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Picture Style Editor

When shooting with a Canon DSLR one of the first things you should do is to switch the in-camera Picture Style from “Standard” to “Neutral” and dial down the contrast all the way; this will give you a flatter image that gives you more flexibility with the image in post.

Shooting with the factory-supplied Neutral setting is just the beginning of optimizing your camera for filmmaking. The next step is to put to use the Picture Style Editor software, which is one of the most important features for Canon DSLR cinematographers (Nikon users have a similar software, the Picture Control Utility). The software allows you to make a wide range of adjustments to your camera’s “look” — color response, gamma curve, etc. — sort of like giving you a choice of film stocks. It’s a bit user-unfriendly, but it affords you the ability to implement a pesudo-RAW workflow (it’s not a true RAW image ala the RED camera, wherein one can losslessly manipulate the camera’s white balance, brightness, contrast, etc. after the fact), and used wisely, you can get a nice, flat, gradable image out of a camera that ships with woefully pumped contrast and crushed blacks. The fact is, many guerilla cinematographers were happy to have Cinegamma and other custom knee settings when they made their low-end debut on the venerable DVX-100 in 2002, but most of us wouldn’t have guessed that gamma curves and color matrices would ever be user-editable on a $2,000, mass-market camera. But it just so happens that Canon’s software for customizing photo styles also works in movie mode, and thus another feature from six-figure cameras has made its way down to four-figure DSLRs.

Here’s a great video tutorial, with example shots, of the benefits of using the Picture Style Editor:

Many users would just download the freely available Marvels, Superflat, or Extraflat picture styles; across the board, they give you a flatter image than the default shipping preset. However, every individual camera is different, and one user designing an optimized setting for their own camera does not mean that same setting will be optimal for yours. Using preset custom picture styles is becoming more controversial, with many shooters (myself included) noticing some drawbacks to using over-flattened picture styles. While you often gain perceived latitude and shadow detail by using custom styles, you can also lose detail and introduce more noise and banding thanks to the h.264 compression algorithm. I’ve noticed these artifacts in post-production with footage shot with the Marvels and Superflat styles, and am currently creating my own subtle flat look tailored for the unique characteristics of my particular 5D. Shane has a great tutorial on setting up your own Picture Style, by optimizing the white balance and tonal curve of your particular camera (also handy for matching mutiple DSLRs to each other). Users have also created Picture Styles emulating specific film stocks, as posted by sumitagarwal, but most of these are probably too extreme for shooting under normal conditions (the h.264 compression algorithm breaks down pretty easily when pushed). If you’re willing to put in the work, it’s definitely worth it to create your own Picture Style; don’t assume that someone else’s testing with their camera will yield the same results for yours. If you’re just looking to shoot out of the box as quickly as possible, I’d use Neutral and turn down the Contrast all the way, and worry about custom Picture Styles later.