Sharpening tools

I’m off on a little job next week where my dear FS100 must be left behind, along with all that lovely glass I’ve been collecting. I will revert back to the Sony PMW-EX1R, which feels odd all of a sudden because it’s just a big black sausage, no extras needed. All in one. Sweet.

Now, I needed to give it a good checking over, ensure the media’s okay, that the lens is behaving its self (keeping focus from zoomed in to zoomed out), and it needed a bit of a tweak. But as I looked at the pictures, I noticed how full of noise they were (compared to the FS100) and especially how the detail was too crunchy.

Video cameras have Detail circuits to enhance the look of areas of detail and edges – raising the contrast of the picture around edges, and if overdone, it looks like someone’s clumsily traced your picture with a felt tip pen and chalk. Take it away, though, and your pictures are soft and lacking ‘bite’.

So the big question is, how much detail sharpening should one do in-camera? Too much is irreversibly ugly. Too little, and every single shot looks maddeningly soft. No worries – we’ll fix that in post, but then every single shot needs a sharpen filter and you’re into longer render times. For a Behind The Scenes or ENG shoot, you may not have the time to do this, so a bit of in-camera magic can be a good thing.

So, I did some tests, and because you’re needing to shoot a bit, examine the footage on a good quality monitor, shoot a bit more, rinse, repeat, one tends to do these tests in unglamorous locations – so you get to glimpse a grotty corner of my garden. What it does offer is a wide tonal range, a lot of detail of different types to handle, some natural and manufactured edges to show up aliasing and of course a few pretty flowers that didn’t get zapped by the recent frosts.

http://www.mdma.tv/sharpening/

Now, firstly you’re looking at full-frame 1080p frame grabs, not a video. Secondly, they just cycle round and round. Look at the TV aerials, the branches in the background, the chair legs and the ivy, and see how various forms of sharpening affect them.

Looking at full-size frame grabs is best, but it may help to compare the same part of the image showing the different sharpening methods, firstly at 100%, then at 200%:


No in-camera sharpening. In the case of the EX-1, this means setting Detail to 0.


Camera sharpening. EX-1 Detail: +10


Less in-camera sharpening. Detail: -10


No in-camera sharpening, but sharpened in software: Final Cut Pro X Sharpen filter Sharpening: 2.5


No in-camera sharpening, but sharpened in software using Irudis Tonalizer|VFX PRO.

Here are the results at 200%:


No in-camera sharpening.


Camera sharpening.


Less in-camera sharpening.


Final Cut Pro X


Tonalizer

It is obvious (to me, at least) that the FCPX sharpening filter at 2.5 is far superior to the in-camera sharpening even at 0, and that ‘Detail Off’ is too soft. Tonalizer’s detail was infinitely more subtle than the FCPX sharpener, but takes a good while longer to render (IIRC, the sharpener filter works in real-time, no rendering required).

So, the EX1R is set to Detail 0 on next week’s job, but will have detail OFF on any shoots where I have full control of the edit and of course who gets to see the rushes. I do like the Tonalizer sharpening, though – very subtle, and plenty of ‘wriggle room’.

It’s little tests like these that can feel obsessive (doing and sharing) – debating the number of pixels that can fit on the head of a pin – but these are the ’20%’ details that normal humans may not immediately point out, but they see and feel nonetheless, and now they won’t be shocked at seeing every pimple and pore writ large in the interviews, nor will they be rubbing their eyes and thinking about opticians. They’ll just love the pictures.

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