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The Filmmaker’s Cinematic Quandary: S-Log2 vs. Cine4

Lewis McGregor

In this write-up, we’ll go over the pros and cons of the S-Log2 vs. the Cine4 — and the importance of color and tones for the integrity of your project.

For every compact camera system, there’s always a debate as to which film color profile to use. Initially, at the start of the DSLR revolution with the 5D MK II, filmmakers would customize the presets by lowering the saturation, contrast, and sharpness — to maximize the degree of correction and grading available. Then, once the need for filmmaking-friendly profiles became apparent for sub-$2,000 cameras, Picture Profiles started to pop-up everywhere from third-party producers. And, a little later into the new decade, newer camera models began to have filmmaking-friendly color profiles.

Fast-forward a decade, and now cameras feature so many different profiles, it can be an issue to identify which one to use correctly. This is without question a concern for the Sony Alpha line. While the Alpha cameras feature many different profiles, the main two that often get pitted against each other are S-Log2 and Cine4.

You may often hear that while S-Log2 gives you a better dynamic range and greater color grading capabilities, the image is rather . . . noisy. So, is there a benefit to using Cine4 over S-Log2?


S-Log2

If this article were a video tutorial, this is where I would freeze-frame, like a classic ’70s TV show, and explain “That is not what happened.”

I wrote the introduction to this article before the rampant spread of COVID-19, and like many around the world, I’m currently only allowed to leave home for essentials. As such, the idea of testing the profiles in different circumstances, along with different setups on actors to check skin tones, has become impossible. Thankfully, however, YouTube is inundated with various tests and video comparisons. Therefore, we can collectively pull data from the videos to continue the discussion.

S-Log2 is arguably the most-used color profile, but it’s also the most-debated among Alpha line users. If you don’t correctly expose the camera, your shadows can become filled with noise. While the profile boasts (theoretically) fourteen stops of dynamic range, sitting at a base ISO of 800 on eight-bit data can often set the course for disaster. To offset the chance of noisy shadows, many opt for the idea of “exposing to the right.” This references overexposing two stops to avoid noisy shadows and to later bring down the exposure in post. However, you then also have to accommodate for the possibility of clipping your highlights (set the zebras to indicate clipping at 107).

While the profile is extremely versatile and offers greater flexibility, it certainly seems like an enormous undertaking while you’re also balancing other aspects of shooting. To some extent, S-Log2 is like RAW. Not in the sense of its processing capabilities, but more so if you choose RAW, you’re committing to grading — not just correcting — your footage. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this choice, if you’re creating content that’s solely going online, or perhaps the nature of the location is manageable, do you need to burden yourself with the extra steps?

Sony forums and camera websites are full of questions like this one S-Log2 vs. Cine 4?. In that thread, a user playfully responded,

S-Log2, if you don’t care about colors or skin tones. Cine4, if you care about colors and skin tones.

Filmmaker Cody Blue put that notion to the test in his video below.


Cine4

What is Cine4? The Sony Cine profiles are gamma presets (see the difference between a gamma curve and log curve here) that offer more dynamic range than the standard movie profile, but slightly less than S-Log2. Sony states,

Cine4: Strengthens the contrast in dark parts more than [Cine3]. The contrast in dark parts is lower, and the contrast in bright parts is higher than for [movie].

Likewise, the profile isn’t as flat as S-Log2. It offers the affordability of tweaking the colors slightly, but emphasizes bringing out the colors already in the scene. Unlike S-Log2, you can also shoot Cine4 at an ISO of 200, allowing for more compositional creativity in bright scenes, where S-Log2 at ISO 800 may have caused some highlight issues.

In his video, Cody notes that he’s been working with Cine4 for quite some time, but after watching several videos for inspiration, he realized that many Sony filmmakers were strictly filming with S-Log2, but as a firm Cine4 user, couldn’t grasp why.

As noted in the snow scenes at 5:35, as the S-Log2 profile has an excellent dynamic range, it’s evident that there’s greater detail in the fallen snow when compared to the Cine4 shot. And, in the video below, Gerald Undone further demonstrates the dynamic range across all profiles, and we can see how Cine4 is natively more contrasty. The thing is, while, yes, S-Log2 gives you a decent amount of headroom, do you always need that? Cine4 doesn’t require as much post-processing to bring the image to life. And, for most content, sometimes the effort of minimizing the noise, which gets brought up in the shadows in S-Log2, is too tedious. Likewise, I got into filmmaking at the beginning of the DSLR revolution, when cameras weren’t built explicitly for filmmaking, and you always had to tweak the camera just to make the image usable — the aspect of exposing two stops to the right, across all compositions, is just irritating.


The Tl;dr

Ultimately, I think each profile has its weaknesses and strengths, and the choice of the color profile is going to depend on how you work and how fast you need to deliver the product. S-Log2 will give you a greater dynamic range and a flatter image to work with, resulting in more details within the highlights and a more extensive range of color grading capabilities. However, this profile requires more time to sufficiently grade the image, and you may run into issues with noise within the shadows.

Cine4 will give you an image that requires little user intervention but still leaves enough room for correction and slight tweaks. It doesn’t require any on-set practices to avoid noisy media files, yet it requires more exposure supervision due to the small drop in dynamic range. Likewise, you won’t be able to manipulate the colors as much.

If you wanted to slightly give yourself more leeway with post options, but still maintain the core Cine4 values, Cody suggests adjusting these settings:

  • Gamma: Cine4
  • Black Gamma: Wide, +4
  • Knee: Manual, Point: 80%, Slope +2
  • Color Mode: Pro
  • Saturation: -5


Where to Find the Profiles

Picture Profile

To access S-Log2 or Cine4, find the feature titled Picture Profile, located in the Color/WB/Img./Processing menu. 

Unsure where to find the profiles? For some reason, these profiles aren’t that easy to find, so to bring them up (and this may vary depending on your model), we have to hit the menu button, move to camera menu #1 (if not already on that menu), then move all the way across to sub-menu twelve (Color/WB/Img.Processing1), and at the bottom of the menu will be Picture Profile. There will be several to choose from, but they aren’t named. You can find S-Log2 in Picture Profile seven, and Cine3, which can be changed to Cine4, in Picture Profile three.


Cover image via isilterzioglu.

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