4K Cameras: What’s the State of the Art?
A Side-by-Side Comparison of 4K Cameras and Feature Sets
The Red One may have been the first high-res camera to take the film industry by storm but, when the history of digital cinematography is written, 2012 will be remembered as the year pictures got really big.
By 2011, Red Digital Cinema had been advocating on behalf of 4K acquisition for years, keeping its promise to ship inexpensive high-resolution cameras. Meawhile, the Vision Research Phantom 65 crossed over from scientific and engineering markets that valued its 4K images to filmmakers who prized the look of its 65mm-sized imager. And then the floodgates opened.
Red released the 5K Epic and 4K Scarlet late in 2011, and it was put to work on The Amazing Spider-Man and a portion of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In the meantime, Sony had announced its own F65, with 4K output from a novel 8K x 2K sensor configuration. The F65 shipped in January of this year, and M. Night Shyamalan and D.P. Peter Suschitzky promptly started shooting a new feature, After Earth, with it. JVC’s handheld take on 4K (actually the so-called “Ultra HD” format, with exactly four times the resolution of HDTV) debuted in April for less than $5000, and Canon’s EOS C500 followed in October. With Sony ready to fill the gap between the high-end F65 and the much-less-expensive F3 with not one but two new 4K cameras, it’s a good time to take a look at how different vendors are approaching the market. Here’s an overview.
Just a note – there’s a lot happening under the hood in these cameras, and there will always be disagreements between vendors on how exactly to count pixel sites on a sensor, how different engineering tactics can yield greater or lesser results at a given resolution, etc. That discussion is way beyond the scope of this article. But all of these cameras — even the $400 GoPro — will output some kind of 4K image. Click on the image, below, to see a full-size chart that will give you a good picture of how some key specs compare on 4K cameras at different price points. But we strongly suggest that, as always, you eyeball some actual footage before you make a significant investment in any given camera.
Last November, some users were disappointed to learn that Canon’s just-announced EOS C300 camera, with its 4K sensor, wouldn’t actually output a 4K picture. They got a lift at NAB 2012 with news of the EOS C500, which would pump out 10-bit Canon Raw 4K footage at up to 60 fps via dual 3G-SDI output. AbelCine’s Andy Shipsides describes Canon Raw as “a 10-bit format with baked-in ISO and white balance.” By making gain adjustments at the sensor level, Canon is apparently able to reduce overall image noise. But the uncompressed picture coming out of the camera has not been de-Bayered, which is a commonly accepted definition of “raw” imagery. The camera finally shipped in November, carrying a street price around $26,000.
Coming next month is Canon’s other approach to 4K, the EOS-1D C, which is a hybrid DSLR camera that captures 8-bit 4:2:2 4K video to 500 Mbps Motion JPEG at 24p. For 4K, the CMOS sensor is cropped to an APS-H sensor format (28.7 mm in width) which, unfortunately, will mitigate that large-sensor look that filmmakers love to see from their DSLRs. (Filmmakers shooting in HD can use the full 36mm width of the sensor or specify a Super-35 crop if necessary.) Canon is pitching it toward filmmakers working in cramped or otherwise challenging environments due to its very small form factor. Unfortunately, it has only 8-bit HDMI output rather than HD-SDI, which limits its utility in pro shooting situations — par for the course with DSLRs. It looks like the EOS-1D C will sell for around $13,000 (body only) when it hits the street next month, which makes it an exceptionally pricey Canon DSLR.
The For-A FT-One is all about speed. If you need to shoot in jaw-dropping 4K at an eye-melting 900 fps, it’s the only show in town. The camera records 10-bit raw video to RAM, which is then transferred to SSD cartridges. The SSDs can be mounted to an NLE via a reader FOR-A provides that outputs the frames in DPX format. The camera’s internal memory can hold just 8500 4K frames at a time (that’s 9.4 seconds of 900 fps footage), but each of two hot-swappable SSD cartridges can hold about nine times as much (up to 84 seconds of 900 fps 4K material). The company rates it at 11 stops of dynamic range. Priced at about $135,000, this will obviously be a rental item for most users.
For-A’s FT-One 4K Super Slow Motion Camera Wins Prestigious Star Award [For-A]
This announcement came as a bit of a surprise. Could the $400 GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, shipping this month, really shoot video at 4K? Well, yes and no. The camera does, in fact, shoot video at up to 4096×2160. However, it can only shoot that resolution at 12 fps, which limits its usefulness. OK, it can shoot 3840×2160 “Ultra HD” footage, which is pretty close to real 4K, at 15 fps. Enthusiasts talk about using the extra resolution as insurance pixels in case they want to reframe a shot, or to crop after applying image stabilization. OK — but is a camera with such a tiny lens and tiny sensor really going to capture enough usable picture information to make a difference? The GoPro is a great little camera for a lot of applications, but 4K cinematography won’t be its forte.
HERO3 Black Edition [GoPro]
If you move one step farther up the 4K food chain, you land at JVC, which is offering the GY-HMQ10, a handheld Ultra HD (3840×2160) camcorder, for $4995. How do they do it? Well, JVC has figured out a way for editors to get at the 4K files without introducing a new high-end memory format or including SDI outputs on the camera. Instead, the camera employs “four-stream” recording, breaking the image into four quadrants and recording each one simultaneously to one of four SDHC or SDXC cards. When you’re done shooting, plug the camera into your Mac (and it does need to be a Mac) and ingest the contents of the cards to the JVC 4K Clip Manager. That software will combine your shots into 4K ProRes 422 files for editing in Final Cut Pro (and it does need to be FCP, either 7 or X). That process will run at anywhere from 3x to 10x real time, depending on your system specs. But at the end of that process you have 4K footage, ready to edit.
