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    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
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  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

On Clipping, Part 1

Everybody clips. It's like a children's book title for the digital cinema crowd—Everybody Clips. The message: It's OK to clip, young digital cinema camera—everyone has to sooner or later. Even film.

It's true. Throw enough light at a piece of color negative and eventually it stops being able to generate any more density. Clipping, i.e. exceeding the upper limits of a media's ability to record light, happens with all image capture systems.

Everybody clips. So the thing worth talking about is how, and when.

One of the reasons this subject gets confusing is that it starts with understanding a common topic here on ProLost, that of light's linearity and how that linearity is remapped for our viewing pleasure. We all know that increasing light by one stop is the same thing as doubling the amount of light. Yet something one stop brighter doesn't look "twice as bright" to our eyes. We perceive light non-linearly.

Linear-light images, or images where the pixel values are mapped 1:1 to light intensity values, are useful for some tasks (like visual effects compositing) but inconvenient for others. They don't "look correct" on our non-linear displays. And they are inefficient when encoded into a finite number of bits. It's worth understanding that inefficiency, since every digital cinema image (and digital photograph) starts as a linear-light record.

Let's say you have a grayscale chip chart that looks like this:

Each swatch in the chart is twice as reflective as the previous, and photographs as one stop brighter. Each of these swatches is double the brightness of the previous swatch. If you chart those light values, it looks like this:

Each chip is twice as bright as the previous, so each bar is half as high as the next. This image shows off the disparity between measured light and perceived light. Does the swatch on the far right look 125 times brighter than the one on the far left? No, and yet it is.

Notice also how the orange bars representing the reflectance of the swatches are quite short at the left. This is the problem with storing linear light images—they require a lot of fidelity in the shadow areas. One of the many reasons to gamma-encode an image is to better distribute the image brightness values across the available range of pixel values. Here are those same chips, graphed with the gamma 2.2 encoding used to display them:

Note that we now have much more room for variation in dark tones. If we have a limited bid-depth available for storing this image, we're far less likely to see banding or noise in the shadows with this arrangement.

Why is this important? As we've already discussed, it is underexposure tolerance that limits our ability to capture a scene on a digital sensor. We can set our exposure to capture whatever highlight detail we want, but at some point our shadows will become too noisy or quantized to be usable. And this danger is exponentially more apparent when you realize that the chip is capturing linear light values. The first thing we do with those values is brighten them up for display and/or storage, revealing in the process any nastiness in the lower registers.

You can think of the orange bars in the first graph as pixel values. When you shoot the chart with your digital camera, you're using half of your sensor's dynamic range to capture the values between the rightmost chip and the one next to it! By the time you start looking at the mid-gray levels (the center two chips), you're already into the bottom 1/8th of your sensor's light-capturing power. You're putting precious things like skin tones at the weakest portion of the chip's response and saving huge amounts of resolution for highlights that we have trouble resolving with our naked eyes.

This is the damning state of digital image capture. We are pushing these CCD and CMOS chips to their limits just to capture a normal image. Because in those lower registers of the digital image sensor lurk noise, static-pattern artifacting, and discoloration. If you've every tried to salvage an underexposed shot, you've seen these artifacts. We flirt with them every time we open the shutter.

Any amount of additional exposure we can add at the time of capture creates a drastic reduction in these artifacts. This is the "expose to the right" philosophy: capture as bright an image as you dare, and make it darker in processing if you like. You'll take whatever artifacts were there and crush them into nice, silky blacks. This works perfectly—until you clip.

The amount of noise and static-pattern nastiness you can handle is a subjective thing, but clipping is not. You can debate about whether an underexposed image is salvageable or not, but no such argument can be had about overexposure. Clipping is clipping, and while software such as Lightroom and Aperture feature clever ways of milking every last bit of captured highlight detail out of a raw file, they too eventually hit a brick wall.

And that's OK. While HDR enthusiasts might disagree, artful overexposure is as much a part of photography and cinematography as anything else. Everybody clips, even film, and some great films such as Road to Perdition, Million Dollar Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey would be crippled without their consciously overexposed whites.

The difference, of course, is how film clips, and when.

How does film clip? The answer is gracefully. Where digital sensors slam into a brick wall, film tapers off gradually.

When does film clip? The answer is long, long after even the best digital camera sensors has given up.

More on that in part 2. For now, more swatches! A digital camera sensor converts linear light to linear numbers. Further processing is required to create a viewable image. Film, on the other hand, converts linear light to logarithmic densities. Remember how I described the exponential increase in light values as doubling with each stop? If you graph that increase logarithmically, the results look like a straight line. Here are our swatches with their values converted to log:

Notice that the tops of the orange bars are now a straight line. This is no accident, of course. By converting the image to log, we've both maximized the ability of a lower-bit-depth medium to store the image and we've distributed the image values in a manner that simulates our own perception of light. Exponential light increase is now numerically linear, as it is perceptually linear to our eyes.

We've also, in a way, simulated film's response. As I said, film responds logarithmically to light. In other words, it responds to light much the way our eyes do. This sounds nice, and it is. A big reason is that both film and digital sensors have noise in their responses, noise evenly distributed across their sensitivity. Because film's noise is proportional to its logarithmic response, which matches our perception of light, the result is noise that appears evenly distributed throughout the image. Digital sensors have noise evenly distributed across their linear response, which means that when we boost the shadows into alignment (i.e. gamma encode), we boost the noise as well. This results in images with clean highlights and noisy shadows. Another way to think of it is that in a digital photo of our chip chart, each swatch will be twice as noisy as the one to its right! You can see this simulated below, where I've added 3% noise to the (simulated) linear capture space before applying the gamma of 2.2 for display:

On film, each chip would have roughly the same amount of noise. Film is both more accommodating at the top end and more forgiving of underexposure, as it does not have a preponderance of noise lurking in its shadows.

