4K Grid (wikipedia)
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4K. What’s all the Hubub, Bub?

A while back, I was chatting with Scott Bourne about the emerging 4K acquisition standard and the video camera “arms race” originally started by Red Digital Cinema. At the time, he said “Rich Harrington is always talking about 4K as well. I get it. It’s a bigger frame, but I am not sure how that will impact still photographers.”

Over the last eighteen months, a lot has changed. Panasonic, Sony, GoPro and, most recently, Canon have brought new 4K capable cameras to market. Even our smartphones now capture 4K video. With this in mind, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Let’s see if we can shed some light on that issue.

Aren’t most DSLR’s already 4K?

Yes. Most DSLR sensors already produce 4K images still images.

Until recently, sensors, processors, and memory buses were not robust enough write those still images at a high enough frame rate to reliably produce 4K video at 24fps or greater. One could shoot 4K time lapse with a DSLR, but that was the most one could expect.

Following Moore’s Law, the technology that enables 4K has gotten smaller, faster and cheaper. As a result, 4K is emerging as the “need to have” not a “nice to have”.

Why is 4K emerging as a standard?

  • Flexibility In Post For the moment, 1080p is the broadcast standard; 4K is roughly four times larger. This gives editors and VFX artists some wiggle room in post when the delivery format is a lower resolution. Such flexibility allows an video editor to “punch in” on a shot in much the same way a photographer might crop a still image to strengthen a frame. 4K also gives a VFX artist a lot more pixels to work with. The most obvious VFX application is motion stabilization, which analyzes video frame by frame to produce a smooth image, but crops the frame in the process.
  • Emerging Distribution Standards For the past few years, 4K televisions have been curiosities at CES. In 2016, the 4K (UHD) television arrived in a big way. Look for 1080p (HD) televisions to slowly go away. There are good arguments as to why 4K TV may be overkill, but valid as they are, the 4K trend is not going anywhere. Netflix, Youtube and Vimeo all support 4K/UHD playback.

Is there a downside to 4K capture?

Like any new standard, 4K comes at a cost. The obvious cost is new cameras and faster memory cards. The real cost is storage. 4K footage eats hard drive space. Even if you acquire footage in emerging codecs like HEVC/h265 and VP9, the filesizes get pretty big, pretty quickly. There are lots of factors that go into accurately projecting file size, but here is a simple comparison assuming 60 seconds of footage recorded at 24fps.

  • HD (1920×1080) = ~ 8 GB
  • 2K (2048×1556) = ~ 17 GB
  • 4K (4096×3112) = ~ 68 GB

As you might imagine, 4K footage adds up pretty quickly. And, moving all of these large files adds to the time it takes offload & back up one’s raw data.

I shoot stills. Why should I care?

Hybrid photography has been an emerging trend for a couple of years now. That trend will only grow. Regardless of your chosen subjects, clients and editors are going to start asking for video as well (if they haven’t already). Knowing the video capabilities of your DSLR or mirrorless camera will be increasingly important as we move forward.

In addition, manufacturers like are starting to explore how 4K video might serve the still photographer. Panasonic has already introduced their and things start to get interesting.

OK. I get 4K now. Surely, this is the end of the line?

Sadly, no. This industry never sleeps. As 4K emerges as the broadcast standard, NHK and Sony are already standardizing on 8K acquisition. And, RED, who started the trend, has already moved on to 6K in their top-end cinema cameras.

So, there you have it. A quick look at 4K and why it might matter to you as consumer and a visual storyteller. Have questions or concerns? Let me know in the comments below.

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