Working with Less Part 2: All about the Camera


David Kong here, with my second post in this video/article series that is all about working with less gear, for less money, and making it look good.

This video goes very in-depth with the DSLR – I cover everything you need to know about formats, codecs, and dynamic range in order to get the most cinematic images. I’ll be explaining how I creatively worked around the limitations of this low-end DSLR with a pretty bad codec and pretty bad dynamic range. Most of my techniques in this video are about preserving as much of the image as possible, to allow for the most flexibility when color grading.

I shot this particular film on the Canon T2i/550D, so the discussion is framed in those terms, but all of the principles apply equally well to most DSLRs and many other video cameras.

Part Two: All about the Camera


Part One: The Gear

The first video/article was all about the gear (lenses, filters, tripods, etc). If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out here:

The First Article: Working with Less (or, Get Out There and Shoot!) Part 1

Part Three: Magic Lantern

The third video was an in-depth explanation of how to use Magic Lantern and why I love it.

Part Four: Postproduction

The Proof of Concept:

I’m using one of my films as an illustration for all of these concepts, so if you haven’t seen the Portrait of Macerata, check it out here. I’ll be talking about that film all through this series.


Below is an overview of everything I cover in the second video

Viewer question: How did I approach the shoot? How much did I plan?
Viewer question: Did I get signed release forms from everyone in the film?
Viewer question: How did I work around moire?


CineStyle is by far the most important tool in my fight against the video look. Clipped highlights and crushed blacks are the biggest giveaways that you’re shooting in video and not film or high-end digital cinema. The “video look” is very contrasty, and usually with clipped highlights. CineStyle is a color profile that manipulates the data coming off of the sensor BEFORE it gets compressed with the codec, and it helps you avoid compressing your highlights and shadows.


CineStyle is one of several presets that you can stick on your camera to get rid of that strong contrast curve and preserve as much data as possible, and most of them work very well. A lot of it, really, is a matter of taste. I prefer Cinestyle because I know that the people behind it (Technicolor) really know their stuff. Another one to know about is Stu Maschwitz’s Prolost Flat. He just works off of the “neutral” preset that comes built-in to the Canon cameras and tries to get the flattest profile with that. I’d recommend trying them both.


Codecs are super complicated (and super interesting!) so I’ll just boil the explanation down to several main points about codecs and explain why you need to understand these concepts.

What codecs do

A codec is like a funnel. You’ve got all of this data (raw coming off the sensor), and you have to fit it into a smaller container – your memory card. So the codec is what shrinks the size of the data stream coming off your sensor down to a size that can fit on your memory card. The main reason why you have codecs is to save space. Raw video data is HUGE, and memory card transfer speeds can rarely cope.

Most video codecs use lossy compression, which throws away some of your data to make it fit onto the SD card. There are dozens of different codecs and dozens of different techniques for how they can decide what to throw away and how to do it, so that it has the smallest impact on the image as possible.

Chroma Subsampling

This concept doesn’t directly affect that way that I shoot, but it’s a very important part of how codecs work so it’s relevant for me to talk about real quick. You’ve probably heard the phrases 4:4:4, 4:2:2, and 4:2:0. That’s chroma subsampling.

When we’re storing pixels in a codec, the brightness value and the color value are separate. Brightness is called luminance, and color is called chrominance. Researchers discovered that our eyes are much, much more sensitive to changes in brightness than to changes in color. So they figured out that, if you keep all of the brightness information but throw away some of the color information, your eye doesn’t really notice.

  • 4:4:4 keeps all of the information.
  • 4:2:2 throws away 1/2 of the color information (keeping all of the brightness).
  • 4:2:0 throws away 3/4 of the color information (keeping all of the brightness).

Canon DSLRs use 4:2:0, the worst kind. But we survive 🙂 It’s really not an issue unless you’re planning to do FX work like greenscreen. Trying to pull a good key from a 4:2:0 codec is a nightmare!

Bit Depth

Bit Depth is the range of values that you have to work with – the number of possible colors. The higher bit depth you have, the more in-between shades you have. Low bit depth can be a problem when you have a very long, smooth gradient. You’ll see a weird “banding” pattern sometimes because there aren’t enough in-between values in the gradient.

