The Future of Imaging: Considering Camera Resolutions and Revolutions
The problem with trying to predict the future is that you are usually wrong. So I’m going to keep my forecasts in this article modest and grounded in today’s reality. (As much as I’d like a recording device with a direct connection to my brain, it’s probably not going to be on shelves for Christmas.)
My first pronouncement: In the future, we will be shooting whatever format of camera, codec and media best suits the job we are doing. I think it is safe to say that the future will be about expanded choices, even if those choices happen to be what we politely call “legacy formats.”
Yet there are still trends, and it is those trends that I’ll highlight with examples of current and promised cameras.
It’s All About The Sensor
Large-sensor cameras are with us to stay, and we will only see improvements in problem areas including aliasing, rolling shutter and the dreaded “jello-cam.”
Let’s start with DSLRs. I have been particularly impressed with the video quality from the Sony Alpha SLT-A77, with its ability to truly autofocus and the extra sensor that greatly reduces undesirable effects mentioned above. (The camera’s Translucent Mirror Technology directs light to both the image sensor and the Phase Detection AF sensor simultaneously.)
The Sony A77 sets what I would hope will be a trend in DSLR image processing, yet there is a rather significant economic factor that I believe has limited its adoption: the majority of us are invested in Canon EF and/or Nikon glass. Having to rebuild a collection with Sony Alpha lenses might be prohibitive for many, but I would ask those just starting out to seriously to consider this camera and format. I’ll have lots to say about glass in the course of this article, but suffice it to say that both Sony’s product and the Zeiss Alpha lenses are superb optical tools.
Another DSLR to catch my eye is the Nikon D800. With its APS-C size sensor, the D800 is the first DSLR to output a clean HDMI signal (without video overlays), a major advance. Other DSLRs output HDMI that may be suitable for external monitoring, but until the D800, none put out a true 1920 x 1080 signal via HDMI. We are no longer bound by the camera’s internal H.264 codec, and the world of external recorders with 4:2:2 color sampling now becomes available to us.
Canon continues to make strides with its DSLR product line, with image processing improvements in the EOS 5D Mark III and more compression options in the EOS-1D C, which is capable of recording Full HD (1920 x 1080) video to onboard CF cards via two compression schemes: IPB (I-nterframe, P-redicted Frame, B-idirectional Predicted Frame) and All-I (All Intraframe). The introduction of the mirrorless EOS M series brings DSLR-like video quality to a much smaller form factor.
Over the near term, DSLRs and mirrorless smaller cameras will continue to occupy significant roles in production, and development of their feature sets will certainly continue.
In direct relationship to sensors and sensor size is, of course, resolution.
HD Is So Early 21st Century
The original RED ONE camera was a harbinger of the future. RED simply told us that more pixels give us not only more resolution but also more options.
Since RED set the pace for the future, that’s where I’ll start.
After many years of speculation, promises, reimagining and development, RED’s SCARLET has finally arrived. For $9,700 (body only), it has the same 5K sensor as the EPIC. What’s important to note here as it relates to trends is the concept of scaling offerings. More manufacturers may offer scaled versions of their technology, allowing users to choose among cameras with similar basic feature sets based on their budget.
Canon U.S.A. took the 2012 NAB Show by storm in announcing the EOS C500 and the EOS-1D C. Canon had barely begun shipments of the $16,000 EOS C300 when they up the ante with these 4K offerings. These three cameras with their respective sensor sizes and resolutions are additional hints of the future.
With its internal 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 Long GOP encoding, the C300 is a broadcast-level unit. Combined with Canon’s new cinema lenses, the two 4K cameras greatly simplify recording beyond the 1920 x 1080 point. But even for broadcast purposes, 4K scales very nicely to HD. Another trend: the development of cameras that can serve multiple purposes.
But you don’t need cameras in the price range of RED or Canon to benefit from 4K. JVC is shipping the GY-HMQ10 at the $5,000 price point, offering 4K resolution with four HDMI outputs.
All of this talk of 4K raises another question: Will 4K ever be supported in a consumer television product? It is safe to say that 3D consumer television has not been met with overwhelming consumer enthusiasm. Broadcasting in 4K would require an investment which, at least in the intermediate term, would have little likelihood of showing returns. While 4K televisions were shown at the 2012 CES show and 4K/8K standards have already been announced, prices are going to have to come down and consumer spending must go up to push 4K into the world’s living rooms. But I won’t discount the possibility in the longer term.
Whether it is for theatrical presentation or online (beware: you need some heavy-duty bandwidth and processing power to display 4K online video), expect the beyond-1080 trend to continue.
But Not All Is 4K, 5K, 8K and Beyond
There is a whole crop of cameras currently available or about to be introduced that are in the neighborhood of 2K or slightly better. The first of these stole the 2012 NAB Show and may be on the street by the time you read this.
