RED Helium, and Why You Should Shoot With It

16 Aug RED Helium, and Why You Should Shoot With It


RED users often cop a bit of flack, labelled as RED fanboys. And rightly so, because there’s no doubt RED Digital Cinema are a camera company playing at the top end of the game, delivering cameras that are riding on the absolute edge of current technology. And that’s something worth being a fan of.

Take a look at their most recent sensor line: The Helium sensor is a 35.4 Megapixel CMOS sensor with 8K resolution. For the pixel peepers that’s 8192 x 4320 effective pixels. And whether you believe RED’s claim to 16.5+ stops of dynamic range or not, there’s simply no denying that when you pick one up and actually shoot something with it this thing has a bucket load of latitude delivering detail in the blacks and highlights on even the most contrasty of shots.

My experience with the RED Helium 8K

OK, so let’s talk less about what you can easily find out on the RED website and more from the perspective of someone who’s been shooting with this beast since November 2016.

Since receiving our RED Epic-W, I’ve shot

  • 16 TVC’s
  • 12 corporate videos
  • 2 spec commercials
  • 1 short film, and
  • 1 (6-part) web series

And for the web series we shot with two Epic-W’s.

So what’s my personal thoughts on RED’s latest sensor… Do you really need to ask?

Dynamic Range

Take a look at the image below. The shot on the left is as shot on the day with the LUT applied and desaturated. The shot on the right has the highlights pulled right down to show how much detail could still be recovered in the highlights in the 12×12 silk, which has a 4K HMI behind it. Notice in both shots you can still see detail in the black curtain in the background. And while you’d never actually pull down this hard on the highlights (nor was it necessary in this BTS shot), it’s also great to see the level of recoverable detail there really is.

It’s also worth noting that the images above were shot in Apple ProRes 422LT (the popular codec was introduced to RED’s cameras with the DSMC2 line), not RED’s own .r3d RAW.

Apple ProRes vs. RED RAW .r3d

Having Apple ProRes in 2K or 4K scaled from the chosen FOV is an added bonus that’s perfect for corporate videos when a more lightweight codec is needed to save on storage space or a quicker turnaround is required.

For commercials generally however, I prefer working in RAW. RED’s .r3d is a brilliant codec that allows the user to choose different compression settings to control the amount of data being consumed. In the past with the DSMC1 cameras a lot of users chose to shoot 5:1 and wouldn’t go higher than 8:1 compression. But I honestly believe with the Helium sensor and the amount of resolution it delivers that level of compression is in most cases wasted storage space. We have two 120GB RED Mini Mags that each give me about 17 minutes of recording time at 7k 10:1, and this the level of compression I shot our web series at. But in my experience you can push it even higher if you’re shooting low contrast evenly lit scenes with plenty of controlled daylight. For this reason I shot a pile of TVC’s at 14:1 compression with 6K, 7K and 8K.

Here’s a few shots from a TVC I recently shot at 7K 14:1 compression and 1280 ISO:

High quality codec = high quality detail

The shot with all the caravans below was shot with the Epic-W strapped to the FreeFly Alta 6 drone via the MoVI M15 camera gimbal (Yeah, I’m a qualified drone pilot too). What I love about it is the level of detail that’s not lost in the tree leaves in both the foreground and the background and this is still at 14:1 compression. This shot ends the TVC with an epic (pardon the pun) camera rise and the most affordable way for us to achieve this shot on this shoot was to do it with a drone since we were also shooting other aerial shots with the drone of the vehicles in action. If however, we had opted for a cheaper drone option with a sub par sensor (like anything made by DJI with a built in camera – I’ve been stung before) the level of detail retained (not to mention colour tone, contrast, sharpness, dynamic range, etc) would not have as easily matched the rest of our film and the overall standard of the production would have been reduced. With the RED, I know I’m going to get a first class image throughout my shoot, so there’s no way I’m going to go for anything less for my aerial shots.

But what about storage?

