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.)
But it’s the high video resolution that’s most intriguing to photographers: it should enable users to take frame grabs straight from video recordings with at least five megapixels of resolution–more than twice as high as those possible with most of today’s high-end camcorders.
That’s helping interest photographers outside the newspaper world, who need that higher quality. Robin Balas, a commercial photographer and photography teacher in Norway and a frequent participant in online photography forums, says the Scarlet could give him more spontaneity in the way he works, allowing him to film models or wedding participants in action instead of forcing them to pose, for example. “Scarlet would be even better than Red One, since it’s lighter, and a lot less expensive,” Balas says. “The resolution is good enough for what I have in mind.”
And Scarlet’s announced use of the raw image format, which is minimally compressed and thus offers more flexibility, has also piqued the interest of professional photographers. Most high-end handheld camcorders record data in compressed formats.
Yet, excitement over the Scarlet is not unalloyed. On the Red online user forum, potential buyers have sharply questioned some of the company’s design decisions, particularly plans for a fixed rather than interchangeable lens, a feature that might also dissuade professional still photographers.
Company executives have reacted somewhat defensively to the criticism.
“This is a camera that can be sold in large quantities and deliver pro performance at the same time,” Jannard wrote on the company’s user forums. “Interchangeable lenses means a different product that will sell in limited quantities…which means a higher price. Much higher.”
Balas notes that the Scarlet’s two-thirds-inch image sensor, while large for a camcorder, cannot provide the tight focus or depth of field adjustment delivered by a professional-grade digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, which uses a larger image sensor. Other professionals remark that very high-end still cameras now offer as much as 21 megapixels–a level still far beyond the reach of video cameras.
Aside from any technological limitations, there’s also the matter of the inherent differences between filmmaking and still photography. Many photographers say that the process of shooting video is simply different from creating still images, a reality that limits the possibility of any true convergence.
“In still photography, one is stalking moments–you line up a shot and wait for the elements to converge,” says Miami Herald multimedia producer Chuck Fadely, whose paper has also begun publishing HD-video-frame grabs. “In video, you’re assembling a chronology and moments mean little…. You can’t just go shoot video and expect to get good still photos from it after the fact.”
Yet, at least from a technological perspective, the two mediums are undeniably coming together, and Red Digital appears to be leading the pack in more ways than one.
Toronto-based filmmaker Gregor Hagey, one of the earliest owners of the Red One, calls his camera, “essentially a digital SLR on steroids,” and says that its raw data output has forced him to analyze environmental features such as light and exposure more like a still photographer than a filmmaker. “You get a much better understanding if you dive into the professional digital SLR world and understand how they’re working with the same technology,” Hagey says. “I think there’s more and more crossover between cinematographers and still photographers, given how the technology is evolving.”