These cameras use 8-bit. Not great, but we can get by.

The codec we’re using: h.264

Almost all DSLRs except for the high-end ones use a codec called h.264, which is designed to be a delivery codec. It throws away as much as it possibly can while keeping the current image the same. But what if you want to change that image? What if you want to make it darker, or lighter, or change the color? Well now you want some of that information that got thrown away, and you’re stuck. The huge advantage to h.264 is that the file sizes are very small, but the disadvantage is that the codec is NOT designed to be color corrected.

h.264 is doing a whole bunch of different compression tricks at the same time, but there are two that are particularly relevant to us because the way that you shoot can have an impact on the way that the camera compresses.

h.264 has two principles you need to know about:

  • Encode for the bright things.
  • Encode for contrasty things.

The camera will encode bright and contrasty things fairly well, but it will give a lot less attention to areas that are not bright or contrasty. That’s great for the image as you shot it (because our eyes are more attracted to bright and contrasty things), but what if you want to change the exposure? What if you want to brighten the image, for example? Now we can see into those darker areas which the codec threw away at capture. Bad.

So, what this tells us is that it’s very hard to brighten a highly-compressed image, in post. You start getting all kinds of nasty compression artifacts if you brighten too much in post.

My approach to exposure: Overexpose!

So to avoid this problem, I expose almost all of my shots too bright, if I can get away with it. Of course I want to make sure that I don’t clip the highlights, because that would create an even bigger problem. So my technique is: I get the shot looking the way I like it on the screen. And then, I brighten the exposure until the point of clipping highlights, and then back down just a hair.

That way, I’m guaranteed not to have to deal with nasty shadows. I can always darken back to the original exposure. I know that this probably sounds strange, but it really does improve my image quality. It’s hard to demonstrate here, but check out the video for a detailed example.

I did not have a reliable monitor on this shoot. I didn’t even have a sun-shade or eyepiece. So I used the scopes from Magic Lantern for exposure, and they served me very well. (Part Three on Magic Lantern is coming soon!) The Magic Lantern histogram has a really nice feature to alert you when you’re clipping somewhere.

Tips and tricks for increasing dynamic range

I also have a bunch of little tricks that help me preserve my dynamic range and avoid clipped highlights, because while Cinestyle/Prolost Flat definitely do help preserve dynamic range, they’re sometimes not enough.

Stick an object very close to camera to take down a hot spot.

If I have an object in my shot that is too bright to avoid clipping, I’ll often stick an object in the foreground to cover over the bright spot. The blur of the foreground object (a railing, a tree branch, etc) will bleed over onto the brighter object and effectively darken it.

Of course, it will also blur that bright object a bit. But those hotspots are usually in the background anyway, and I don’t mind if they’re a bit blurrier.

DK cover hotspots 1 vlcsnap-00006

Use bokeh to hide hot spots

If there’s a hot-spot in your video, throw it out of focus and it won’t look NEARLY as bad. The bokeh blends it in with the surrounding colors and actually darkens it. If the hot spot is small, the bokeh will completely prevent it from clipping.

And even when the object is so large that the center still clips when out of focus, the clipping will be much less offensive to the eye. Clipping is a loss of detail. When the clipped object is strongly out of focus, we don’t expect to see detail there anyway, so when the detail is lost because of clipping, we don’t really notice. If the object had not clipped, it would have looked practically the same (it would have been a big grey blur instead of a big white blur).

The worst is when you have a clipped object in focus, because we can see the object clearly and we know that there should be detail there, but it’s clipped. Avoid that at all costs.

Here are a few of the shots from the Portrait of Macerata video where I used bokeh to hide clipping:

The polarizer

The circular polarizer rotates on its ring, and it blocks a different angle of reflected light, depending on how you rotate it.

It can be a life-saver for highlights, though of course it won’t work all the time. It only works when the source of the highlight is coming at a different angle from the rest of the light in your shot. I used it mainly for skies in the Portrait of Macerata video. The light coming from the sun and bouncing directly off of the sky is usually coming from a different angle than the rest of the light in your scene, so the polarizer can take down the brightness of the sky, leaving the rest of your shot intact. This works most often early or late in the day.

