Canon 600D Technicolor CineStyle versus GH2 Cinema Mode

I am using a Canon 600D in this article – for 600D you can substitute 7D, 60D or 550D – they have the same image.

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When the Technicolor CineStyle is selected in the camera it puts the standard H.264 REC709 color space into a log color space. Video [and still]images are recorded in log space. This is the first implementation of its kind for the Canon EOS line of cameras.

I’ve been testing the CineStyle picture profile today, and alongside it my Panasonic GH2 set to the Cinema Gamma film mode. The purpose of CineStyle on Canon DSLRs is to extract more dynamic range to produce an image over which you can have more control in post and avoid crushed blacks or washed out highlights in the original exposure.

Indeed it is more difficult than before to accidentally eliminate shadow detail or blow out highlights by underexposing or overexposing. The camera is much more docile now in that respect.

However if you are expecting better image quality, or equating more dynamic range with a better looking image you are wrong, because Canon DSLRs have such limited tonal range.

The one and only purpose of CineStyle is to give you more freedom to change the image in post. For example if you need to bring out some shadow detail, you can – it is in there. If you need to colour correct you can. But it is not a magic bullet. You still have the DIGIC4 scaling and issues with tonal range.

Think of the moon, bright on one side illuminated from the sun, completely dark on the other. Contrast is the number of tones in the scene – across the broad moon surface from completely black to scorched white. Dynamic range is the brightness of each tone.

CineStyle essentially reduces the brightness of highlights to preserve detail, and boosts the brightness of darker tones to save more shadow detail. What it cannot do is increase tonality. The GH2 has more – it is the higher contrast camera, with better scaling and yet it still holds onto more dynamic range.

The purpose of grading is usually to give you back that tonality and contrast from the flat image that CineStyle provides – this means you still lose shadow detail or highlight detail in the end because of lack of tonality, but at least you have control over what you lose and how its lost.

So with CineStyle I have more creative control in post but with the GH2 I still have a better end result, though it is more baked-in. Even with contrast -2 in Cinema Gamma mode on the GH2 blacks are dark black, then smoothly dark greys appear with plenty of detail. It also holds onto detail in highlights. For dynamic range as well as tonality it still beats the 600D with CineStyle.

The Cinema Gamma film mode on the GH2 is nowhere near as flat as CineStyle though, but it still grades well because of higher tonality. Also the Nostalgic film mode on the GH2 brings up shadow detail more than Cinema allowing you to underexpose relative to Cinema Gamma, thus protecting highlights if needs be. So if you want more dynamic range choose Nostalgic.

Tonality is about having a smooth fall off from one shade to another and I am not sure CineStyle is giving me that. More dynamic range certainly, but not really more tones or smoother gradation. The Canon DSLRs seem from my experience to be very good at holding onto shadow details but they fall off a cliff when it comes to highlights. One thing you still can’t do with CineStyle after the shot has been recorded is fix blown highlights. So you have to be mindful of protecting the highlights more than the shadows when you shoot.

With CineStyle you really do need to carefully grade the image to make it look good, the GH2 is far less work. Its almost as if the GH2 does the flat picture profile AND applies grading whilst recording to save you the hassle, when technically it just has more tonal range and colour data in the image in the first place.

In this test I wanted to test several things:

  • The difference in look between ungraded direct from card footage shot in the flattest possible way in-camera on both the 600D (CineStyle) and GH2 (Cinema Gamma mode with contrast -2)
  • The difference between the Faithful picture profile and CineStyle on the 600D. You can see it is quite a dramatic difference in terms of dynamic range and the detail visible in shadows and highlights, and that CineStyle is a hazy grey with very narrow tonality.
  • The difference between the GH2’s footage out of the box and CineStyle with the Technicolor LUT applied. Even without grading the GH2’s footage looks very punchy and contrasty but it is a more baked in look and not as flexible as CineStyle.

I’ve created shots here which purposefully contain very bright elements, and shaded areas. On the GH2 I used the Voigtlander Nokton 25mm F0.95 but never wider than F2.5, and on the Canon 600D I used a Zeiss 35mm Jena F2.4. Both are great lenses, though the GH2 works out at 47mm and the 600D 55mm so it is not an exact match field of view wise as you will see.

The reason I used the Technicolor LUT is that I feel this is less subjective than applying my own grading and therefore more scientific. Colour is a very subjective matter.

My opinion is that the GH2 looks more ‘real’ and the 600D looks more ‘cinema’.

Oddly, RAW stills confirm that the GH2’s sensor has less dynamic range to begin with relative to the 600D (and especially the 5D Mark II) – but clearly the Canon is not running away with it. The Canons lose so much in the scaling process, not just detail and a clean image but tonality and dynamic range. The GH2 holds onto a hell of a lot, so even though the Canons have sensors capable of wider dynamic range, the GH2 still beats them, CineStyle or no CineStyle.

CineStyle will only come into it’s own when DIGIC5 comes along and maintains more tonality and dynamic range to start with, from the sensor

For now it is a creative tool – it’s one more option that gives you more choices about the look of your image, and you need to be an expert grader to get the best out of it and know your grading software inside out. Applying just the Technicolor reference LUT doesn’t give you an image massively better looking than using a baked in picture profile like Faithful.