera Test - TAR Productions

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