My goal was to find the best settings for my Sony A7II to shoot on. Through a lot of personal trial and error and tests, I believe I have information that may be helpful to consider before your next shoot. To skip right to the settings scroll below. Read on if you’d like to see the technical process of how I got to my best settings. There are a lot of different camera models so use this as a template and do your own tests at home to see what works best for you. This is for people who want to get the most out of their camera and as a checklist for current filmmakers. What may work for me may not work for you. Start with your end goal in mind first. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!
Bit Depth: XAVC S
Frame Rate: 24p
Shutter Speed: 1/45
Color Space: sRGB
Picture Profile: Cine4
White Balance: Custom
Customized Cine4 Profile:
Thanks to Cody Blue for these settings, they have worked great, and I have set them on PP4 to easily remember I am on the right one.
Black Level = +2
Gamma = Cine4
Black Gamma = (Range = Wide, Level = +4)
Knee = (Mode = Manual, Manual Set = (Point = 80%, Slope = +2))
Color Mode = Pro
Saturation = -5
Color Phase = 0
Color Depth = (R = +3, G = +1, B = -1, C = -4, M = -4, Y = +3)
Detail = (4K = -6, 1080p = 0)
Since I’m a Commercial Director, it’s necessary to shoot with the highest bit depth to deliver to clients, AVCHD has a capped bit depth and therefore I went with XAVC S for it’s superior quality despite having larger file sizes. I picked 24p frame rate because I will film a majority of my work with an intended delivery at normal speed as opposed to slowing it down in post. For shots I know will be slow-mo I will shoot 60p and if one has the luxury of time like John Wayne, then do both. This is the number of frames captured in a second which is different than shutter speed because that’s the speed at which it’s opened. 1/500 is much faster than 1/30 and will also give it a different look when it comes to video motion. This is especially noticeable on people moving or walking. Typically, I will use the 180 degree rule which means to have it be double, so if I use a frame rate of 24fps then I will shoot 1/50th shutter (on my Sony it’s 1/45 which is closest to 1/50). In 60p you would do 1/120. You can also experiment with it to see if even a slower one works better for you like 1/30, depending on the look you’re going far. Having it too fast will not give you motion blur which a bit of it is actually desirable for a more pleasing image. I use Steadyshot On because I mainly do handheld or gimbal work, but if you’re using a tripod I recommend turning it off because it may try to correct itself and you’ll pick it up on camera which is not desirable. I will use a sRGB Color Space compared to AdobeRGB because it’s the default color space for work in the world, and since my end goal is digital video for the web, that’s the color space that will most accurately display what I see. If you’re printing photos for example, then you may want to use AdobeRGB for its wider range. I will turn Zebra on 100+ (with a monitor I would use False Color and Waveform alongside a Light Meter to measure exposure but this is just an in-camera settings guide). Zebras measure your blown highlight threshold, don’t have it too low because you can expose for more highlights without overexposing, so I have it at 100+ and not 70. Monitoring exposure is incredibly important in camera and if yours isn’t showing turn on Live View Display to SETTING EFFECT ON.
Aperture: It varies and you can use a variable ND to help fine tune for outdoor scenes. I personally like f/4.0 because you are still able to see bokeh and a nice blurry background while not having a razor thin line of focus to lock into while filming handheld. It’s also a slighter sharper aperture with my lens. You can see the sharpest aperture range by testing out the variety of apertures you film with and seeing the differences between their softness and sharpness.
Cine4 vs S-Log 2:
When I was doing my test shots to try out the variety of picture profiles I narrowed it down to two: Cine4 vs S-Log 2. I tried both indoors with barely any light, indoors with window light, indoors with supplemented light, outdoors in a high contrast setting, and outdoors in a low contrast setting. I wanted to find out which Picture Profile had the:
Picture Profile Cine4 with custom modifications is my personal winner for my needs. S-Log2 found in Picture Profile 7 also known as PP7 is the go-to profile to shoot in because it’s pleasant highlight rolloff, and most amount of dynamic range of all the picture profiles. It’s the flattest so you have a lot of play with in post. You can tell it as a large dynamic range because if you turn waveform scopes on in Davinci Resolve, you will see the majority of the image from the shadows to highlights maintaining a pretty even read-out. As opposed to Cine4 which is spaced closer to the shadows and highlights. You have more room to bring back highlights so because many people shoot run-and gun and can’t always control the sun when filming outside they go with S-Log2 (PP7). The downside to this profile is that you have a floor of 1600 ISO as opposed to 400 in Cine4 for example, and in my testing of environments greater color noise in the shadows. I also tried bringing down the shadows in post, but even despite having to shoot 2 stops over in S-Log 2, I still found the quality of shadows less than thrilling. I compared the footage straight from camera and saw the shadows had a lot of noise indoors and in situations with less than ideal lighting.
