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The Curse of Digital Video

The Curse of Digital Video

Despite the popularity of small-format DV and its technological advances, some still feel it is cursed by harsh, brassy images. Filters can soften the hard edges, but there are so many choices. So which filters and cameras
work best together?

By Barry Braverman

Do you need convincing? The images from your small-format DV camera look harsh and brassy, like video run amuck. For professional shooters who are working with prosumer DV cameras more and more, it's a curse that poses a significant challenge. Specifically, how can we as discerning craftsmen regain control of our images and produce results that are pleasing, tasteful, and more reflective of our professional sensibilities?

When it comes to the look of small-format DV, I share your desperation. You know you need something to soften the format's painfully hard edge. But with so many filters to choose from, it's tough to know where to begin.

As shooters in this brave new digital world, we with our modest DV cameras are increasingly being asked to perform the role of a high-end shooter with state-of-the-art equipment. Obviously we need a calculated filter strategy beyond the pointless UV filter commonly fitted to many DV cameras as a kind of see-through lens cap.

But hey, not all DV cameras respond similarly to a given filter treatment. Depending on the size of a camera's chipset and the characteristics of its digital signal processor, what works well on one model may work poorly on another. In many cases, the camera manufacturers have made cost-saving compromises and assumptions that are contrary to the creative shooter's instincts. That's the point of this article - to evaluate a range of filter options for several popular DV cameras.

With the assistance of Tiffen, I recently evaluated four small-format DV models in the $2,500 to $5,000 price range: the Sony DSR-PD100A, the Panasonic AJ-D215, the JVC DV500, and the Canon XL1. All of these cameras are capable of producing excellent images indistinguishable in many cases from their broadcast brethren. The trick is exercising the necessary craft, which more often than not means choosing the right filter for the camera.

As many film veterans already have discovered, the preferred filter schemes from years ago do not translate well to small-format DV. The 1/4 or 1/2 Black Pro Mist that served us so reliably in the past often produces a much cruder effect now. In some DV models, the camera's digital signal processor (DSP) responds unfavorably with increased noise and/or mysterious color shifts.

Thus, the search is on for the ideal filter solution that can make prosumer DV look truly professional. Needless to say, this can be a frustrating and expensive exercise to the craft-conscious shooter. After all, who has the time or wherewithal to evaluate hundreds of diffusion choices? In the Tiffen line alone, there's the Pro Mist, the BlackPro Mist, Soft FX, Black Diffusion FX, Fogs, Double Fogs, and Softnets, in addition to the wide range of contrast filters.

The Compromises of DV

So you're spending $5,000 on a DV camera. It may be miniDV, DVCAM, or DVCPRO with impressive specifications - high resolution up to 800 lines, a 16X zoom, low-light capability less than one lux, and the list goes on. But at $5,000 or less, there is something you're not getting - a top-end lens.

To the novice shooter at first glance, the lenses found on the XL-1, DV500, and similar models do an adequate job. They're easy to use, relatively fast, and pretty versatile. Unfortunately upon closer scrutiny, we find these optics woefully lacking in critical sharpness and contrast - serious deficiencies that must be compensated for electronically.

For example, to compensate for poor resolution camera designers often will resort to such underhanded tricks as simply cranking up the electronic detail, a tactic that places a plastic edge around anything the camera senses should be in focus.

Softening the effect using the popular Black Pro Mist often doesn't help; some cameras' DSPs think the lens is merely dirty and crank up the detail even more, resulting paradoxically in a more electronic-looking image.

In the same vein, some auto-focus models have the nasty habit of focusing on the filter itself, specifically on the micro droplets in the Black Pro Mist or image elements embedded in the Black Diffusion FX or Softnet.

Of course, you could spend $20,000 on a true broadcast lens, assuming your camera will accept interchangeable lenses in the first place. But this is hardly a reasonable or economical solution. Rather, experienced shooters have to understand the optical limitations of their cameras, and accept the inherent compromises related to focus, contrast, and speed, especially at longer focal lengths and when shooting exteriors at tiny apertures.

While no filter can compensate for a grossly inferior lens, the clever use of filters can improve image quality substantially. Becoming familiar with the unique characteristics of your camera can also help. Shooters working with Panasonic's AJ-D215, for example, should consider de rigeur a warming filter like the Tiffen 812 to help skin tones. On the other hand, Sony DSR-PD100A shooters would probably want to forego the warming filter because of the camera's tendency to reproduce pleasing flesh tones naturally.

When shooting DV outdoors at midday, I usually recommend shooting with at least a 0.6 or 0.9 neutral density filter (in addition to the built-in ND), as well as some sort of contrast control and/or diffusion to soften the hard shadows. As many of us have discovered, DV can look horrific in bright daylight because of its tiny chipset, primitive DSP, and less-than-ideal optics.