One of the things everyone who’s only ever shot with DSLR cameras can’t get their mind around is the amount of data the RED uses. prior to the RED I was shooting with the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K in Apple ProRes, and this got me used to the concept that shooting with a high quality codec was going to use a lot of storage space. The thing is, storage space these days is cheap. I back up all my shoots on 1TB USB3 portable hard drives that costs an average of $70 per drive, and with the exception of anything that’s a fairly large project, I can easily back up several TVC shoots on one drive, so the cost of the drive is negligible. And if it is a large shoot such as the caravan one above where we shot 700GB of data because we were cutting 3 edits and had long takes from the aerial shots, then in that case the budget of the job itself was large enough to consider the cost of the drives a wee in the ocean. And when it comes to editing, a 3TB Western Digital Black hard drive is less than a couple of hundred bucks. In fact, I recently picked up a 6TB Western Digital Black hard drive for a less than $500 to edit our web series on where we shot around 4TB of glorious 7K footage.

ISO and Noise

I’m sure everyone hates noise. I know I do. Being a cinematographer though I don’t rely on my camera to see in the dark for me by bumping up the ISO to a million. Instead I rely on my gaffer to provide me the lighting I need to light my scene. And most of the time that’s fine. But sometimes no matter how well you’ve planned, things just turn to crap on you. Your schedule get’s pushed, the sun went down quicker than you thought it would, and you really don’t have permission or the access to power you need to set up a HMI in some random persons front yard. So you have no choice but to cut a few corners and rush the scene with a single v-lock battery powered Creamsource LED and push your T-stop from T2.8 to T2.0, knowing you’re still going to have to bump up the ISO in post. Damn it, I hate when that happens! Observe…


I shot our web series Escape at a consistent T2.8 in 7K at 10:1 compression with 1280 ISO. With the Helium sensor an ISO range of 1280-1600 is recommended as the base ISO. So sticking with 1280 ISO and T2.8 my aim was to light my way to correct exposure for each scene. And for the most part that wasn’t a problem because we had for interiors access to power and an arsenal of lights in our lighting van, or for exteriors, poly to bounce the sun and silks ranging from 6×6 to 12×12 to filter it.

But with the close up below where we were shooting at dusk and stuck with only a single Creamsource LED as the sun went down I knew I was going to have to rely on the Helium sensor to squeeze the ISO out of the shot for this reverse shot, which needed to match in exposure with the shots taken from the other side less than 15 minutes earlier.

Above: The shot as shot at 1280 ISO, T2.0.

Above: The shot lifted to 2500 ISO in post. Unlike shooting in any baked video codec such as Apple ProRes, shooting in RAW means you can alter the meta data in post, which allows the ISO (as well as white balance) to be changed as if it was shot this way to begin with. Doubling the ISO did however introduce a lot of unwanted noise into the shot as you’d expect it to. I’ve uploaded the shots here in HD res, which actually hides much of the noise from the 7K master image as it condenses the pixels and therefore the noise res’s down. However, the finished film will be mastered in 4K, which still is a condensing of the pixels, but obviously only half as much so the noise will be more apparent. RED’s cameras by design don’t add any sharpening or noise reduction in camera so I used Neat Video to clean up the noise. Here’s the result:

Unfortunately (or fortunately) you can’t really see the difference too much in HD, but that’s partially the advantage of shooting in 7K or 8K resolution; so that when you down res the master it looks far better than if it was shot at HD or even 4K.

The image below is the shot from the other side of the conversation that the closeup needed to cut with.

And now if you compare the exposure of this shot to the closeup as shot and then after the ISO was adjusted you can see it cuts quite nicely. Again, due to the power of the Helium sensor at 7K resolution down rising to 4K combined with RED’s .r3d RAW allowing me to change the ISO in post I have to say this is where I’m most happy with the RED Epic-W.

The list goes on…

I could bang on about this camera for days but for now I think that’s where I’ll stop. Have you shot with this camera before? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below, or if you have question plop it there also and I’ll aim to get back to you with an answer ASAP.


Ben Kumanovski

Director | Cinematographer

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