For the low-key lighting that I do, when there’s intentionally low light in the background, the shadows are unusable. I even overexposed by 2 stops, brought the shadows down in post and they still were at a lower quality than the Cine4 in my opinion. You can see a comparison below.Monitoring Exposure: Exposure is the most important aspect to getting a high quality image after achieving proper focus (and never using auto white balance!) I will always have my histogram up, in conjunction with Zebra lines, and always check M.M. Matrix Metering. This is probably the most under-talked about tool in-camera yet it’s also handy for a quick reference.
Your Metered Manual mode can be Multi, Center, or Spot. It’s how that image is calculated in your frame for the goal of the shot to achieve 50% brightness. It adds up the different zones brightness amount then averages them. On Sony cameras you will see this as M.M. and will be at 0 or can be 0.5, -1, or even 2.0 blinking, etc. So for example if you have it set to Spot which calculates brightness based on what’s in the middle, and not on the side of the image like a bright lamp or the sun to the side, then it gives you a more accurate representation of the exposure you’re trying to achieve. If you had it at Multi, which averages the different zones of the image, then you may have under-exposed that same image. Multi can be useful for neutrally lit scenes like a foggy day outside. Thank you to Mark Galer for pointing this out that Spot Metering which is what I use, should be pointed at a mid-tone not a really hot highlight or shadow and making sure to position very accurately. If you’re an Auto Focus shooter, then turning Focus Point Link for Center Metering is useful since it keeps your metering on your focus point. Keep in mind this is not the only thing you should rely on, and exposure is how you ultimately want the image to look. Overblown Specular highlights, such as bright reflective buildings, or a window reflecting the light source can be overexposed. You will want to expose for whatever your intended focus of the shot is. If it’s the face then exposure for the face. If it’s for the sky then expose for the sky.
I have found exposing properly works the best for Cine4, as opposed to underexposing, if my goal is a darker image. The Exposure Compensation dial which is a dedicated dial at the top of the camera body can also help in properly exposing your image since your meter doesn’t know if your exposing for an overall bright or dark image like a white museum interior or a black lab portrait. Again, keep in mind this is an automatic tool. In short, the fastest way to check exposure is using the Histogram. Having any lines means either the shadows are crushed or highlights are blown. The blob doesn’t need to hang in the middle, just either a bit right or left depending on the type of image you’re going for. It essentially shows the amount of that particular shade you have so you can pick where you want it to be and keep it consistent throughout your scene.
Focusing: Manual focus all day, everyday 100%!
White Balance: I always custom white balance for every single scene and lighting scenario. I make sure to always carry a White Card to custom white balance and never use auto. I will place it where my subject will stand and the direction they face. To do this for Sony filmmakers you will need to switch to Manual camera mode on the settings ring, scroll down to custom white balance and put the white card in the light your subject will be in and press the center button to capture it.
Audio: I never hook up a microphone to my camera directly. Many cameras have AGC (Auto Gain Control) and can ruin an audio file to the point of it not being usable in my opinion. I will have my internal audio recording set to on but use it as scratch to sync with external audio source. My preferred set up is the Zoom H4N Recorder connected to a Boom Shotgun Microphone Rode NTG-2 and place it as close to the subject as possible without it being in frame. I will turn the output/volume to monitor the audio all the way to 100 then reduce gain to as low as possible while still bouncing around -12db to -6db on the levels. If whatever you are recording goes up 0 it can clip and will be the audio equivalent of over exposing highlights. I’ll then sync it in post automatically but will use a slate to help sync audio to scenes. There aren’t many settings in camera for audio so I won’t focus too much on this topic, but I do weigh audio at half of your production value, in terms of importance so don’t skip this!
