Why 4K Matters

Blackmagic 4K Production Camera

You’ve probably started to hear about 4K video, even if you’re someone who is not that interested in, or who even shoots video. Why does it matter then?

Because, we are all consumers of video and “film” in our homes, in theaters, and on our computer monitors. During the past decade the transition has been made from SD (Standard Definition) to HDTV (Hi Definition), and one can’t even buy an SD TV any more. Flat screen HD TVs are now so ubiquitous and inexpensive that they are found in almost every home in the developed world.

But the companies who make TV sets have a problem. They want to sell you new ones. But unlike early tube TVs in the 50’s and 60’s, there are no TV repair men any more. These things are now so inexpensive that if after some years it dies, it’s easier to buy a new one than get the old one repaired. Thus the manufacturer’s problem. How to get people to buy new ones? Those factories must be kept humming.

Beginning a few years ago t hey tried 3D. While 3D films have gained some traction in movie theaters, especially for blockbusters and action movies, on the home front 3D TV has been a bust.  But now there’s light at the end of the tunnel for manufacturers in the form of 4K, or what is also known as Ultra-HD TV. A 4K TV will have four times the resolution of your regular 1920X1080 HDTV.

Sounds great right? Who doesn’t want more resolution, especially if you’re a photographer or film buff and someone who can appreciate why it’s of interest and importance. Sadly, there are a few flies in the stew. In no particular order…

– 4K TVs and monitors are expensive. Last year Sony’s first 4K TV was more than $25,000. Late this July (2013) Sony started shippingtwo new 4K TVs, with the 55″ model costing “only” $4,999. Quite a drop. And there’s no doubt that over the next couple of years we’ll see even lower prices, just as we did with HDTVs in the last decade.

– Delivery of 4K content is also an issue. There simply isn’t the bandwidth available for 4K on current cable or satellite systems. Not unless you want to cut the number of channels available by 75%. Broadcast bandwidth is an expensive commodity.

There is a solution in sight, and again Sony is leading the way, this time in the form of the4K Ultra-HD Media Server. This $700 box has a 2 Terrabyte hard drive, Gigabit Ethernet and an SD card slot (keep that in mind – this small aspect is important). The box also comes pre-loaded with ten Ultra-HD 4K movies. Since Sony owns one of the world’s largest movie libraries, this is a natural for them.

After you’ve watched those ten movies though, then what? We’ll Sony has that covered as well. Their Video Unlimited 4K Networkis going to start delivering movies and other content in Q4 of 2013 via broadband. Sort of like Netflix, but not real time. Depending on the speed of your ISP it could take a few hours to download a movie. Just do it overnight or while doing something else. The 4K videos will then live on the device’s 2TB hard drive.

– Then there’s that little SD card slot. While Blockbuster and other video stores are going out of business, and DVDs and Blu-Ray discs seem like last year’s news, imagine being able to buy or rent movies on a SD card. The retail price of an 8GB SD card is now under $10. At wholesale they are probably just a couple of bucks. Now add the fact that an SD card is so small and light that it will fit in a regular mail envelope, and here we have other delivery mechanism. As I wrote – keep this in mind, because I’ll have more to say about this shortly.

So are 4K videos and movies in your entertainment future? I would say ‘Yes’ – definitely yes. The technology will lead and the consumer will follow.

4K Ultra-HD is not without its detractors though. It’s a big threat to traditional broadcasters, cable and satellite TV providers, because it appears that they are going to be out of the loop. There are also those that say that unless you’re watching a really large screen you won’t be able to see the difference. I’ll simply reply to that with the observation that I’ve seen enough 4K demos at trade shows and conferences that this is nonsense. This is akin to those that say – why shoot with medium format if you’re never going to make really big prints? This argument simply doesn’t hold water for anyone who has seen the difference in even small prints for themselves.

The Luminous Landscape and 4K Ultra-HD

We have three main activites here at LuLa. The web site with its thousands of articles and more than 4,000 pages published over the past 14 years speaks for itself. We also operate and teach travel workshops and seminars around the world. Thirdly, we have been publishing magazine style videos and training films for more than ten years.

When we started, we queried our readers – would you prefer to receive our videos on VHS or DVD? At the time most people were still on dial-up so downloads wern’t a factor, yet. Though VHS cassettes were still mainstream, our readers told us that they wanted DVDs, so that’s what we published.

As soon as HDV camcorders were available at affordable prices we started to shoot in HD. We couldn’t publish true HD because that would require Blu-Ray discs, and eventually we stopped publishing DVDs all together and moved to download only.

But our switch to shooting HD video was a smart move. It means that historically most of our videos are in HD, and when we moved to downloads our readers (and viewers) could access our material in HD, something that DVDs couldn’t handle. It’s worth noting that while Blu-ray has the capacity to carry enough data for 4K video, the Blu-ray standard is only for HD video.

There also doesn’t appear to be any move toward updating the standard or introducing a new one. That’s why Sony is moving to broadband distribution, as will others eventually. Just as MP3 and music downloading has almost killed the music CD business, so too will broadband delivery of TV.EVERYTHINGis moving online, and while traditional broadcasters will kick and scream, there’s likely nothing that they can do about it.

