8K Video Ushers In New Still Photo Era

A portrait captured as a frame grab from the RED Weapon 8K camera. Photo by Vincent Laforet

At the RED booth at CineGear, I had the chance to catch up with photographer/videographer Vincent Laforet, who had some of his recent photographic work on display on the walls of the booth. Laforet is a former Canon Explorer of Light, and his early work with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II helped usher in the era of still and video convergence. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Laforet’s use of that camera to bridge a gap between still and video shooters lead to today’s powerful 4K-capable DSLRs and mirrorless systems.

One of his pieces on display was particularly notable because it’s a portrait captured as a frame grab from an 8K RED camera. In 2012, we wrote about the convergence of still and video work, and in 2015 I penned a guide to doing 4K frame captures for still image production. The advent of 4K video systems marked the beginning of the era where still could be pulled from video without losing a tremendous amount of quality.

Companies like Sony, Pansonic and Olympus have for years inched closer to a world where the technology inside still cameras is indistinguishable from that inside video, and recent cameras have started to fulfill this promise. Panasonic’s GH5 has a still image mode called 6K photo, where it pulls stills at 30 fps, and while this setting has some image-quality trade-offs, it’s indicating that companies are working toward a convergence. The Sony a9 is a much closer example of this combined technology, thanks to the redesigned full-frame sensor that’s capable of shooting at 20 fps. The technology behind this advance is essentially an improved video-processing engine.

One of the big issues with using video for still photography is that the readout times of the sensor lead to rolling shutter in still images. Rolling shutter is a concern in video as well, where it can create distracting and jittery footage, but in still photography it’s the kiss of death. Capture a photo of a baseball player throwing a ball, for example, and if his torso doesn’t match up with his legs, the photo is useless.

Sony’s sensor reads out fast enough to virtually eliminate rolling shutter in still photography. It’s probably no coincidence that the company used CineGear, just a few weeks after the a9 was announced, to pre-announce a new full-frame video platform. (See our coverage of that announcement here.)

With the world of 4K barely established, the video and cinema markets are boldly headed toward 8K, and some companies have already arrived. RED’s Weapon 8K was used to shoot Guardians of The Galaxy 2, and workflows are rushing to embrace and manage the high-data demands of the resolution.

Back to Laforet and his demonstration images—the photograph that caught my eye was particularly remarkable because it is a portrait, captured as a frame grab from 8K video.

This photo is particularly noteworthy because it’s every bit the high-end portrait one would expect to shoot with a pro still camera system. The level of detail in this shot is truly stunning, and the fact that it’s a frame grab still blows my mind, even though I’ve been talking about this convergence for nearly a decade.

Some technique obviously needed to change to be able to light this for video instead of the photographic style of using strobes, but luckily the innovations in LED lighting has allowed photographers to adopt a lot of continuous lighting systems without needing a production crew. It also required a different workflow, one that can in many ways be more arduous. Imagine the wedding photographer who has to work through eight hours of 8K video instead of 5,000 still images from the same period.

The hardware requirements are arduous as well. No one is bringing a low-end MacBook on a shoot and churning through 8K footage the way they would shots from a 20MP camera, and few still photographs have the data storage necessary to save the files.

Obviously, this frame is one of 30 per second that LaForet captured for this shot, enabling him to select between images with minute difference, and that can be the difference between getting the image for the client and not getting it.

The market has a long way to go—and the cost barrier is still very high for 8K still work. The RED Weapon 8K costs about $50,000, a figure that would make many still photographers panic, but to put it into context, it’s the same cost as a Phase One 100MP back and body.

But the day that the manufacturers and the photographers have been waiting for has finally arrived. There are still cost and workflow barriers, but the technological limitations have finally been removed. In a few years, we’ll likely see DSLR and mirrorless systems within reach of the average pro, capable of capturing 8K video with a resolution sufficient to enable this type of work, and the landscape of both photography and video work is going to forever change.

UPDATE: We have replaced the referenced image with an original, not the photo from the venue.

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