From Highly Affordable Box Cameras to Feature-Rich and Broadcast Ready Models, 4K Is the New HD
When it comes to image acquisition at resolutions of 4K and beyond, there's some irony in the fact that many new 4K product introductions at NAB 2015 took place not at the high end of the market, but at the low end. Sub-$10,000 and even sub-$5,000 price points are the hot spots for new cameras that use 4K as a major selling point—even the flagship GoPro action cam shoots in 4K—and savvy shooters understand that resolution alone is by no means a reliable measure of overall picture quality.
But time marches on, and the 4K drumbeat is growing louder. The majority of people shooting with 4K cameras may still be delivering in HD, especially where broadcast television is concerned, but the amount of true 4K acquisition is certainly growing — streaming services including Amazon Prime and Netflix are insisting on true 4K deliverables even if cinema exhibitors are largely content screening 2K DCPs. Meanwhile, sports broadcasters are learning how to use systems like AJA's Corvid Ultra with TruZoom software to extract HD regions of interest from 4K camera feeds in real time. But the bottom line is that if you're a vendor who wants to create buzz about your new camera, you'll probably need to include 4K resolution among your marketing bullet points. And that means 2015 is the first year that will see a truly broad range of 4K shooting options become available, from premium cameras aimed at cinematic applications to inexpensive models designed for everyday use in less image-intensive projects.
As a case in point, take Panasonic. The company has come out swinging with the 4K VariCam 35, which is brand new on the market but seems to be well received. At its NAB booth, Panasonic showed a "Panavised" version of the camera configured to fit right in on a movie location or high-end TV production, and, using a darkly lit set, produced a compelling demonstration of the camera's low-light capabilities at different ISO settings. When we asked about the VariCam HS, a super-slow-motion camera that was announced at the same time last year as the 35, but shoots only HD, not 4K, the Panasonic rep seemed surprised by the question.
Making more of a stir than the VariCam HS was the announced AG-DVX200, a handheld 4K camera with 12 stops of dynamic range and a logarithmic gamma curve designed to emulate the VariCam 35. When it ships this fall, its price is expected to come in at the sub-$5,000 sweet spot. Another highly affordable 4K option is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4, a mirrorless micro-four-thirds camera that sells for around $1,500. Unfortunately, a new anamorphic shooting option doesn't use quite the full image sensor—it captures 3328×2496 in a 4×3 aspect ratio that can be expanded to 2.66:1 in post—but new affordable anamorphic lenses will make it an attractive option anyway. (In our NAB 2015 video coverage, Panasonic's Matt Frazer tells us that Veydra is planning to make MFT-native anamorphic glass for the GH4 that also comes in below $5,000.)
Canon debuted the Mark II version of its popular C300 camera, which shoots 4K and UHD with a new Super 35 CMOS sensor that Canon said increases dynamic range to 15 stops. A new codec, XF-AVC, allows recording 10-bit 4:2:2 4K internally to CFast 2.0 cards at a maximum bitrate of 410 Mbps, with simultaneous raw 4K output via 3G-SDI of desired. Even the monitor has been bumped up—it's now an OLED screen that's sharper and about one stop brighter, Canon reps said. The EOS C300 Mark II is expected to ship in September for around $20,000 with either EF or PL mount.
Only a little more expensive is the Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini, a compact, lightweight (five pounds) version of the company's Ursa camera design that comes in four different configurations—your choice of 4K or 4.6K sensor, with PL or EF lens mount. (The 4K EF version starts the line at $2,995, and the 4.6K version with PL mount is the most expensive, coming in at $5,495.) The Ursa Mini records either 12-bit CinemaDNG raw or compressed ProRes formats, depending on workflow requirements. The Ursa's design emphasis on on-board image monitoring is preserved here with a high-quality full-HD OLED viewfiner and a five-inch fold-out touchscreen monitor. Connectivity includes stereo XLR audio inputs, 12G-SDI, LANC, reference and timecode in, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It got a warm NAB reception from a camera community that felt the original 16-pound-plus Ursa was perhaps a bit too massive for its own good—and the claimed 15 stops of dynamic range didn't hurt, either. Also coming soon from Blackmagic is the Micro Studio Camera 4K, an unobtrusive little box designed for live multicamera production that shoots 3840×2160 at up to 30p for just $1,295.