So beware. Shooting DV without at least some filtration can be perilous to your images and your career - not to mention those you love.

The DV Emulsion Test

One normally doesn't think of performing an emulsion test when evaluating video cameras and filters, but that's exactly what I did. In the film world, it has long been a common practice for shooters to test the responsiveness of a new stock prior to beginning a project. The purpose is to evaluate the degree of detail that can be reproduced in the shadow areas of your subject. By varying the fill light in conjunction with the camera's f-stop, the shooter could gain valuable insight into the limitations of the capturing medium.

Shooting small-format DV today requires a similar understanding of your camera's responsiveness to shadow detail. In my evaluations of nearly 100 diffusion filters, I tried to gauge the relative responsiveness and apply a subjective judgment. What looked best? Which filter gave me the most pleasing, textured, professional look on each camera? Before we get to that, you should understand that we're not talking strict science here. I am simply offering my opinion of what seems to work well based on my 20 years of camera experience. It is up to you in your own assignments and applications to fine-tune my recommendations, perhaps by adding or subtracting one grade of density in keeping with your own tastes and innate sense of craft.

My evaluations covered the range of Tiffen's prodigious filter line: from Pro Mist and Black Pro Mist to Soft FX, Black Diffusion FX, and Softnet filters in various grades, including the many warm configurations. My conclusion is that the ideal diffusion filter for your DV camera may not exist yet. Nevertheless, here are my recommendations:

Canon XL1

Undoubtedly one of the most popular DV cameras in the world, my test XL1 model came equipped with a 16X auto-focus lens and an image in desperate need of a professional makeover. Featuring the harshest image of any camera I tested, the XL1's visual quality may only be described as "grating with a strong curse."

Videomaker Susan di Rende of Los Angeles says the look is reminiscent of a "poorly played brass instrument. Hyper-reality at its worst," she adds, even as she continues to use the camera precisely for its hyper-real look.

Di Rende's preferences notwithstanding, I was able to dramatically improve the XL1's performance. While the old standby 1/2 Black Pro Mist proved to be of little help, producing a murky and confused image (even at a 1/4 and 1/8 grades), the camera responded well to Tiffen's new 1/2 Black Diffusion FX filter. The resultant image is tasteful and sharp; the diffused look not at all obvious or brassy. What a difference!

The Soft FX offers another excellent solution for XL1 owners, although this filter, even in the minimum 1/2 grade, may be a bit heavy for nonfiction applications. The principal difference between the Black Diffusion FX and Soft FX is the degree of apparent diffusion. The Soft FX produces a noticeably diffused look while the Black Diffusion FX maintains absolute sharpness along with the diffusion. Incredible!

One world of caution however if you're considering the Black Diffusion FX for your XL-1 (or other small-format DV camera). Like any similar filter (or net) with large image elements or engravings, the BDFX should NOT be used with your lens at full-wide position and stopped down beyond F4. In other words when shooting exteriors, you MUST maintain an F4 or larger iris setting to prevent the filter element pattern from appearing on the screen.

Sony DSR-PD100A
Unlike the XL1, the Sony model is kinder from the outset, reproducing excellent skin tones and generally pleasing results - even without filtration. On the other hand, shooting stopped-down in bright light (never recommended) or at full telephoto (sometimes necessary) seriously impacts the Sony's performance.

Interestingly, I found the 1/2 Black Diffusion FX less helpful on the PD100A than on the other cameras in this class. This may be because of the camera's tiny 1/4-inch chipset or the relatively small front diameter of the primary lens (not the wide-angle adapter), which decreases the effect of certain filters, such as the Black Diffusion FX, that contain prominent image elements.

Whatever the case, the 1/2 grade is too strong in my opinion for most users of the PD100A. The recent introduction of the 1/4 grade Black Diffusion FX is a godsend to small-format DV shooters in general, and PD100A owners in particular. For general exterior use, I recommend my old standby - the 1/8 Black Pro Mist - to reduce noise and add a very slight diffusion effect. The gains aren't enormous but they are noticeable and definitely worth the effort.

From a practical point of view, the use of the Black Pro Mist outdoors eliminates the risk of seeing the engraved pattern in the BDFX or Softnet on screen - a distinct advantage for 'run-and-gun'-type projects.

Panasonic AJ-D215

Head and shoulders above the other models in this group in terms of image sharpness and contrast, the Panasonic AJ-D215 produces a true professional image from the get-go. Equipped with a 1/3-inch chipset and a detachable10X Fujinon zoom lens, the camera produces cool and crisp images that are not nearly as grating as the Canon XL-1 or JVC DV500.