A note about subject matter

Note that the decision to be super protective of the highlights fit the style of my piece well. If I’m shooting interviews, then I have a single subject that is extremely important in the frame. In that case, I might end up letting the highlights clip a little, because the subject of my interview is MUCH more important. But even then, I would probably try to throw the clipped highlights out of focus if possible. That would probably be feasible.


The Elephant in the Room: raw

“Most of the issues you’ve talked about are because of the codec, right? Wouldn’t it be easier to shoot in raw and forget all of this?”

Yes and no. There are lots of great advantages to raw, but there are downsides as well. Raw cameras are getting cheaper (the BMPCC, for one), but they still cost at least double the price of this camera. The cards are crazy expensive. I shot entirely on SD cards for this shoot for maximum flexibility (remember, all I had was that shoulder bag. I wasn’t carrying a laptop or spare drives around with me), and I shot about 70GB of footage on two SD cards. The same amount of footage in raw would have been 1.53 Terabytes. That’s a LOT of cards. The cheapest supported SD cards for the BMPCC are $86 for 64GB. I’d need 24 of those cards to fit 1.53 TB, so that comes to $2064 just in SD cards! I’d have to be swapping cards left and right. Definitely not my shooting style.

I also relied heavily on the features of Magic Lantern in order to use this camera without lots of accessories like monitors. Magic Lantern is only available for DSLRs.

Well, that wraps up the camera/codec side of things. I’ve got the third video, in-depth on Magic Lantern, already shot. I just need to get that edited, and it’ll be up soon! The fourth video will be all about Post-Production on this film, so send me all your questions! The fifth video will be a tutorial on how to build my motorized slider.


Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 20.53.40



  1. Thanks, David. You’re my hero. I watched part 1 when you first posted it and thought it was terrific. Even better, you actually did inspire me to go out and shoot. I’ve had a 7D kicking around for too long that I wasn’t using because I didn’t have enough accessories. Thanks for setting the record straight. Part 2 is fantastic and extremely valuable to me. Cheers, Edward.

  2. Nicely done, David. I particularly like your tip for adjusting exposure to minimize the losses from the H.264 codec. Have to make my filmmaking buddy watch this – he keeps wanting to get it ‘in camera’ and ending up WAY too dark to be usable! Only suggestion is to keep segments to about 20 minutes to make viewing easier.

    Happy shooting,
    – Rob.

  3. Excellent Video David,
    I finally know what 4:2:0 and 4:4:2 mean.
    I use a lot of the techniques you talk about in this video. I have a T2i and use cinestyle and magic lantern.
    I’m still looking for that video on slider motor. I have the same slider and I haven’t seen many good diy on youtube. So I’m still hoping you do that video for us.
    Thanks again,

    1. It’s a complex, technical topic. When he says “dynamic range” he really means “bit depth.” He’s using the word with slightly the wrong meaning. Cinestyle allows you to capture the largest range between lights and darks that the camera can possibly deliver. This guy is criticizing the way that Cinestyle “squishes” the histogram toward the center. I admit that he has a (minor) point, there. But that’s not actually limiting your dynamic range (the range between the brightest white and the darkest black) – it’s just lowering your bit depth slightly, as I mentioned in my video.

      His second point that using the Technicolor LUT to bring the colors back hurts dynamic range is (almost) correct, but that’s only if you decide not to color correct at all (which is obviously a bad idea). That’s not a problem with Cinestyle itself – that’s just a problem with the user handling it badly in post.

      You are certainly not “losing two stops” by using Cinestyle. You’re losing a little bit of bit depth, and that’s all.

  4. Hey, this is a very interesting video. The method of overexposing a bit and darken in post seems to work also on a GH2 well. My question is, if it is possible to use a circular Polarizer attached to a variable ND filter ( which is built out of two polarizers)? Or do i have to expect some problems?
    Thanks for the great video

    1. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to combine a polarizer with a variable ND filter, because as you say, the vari ND uses polarizers.

      If, however, you use traditional fixed NDs (which I was doing on the Portrait of Macerata video), you can stack them with a polarizer just fine. Fixed NDs are actually fairly cheap. MUCH cheaper than vari NDs, anyway.