You can also take uncompressed 4K directly out of the camera through four HDMI outputs for viewing on a 4K or “Ultra HD” display. However, it does not seem possible to automatically convert those four uncompressed HD-resolution picture quadrants into a single uncompressed 4K image suitable for recording in real time. (If you know of a box that will do this, let us know in the comments.)
JVC 4K Memory Card Camcorder: GY-HMQ10 (PDF) [JVC Hong Kong]
Panasonic has been in no hurry to join the 4K scramble, opting instead to sketch out a 4K roadmap that builds out from its existing AVC Intra codecs. At NAB this year, it revealed the new 12-bit AVC Intra444 codec, which it used to carry 4K footage at about 400 Mbps. At the time, Panasonic was showing a 4K Varicam prototype, but wasn’t committing to a timeframe for its release. At his blog, Panasonic’s director of pro video, Kunihiko Miyagi, said a 4K Varicam would have a “modular form” including a “small recording pack” to capture 4K material. The company didn’t have much more to say about the 4K Varicam at IBC, but it’s a cinch that we’ll be hearing more about it at NAB 2013. Panasonic can’t ignore what the competition is doing, resolutionwise, for much longer.
Panasonic Plans for 2K, 4K, and More with AVC Ultra [StudioDaily]
New at NAB [Panasonic Pro Video]
Red Digital Cinema
After completely disrupting the camera market, the Red One has retired from the fray — it’s available from Red only in “battle-tested” versions, which go for a cool $4000. Taking its place are multiple configurations of the 5K Epic and Scarlet cameras, which launched late in 2011. The two cameras’ specs seem very similar in every regard but price, which makes the Scarlet an exceptional deal. (It goes for $7950, compared to $19,000 for the Epic.) What does the more expensive Epic bring to the table? High-speed shooting. Specifically, the Epic can shoot up to 300 fps in 2K mode, while the Scarlet maxes out at 120 fps at 1K (1024×540). At 4K resolution, the Epic can hit 150 fps, compared to just 30 fps for the Scarlet. And the Epic even shines at 5K, where it can lay down 120 fps, compared to a measly 12 fps for the slower Scarlet.
The proprietary Redcode wavelet codec for Scarlet and Epic offers offers compression ratios ranging from a thrifty 18:1 to a capacity-hungry 3:1, meaning cinematographers can balance their picture quality needs against capacity requirements in the post pipeline. That opens up a multiplicity of recording options, and Red user Phil Holland maintains a PDF reference sheet covering all of possibilities, which is linked up from the Reduser.net forum.
For content creators looking to shoot, display, and deliver in 4K, the company’s forthcoming Redray 4K cinema player, which will be officially announced later this week, sweetens the deal. Watch StudioDaily for more details on that system as they become available.
Red Teases Redray Player Shipments, 4K Content Distribution Network [StudioDaily]
Differences Between Scarlet, Red One, and Epic: Tech Specs Side-by-Side Chart [Reduser.net]
Red Quick Reference Guide (PDF) [artbyphil.com]
Sony responded to shots taken by Red and Canon by introducing two new 4K cameras at price points below the high-end F65. The F5 and F55, both due in February 2013, look similar on paper, but have important differences in functionality. The F55 is Sony’s answer to the Red Epic and the Canon C500, while the F5 is aimed at the Scarlet and the C300. The F55 shares important bits of DNA with the F65, such as the color-filter array that widens its color gamut past the traditional DCI color space, and has an electronic global shutter that Sony says will get rid of rolling-shutter and flash-band artifacts associated with CMOS technology. Frame rates will be a differentiator, too, with the F55 scheduled to shoot 2K raw at up to 240 fps, compared to just 120 fps on the F5. (Those high-frame-rate modes will be enabled with firmware updates due sometime after the cameras launch in 2013.) And only the F55 records 4K video (actually Ultra HD, the format formerly known as QFHD) internally to SxS cards, using the new XAVC 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 codec. The F5 can only record 4K raw to an external recorder, like Sony’s own AXS-R5 recording module.
By the way, that R5 recorder is one of the slickest pieces of the F5/F55 announcement. It’s an “external recorder,” true, but it docks on the camera back, in between the camera block and the battery, so that you’re not tethered to a completely separate piece of gear. You can also use it in tandem with the onboard recording capability, allowing you to lay down beefy raw files to the R5’s AXSM memory cards while recording more manageable proxy files to internal SxS cards.
We’re told U.S. pricing should be announced any day. In the meantime, Sony Japan has published some list prices in yen that convert like so at today’s rates (rounded to the nearest $100): $33,400 for the F55, $20,100 for the F5, and $5700 for the R5 recorder.
Since its introduction in 2006, the Vision Research Phantom 65 has been the big dog among high-speed cameras, with its 58.7mm-diagonal 10 megapixel CMOS sensor capturing 14-bit raw 4096×2440 images at up to 150 fps. The FOR-A FT-One can’t match the glory of this camera’s 65mm sensor, but its 4K resolution and top speed of 900 fps steals at least some thunder from the Phantom. We don’t know what Vision Research has planned, but they’re certainly a candidate to make news in 4K acquisition at NAB 2013, whether it’s an entirely new camera or just a Phantom 65 feature update. Stay tuned.
Phantom 65 Gold 4K High-Speed Digital Camera [AbelCine]