Never content to linger for long on a given pixel plateau, Red Digital Cinema upped the resolution bar with the 6K Red Weapon, a $49,500 system that will be further upgradeable when the company's forthcoming 8K sensor becomes available. As usual, Red owners have been offered a variety of upgrade paths from their existing Red Dragon cameras to alleviate some of the financial burden of staying up to date in the resolution game. In the same premium space, ARRI came out swinging with the rental-only Alexa 65, which arrived at NAB with plenty of fanfare, including word that ARRI and Imax would be co-developing a new Alexa 65-based camera system for large-format 2D digital acquisition. In the lead-up to NAB, ARRI also addressed the 4K market by introducing new camera recording modes that would make 4K delivery of upscaled Alexa-orginated content more painless, including native UHD and 4K recording in the new Alexa SXT line—which will also be available as a hardware upgrade for existing Alexa owners.
Gunning for the low end of the 4K market in a big way, with an eye on newsgathering and other documentary-style shoots, JVC has reduced the price of the GY-LS300 4KCAM camcorder (body only) to $4,395, which translates to a sub-$4,000 street price. That buys you a Super 35 CMOS imager behind a MFT lens mount, plus the ability to record 4:2:2 HD (at 50 Mbps) and UHD (at 150Mbps) to on board SDHC/SDXC card slots. The LS300 is designed to adapt easily to different lens types, with a "variable scan mapping" system cropping the sensor to different sizes for shooting with Super 16 or MFT glass and third-party adapters. With stereo XLR audio inputs, JVC's streaming engine, and 3G-SDI output, it looks like a capable system for budget-conscious broadcasters and filmmakers, especially for the price.
Sony, meanwhile, is trying to let broadcasters ease into 4K the same way many of them finally adopted HD—as a slow transition that meshes as seamlessly as possible with legacy gear. Its big announcement was the HDC-4300, a three-chip 2/3-inch super-slow-motion 4K camera that can be dropped into existing HDC-2500 installations. Users who don't want 4K capabilities right away can defer that portion of the purchase—an unlockable feature in software—until later. With the ability to output HD and 4K simultaneously, to extract HD signals from a 4K image in real time, and a maximum capture rate of 479.52p (not a typo), this camera will not be cheap.
Meanwhile, the next generation was lurking on the show floor, where Ikegami showed its SHK-810, an 8K camera built around a 33 megapixel Super 35 CMOS sensor and PL lens mount. Some camera buyers have seen a gotcha in the looming presence of another resolution upgrade, but as the ecosystem for 4K image acquisition matured this year, with more choices than ever available, the distance between 4K and 8K became clearer than ever. In framing its NAB news for journalists, Sony drew attention to the fact that it was not releasing any upgrades to its high-end cinema cameras, a line that includes the F65, F55, and F5, opting instead to continue down a path of firmware upgrades that allow existing owners of those systems to unlock new value in the cameras as new capabilities are developed, without sinking money into new hardware. Sounding a similar note, AJA declined to introduce a CION 2 or similar camera, instead vowing a commitment to existing customers through a program of completely free upgrades.
That's important—if anyone in this business is going to make a successful transition from HD to 4K, they're going to need a way to generate a return on their investment in image capture hardware without being expected to replace equipment every year just to keep up. And that was the important subtext of NAB 2015: while 8K may find an early foothold in the coming years, perhaps especially in the realm of sports broadcasting, it's going to be a long time before 8K production and post becomes anywhere near as workable as 4K already is today.
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