  5. Hi, thanks for the info.
    I’ve been shooting with T2i and T3i for a couple of years now, so there was little new info for me here, but for people just starting out this is a great article.
    I’d like to add one picture style that I find way better and delivering nicer results than Technicolor or Marvel.
    Visioncolor has 2 profiles (VisionColor and VisionTech) that are essential for anyone shooting with Canons.
    I’m not affiliated with them, here’s their website :
    I strongly suggest anyone shooting with a Canon DSLR to try these, you probably won’t go back to anything else.

    They also explain why the quest for shooting as flat as possible isn’t the wisest route to follow with these cameras :

    1. I testet it. What the wrote on the site is wrong.
      They say that every “flat” profile is bad because of the dynmaic range, and its h364 and not RAW.
      So “flat” picture style is bad… because you will allways lose information in post.
      But… look at the Tests from David. Look at the Shadows. A flat picture style is allways better.
      No matter if you shoot h264 or RAW.
      (sorry for my bad english).
      I know a lot of fans of “cinestyle” and there are also hater.
      But every critic against cinesytle turns out as false.
      But: Everone should do tests by their own. get many profiles, shoot dark scenes, change profiles, do tests.

  6. Thanks David, this was very helpful, looking forward to part 3!
    One question; if you use the polaroid filter, do you use it in combination with a variable ND-filter or a fixed ND or no ND?
    Because if I use the polaroid combined with a variable ND (don’t have fixed ND’s) sometimes I get not so very nice color shifts.

    1. Yes, unfortunately you run into problems combining vari NDs with a polarizer, so if I need to use both, I use a fixed ND, and that generally works just fine.

  7. I found your information on H264 fascinating. I wonder how similarly AVCHD behaves. I also found your tips about increasing dynamic range to be very useful. Mask the highlight with some foreground elements – brilliant – I wished I’d thought of that. Gerry from Calgary

  8. Hi,

    I am making a film which will include hundreds of AE project file renders. Due to the large number of AE renders that will go into the master Premiere Pro project file, I am avoiding using Dynamic Link.

    Using AE CC on a WIN/7 PC, what intermediate render file format would you suggest for output in AE and import into PP?


    1. In that kind of situation (when a significant amount of work in AE is needed) I generally do the edit in Premiere to get all of the timing of my cuts correct, and then I just move the entire project into AE. That way I can just render once out of AE with all of the effects work done. I’ll mention this workflow in the next video.

      If you’re going to use an intermediate file format, it honestly depends on how much space/time/CPU you have. If you are able, go with a losslessly-compressed codec like the Animation codec. But of course that may not be feasible if you’re exporting a large amount of video and don’t have a lot of storage space.

      In that case, I personally usually use Quicktime with photo-jpeg compression on a PC, set very high (like around 95-100%). That keeps the file size much lower but still gives you very good quality. I’m not an expert on all of the different types of codecs, but that’s what I generally do.

      1. Coincidentally,, I began this project using the animation codec (set at 75% quality) as you mentioned. This goes back to my days as an animator, when that was my standard render formula.

        But as you also pointed out this results in huge files … I was getting 3 and 4gb files for some of the longer AE renders.

        So I then switched to .mov files with H.264 compression. 1st generation renders from AE look OK, but am afraid they will not hold up well as the project renders out from Premiere.

        I have used Photo JPEG’s in the distant past as well, and they are quite efficient.

        I will give that a try as you suggest, as I am guessing they will hold up much better than what I am currently doing.

        Thank you.

        1. Yeah, give the photo JPEG format a shot. I would definitely NOT recommend h.264 as an intermediate codec. As I mentioned in my video, it’s designed as a delivery codec and won’t stand up to much color-correction. It’s also tricky to edit with because it uses a lot of processing power to decode. It’ll be stealing resources from your editor (which could otherwise be used to render FX and color-correction). Another one of the reasons why I use the photo-JPEG is because it doesn’t take much processing power to decode.

  9. David, thank you so much for all this invaluable information! So inspiring and can’t believe it was all shot on the iPhone! A few questions, is the highlight clipping indicator a feature of Magic Lantern? Secondly do you use a variable ND filter at the same time as the polarise filter, or does it cause issues? Lastly would you always go for the higher end variable ND/polariser filters or are the cheaper ones sufficient? Suggested brands? Thanks very much again, much appreciated.

