Do You Have a 4K Future?


You likely have an HD TV in your home. Maybe more than one. A 3D TV? Maybe not. 3D TV has been one of the big flops of the past few years. A technology no one really wanted (except maybe in theaters for block-buster popcorn movies). But the TV makers (Sony, Samsung, Panasonic et al) are in a jamb. They need to sell you a new TV, but TVs last a long time, and once you’d gotten your first HDTV have become a sort of appliance. Who gets excited about buying a new refrigerator?

The next step in TV evolution isn’t 3D, it’s 4K. There are no 4K TVs at the moment (at least not under $30,000), and only a few high-end projectors, but that’s going to change quickly over the next few years. Many new major film productions are being shot in 4K, and increasingly still photographers on commercial assignments are shooting stills and video with the same 4K camera. 

Because 4K is the hot topic in video production for many pros shooting commercially it will become a part of their workflow. 4K TV in the home isn’t going to happen overnight. But 4K production is here today, and 4K projectors are what’s being installed in cineplexes around the world. This also has implications for stills photographers as well as movie makers of all strips.

Just as prior to the broad availability of HD smart producers starting building inventories of HD product, this is now happening again with 4K. This is one of the reasons why the RED Scarlet-X (today’s only “affordable” 4K system) is on constant back-order.

What is 4K and Why Should I Care?

Canon 4K Prototype

What is 4K, you ask?Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it.  It’s simply a video resolution of about 4096 × 2304, or roughly 8 million pixels. This is nothing special in digital still photography terms, but in video and film production it’s the new holy grail. 

Today’s HD TV standard has a maximum resolution of 1920 X 1080. 4K offers double that resolution. It is impressive as hell. It’s immersive – more so in my opinion than 3D. It’s as big a step up in visual realism over HD as HD was over SD.

If you’ve ever compared the image quality difference side-by-side between 35mm and large format film, or between the output of a say a 24MP DSLR and an 80 Megapixel medium format back, then you’ll need no convincing of what a difference 4K over today’s HD can make.

But, What About Stills?

Image Courtesy RED

But (I can hear you say) I’m a stills photographers. I don’t care about video. In any event, 8 Megapixels is small compared to my current 16 –18 – 24 Megapixel stills camera.

True. But for many top commercial photographers who have to produce both stills and motion on fashion, commercial, and industrial shoots, the RED Epic or new Scarlet-X allow one camera and set of lenses to do both. 8 Megapixels is more than enough to do a cover, or a spread for a major magazine.

The most successful photographers these days are ones who can deliver whatever media the client asks for, and increasingly motion as well as stills are demanded. The cost of production is so high these days that a separate shoot (sets, crew, lighting) for stills and motion is simply impractical and unnecessarily expensive. 

RED Scarlet X



At the CES show in early January, 2012 JVC introduced theHMQ10 camcorder. While theRED Scarlet-Xis quite a different animal (costing at least $15,000 for a fully configured system, and more when properly equipped) the JVC HMQ10 will sell for less than $5,000 when it ships in April. Canon has announced a 4K hybrid stills/video DSLR, but other than that it will likely appear within the next 12 months little else has been revealed.

The new JVC is therefore the first camera to shoot 4K that is affordable by both pros and amateurs interested in exploring 4K video. But before further discussion of the HMQ10, it should be noted for complete accuracy that for some people this camera isn’t quite 4K, because its horizontal resolution is only 3840, rather than 4096. This is a difference of less than 7%. A quibble, in my opinion.

To be precise, the JVC HMQ10 shoots what is calledQuad Full High Definition(QFHD), which is comparable in size to four adjacent 1920X1080 images. Indeed the HMQ10 shoots to four SD cards simultaneously, and has four HDMI outputs which can drive a QFHD projector in real-time.

Each of the SD cards records a high bit rate quadrant of the total image and then these are merged together afterward by proprietary JVC software into a single 4K video file for subsequent editing. At this time it isn’t clear whether this software is Windows only or supports Macs as well. What should be understood though is that the image isn’t being “stitched”. It starts as one coherent 4K image but for bandwidth purposes is divided up into four data streams for recording to four separate SD cards. The reason for this is simply economy. Whereas the RED Scarlet-X requires the use of expensive solid state hard drives, the JVC uses common SD cards, though then requiring that these four data streams be recombined. Quite clever actually.

I won’t go into the rest of the HMQ10’s specs because they are covered quite well ontheir information page, and also in theCamcorderInfo.compreview. I expect to test this fascinating new camera in April when it becomes available, and will have a detailed review here at that time.

What They Don’t Get

Quite a few sites have mentioned the announcement of the HMQ10 with enthusiasm. But surprisingly these reports have been filled with comments about the difficulty, if not near impossibility, of editing 4K video, and also how since there are no affordable 4K monitors, there’s little point in shooting 4K at the moment. 

Well, with all due respect to my media colleagues and various pundits,you’ve missed the point. Firstly, editing 4K simply is not an issue. BothFinal Cut Pro X,Premier Proand likely other NLE’s are fully capable of editing 4K video. It’s just not an issue, and people do it all day every day with RED 4K footage.

Secondly, the fact that 4K monitors are scarce and pricey (today) is beside the point. One doesn’t have to be shooting for theatrical release to benefit from 4K shooting, just as one doesn’t have to make 30X40 inch prints to appreciate and benefit from the image quality that a 60 or 80 Megapixel medium format stills back can produce.

Mark Dubovoywill have a significant article here on the issue of resolution in the near future. But, few would disagree that a high resolution image looks better when scaled down than an image shot with lower resolution at its native size. (All other things being equal, of course).  It therefore seems to me that even without affordable 4K screens at the moment there are clear advantages to shooting 4K, whether with a Scarlet-X, a JVC HMQ10, or the forthcoming Canon 4K camera. Future-proofing ones productions is another. 

The other thing to note is that when shooting 60P in 4K, for normal cadence each frame will be at 1/125 second (minimum), and with 8MP resolution likely quite suitable for extraction for stills use. Many photographers are shooting stills today with their RED Ones, RED Epics and Scarlet-Xs in 4K or 5K, but are also extracting stills from the video stream. How well this will work with the HMQ10 remains to be seen, but is fascinating to contemplate.

No Free Lunch

Don’t get too carried away though. While reasonably priced at less than $5,000, the new JVC is no Scarlet-X. Most importantly, unlike the RED it does not shoot raw video. Though the specs aren’t specific at this time it looks as if the camera uses 4:2:0 colour encoding, while the RED cameras shoot raw, with all that that implies for image quality and grading.

Nevertheless, for non-demanding applications, and with its 144 Mbps (36 Mbps X 4) data rate, image quality on the JVC should be quite high nonetheless.

Is there 4K in your future? Maybe. Almost certainly in your home, and quite possible in an upcoming new camera. It all depends on the role that video plays in your personal and professional life. More on this here soon.

January, 2012