Testing the Canon 5D2: RAW vs. H264

I can’t sit on the sidelines when something like RAW video functionality on a DSLR comes out. There are a lot of nice test videos out now, but I needed to shoot my own. So, here it is!

My first impression, once I put the H264 and RAW footage back-to-back, was that the H264 looks very good! Sure, the RAW files have a tremendous amount of detail, but the colors and the overall punch of the ungraded H264 files are often much more appealing to me than the minimally-processed RAW files. The difference, of course, is that the nature of RAW allows one to grade the footage to look however one wants, while maintaining data integrity and clarity, so it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison.

rainbow h264

rainbow raw
Nevertheless, I did learn some important lessons through this effort.

I can authoritatively state, however, that the workflow, as it stands now, for RAW footage is not for the faint of heart (or the short on time).

First, I had to copy the RAW files from the card to my Mac’s desktop (which seemed to be the only place the RAW2DNG utility would acknowledge the existence of the files). Then, RAW2DNG would take the single RAW file (except for the ones that didn’t work, because the Magic Lantern module is still a work in progress), make a folder for it, and and create an individual DNG image for each frame of the video.

Then, I had to open those DNG files in Photoshop (which pops up the Canon Adobe Raw editing interface), take the horrible-looking RAW file, make it look reasonably decent, and batch process all the DNG files for each clip into TIF files (as opposed to JPG, to maintain quality). I tried importing the DNG files directly into After Effects initially, but the exported files came out jerky and jittery. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t feel like spending my Saturday figuring it out.

Finally, I imported all the TIF folders into Premiere, put them – one at a time – on a sequence, and exported each one as a ProRes file. If you have Quicktime 7, you can open the TIFF sequences and export them as ProRes directly as well.

ea h264

ea raw

Boy, was that time-consuming! Not to mention the fact that, with the RAW file, the DNG folder, the TIF folder, and the ProRes file, I now have FOUR versions of each clip taking up room on my harddrive. And these are not small files.

By the way, you probably noticed the super-widescreen aspect ration of the demo footage. That’s because the 5D2 isn’t able to smoothly record footage at more than 1880×720 resolution. This basically chops the top and bottom off the 1920×1080 image, resulting in an interesting-looking but somewhat inconvenient crop factor.

mansion h264

mansion raw

My initial conclusions are as follows:

1) Don’t fall into the trap of suddenly thinking the Canon’s H264 files are worthless. They still look really good, even compared to RAW.

2) Until some enterprising developers develop a more streamlined solution to the RAW-to-ProRes transcoding process, or until Adobe allows for direct importing of RAW files into Premiere, the workflow is most likely not worth the effort, for most users.

With that said, I went ahead and shot a simple commercial in RAW (more specifically, in RAW and H264, since I didn’t have confidence in the RAW files), which I’ll be editing this week. That process will give me some insight into the advantages and disadvantages of shooting and working with DSLR RAW on an actual project. Stay tuned for that!

  3 comments for “Testing the Canon 5D2: RAW vs. H264

  1. May 19, 2013 at 5:35 am

    Wow your H.264s look way better, which is interesting – same picture styles I’m assuming?

    Unprocessed, my raw footage looks pretty much the same as the h.264 but with way more resolution. I’m on a 5d3 which is a bit softer than the 5d2 out of the camera.

    I agree it’s not the solution for every type of shoot, but it gives me way more options now. I’ve been doing a lot of high resolution work (fashion/beauty) where using a raw format from Red can sometimes be cumbersome if I’m trying to steal a location with a team. Here I can easily pretend I’m taking photos and not lug around a bigger camera for short duration shots

    • Alexander
      May 19, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Great question, Arthur. Yes, the exposure and picture style were the same in the camera, but once I opened up the DNG files, the RAW files looked awful, albeit with great latitude, detail, etc. Within the Adobe RAW dialog, I adjusted them for maximum detail, and an approximate white balance, so that I would be able to color grade them more easily later. If I had used the RAW dialog to actually grade the files, they wouldn’t be quite as “flat” as they are now.

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