Back To Black (& White): Monochrome Digital Cameras

May 28, 2014

Author: Salvatore Interlandi, Interim Chair, Cinematography Department, New York Film Academy

An example of a black and white monochrome image

When we look at the latest digital cinema cameras, there are many design goals that cinematographers have come to expect: lower noise, higher sensitivity, better color reproduction, and higher dynamic range. However, industry leaders like Red and Arriflex have been working on something you might not have expected:

Digital Black & White

In addition to the standard color models, Red has created both Epic and Dragon Monochrome cameras, while Arri is bringing out the Alexa Monochrome. This is an exciting development for cinematographers who have been mourning the recent loss of Kodak Plus-X motion picture stock, as we now have new formats created specifically to create black and white images.

While it is possible to desaturate a color image from a standard digital camera, these new monochrome cameras possess a number of advantages:

• Higher sensitivity
While a standard Red Epic has a recommended ISO of 800, the Epic Monochrome has an ISO of 2000. For low light scenes, this is a tremendous advantage.

• Sharper image
You may be surprised to learn that a CMOS sensor can only record black and white information. Cameras with CMOS chips (like Red cameras) use a complex process known as “Bayer filtering” to recreate color information from the monochrome data that is recorded, which effectively lowers the resolution of the chip. These new monochrome cameras don’t require the Bayer filtering step, therefore the image is sharper than what is possible with a color camera.

• Less compression
The new digital cinema cameras have very high-resolution chips and these create a lot of data. To record this huge amount of information, the camera applies compression and discards some parts of the image that are less important. Generally the first thing to go is color information, as the human eye is less sensitive to this than other things like resolution or dynamic range. Because the monochrome cameras have no color information, they can record with less compression than their color counterparts.

For a great example of this new technology in action, take a look at Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” music video, directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) and photographed by Matthew Libatique, ASC (Black Swan, Iron Man). This was shot on the Red Epic Monochrome:

For an additional example of stunning black and white cinematography, take a look at this commercial shot for Audi. Arriflex has taken advantage of another attribute of digital cameras: the increased sensitivity of digital sensors to infrared light as compared to film. This commercial was photographed by Bill Bennett, ASC using a prototype camera. This particular camera began as a Monochrome Alexa, however it has a filter that blocks out all visible light. Instead, it captures only light from the infrared portion of the spectrum, bringing us incredible images very different from what our eyes are used to seeing!

Audi X Factor Shoot from ARRI Channel on Vimeo.