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Why do my pictures go soft when I pan? Camera Detail Correction in depth.

Why do my pictures go soft when I pan? Camera Detail Correction in depth.

This article is my Christmas present for my readers. When your trying to set up a camera or brew up a picture profile it really helps if you understand the ramifications of each of the settings. I hope this helps explain how detail correction works and how it effects your image.
I am often asked to explain why someones images are going soft when they pan the camera or when there is a lot of movement in the scene. Well this can be down to many things including poor compression or too low a bit rate for the recording, but the two main issues are shutter speed (which is tied in to your frame rate) and detail correction. I’ll cover frame rates and shutter speeds in the near future, but today I’m going to look at Detail Correction.
First of all what is detail correction for? Well originally it was used to compensate for the low resolution of domestic cathode ray tube TV’s and the limited speed at which a CRT TV could go from light to dark. Modern LCD, Plasma and OLED displays handle this much better, but still detail correction remains important to this day to as a way of adding the appearance of additional sharpness to a video image. You’ll often see extreme examples of it on SD TV shows as a dark halo around objects.

Perfect Greyscale

The image above is of an imaginary perfect greyscale chart. Looking at it you can see on your screen that each grey bar is quite distinct from the next and the edge between the two is sharp and clear. You computer screen should be quite capable of showing an instant switch from one grey level to the next.

Grey Scale with Waveform

Now if we add the waveform that the “perfect” greyscale would give we can see that the transition from each bar to the next is represented by a nice crisp instant step down, the transition from one bar to the next happening over a single pixel.

Grey Scale as seen by camera

The image above represents what a typical video camera might reproduce if it shot the greyscale chart without any form of detail correction or sharpening. Due to the need to avoid aliasing, lens performance and other factors it is impossible to get perfect optical performance so there is some inevitable blurring of the edges between the grey bars. Note that these images are for illustration only, so I have exaggerated the effect. I would expect a good HD camera to still produce a reasonably sharp image.

Camera Waveform

Looking at the cameras waveform you can see that the nice square edges we saw in on the perfect greyscale waveform have gone and instead the transition from bar to bar is more rounded. Now there are two things that camera manufactures commonly do to correct or compensate for this. One is called aperture correction which is a high frequency signal boost (I’ll explain that another time) but the one were going to look at in this case is called detail correction often simply referred to as “Detail”.

Detail Correction sampling

So what happens in the camera? Well the camera constantly compares the video luminance (brightness) levels of the image over a set time period. This time period is incredibly short and in the example given here is the time it takes for the cameras line scan to go left to right from point A to point B. If the  difference in the brightness or luminance of the two samples is greater than the threshold set for the application of detail correction (known as crispening on Sony cameras) then the detail circuit kicks in and adds a light or dark enhancement to the brightness change.

Camera image with Detail Correction added

With an HD video camera the light or dark edges added by the detail correction circuit are typically only a few pixels wide. On an SD camera they are often much wider. On a Sony camera the detail frequency setting will make the edges thicker (negative value) or thinner (positive value). The Black and White limit settings will limit how bright or how dark the added correction will be and the detail level control determines just how much correction is added  to the image overall.

One important thing to consider is that as the amount of detail correction that is applied to the image is dependant on differences in the image luminance  measured over time, so you have to consider what happens when the scene is moving or the camera pans.  Two things happen when you pan the camera, one is that the image will blur a little due to things moving through the frame while the shutter is open and from line to line objects will be in a slightly different position.

Blur due to camera pan softens the image.

So looking at the waveform we can see that the waveform slope from one grey bar to the next becomes shallower due to the blur induced through the motion of the camera. If we now sample the this slightly blurred image using the same timescale as before we can see that the difference in amplitude (brightness) between the new blue samples at A and B is significantly smaller than the difference between the original red sample points.

Smaller Luma difference due to pan blur

What this means in practice is that if the difference between the A and B sample drops below the threshold set for the application of detail correction then it is not applied. So what happens is that as you pan (or there is motion in the scene) the slight image softening due to motion blur will decrease the amount of detail correction being applied to the image so the picture appears to noticeably soften, especially if you are using a high detail correction level.

Detail correction is applied to both horizontal image differences as outlined above and also to vertical differences. As the vertical sampling is taken over 2 or 3 image lines there is much longer time gap between the samples. So when you pan, an object that was in one position on one line may have moved significantly enough by the time the frame scan has progressed 2 more lines that it is in a different position so the detail sampling will be wrong and detail may not be applied at all.

If you are finding that you are seeing an annoying amount of image softening when you pan or move your camera then you may want to consider backing off your detail settings as this will reduce the difference between the detail “on” look and detail “off” look during the pan or movement. If this softens your images too much for your liking then you can compensate by using Aperture Correction (if your camera has this) to boost the sharpness of your image. I’ll explain sharpness in more depth in a later article.

Merry Christmas!

Why is Sensor Size Important: Part 2, Diffraction Limiting

Another thing that you must consider when looking at sensor size is something called “Diffraction Limiting”. For Standard Definition this is not as big a problem as it is for HD. With HD it is a big issue.

Basically the problem is that light doesn’t always travel in straight lines. When a beam of light passes over a sharp edge it gets bent, this is called diffraction. So when the light passes through the lens of a camera the light around the edge of the iris ring gets bent and this means that some of the light hitting the sensor is slightly de-focussed. The smaller you make the iris the greater the percentage of diffracted light with respect to non diffracted light. Eventually the amount of diffracted and thus de-focussed light will become large enough to start to soften the image.

With a very small sensor even a tiny amount of diffraction will bend the light enough to fall on the pixel adjacent to the one it’s supposed to be focussed on. With a bigger sensor and bigger pixels the amount of diffraction required to bend the light to the next pixel is greater. In addition the small lenses on cameras with small sensors means the iris will be smaller.

In practice, this means that an HD camera with 1/3? sensors will noticeably soften if it is more stopped down (closed) more than f5.6, 1/2? cameras more than f8 and 2/3? f11. This is one of the reasons why most pro level cameras have adjustable ND filters. The ND filter acts like a pair of sunglasses cutting down the amount of light entering the lens and as a result allowing you to use a wider iris setting. This softening happens with both HD and SD cameras, the difference is that with the low resolution of SD it was much less noticeable.