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera, priced at just $3,000 (including some $1,600 of bundled software, including DaVinci Resolve and UltraScope), is, as some have remarked, close to the original promise of the “3K for $3K” that RED touted with SCARLET. Though the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is in reality about 2.5K, some might contend that the future is actually here. Record raw or compressed formats. Record internally to SSD or out via Thunderbolt to compatible computer. Input and manage massive amounts of metadata. Use Canon EF lenses or optional PL mount lenses. Use it as a basic box or kit it out with a souped-up rig.
In the coming months there will be enough units on the street to make a determination of the quality of the Blackmagic camera’s image and the properties of the sensor. But make no mistake: “beyond 1080” and “accessible to most budgets” will no longer be contradictory.
I have a minor bone to pick with Blackmagic about its Cinema Camera. We seem to be dealing with sensors sized at Super 35 and beyond (in the case of the Panasonic AG-AF100 and Panasonic and Olympus mirrorless DSLRs, Micro Four-Thirds), but I wish that Blackmagic had chosen a Super 16-sized sensor. Why? It’s about lenses. There is a ton of great Super 16 glass out there that will vignette with larger sensors or, if used with some RED cameras, allow just a portion of the sensor. This is such wonderful old glass that could be repurposed for the digital world.
But enter an opportunity (and a tempering of my critique of BMD) with the Digital Bolex D16. In the April issue of Digital Video magazine, our technical editor, Jay Holben, wrote of a project begun by Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider to create the D16, a digital version of the famous Bolex H16 16mm film camera on which many of us who started in the film age learned to shoot. And the goal is to bring this camera to market at the $3,000 price point.
The D16 is being brought to market with the help of another trend: crowdsourcing. Using Kickstarter and promotion from blogs such as that of Philip Bloom, the duo raised $250,000 and sold out the first promised batch of cameras. Overnight.
The D16 will record up to 32 fps at 2048 x 1152 and all the way to 90 fps at 480p. It will record raw to internal CF cards with an internal solid-state drive acting as image buffer. The original plan was to ship 100 cameras to the first investors by the end of summer 2012. We will see if that goal can be achieved. But now, look at the opportunity here for all that great Super 16 glass that’s just sitting around.
And another trend, which I also see following the great innovation of Jim Jannard. A camera emerges not from a major manufacturer but from driven individuals who can envision how they want the future to look.
And the Future Is on the Drawing Board
Well, no more drawing boards, but you get the point.
The Apertus Axiom open-source camera, another crowdsourced project, delivers a full 4K resolution. Apertus’ goal is to bring to market a camera body with Super 35 sensor, 4K resolution, raw DNG recording, 15 stops of dynamic range and PL mount lens system for under $10,000. There is no time frame for the camera. Once again, the future is in the hands of those who strive to shape it.
Don’t Forget HD
Because of budgets, workflows, habits or simply because they can get by with it, news will be shot in legacy formats (even SD) for the foreseeable future.
Increasingly, however, we are seeing the small-form-factor HD camera in the hands of photojournalists.
And it makes sense. Large-sensor cameras produce shallow depth of field not suitable for run-and-gun ENG scenarios. Don’t discount the classic CMOS or even CCD cameras for newsgathering.
But even here are trends. Sony has just introduced the PMW-200, ostensibly a replacement for the trusted PMW-EX1R, that will record 50 Mb/s 4:2:2 directly to SxS cards, making it suitable for broadcast. Canon already records this format in its XF line, and Panasonic’s line of cameras with AVC-Intra codecs record 4:2:2 color sampling. The difference with the Sony offering is its three 1/2” CMOS sensors, besting the 1/3” sensors found in similarly priced offerings from other vendors.
Whether 1/2” or 1/3” is better for the evening news is something I will let the engineering crowd sort out. But for our purposes, the future is not just about large sensors or higher resolution. There will always be a future for news and event videography alongside production-oriented digital cinema.
In this area, the offerings from Sony, Panasonic and JVC offer remote apps, Wi-Fi control and, most importantly, enhanced metadata. Today’s NLEs—and certainly tomorrow’s—are increasingly metadata-aware; in fact, metadata is the key to the postproduction workflow. Panasonic’s AG-HPX250, for example, has a wireless metadata option that allows producers to control and enter metadata during shooting and during footage review. Sony will introduce similar features in the PMW-200.
The Future Is Bright
So what will your future camera be? Very simply, one that does exactly the job you want. Need high-speed? Anything from the Sony NEX-FS700 to the Phantom offerings from Vision Research will give you what you want at your budget level. Need ENG? HD devices will become more compact while offering enhanced metadata. What about cinema-level production? Choose your camera based on your budget, and you’ll still enjoy many of the features of higher-priced cameras even at the lower end of the price spectrum.
Choose your approach and your market. I personally shoot a DSLR, an HD camera and a large-sensor digital cinema camera. What I use is dictated by the shooting scenario. And I feel confident that the future will bring even more options that I couldn’t even begin to envision.