H.264 vs. Raw: What’s the Difference?

Raw vs. H.264 (click for larger)

Some situations may not require it

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

YouTuber and photographer Dave Dugdale is getting ready for his Blackmagic Cinema Camera by experimenting with Raw video using Magic Lantern on his Canon 5D Mk. III. And he’s found some interesting differences between Raw and H.264. But he also says that sometimes, Raw may not necessary.

Shooting in Raw, there are certain situations where I like shooting Raw, and others where I really don’t need to. – Dave Dugdale, LearningDSLRVideo.com

Dugdale, of LearningDSLRVideo.com, is noticing that while Magic Lantern Raw offers a lot more detail, especially when shooting clouds and landscapes, the shadow information, or the amount of noise he sees in the darker areas of his image, are roughly the same as H.264. Dugdale refers to it as “shooting more to the right,” which is to expose to the right of the histogram in order to get more shadow information, and recover the highlights easier. But in doing so, he’s found that the same amount of noise shows up and you don’t really get any more detail.

But he also points out that if you want to stretch the image in post, using green screen and really manipulating the color information with grading software then Raw gives you a lot more advantage. Dave also says that using DaVinci Resolve Lite is a great way to practice your color grading, since it’s a free download and allows you to stretch the image to its limits to see how each format can start to break down. The pro version comes free with the BMCC.

Dugdale also found out that 10-bit 4:2:2 is great for green screen, but doesn’t really help you with more dynamic range out in the field.  He cited using an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja and he found he could get even better dynamic range from the camera for just a few dollars more and just recording on board to the BMCC’s SSD.

And he also says that’s the advantage of using Magic Lantern Raw on his camera because he can switch on the fly  from Raw to H.264.  “I can switch between H.264 to Raw in seconds,” adds Dugdale. “All I have to do is hit the trash button and load the Raw module and start recording on the same card.”

So when do you shoot Raw and when do you just rely on H.264?  Dugdale says that in indoors with bright ambient light from the windows (he shoots a lot of real estate video), and Raw will benefit getting as much detail in the room and out the window as possible.  That’s what dynamic range buys you.  But shooting in conventional situations like corporate videos or weddings, he says that Raw won’t really help there much and becomes more of a want then a need.  “Raw comes with some additional headaches like storage, post production playback, and proxies,” says Dugdale, “but on the other hand, it really allows you to stretch the image.”

I’m not sure I completely agree with Dugdale.  Raw can give you a lot of benefits, which he outlines, and I think they far outweigh the liabilities for most shooting.  But at the end of the day, Dugdale says that for him, it really does come down to what conditions and the subject you’re shooting in.  “I’m guessing most don’t shoot in Raw all the time,” he concludes. “If I’m not going to really stretch the image or play with it alot in post, I’m just going to stick to H.264.”

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Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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