Next time: Some concrete clipping examples from movies and TV, and more about how the top-end response of film can be simulated by a digital camera.

Reader Comments (17)

Stu, great post. It never ceases to amaze me how you can make a whole post about a set of grayscale swatches an interesting read, but you do. And we're all learning because of it. Thanks.

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterShadowMaker SdR

This really clears up alot about noise and where it sits in the scale. the proportionate noise distribution in film vs the disproportionate in "digital" def tells the tale. over on the RED boards Jim is showing off snippets of images from Build 16 and i must say it def shifts the noise quite a bit into the creaminess of film and its log to lin representation.
but its amazing to get this kind of information from you and have it be very easy to understand, digest and incorporate into the discussion at large.
thanks for sharing!

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMBS

My clips smell like roses.

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCineron

Thanks for posting this info, as well as linking to your earlier posts. Just a pointer for others- After Effects Studio Techniques has a great chapter on linear color space, if you're still scratching your head as I was on other details. The book DVD comes with presets from Stu.

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterOrlandont

Another great post, made even greater by this most excellent typo:

"beast digital camera sensors"

Yes, that's how I frequently feel about them, too.

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdadohead

Heh, thanks Dadohead. Fixed now, but immortalized thank to you!

June 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Excellent post, again. Had a big "aaah" moment when you explained about the noise distribution. Looking forward to the sequel.

June 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Dee

Very nice post, Stu.

June 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterxy

It's a really big pet peeve of mine when people misuse the term clipping. In electronics and signal processing, clipping is defined as to "truncate the amplitude of (a signal) above or below predetermined levels." Film does not clip, both film and digital sensors saturate, however film does so at the peak of a curve, and is therefore attenuated rather than truncated. So while highlights in film may be "blown out," they are not "clipped."

Apart from this, I really enjoyed your post and I think it describes very well one of the less commonly understood phenomenon of "developing" digital images.

June 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDamon

the part about the histogram displaying the camera converted image is quite a scandal.

how can you know when you are really clipping (as in losing information because you pushed the sensor) rather than when the camera on board adjusted got "clipped" (but not really)

you'd think thered be a setting on the camera for people who really really want the real histogram, that is the raw (sensor) histogram.

June 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercato

Stu, do you have any links or books that you usually head to for the film end of this? Densitometry, sensitometry... I don't understand as much as I'd like.

I'm not sure about film responding logarithmically to light... I know Cineon records images as log but that's a data compression step and not really relevant.

If you look at a d-logE graph, it's essentially straight... which might make you think density responds as the log of exposure. But the thing is that density is already a log-encoded paramter - it's the log of the opacity. So taking that into account, opacity is linear with respect to exposure... so film is a linear sensor, really.

All this logarithmic stuff is just to make the numbers easier, particularly so in the 19th century when all this was first worked out... on slide rules :)

I don't know about you but I stare at film scans all day and I certainly see more noise in the blacks than the whites, just like your example chip chart.

Anyone have a grayscale ramp shot on film lying around to check this? Maybe on from the camera/stock tests?

All very interesting, anyway, keep up the good work :)


June 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLewis

Hello Stu,

Thanks a lot for the post, was very insightfull...

I have a question that has nothing to do with clipping here, but that's been running in my head lately.

I remember you telling us on your blog one day you where going to a super secret apple invitation about vide/compositing/something.

And I've been working a lot lately with our beloved Shake. Does this have something to do with Shake or it's possible future replacement (if there is one someday) ?

Are you maybe under NDA ? ;)

Anyway, don't really know why I'm asking this here...

Thanks again for the great post !


June 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAgustin Eguia

Stu, absolutely brilliant explanation . . .

First you helped bring us float, does this mean log is not far behind?

June 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRick

Hi damon, thanks for the comment. I have a pet peeve as well, which is when people resist that a specific industry or discipline can evolve languange usages of its own. My editors at Peachpit tried to correct my use of the term "flopping a shot" in The Guide, pointing out that the "correct" term should be "flip." But the truth is that in the film industry, "flop" is the accepted term.

"Clipping" is to useful and descriptive a term to resist its use in digital image acquisition. Which is a related, but separate field from electronics and signal processing.

But I really like your distinction between a hard clip such as one sees with digital sensors and film's gradual attenuation. That distinction is what I hope to cover in more detail in pt. 2. You'll see that I agree with your semantics—film eventually gives up, but, as you say, it does not "clip."

June 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStu

Are you familiar with LINLOG CMOS? It's possible to get a log exposure using a properly designed CMOS sensor (each photosite has it's own little amp that can be squeezed by it's own voltage)

LINLOG would make video cameras like film. In fact, they can massively exceed film in dynamic range if setup correctly. LOG sensors have been used in scientific imagining for years. I'm amazed it hasn't found its way into consumer video cameras yet.

A company called Photonfocus makes a sensor that combines a global shutter (no rolling shutter!) with programmable LOG compression. They are partnered with Dalsa. But Dalsa (according to sources at the top of Dalsa Digital) "have no interest" in making consumer or prosumer cams. Anyway, it might still be possible for an enterprising company to license the technology for use in their own camera.

July 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlordtangent

great info. very well written, you made it easy to grasp the concept thanks! Coad Miller
I look forward to the part 2 post and exploring the other info you have posted

June 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCoad Miller

I've always heard the term "clipping" used to mean the abrupt video type transition from the straight line to saturation, as distinguished from the film type "shoulder" that gradually rolls off.

-- J.S.

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Sprung
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