HDSLR Encoding Wars – Premiere Pro vs Final Cut Pro
Browsing the web reading various reports and reviews about Premiere Pro I keep coming across the statement that because Premiere Pro works without the need to transcode H.264 DSLR files the footage inherently retains more quality.
After using Premiere Pro for a week or so I decided to spend some time investigating this theory and came up with some interesting results that I thought I’d share with you. Firstly let me describe the workflow involved in each process.
For both workflows I used the same H.264 mov file from an interview I shot recently on the Canon 5D mark II. The file has a runtime of 4:41 and in it’s original state is 1.5GB. This was a particularly tricky shot for the codec as the background contains shaded solids caused by a natural vignette from my 70-200 lens. The H.264 codec in the 5D struggled with this and the source footage contains some macro blocking, but nothing too terrible. Lets see how the two workflows deal with it…
Throughout this post you need to have your browser full screen and click on the images to see the detail, the small ones below don’t really show much difference.
Final Cut Pro
• The h.264 file was imported using Canons E1 plugin with the transcode set to ProRes 422(LT)
• Once transcoded / imported the clip was placed on a sequence with the same settings
• The sequence was exported using the ‘Quicktime Export’ option in Final cut with ‘make self contained’ enabled
• The result was a 2.67GB ProRes file
Here’s the same frame after that process. The result looks pretty much the same as the original and of course retains the macro blocking recorded by the 5D when shot.
Next the ProRes file above was opened in Compressor and encoded back to a 1280×720 H.264 quicktime file. I used this as an example because it’s the setting I use for uploading to vimeo and I’m used to the results that are normally achieved. I set the bit-rate to 5000kbps with a forced keyframe every 25 frames.
The result was a 191.6 MB file. Note the worsened macro blocking in the blue/grey wall on the right, this is caused by the encoder struggling with the natural vignette caused by my 70-200 lens.
Premiere Required a lot less steps because it works directly with the source footage.
• The h.264 file was imported into Premiere and didn’t require any transcoding
Here’s how the frame in question looks in Premiere itself, this is a framegrab taken from the source monitor and you can see that the full quality from the original mov file is retained and to my eye does indeed look slightly better than the file transcoded to ProRes by FCP.
The clip was then placed on a DSLR 1080/25 sequence and then exported as a 1280×720 H.264 video using a max bitrate of 5000kbps and a keyframe every 25 frames.
The result was a 181 MB file. Unfortunately the gain in quality is all lost by this point and the macro blocking in the blue/grey area is a lot more prominent than the FCP/Compressor export at similar settings. The white wall to the left of the image looks a lot worse in this one with bad macro blocking throughout. Note also that the skin tones on the subject look softer / less detailed than the version from Final Cut as well.
It seems that even though the footage within Premiere itself is holding up really well it’s degrading more upon export than my FCP workflow. I spent many hours testing lots of different export options, codecs and formats as well as playing with options in the preferences, I still couldn’t export a file that matched or exceeded the image quality in the file exported from FCP.
What is the magic setting to export from premiere and retain that quality?
As I stated at the start of this post the original footage from the 5D was far from perfect, it already contained compression artefacts and as such does not make for a perfect test. That being said this makes it a great real world test as after all these cameras don’t shoot perfect footage so we have to deal with the nasty h.264 codec thats being produced one way or another.
I’ll finish off by reinforcing the fact that I’m very new to Premiere Pro, this could very well be due to user error on my part so if there’s something obvious I’m missing or any other tip you can give please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.
Let me know your thoughts.