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RED EPIC Monochrome vs. RED EPIC: a Jaw-Dropping Black and White Comparison

11.8.12 @ 6:57PM Tags : , , , ,

Ever since we first talked about RED’s new black and white only EPIC Monochrome cameras, and then even showed footage, many have still been unsure why a product like this exists in the first place. Why not just take the RAW image from the EPIC and convert to black and white? Shouldn’t that give the same quality? After all, you’re already starting from a set of RAW images that simply contain metadata. Well, the answer is a definitive no, and a comparison between the Monochrome and non-Monochrome versions of the camera will show you exactly what’s going on, and why this is probably the sharpest and cleanest black and white moving image you’ve ever seen.

First, it will probably help to explain how most CMOS sensors are designed. All traditional CMOS sensors are monochrome, believe it or not. To get a color image, they have color filters over each pixel arraigned in a particular grid called a Bayer patten. Here is what that looks like:

As you can see, in this pattern, there are holes in the information. Since each pixel does not have a red, green, and blue color value attributed to it, it must be interpolated from pixels near it in order to find the missing colors. This is one of the reasons people talk about a camera losing resolution after “debayering” in post, which means that an interpolation method is used to fill in the missing information, and it also means the original resolution — 2K, 3K, 4K, 5K — will never be able to resolve that amount of detail. This is why if you really want to resolve a certain amount of resolution, you must oversample — meaning with a single CMOS camera you start with a far higher resolution than you need for the final product.

So with that out of the way, what happens if we take off the color filters? It means we no longer have to interpolate any information. Since we’re starting in monochrome, and staying that way, each pixel is represented 1:1 in the final recorded media. This means not only higher resolution, but also finer tonality within the image. Still don’t believe me? John Marchant posted on REDUser about some sample images he took with both a regular EPIC converted to black and white in post and an EPIC Monochrome camera. Both were set to ISO 2000 (which is the native ISO for the EPIC Monochrome since the color filters are removed and thus sensitivity is improved). Here are the testing procedures for the 100% and 200% crops below:

All material was shot at the Monochrome’s default meta settings, ISO2000. The Epic-X was also at its default settings except for a 0% saturation look, and an ISO bump to 2000

Matching lenses, f-stops, compression etc were used, and zero sharpening or similar was added. The crops you see are at 100% or 200% nearest neighbour, having been rendered as TIFFs from RCX and passed through Ps CS6 for cropping.

You’ll see for yourselves that at matching settings the Monochrome comes up a touch brighter, has far prettier compression and noise characteristics, and benefits greatly in sharpness too.

I believe there are crisper results still to be had – we only tested on a mix of cheap and available glass: original RED 18-50, Canon 24-70L, Nikon 85mm Ai-S.

There’s also a big fat .psd file of a full 5k frame, with three layers – 800 ISO untouched EPIC-X frame, the same at ISO2000 in mono, and the Monochrome frame. You’ll just have to bear my ugly mug in the centre of frame, so apologies in advance for the lack of pretty girls / awesome stuff in the shots.

If you haven’t already seen the video shot that we posted earlier with the Monochrome, head on over and check it out. Jim Jannard also posted a sample image and video from a recent shoot. Click on the image below for full size (which is compressed and downsampled), or click here for the highly compressed web video showing some motion with the camera.

Black and white might not be as popular anymore, but with a 5K camera capable of a native 2000 ISO that is virtually noise-free, there are many situations where I could see people using it. When the Dragon sensor upgrade is released, there will also be a monochrome version of that sensor, and if low-light performance is improved by a factor of 2.5 on the black and white version (just like the current version), it means the Dragon Monochrome camera would have a native 5000 ISO. Black and white or not, 6K at a clean 5000 ISO would render moving images unlike any that anyone has ever seen before. (Keep in mind we won’t know the final sensitivity of the monochrome version until the sensor is ready for prime time.)

While prices for this version did come down, it’s still relatively expensive to buy at $20,000 for the brain, especially for a camera that is only capable of black and white images. That means it’s definitely going to be more of a rental for most. I can see this camera being used extensively in the fashion industry, but personally I am really interested in seeing what the new Dragon Monochrome might mean for an available-light shoot at 6K in black and white.

If you want to check out the photoshop file of the above samples from John, head on over to the website or use the link below.

What do you guys think now after having seen some samples? Is this a camera you might consider renting at some point? What about purchasing one?


[Bayer pattern image courtesy Wikipedia]


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Description image 53 COMMENTS

  • Andreas Kopriva on 11.8.12 @ 7:07PM

    If I already had an Epic and had an additional $20k then I’d get it in a heartbeat :)

  • Well, once you go black you won’t go… haha ya I like this. I think going simpler and seeing the clarity and tonality increase will push technology to bring this to full color. Surely interpolation has a shelf life right?

  • I would effing love to see a resurgence of film noir, all the result of a camera’s capabilities!

  • The only downside is that you wouldn’t be able to shoot green screen with this (unless you love rotoscoping </3), you'd only be able to shoot plates.

