4K video may change still photography for the better

If you’re a pro photographer, especially a pro photojournalist, sports or wildlife photographer, the camera bodies of choice today are the Nikon D4S (MSRP $6,499.95) and the Canon EOS-1D X (MSRP $6,799.00). Not for the faint of wallet, especially with pricey full-frame lenses to buy on top of that.

And even if you have the budget for cameras like these, they are also bulky and heavy. The D4S body alone weighs 1,180 grams (about 2.6 pounds), and the EOS-1DX body alone weighs in at a whopping 1,530 grams (just under 3.4 pounds).  Add on a battery grip, a big full-frame telephoto lens and a bag with a few additional full-frame lenses, and you’re looking at a serious backache.

So why do professionals subject themselves to all that expense, bulk and weight? Because these cameras are the best tools available for their needs. Here are a few reasons why:

A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm "full frame" camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon's entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of http://www.macrumors.com/2014/07/17/iphone6-sony-13-megapixel-imx220-sensor/
A comparison of various sensor sizes. The dark orange square represents a 35mm “full frame” camera. The light orange square represents the 1.6X crop APS-C sensor found in Canon’s entry-level camera line, and the light green square represents Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds. Meanwhile, the smaller sensors are what you would find in point-and-shoot cameras and, at the smallest point (the dark blue), the cameras in smart phones. Image courtesy of MacRumors.

 

  • Full-frame sensors. Full-frame image sensors (that is, sensors the same size as 35mm film) provide lots of advantages in terms of shallow depth of field effects and image quality at high sensitivity (ISO) settings. Quite simply, bigger sensors allow more light to come in. A full-frame sensor (depicted in orange in the image below) is 36mm x 24mm.
  • Fast burst rates. The D4S can shoot continuously at 11 frames per second, which is very fast, and the EOS-1D X can shoot even faster at 14 frames per second.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus. Fast burst rates are meaningless without accurate autofocus, especially for fast-moving subjects like soccer players or birds in flight. You will just end up with a whole lot of blurry images. So these DSLR cameras have phase detect autofocus sensors.
  • Optical viewfinders. Those who use these cameras in the field can’t afford to miss a moment to capture the perfect shot. That’s one reason they tend to prefer optical viewfinders, because “Live View” on an electronic viewfinder is not truly live — electronic viewfinders are slightly delayed because the camera has to process the image coming in through the sensor as well as any exposure adjustments before the image appears in the viewfinder. For most photography work, the delay is not significant enough to matter, but for these users, it might be the difference between capturing the shot and missing it. Also, most electronic viewfinders do not display the entire frame.
Homeless car
This was the aftermath of a tornado on September 27, 2002 in Mooresville, Indiana. The tornado blew away the garage that had been sheltering this Corvette. Shot on a Nikon D1.
  • Weather sealing. Field work for sports, wildlife and general photojournalism can happen in all sorts of conditions and elements. I experienced this myself back in September 2002 when I was working as a reporter for The Mooresville-Decatur Times, and a tornado struck the town. After the tornados had passed, I had to go out and photograph the storm damage, and it was still raining quite a bit in the aftermath. It was a good thing the Nikon D1 I was using was weather sealed.
  • Fast ergonomics. These cameras are loaded with physical buttons that allow the photographer to change settings on the fly without having to rely on menus. The deep grips also help keep the camera steady in the photographer’s hand. Ergonomics might not be such a big deal for amateurs, but professionals who take very large numbers of photos and spend a lot of time holding a camera need a camera that “feels” right and doesn’t require navigating a lot of menus to change settings

A bold, new(ish) idea

But is there a better way? I think so. Enter the Panasonic Lumix GH4.

It has a burst rate of 12 frames per second, has a deep grip and lots of external dials just like a professional DSLR, a new “Depth from Defocus” autofocus system that is fast and accurate for tracking moving subjects, weather sealing and more. And, by the way, the MSRP is $1,699.99, and it only weights 560 grams (about 1.2 pounds).

Your fancy 1080p HDTV only has about 2 megapixels of resolution

Not only that, but it does something significant that the flagships from Canon and Nikon can’t: it shoots 4K ultra high-definition video. But why is this important to still photographers?

Video is, fundamentally, a series of photographs…one in each frame. And, at a minimum, video is shot at 24 frames per second.

Most modern high-definition cameras shoot 1080p video with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you multiply 1920 by 1080, you get approximately 2 million, or about 2 megapixels. So each image in the frame would have a very low resolution in terms of photography and would only be usable for making very small prints: a 4″ x 6″ at 300 dots per inch. Larger prints are possible, but the quality becomes degraded.