    1. Hello Joe, yes the highlight clipping indicator is a Magic Lantern feature. The video on Magic Lantern should be coming out within the week, and I’ll be talking all about that.

      No, unfortunately you can’t use a vari ND with a polarizer, but you can use a fixed ND with a polarizer (as I did on the Portrait of Macerata video).

      As far as fixed ND filters go (which are much simpler and easier to make), I’m happy to buy the cheap ones. As I mentioned in the first video, I was using a Tiffen .9 ND filter that comes in at $12.50, and I was perfectly happy with the performance. It’s not (quite) as sharp as a higher-end filter, so I wouldn’t use it on a paid photography gig (because I’m shooting stills that are many times as large as HD video). But if you’re shooting video, you’ll never see the difference because it’s down-res-ed so much anyway.

      For vari NDs, it really depends on the brand. Some of the lower-end ones can give nasty color-shifts or be really uneven across the frame. Obviously you don’t want your vari ND giving you darker and lighter spots across the frame. I use a LightCraft and am happy with it for video, but again I wouldn’t use it for photography. I generally used fixed NDs for photography.

      1. Great stuff, thanks for that David. I think I’ll go the fixed ND route and get step up rings. Is there a recommended max thread size for the ND filter or is it all down to personal preference depending on the lenses you have? Keep up the awesome work 😉

  10. Hi David.

    Thanks a lot for your clear explanations but I have one question.
    What is the big diference between color space 4:2:0 and 4:1:1?
    I know that DSLR’s don’t shoot in 4:1:1, but I would apretiate some lights on this.

  11. Very useful videos, well worth taking the time to watch, even if you think you know about shooting HDSLR video. My question would be about grading:

    Given that with David’s technique, you would always expose far brighter for some scenes, your final edit will have scenes with varying exposure. How do you achieve a consistent look when grading the final output?

    Looking forward to the next installment. Neill W

    1. Yes Neill, it’s true that exposures can vary a lot when you’re shooting this way, and so you should definitely plan to be color-correcting the footage afterward. I’ll cover this in the post-production video.
      I generally do all of my editing first with extremely quick adjustments to different clips, lock my edit, and then go back with more care to do real color-correction.

      For this piece, I broke it up into sections and color-corrected different shots to match one another within that section.
      But again, more detail in part 4.

  12. Hi David, thanx a lot for your interesting information. I will try all with my equip asap.

    One question: in documentary work are situations, where you haven’t got much time for additional settings or adjustments, but where surrounding situation can very heavily in respect of parameters like light etc. Nevertheless I have seen some very cinematc docs. Do you have tips and hints, how to master these situations ?

    Cheers Rolf

    1. Hey Rolf,

      Those situations definitely are challenging, because you just have less time to plan, and you have to be really flexible as the situation changes outside of your control. But just about all of the principles that I’ve talked about will still apply to those situations – you just usually have less time to work things out. Training yourself to think along these lines (thinking about moire, thinking about rescuing highlights, etc) in your spare time will help you jump to solutions more quickly when you’re in a high-pressure situation and might only have 2 minutes to grab the right shot.

      If you’re shooting an interview in a doco, then you’re probably going focus more on whether the subject is exposed then whether the overall image is balanced, since your subject is by far the most important part of the frame.

  13. Thanks so much David. We’ve actually been wanting to reduce the amount of gear we drag around to our jobs (mostly weddings). It’s great to know that this can be done. It’s scary to thing about shooting with less gear, bnut I think the time and energy saved will benefit us and our clients.
    BTW, I’d also like to see that motorized slider.