  • WOW. The future looks bright

  • Would it be possible to switch sensors from color to B&W while keeping the same body, or am I being incredibly naive?

    I’d love to shoot more in B&W. I grew up with my dad shooting black and white large format photography and I’ve always had a special affinity for it.

    • Joe Marine on 11.8.12 @ 8:12PM

      It’s a significant undertaking internally so that’s why they created a separate camera body. I guess theoretically they could do it, but it would probably be extremely costly.

      • The Medusa 3D camera has interchangeable sensors. They claim it’s easy.

        • Joe Marine on 11.9.12 @ 4:28AM

          I mean EPIC/SCARLET aren’t designed to be interchangeable very easily. Originally RED was going to make you get a whole new brain with each new sensor, but they’ve decided to do it a bit differently. Yes you can do it that way, all I was saying is that these cameras weren’t designed that way. I’m sure they can do it, but it would cost you.

  • Wow, pretty incredible difference. Thanks for posting, and the explanation, Joe.

  • marklondon on 11.8.12 @ 9:31PM

    This camera so gives me the horn. I drool every time I see footage or stills from it.
    If I were Jim I’d send one each to David Lynch and Tim Burton as a gift in case it inspires them to return to their (good) roots.
    (yes I know Fincher is already shooting with it, as is Mark Romanek.).

  • Toooo much detail. They need a model with real nails… otherwise lovin the looks of this.

  • Whoa.

  • I’d like to see a side by side comparison of cameras of the past 15 yrs: VHS, SD, HD, etc…

  • Just blown away at how pristine the footage from this camera is. Also, Joe, thanks for the awesome explanation as to why this camera is able to vastly exceed the quality of the color footage from a standard Epic. This is the first time that I’ve really understood the differences.

  • Monochrome scarlet would be good too…

  • Would someone mind explaining or providing a link to how the dynamic range of a sensor is affected when shot at a lower iso than it’s native iso? I am curious if this has any negative impact on the image quality.


      “Because ISO 320 is actually ISO 400 pulled 1/3 of a stop, that means that the highlights are going to clip at exactly the same point as they would at ISO 400. The 1/3 stop pull is just making that point 1/3 stop darker than pure white. The entire image at ISO 320 is 1/3 stop darker (and may be less noisy) than the image at ISO 400, so the blacks lose detail 1/3 stop sooner, but you don’t get that 1/3 stop back at the highlight end of the range — it’s still gone. Therefore, at ISO 320 you’re losing a net 1/3 stop from the total usable dynamic range that you would have if you were shooting at ISO 400.”

      • john smith on 11.9.12 @ 9:49AM

        I know that applies to Canon DSLR’s, but what about other cameras with a base ISO of 800 or higher? Does shooting at say 200 ISO reduce the dynamic range or just shift it towards the darker end?

      • Canon cameras use a combination of analog and digital gain which results in what’s described in your link.

        Red cameras only use digital gain…basically they capture the entire range of the sensor all the time no matter what…the ISO is more of a curve setting which effects where the middle of the curve is. So a high ISO is boosting more of the curve while a low ISO is boosting only the top part of the curve.

        Total dynamic range is never changed on Red cameras. All that changes is where that dynamic range is…how much is in the highlights and how much is in the shadows. If nothing is clipping in either shadows or highlights then you don’t have to worry about it…but if you’ve got some really bright highlights, you may want to expose to a higher ISO…this basically just makes you underexpose the image.

  • Good to see this thing and the monochrome ikonoscope are there – but I didn`t see anything mindblowing…I don`t even see that many rental companies getting these cams, their “life” is short and b/w are way too scarce to even rent it out…

  • This comparision is pretty useless. Who cares what an image of a digital cinema camera looks like at 100% (or god forbid 200% nearest neighbour upsampling)? Most cinemas are happy if they can project digitally in 2k let alone 4k and at typical cinema viewing conditions I doubt even Jim himself could tell the images apart if the brightness would be the same.

    Yes, there are some slight advantages in shooting with a monochrome cam if you want b/w but you also loose the ability to change the brightness distribution over the hue range you get when you convert to b/w in post which can be very useful. Yes you can use red filters in front of the monochrome cam like they did in the old days to make the skin brighter and the sky darker but with a colour cam you can do that in post – kinda like, you know, a raw development thing :)

    The real problem with monochrome images is not the acquisition but the delivery. 8 bit is nice and dandy for most viewing scenarios when there is color involved (you do get 16m different colour values) but once you are doing black and white all you have is 256 levels of brightness and that is clearly insufficient. Monochrome on home equipment always looks terrible and I doubt that most cinema projectors can work in much higher bit depth. Acquisition is not the main problem…

    • The monochrome camera also has a base ISO of 2000, and has increased dynamic range.

      Theaters actually use 10-bit, which is 1024 shades.

      • I’d like to see a digital cinema B/W projection but even at 1024 levels I think the shortfall when compared to b/w film should be quite noticeable.

        Has anyone here seen a b/w film in a cinema?