Nevertheless, like the Canon, I found the Panasonic benefitted substantially from the 1/2 Black Diffusion FX, producing exceptional results, especially when combined with Tiffen's 812 warming filter. Please note that Tiffen has recently introduced a "warm" version of the BDFX , thus obviating the need to stack the additional 812.

The Panasonic D215 appeared to respond very well to another Tiffen favorite, the Softnet 1B. The industrial-grade Fujinon T17X5BRM4 f/1.4 fitted to the Panasonic camera may have a lot to do with it, but if you're shooting dramatic programs with the D215, the Softnet 1B or 1S used to enhance skin tones are excellent diffusion options.

And just to be completely clear on this point, you MUST exercise care with any filter with pronounced image elements to prevent the pattern from appearing onscreen. When shooting with the BDFX or front-mounted net especially, always operate as close to wide-open as possible and take care to avoid light directly striking the filter.


Based on technical specifications alone, this is a lot of camera for the money. With a 3CCD, 1/2-inch chipset, 800 lines of resolution, and a 14-bit digital signal processor, you'd expect the JVC to respond well to most professional filtration schemes. And luckily it does.

Unique in its class, the DV500 offers trues manual tweaking under the hood for those with a substantial engineering background. Without this tweaking however, I found the unfiltered image out of the DV500 to be almost as harsh as the Canon XL-1. This is despite the better-than-average Canon 18X lens (model YH18X6.7K12U) fitted to my evaluation camera by JVC. Compared to the mediocre lens initially provided with the unit, the Canon produces far better images with substantially less breathing and ramping at extended focal lengths.

In my evaluations, the JVC performed very nicely with a #2 Black Diffusion FX - a filter that DV500 camera owners ought to consider as the standard for dramatic presentations. The #1 Warm Soft FX performed almost as well with a nice diffused look without the obvious "I'm-using-a-filter-now" curse. The Warm Soft FX provides the additional benefit of enhanced skin tones - a substantial improvement over the camera's generally cool presentation.

Notably, the Warm Soft FX, designed without the pronounced image elements of the Black Diffusion FX, may be used for exteriors without fear of seeing the engraving pattern at smaller apertures.

Unlike the Canon XL-1 and Sony DSR-PD100A, the DV500 - perhaps owing to its larger chipset - responded satisfactorily to the 1/2 Black Pro Mist, yielding a slightly diffused look suitable for corporate and general use. The warm version of the Pro Mist has traditionally been an excellent choice for corporate interviews and continues to be on the DV500.

For a more sophisticated look on nonfiction programs, shooters can opt for the Black Diffusion FX in a weaker 1/2 grade, which looked every bit as pleasing on the JVC as it did on the other cameras in this evaluation. For industrial applications, however, sometimes less is more. So both options may be worth trying.

The DV500 benefits considerably from a warming filter - either as a standalone 812 or combined with the Warm Pro Mist, Warm Soft FX, or in the new (just released) warm version of the Black Diffusion FX.

By any measure, the Black Diffusion FX is as close as one can imagine to the ideal small-format DV filter. Amazing as it seems, the Black Diffusion FX not only reduces the format's inherent harshness by imparting a subtle and tastefully diffused look, it does so while still maintaining absolute image sharpness. This is a huge advantage to DV shooters nobly struggling with less-than-ideal optics, DSPs, and all of the other consequences of not having spent $50,000 on a camera package.

Two years ago when Tiffen introduced the Black Diffusion FX, it was hailed as a new kind of filter that cleverly retained the diffusion properties of the Soft FX without the accompanying loss of sharpness. Now with small-format DV cameras increasingly being used in fully professional productions, the huge advantage of such a filter is obvious, especially when shooting interiors and when aperture control is possible under bright conditions outdoors

For More Filter Information
B+W Schneider
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The Filter Connection

Of course there still are many applications for which the Black Pro Mist and Warm Pro Mist serve adequately. The 1/8 grade, for example, works very well in videos intended for the Web. The slight diffusion offered helps reduce digital noise and harshness without creating resolution problems that may come back to haunt you later. The warm version further serves to enhance skin tones - another plus.

Obviously, there are many filter strategies possible for a given application or project. As shooters, we are expected to consistently provide high-quality images, regardless of the format or level of equipment we happen to be working with.

Creating images consistent with a show's mood and texture is the goal of every cameraperson. With the advent of ingenious filters, such as Tiffen's Black Diffusion FX, shooters with even the lowest-rung DV camera can produce images that rival the finest broadcast gear. So, shooters, you no longer need to fear the DV hex. With help from the correct filter, the curse of digital video can be overcome at last.

Barry Braverman is a veteran director of photography based in Los Angeles with more than 18 years of experience as a nonfiction specialist. He can be reached at

This article was originally published on and is reprinted here with permission

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