  14. Hi David, i posted a comment earlier in the part 3 of the series, but it didn’t get posted and i got no reply, maybe i did something wrong, so i try to place the comment again in this section. Hope it works now.
    Greetz, Patrick

    Dear David,

    Thank you very much for your series. I am about to make a small documentary in Italy myself. I was actually looking for a new camera to replace my 550d to use for this job. Then i say you’re first blog on Philip Bloom’s site and the portrait of Macerata. At first i was blown away by the quality of your portret, wow!!!
    The timing couldn’t have been better, and the coincidence that you also shot in Italy. It felt like a sign to me which said:”keep you’re 550d and go out and shoot” like you showed. To my wife i speak of you as my Hero! Thank you so much David for sharing.
    I wish you were living in my neighbourhood because i got so many questions.
    A thing i still don’t quite understand is the use of the polarized filter. When filming outside i have problems with how to setup my camera without blowing out the highlights in the sky. I use a fader ND filter, but that doesn’t always solve the problem. When i darken the sky i also darken my subject that i want to film. I find it difficult to find the right balance. Does a polarized filter solve that problem?
    Another question, did you ask for permission to film the city of Macerata?
    Looking forward to the following parts. But i understand fully that it takes time to make these instruction video’s. Kind regards.


    1. I apologize for that – your first comment just slipped through the system. I’ve published that one, and I’ll respond to it on the other page.

  15. Hi David

    These are by far the most informative, articulate, comprehensive yet accesible tutorials I’ve seen on using and understanding DSLRs.
    I love the analogies and explanations for bit rates and codecs which I have never really understood but now feel I have a basic grasp of.
    Thanks so much for the time and effort you’ve put into sharing them.

  16. Hey David

    Very informative and a great stinger at the end!

    Would never have dreamt of deliberate overexposure as you say entirely counterintuitive. Will give it a go today. Alas I’m still on baby steps with PP and AE so your next tutorial is going to offer even more essential help.

    I use a 7D and 5D III. The 5D has the latest firmware so is not ML compatible. Is there an easy way to use your techniques on a canon without ML?

    Finally you make a great talking head, very comfortable in front of camera and easy to listen to. (As an obscure aside I really felt like you were channeling Jay Sankey when he’s in informative serious mode. Quite irrelevant and you don’t need to know who the guy is.. but its meant as a big compliment)

    1. Thanks! And yes, most of my techniques are completely relevant even without Magic Lantern.

      That’s funny that you say that, because I’m a magician as well and have some of Sankey’s books and videos.

      – David

  17. Nice informative video. After two years of shooting with my DSLR I know exactly of its limitations but I had a couple of questions. I don’t have magic lantern on my Canon 60D but I was thinking about buying Ninja Atomos2. Will the output of the 60d still give me a compressed signal? And will more ninja2 decrease the moire effect and increase bit depth?

    I’m debating whether I should ditch DSLR for an actual video camera like panasonic af100 or sony FS100 but I have invested so much in DSLR that I want to make it work. I also love how convenient it is to shoot with dslrs.


    1. I don’t have any personal experience with the Ninja 2 with the 60D, but from what I’ve heard, the clean HDMI on the 60D with ML is a little finicky. It won’t output quite full 1080p (only 1620 by 1080), so you’d have to scale it back up again.

      Yes, it will give you an uncompressed signal (you won’t have the h.264 compression), but it will not help with moire or bit depth.

      Here are a couple links that can give you some more information:

      Given all of those downsides, if you’re not happy with the image quality of the 60D (compression, bit depth, moire, etc) then I would recommend buying a video camera (or high-end DSLR) like you mentioned instead of trying to hook up an external recorder.

      1. Interesting but yeah I’m at the point where I want to step up the quality. Do you think sony or panasonic are going to come with any new video cameras? Because the af100 and sony fs100 are a few years old now so I’m debating whether I should wait or not. (Also between the two, which one would you choose? I really like the af100 but it has a smaler image sensor than fs100)

        Lastly, in the video you mention you rather be overexposed than under. From what I learned it’s better to be underexposed because once you’re OE than you’ve lost detail. Wouldn’t you agree?


          1. Thanks! After watching the boxer’s portrait I think I’m set for the fs100 🙂 It looks so good!

            This website is amazing by the way. Great reviews!

            Promise this is the last question. I just got a glidecam hd4000, u think the fs100 is too much of a burden for it?

        1. Yeah, as Philip said, I’d go for the fs100 over the af100 if you’re deciding between the two.

          As I mentioned in the video, I overexpose ONLY if I’m not clipping my highlights. If you’re not clipping any channel, then you’re not losing any detail, so there’s no downside to that technique.

          1. I see but thanks for the video again, I now understand the whole 4:4:4 business lol…However, I coudnt find ur video on magic lantern. I would like to see that as well.

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