        • I think 1024 shades is probably enough…keep in mind luminence is always 256 in 8-bit and 1024 in 10-bit whether it’s color or b/w…the extra values in color only change the chroma. So if there’s going to be banding, you’ll see it just as much in a clean 10-bit color projection as you would in a clean 10-bit monochrome projection.

        • SydneyBlue120d on 11.15.12 @ 3:50PM

          I have seen “The Artist” projected with a 2K DLP and it was wonderful.

  • MiguelFranco on 11.9.12 @ 6:04AM

    This whole Bayer filter thing makes me think why hasn’t anyone came out with a Foveon sensor video camera. Someone at Sigma said it has great video abilities (even though none of their cameras offers video), and no moiré. Is there something I don’t know that is not making possible for some company to explore this sensor?

    • Andrey Valentsov on 11.10.12 @ 1:33PM

      Foveon sensors have worser gamut than Bayer-pattern sensors.
      What affects gamut are the purity of that red/green/blue filters which separate light of different color.
      In Foveon sensors this separation is based on light absorption of silicon (different colors penetrate sensor on different length), which is not ideal.

  • this debayering thing is the same with other color camera sensors or only with red?

    • other cams have a bayer array, too.

      heck, I really wonder why we know all this tech-crap. did old school DOPs know how the various layers of kodak 5219 or fuji eterna stocks were composed, how the chemicals reacted to light and stored colors or didn`t they rather judge what the results were? did these individuals have endless debates with their colleagues or didn`t they just worked with the material at hand?

      • Andrey Valentsov on 11.10.12 @ 1:45PM

        They mainly concentrated on their light and composition and storytelling.

        But don’t underestimate the knowledge of all DP’s — they are very educated people, who know “how the various layers of kodak 5219 or fuji eterna stocks are composed, and how the chemicals react to light and store colors”. And much more than that: how different development techniques can help, how under/overexposition can improve you tonal distribution (and when) — all these knowledge in based on deep understanding of film technology. Most film schools today teach students these things.

        I personally have known a great DP who did order a special film stock (and participated in it creation) for the first-in-the-world underwater feature movie, he was shooting in 1961.

      • ” did old school DOPs know how the various layers of kodak 5219 or fuji eterna stocks were composed, how the chemicals reacted to light and stored colors or didn`t they rather judge what the results were?”

        Yes, actually they did! At least every 1st and 2nd assistant camera knew this stuff.

        I always find it funny when people condemn tech-talk and want to point out that they are themselves not really interested in tech stuff because they are artists. But every time I meet a really successful cameraman, or read extended interviews with ASC members, it turns out the world class DPs are not only great artists, but also know a hell of a lot tech stuff about their equipment!

        Not knowing things about your tools doesn’t make you an artist, and the real artist is also interested in how his tools work!

      • Daniel Mimura on 11.19.12 @ 7:26PM

        In my experience, some do and some don’t. That’s the nature if filmmaking. It’s like architecture…it’s an art and a science. There is aesthetics as well as practical and functional considerations…and like architects, cinematographers tend to be versed in both worlds, but some are more oriented in one direction or the other.

  • I wonder if there is room for a 2-sensor camera? A monochrome and bayer chip, similiar to 3-sensor RGB setups. Full native res luma and subsampled chroma.

  • Question. Would a 3 chip cmos senor exhibit the same level of clarity as a sing chip b&w given all other specs were the same?

  • I love that this camera exists and am looking forward to shooting with it some day. Usually not a big RED fan, but this is just awesome. Congrats to RED for putting something like this on the market.

  • Thanks for putting this information out there to a wider audience, and for expanding on it too :)

    The use cases for the monochrome are many and various. We’re discussing a number of projects for ours wih broadcasters, publishers and artists, where its capabilities are critical and unachievable on any other equipment. Think beyond regular shooting of TV and Cinema… :)

  • WOUNKEP N Jules on 11.13.12 @ 2:55PM

    this reminds us that picture is communication, but also much of art,
    and that technical progess must never make us forget some important hostorical realities in our profession

  • Arastoo Givi on 11.18.12 @ 5:30AM

    That,s amazing. New challenge of digital imaging. There is no limitation for lighting in hi frame rate, a new version of nostalgic B&W images, etc. RED started his/her! style and it will be continued by some other companies. Black and white has it,s own mood. I,d like to shoot monochrome, maybe the other time!

  • Daniel Mimura on 11.19.12 @ 7:30PM

    This example is sort of unfair…it has the monochrome version set at its native ISO (2000), while the regular Epic is not at its native ISO (800). Of course the monochrome is going to look better.

    I’m not denying that the Monochrome shoots b/w better or else Red would not have made the camera in the 1st place, I’m just saying that this “test” has a bias (whether they intended it to or not).

    • Daniel, what do you think we’d see if they were both at 800 ISO though? The same noise and texture difference in a darker image is all… If I’d shot the X at 800 and the M at 2000 I’d have needed different exposures, and then people would have said that was ‘unfair’…

      Fact is the monochrome makes better B&W than the X, however you approach it.

  • Fashion film shot on Red Epic Monochrome:

  • Дархан on 03.10.14 @ 5:14AM

    Как купит камеру. Сколько стойт