A culture war is brewing in the world of digital photography, with a handful of enthusiasts arguing that high-definition video tools are making traditional still cameras all but obsolete.
In a field where traditionalists are still debating the merits of film versus digital imagery, this contention naturally produces sparks. But growing numbers of photographers are already experimenting with HD camcorders to produce professional photos, with results now even being published on the front pages of newspapers.
Last week’s announcement of a new super-high definition “pocket professional” video camera from startup Red Digital Cinema Camera is feeding the debate. With picture resolution considerably greater than today’s handheld HD camcorders and a base price expected to be under $3,000, the “Scarlet” may help accelerate the defection from traditional cameras.
“This is something we’re already salivating over,” says Richard Koci Hernandez, a photographer for the San Jose Mercury News and a trailblazer in newsroom use of HD video. “The technology is getting to the point where we’re going to be able to put one of these in everybody’s hand.”
As technology convergences go, the union of still and video imagery has the feel of the inevitable. A moving picture, whether on digital video or film, is after all just a series of still images.
Yet this relationship masks longstanding technological and practical differences between still and moving-image cameras. Still cameras have been optimized for high-quality single images, with large image sensors (or large-format film) that capture substantial amounts of light and incredible detail. Digital video, on the other hand, has had to balance image resolution against the huge amount of data collected.
Indeed, the “full high-definition” video standard used by current HD televisions offers resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, or about 2.1 megapixels–a resolution exceeded by all but the most primitive digital cameras today. Most handheld HD camcorders offer a similar video resolution, although some can also take higher-resolution still photos. For instance, users of Sony’s latest high-end consumer camcorder, the HDR-SR12, can take 10-megapixel still shots–though, as with other HD camcorders, frame grabs taken from video recordings are much lower in resolution.
News photographers have bridged this technological gulf more easily than other professionals. Newspaper images are relatively low resolution, compared to professional prints or magazine photos. Moreover, photographers increasingly provide video for newspaper websites and so often have a camcorder at hand.
Naturally, some began experimenting with frame grabs, or still shots from their HD video cameras, as a time-saving substitute for taking ordinary photographs. Dallas Morning News photographer David Leeson is given credit for sparking this trend, but a number of other photographers and papers have followed suit in the last year.
This trend lies beneath photographers’ intense interest in Red Digital’s Scarlet. Announced at last week’s National Association of Broadcasters trade show, the handheld camera, which will be available in early 2009, will be primarily a video tool, but its design is undeniably photographer-friendly.
Red Digital, started by the founder of Oakley sunglasses, Jim Jannard, with an eye to creating a digital product line that could rival the performance of film-based movie cameras, is already proving a powerful rival to established companies. Its first model, the $17,500 digital cinema-quality Red One, began shipping only last September. Although fewer than 2,000 have shipped, buzz has been impressive.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson produced a 10-minute short using a Red One prototype, calling the image quality “excellent” in OnFilm magazine. The camera was used, although not exclusively, in filming the recent thriller Jumper, and cinematographers and rental studios around the world are increasingly advertising their experience with the camera.
With a planned video resolution of about 3,000 horizontal pixels, compared to the HDTV standard of 1,920 pixels, Scarlet will offer higher picture quality than any digital video camera under $10,000 and will better that of many far more expensive models. Keeping the mixed-use market in mind, its design includes a still function. (The precise details, including Scarlet’s still-photo resolution, remain unreleased. Red has consistently told users to expect changes in announced specifications.)