Sony A7iii: https://amzn.to/36pe4Km
Sony A7Rii: https://amzn.to/2ZQRb0c
Zeiss 18mm f/2.8 Lens: https://amzn.to/37FJ1KN
Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Lens: https://amzn.to/37AcJk9
Sony 50mm f/1.8 Lens: https://amzn.to/2sKLQv5
Sony 85mm f/1.8 Lens: https://amzn.to/2FhOyL4
Zoom H4n: https://amzn.to/36qlmOe
Rode NTG-2: https://amzn.to/36qlopk
LyxPro 25ft XLR Cable: https://amzn.to/2tsu4gh
Camera Backpack: https://amzn.to/36olRZ2
Post Workflow: My preferred workflow is to first double if not triple backup the footage. Then I will give the harddrive a little pat so it doesn’t corrupt on me. Singing the soulful song “Coming Home” by Leon Bridges can also help in making sure you never loose your files. It can’t hurt anyways. I’ll import into Adobe Premiere, create proxies, the cut the footage to my liking. I will export an AAF file to Davinci Resolve to colorgrade and roundtrip it back to Premiere. This is a small file that allows you to grade your footage, with no audio, and when you import it back, you lay it on top of your current timeline in Premiere. I’ll use h.264 for export and then send the file off to the client.
Chromatic aberration - A colored line you get on the outline of subjects that are in high contrast areas such as tree branches or the side of a house in front of a bright sky. Can be easily removed in photos but videos are more difficult. This can happen with less expensive or older lenses and you’ll want to want to reduce the amount you film directly at the sky to avoid it or investing in higher quality glass.
Sensor Dust - Sensor dust is probably the easiest way to ruin a good image and yet it’s so easy to miss. I am an advocate of prime lenses but after dealing with sensor dust with so long I have decided to stick with zoom lenses. You can spot it when you switch lenses and see tiny particles that have floated onto your sensor. NEVER touch the sensor with your finger or even a microfiber cloth. You shouldn’t even use compressed air but rather a cleaning kit like the one below or purchase full-frame sensor cleaners which I use and are the only product that is supposed to touch to clean the lens. This can be fixed in post to a certain extent. Here’s a video that’s helped me clean mine up: https://youtu.be/eK_zaLF5fFY?t=1
Dead pixels - Dead pixels are hard to spot single pixels that stick a particular color like green or red forever. You can find them on your monitor or even sensor. If you have them on your monitor that won’t be as bad because they aren’t baked into the image. But if you find one on your image Sony make be able to help.
Banding - These are lines you see that make color transitions loose their smoothness. You’ll see this in 8-bit filming and it will make footage look low quality. It’s hard to avoid this issue unless you are able to film in 10-bit or higher so that way you have more colors available to work with.
Horizontal Banding - Horizontal Banding is a slightly different issue than banding.
Color Banding / Color noise - This is part of the banding issue family. Reminds me of Adam’s Family but a lot less fun. Color noise is again due to not having enough colors in an 8-bit image to work with. Anytime the camera struggles to find light, noise will be created. You can be filming at 1600 ISO and get no noise outdoors on a bright day but when you film inside a closet with no additional light at 1600 ISO you will see noise in the shadows even while using native iso, that’s why ultimately it’s up to you as the Director to decide the balance of light in your shots.
Solution: Banding is a tough issue to fix because it simply means that you don’t have as many colors to work with as a 10 or 12 bit camera. There are a couple options you can try while on production and in post to help reduce the amount of banding in your image. To do it on set you can aim to film using native ISO. Native ISO is the baseline ISO before noise begins because your making the sensor do additional work. That is traditionally the lowest but can also be dual native for some cameras. For my settings, filming in Cine4 I will use the lowest possible ISO which is 400 as compared to 1600 in S-Log 2. To make noise less noticeable you can actually add grain, which I do for the look, in recent pieces. If you have the Studio version of Davinci Resolve, it comes with noise reduction tools. After you do that then you can introduce grain through a matte. Additionally, you can bring the shadows down and that can help make the shadow noisey parts less noticeable. Lastly, if you are experience horizontal banding, filming at a 1/50 or 1/150 shutter speed may reduce the amount of flicker you’re getting (this is due to the shutter matching the light pulses from the fluorescent lights.There are also third party plugins available for this issue. I’ve only had mixed results with third party plug ins so I can’t personally recommend any software at this time. The best solution I have found is actually a really simple one. You duplicate your video file on your timeline, then shift the top file by 1 frame. Mix the opacity of the top file down to 50%. This isn’t a perfect solution if you have a lot of movement in your image because you may see ghosting but if there isn’t a lot of movement it can help such as a sit down interview. Ideally you would not use the lights that are causing the banding to begin with but that can be out of your control.