The Case For Shooting RAW

shooting RAW

Canon EOS C200 Digital Cinema Camera

It all depends on what part of the production world you exist in. Some of us work in the rarified air of creating “cinema,” whether for indie small audiences or huge audiences worldwide. Some of us produce work for television. Many of us only produce work for corporate clients or even weddings and events. Depending on who your clients are and where your work ends up, you may be either very familiar with shooting RAW or it may be a completely new experience for you.

In case you have no background shooting RAW, up until now, shooting a project in RAW has usually been a technologically challenging endeavor, one best reserved for the highest-end projects when only the very best image quality will do. Cameras like the ARRI Alexa, the RED camera lineup, the top-of-the-line offerings from Sony, Panasonic and Canon, and even some pretty inexpensive cameras from Blackmagic Design, and now Canon with the EOS C200—all offer RAW shooting. Some RAW-capable cameras can shoot uncompressed RAW, which results in huge file sizes but also, in theory, results in the pinnacle in quality that the camera’s imager is capable of reproducing, while others shoot various flavor of compressed RAW.

Uncompressed Or Compressed?

Typically, uncompressed RAW is reserved for visual effects shots where smaller amounts of footage are shot for visual effects sequences, and there are only a few cameras available that record uncompressed. Usually, uncompressed RAW data rates are so large as to be impractical for any kind of narrative or even short-form production. Visual effects artists love to work with uncompressed RAW sequences because there has been no compression applied to the signal; it’s truly RAW data, straight from the camera’s sensor and all of the image decoding, De-Bayering and application of a look are applied in post, with careful control and finesse, resulting in footage that’s much easier to manipulate in post-production than compressed footage where artifacts can make obtaining clean edges and realistic composites more difficult. In my experience, few clients want to shoot uncompressed RAW unless they have done so before and have a project that warrants the storage space and computing power necessary to deal with it.

Compressed RAW formats are more popular, mainly because less camera media is needed for uncompressed RAW and the storage space for compressed RAW converted footage and backups is much smaller than for uncompressed RAW. Compressed formats like RED’s REDCODE are typically used in a 5:1 compression ratio and  have been utilized on high-profile feature films like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Hobbit so you know that compression isn’t always a bad thing.

Clients And Shooting RAW

I’ve been doing some testing with a new camera, the Canon EOS C200, which shoots a new RAW format Canon calls Cinema RAW Light. While Canon has had Cinema RAW-capable cameras like the C300 Mark II, the C500 and the C700 for a while, the C200 is the first Canon digital cinema camera that costs less than $8,000 that’s capable of shooting RAW and the first Canon digital cinema camera capable of shooting RAW internally.

shooting RAW
Cinema RAW Light is a very effective, usable format, turning out impressive-looking images from a relatively low-cost camera. Without any integration into either FCP X or Premiere Pro, currently, it must be converted into an editable format using Canon’s Cinema RAW Development program, which is very render-intensive.

Cinema RAW Light is compressed at a 5:1 ratio but still retains almost all of the quality of Canon’s uncompressed RAW found on other models in the lineup. In my tests, I’ve found that a 256 GB CFast 2.0 memory card is capable of recording 34 minutes of DCI 4K RAW footage. In the type of production I typically shoot, I’m often required to record large amounts of footage, often shooting behind the scenes on TV shows and movies. Our clients also typically shoot several 30-minute to one-hour interviews in a single shoot day. In crunching some numbers, if we were to shoot four-hour-long interviews in a single day, that would require eight 256 GB CFast 2.0 cards to record all four hours of interviews in Cinema RAW Light format. At the end of that day, we would end up with approximately 1.8 TB of Cinema RAW Light footage.

From Card To Drive

Our clients typically bring a hard drive to the shoot and we download the media we’ve shot to their drive at the end of the shoot. Many of our clients work on tight deadlines and often the footage we shoot is in the edit bay the next day or sometimes even the same day that we shoot it. I crunched some more numbers to check out download time for the 256 GB CFast 2.0 cards. Using the Lexar CR2 Thunderbolt CFast card reader, I recorded the following times to download all 256 GB of Cinema RAW Light data, computer and drive specs noted:

  • Laptop, internal SSD drive—Lexar CR2 Thunderbolt CFast 2.0 card reader to late 2012 MacBook Pro internal SSD via Thunderbolt connection: 11 minutes
  • Laptop, inexpensive bus-powered hard drive—Lexar CR2 Thunderbolt CFast 2.0 card reader to late 2012 Macbook Pro with external Western Digital My Passport 1 TB drive via USB 2.0 (my laptop lacks USB 3.0): 145 minutes
  • iMac with Thunderbolt RAID—Lexar CR2 Thunderbolt CFast 2.0 card reader to 2013 27” iMac with G-Technology 4 TB G-RAID Thunderbolt two drive RAID 0 via Thunderbolt: 14 minutes

I’d typically bring my MacBook Pro laptop to shoots, not my 27” iMac, but I was curious at the time difference it would take to download one CFast 2.0 256 GB card. In the scenario we laid out, at the end of the shooting day, we would have a little over seven full 256 GB CFast 2.0 cards worth of material to deliver to the client. In our best-case scenario, it would take about 80 minutes to download all seven cards worth of material to a fast SSD.

The real-world challenge is that SSDs are still relatively expensive, especially in larger sizes. On our shoots, to download that much Cinema RAW Light footage to the client would be realistic since it takes usually between 45 minutes to two hours to tear down, pack up and load out all of the production gear and lighting, but it may not be practical and cost-efficient for the same client to purchase a fast 2 TB SSD external drive since they’re still relatively expensive when compared to inexpensive hard drives.

Once the same client gets back to their editor or assistant editor, the same 1.8 TB of Cinema RAW Light footage must be converted either to an editable format, resulting in more drive space being needed for the editing files, or eventually all of the popular editing programs will be able to ingest and convert the Cinema RAW Light data internally but as of today, we’re not yet at that point.

The Client Case

After working with Canon’s Cinema RAW Light format for a few test shoots, I’ve come to the following conclusions.

  • Cinema RAW Light is a very effective and usable format, with the resulting images looking extremely impressive from a relatively low-cost camera.
  • The size of the Cinema RAW Light format is too large for most of my clients’ use, although for occasional high-profile projects where smaller amounts of footage are shot, it may be usable.
  • Realistically, you need a DIT/Media Manager on set when shooting large amounts of Cinema RAW Light unless it’s for your own projects or non-time-critical projects where you can download the cards back at home base.
  • Compatible CFast 2.0 cards are still relatively expensive, and you’ll need plenty of them to shoot more than an hour or so of footage.
  • Cinema RAW Light, as of today, without any integration into either FCP X or Premiere Pro, must be converted into an editable format using Canon’s Cinema RAW Development program, which is very render-intensive and, therefore, slow.

These conclusions represent my own typical client case, which indicates that we’ll mostly still be shooting either ProRes HQ, or for quicker turnaround web projects, the C200’s thin .MP4 codec.

What about your situation? Do you shoot for clients or only your own projects? Would your clients want you to shoot and deliver in a RAW format? For all projects or just certain higher end projects? Are you willing to spend the funds necessary to work in a RAW format? Are your clients willing to spend the time and money? For our company and clients, at this time, the answer is mostly, no, but occasionally, yes.

CFast 2.0 capacity will rise as costs fall for the cards. Hard drives are already very inexpensive, but in order to effectively download and edit RAW, you need either SSDs or multi-drive fast RAIDs, either of which cost considerably more than small bus-powered hard drives. The question I’m left with is, when will the quality and end result of shooting RAW reach the tipping point to where it becomes common? Time will tell.