But 4K video is shot at 3840 x 2160 pixels. Multiply 3840 by 2160, and you get more than 8 million, or more than 8 megapixels. That’s enough resolution for an excellent 8″ x 12″ print — larger than a full page in National Geographic or Sports Illustrated. Cinema 4K is shot at 4096 x 2160, but that’s a strange aspect ratio for still photos.

Unless the photographer needs an even larger print than 8″ x 12″ and cannot fudge on print resolution at all (an 8-megapixel photo could cover a 2-page spread in National Geographic at 200 dpi instead of 300, and that’s still considered “good” resolution), then the GH4 offers the ability to capture very printable action photos at 24 frames per second.

Drawbacks

So why isn’t everyone jumping on the GH4 bandwagon? There are a few drawbacks to the GH4, but they don’t seem to be enough to make up for the price and weight difference or the potential for 24 fps photography.

  • Sensor size. The GH4 uses a Four Thirds sensor, which is considerably smaller than full frame: 18mm x 13.5mm, depicted in lime green above. There are some compromises in terms of depth of field and image quality at very high ISOs, but the GH4 produces images that are quite usable for 4K video up to ISO 3200, and usable up to ISO 6400 at smaller sizes, including 1080p video. Sure, a full-frame sensor provides super-shallow depth of field effects, but that’s more important for portraiture than for sports or wildlife photography. You can still get somewhat shallow depth of field with Micro Four Thirds cameras. And, since the sensor is smaller, the lenses can be a lot smaller and lighter too. For situations when you really need full frame image quality and 4K video, you can buy a Sony A7S for $2,499.99 in addition to the GH4 and still spend less and bear less weight than you would on a D4S or EOS 1D X. (Unfortunately the Sony A7S is not weather sealed, and its burst rate for stills is only 5 fps, or else I would recommend it instead of the GH4.)
The man on the other side of the glass.
This boy had his face pressed up against the glass at the zoo, making an interesting reflection. With my 45mm f1.8 portrait lens, I was able to achieve shallow depth of field in very low light even with a relatively small Four Thirds sensor. Shot with Olympus E-PL5.
  • No optical viewfinder. The biggest reason why the Panasonic GH4 and the Sony A7S are so light is that they do not have the pentamirror mechanism found in traditional DSLR cameras. And that means no optical viewfinder — only an electronic “Live View” viewfinder. But electronic viewfinders are not what they used to be — the electronic viewfinders on these cameras have so little lag that it’s “nigh imperceptible.” Both electronic viewfinders also cover 100% of the frame, which is an improvement over EVFs of the recent past. And the advantage of Live View is that you can see the results of exposure adjustments on the fly before shooting. EVF latency will never be zero, but with the GH4 and cameras like it, it’s awfully close.
  • Limited lens choices. Panasonic has the basics down in terms of professional lenses with its 12-35mm (24-70mm equivalent) and 35-100mm (70-200mm equivalent) weather-sealed, stabilized f2.8 zoom lenses. There are also some tremendous prime lenses in Panasonic’s lineup to get most of the shallow depth of field effects that you can find in a full-frame camera…including a 15mm (30mm equivalent) f1.7, a 25mm (50mm equivalent) f1.4 that I personally own and love, and 42.5mm (85mm equivalent) f1.2 portrait lens. Plus, Olympus has some great lenses of its own in the Micro Four Thirds lineup, with more pro lenses on the way. Canon and Nikon still have the edge in terms of lens selection, but a professional can build a fairly complete Micro Four Thirds lens kit at much lower prices and with much less weight than with full-frame Canon or Nikon lenses. (And maybe, just maybe, the excellent Olympus OM-D E-M1 will get 4K video as well…if not, we know Olympus is getting into the 4K game soon.)

Will this be enough to pry the Nikon D4S or the Canon EOS-1D X out of a professional photojournalist’s arthritic hand? Or will the next-generation pro DSLRs just start shooting 4K video too? Will we start to see more 8K video (with each frame being a 32-megapixel photo) or even higher resolutions? Memory cards that can hold terabytes of ultra HD video? Will the DSLR video revolution reverse course and place camcorders in every photographer’s hand instead of still cameras in every videographer’s hand? Will photo and video editing software converge to help photographers sift through 24 photos for every single second they were covering an event to find that one perfect image for publication? Smart phones that take professional-quality photos? It’s certainly an exciting time for photography.

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