Meanwhile back at LuLa, we’ve been shooting our tutorials and travel videos with a variety of HD cameras, currently including mostly Micro Four Thirds, mainly the Panasonic AF100, GH3, and GH2. We’ve been looking at the 4K alternatives from RED, Sony and Canon, but they are all too expensive for our current sales volume. Without lenses a usable 4K RED Scarlet system is close to $20,000, and we need at least two of them.

But in early 2013 Blackmagic announced their4K Production Camerafor $4,000. This we can afford. For those not in the loop, Blackmagic is an Australian designer and manufacturer of a wide range of pro-grade video equipment. Their 2.5K (slightly larger than HD)Digital Cinema Camerablew the socks of the industry last year, and though the company ran into some production and delivery problems, now that these cameras (both in Canon EF and Micro Four Thirds lens mount version) are in user hands, there is little but praise for them. (In August, Blackmagic dropped the price of the 2.5K camera in both lens mounts to $1,995). 

So what’s the big deal? It’s because they shoot raw video, using the open standard CinemaDNG format. The thing is that almost all video is in “baked” formats that are similar to JPGs in still photography. Raw video though offers all of the controls that raw stills do, and all of the advantages. Hell – you can even grade (colour adjust) VideoDNG in Lightroom, Camera Raw of Capture One if you wish.

So the Blackmagic Cinema camera is cool because it shoots raw and now costs less than $2,000.Hah!The Blackmagic 4K Production camera also shoots rawand4K for under $4,000. This is a serious kick in the butt to the rest of the industry. RED, Sony and Canon’s 4K raw video solutions cost between $20,000 and  $30,000 for operational systems, and no one else is in the game.

Cloud Bank – Antarctica 2007
Phase One P45 

Looking to The Future

Just as we made the move from SD to HD, and have no regrets whatsoever, we are now about to make the move from HD to Ultra-HD 4K. We have two Blackmagic 4K Production cameras on order. Even with a lot of necessary accessories, two complete camera systems cost far less than one solution from RED, Sony or Canon.

As for lenses, the BMPC4K, as we call it, has a Canon EF lens mount. I switched to Nikon about 5 years ago, and Chris switched to MFT with Panasonic video / stills cameras. Not an issue though. All of my Nikon lenses will fit via an inexpensive adaptor. Video doesn’t need autofocus, auto iris and other niceties that still photographers require, so just about any lens that offers full-frame coverage will work on the BMPC4K. By the way, the sensor in the camera is what’s called Super-35mm (a motion picture term) and has a crop factor of .8X against Full Frame. This gives a 1.3X factor when calculating coverage; still lots of shallow DOF. Also, the 4K Black Magic camera has a “global shutter”, which means no “rolling shutter” artifacts.

Delivery and Timing

The title of this section is a bit of a pun, because I’m referring both to the camera itself and to our eventual videos. The latest information (early August, 2013) is that deliveries will start later this month, or next. We are hoping to use our  BMPC4Ks to shoot our January, 2014 Antarctic Expedition, (sold out), with a couple of months beforehand to get familiar with the cameras and up to speed on the workflow.

Our plan is to shoot most of our videos from then on in 4K. We will definitely be releasing them via our online store as HD for quite some time. That’s what most people will want and need. But, we will have the 4K masters available for the time when 4K distribution is possible, and when enough people have 4K monitors in their homes.

We may also consider distributing our 4K productions using SD cards or USB sticks. As mentioned above, these are inexpensive, costing only a few dollars a piece, and can be mailed inexpensively as well. What will you watch them on? If you have a Macbook Pro Retina, recall that these laptops have a screen resolution of  3840X2400. Ultra HD 4K is  3840 x 2160. What a coincidence! I also expect that in the fall Apple will introduce their own desktop 4K Retina style displays along with the new Mac Pros, which incidentally will be the ideal platform for portable editing of 4K raw, let alone the new Mac Pros.

The crystal ball is fuzzy, but my guess is that some time in 2014 we’ll start to make our new 4K productions available via SD card purchase. Stay tuned. Also stay tuned for our upcoming review of the Blackmagic 4K Production Camera.

A 23 minute-long segment from a video on our 2009 Antarctic Expedition, shot in HD. 
Press the on-screen arrow button to view in HD


Further, Though Not Final Thoughts on Resolution

As a photographer I don’t think I need convince you of the advantages of either higher resolution or working in raw. I’ve been someone that has always sought the highest image quality, simply because it is more immersive for the viewer. Look at an image on an 8X10 print and then look at a 30X40″ print on the wall. If the image quality is there to begin with, that can hold up on a large print, then the viewing experience will be enhanced. If you’ve ever been to an Imax theater you’ll have experienced this in cinema terms.

So, what does this mean for LuLa videos? For interviews, possibly not as much as for our travel and documentary projects. The image above from one of my Antarctic expeditions in 2007 was taken with a Phase One P45 medium format back. The prints that could be made from this were gallery sized, and indeed I had a couple of gallery shows in Toronto the next year.

That’s why I’m excited about Chris and I filming our upcoming January 2014 expedition in 4K. It will have the same value for me as an image maker as shooting medium format stills did a few years ago. If our plans work out, about a year from now you’ll be able to see the end results of this for yourself.  

Michael Reichmann
August, 2013