Photography, as we know it, is about to change. The much-promised convergence of photographic and videographic cameras has arrived, thanks to professional-grade 4K cameras and their cinema glass. Instead of shooting 8 or 10 or 20 fps, a photographer can shoot at 30 fps or even 60 fps and pull out high-res images.
Imagine the kind of cameras we will have some day in the future. They will be adept at capturing both video and stills, perhaps even simultaneously. They will shoot ultra-high-resolution video, and surely they will possess sensors with world-class low-light sensitivity and unprecedented dynamic range. What if they offered superfast frame rates for action photography—say, 60 frames per second—even while outputting RAW files? And what if they could do things no other camera has ever done before? What if they ensured that you never again missed a decisive moment?
Now, what if you could buy this camera today?
Believe it or not, such a revolutionary camera is already available. It’s the RED WEAPON and, for those whose pockets run deep, it can be your do-it-all camera from the future today. (Check out the recent RED WEAPON hands-on review from our sister pub HDVideoPro.)
Nearly a decade ago, photographer and filmmaker Vincent Laforet pioneered the use of still cameras for cinematography. Now, he’s using this innovative cinema camera to shoot stills. Put another way, he’s pulling high-resolution, print-ready still frames from 8K video.
“It’s a legitimate game changer,” Laforet says, “and I’m loath to use that word. But it is a mistake to think of the RED WEAPON solely as a video camera, because what it is doing is, it is actually shooting stills. The format, the codec—it is an extremely high-speed, high-quality still camera that is effectively mirrorless, that has one of the best sensors in the world. And, if you think about it that way, you’re missing the point if you’re saying this is a video camera that lets me get high-res stills. It’s a camera, period. And you can use it either way or in combination.”
Laforet has been using the RED WEAPON on assignment, shooting portraits and landscapes and street photography, and with every release of the shutter, he’s increasingly convinced that this not only is a glimpse into the inevitable photographic future but also that the technique is viable and beneficial to his work right now.
“You can be skeptical all you want,” Laforet says, “and I understand it. I was more skeptical than anyone. I tried to do this a few years ago, but 6K just wasn’t quite enough for me, and the sensor did not see low light the way this one does. So, basically, the net effect was not quite there. That was with the EPIC DRAGON. The accessories were too big, the batteries were too big at the time, the camera sucked down too much power, the sensor was not good enough in low light… And then this new HELIUM sensor came out, and I was, like, ‘That’s the resolution we’re talking about, that’s the sensitivity we’re talking about.’ Look at all these new accessories that have come out over the years, some slimmer batteries. It used to be you’d have 15 or 20 minutes of battery with the DRAGON sensor, maybe it was 30. With this new body you’re easily going into 40 minutes on small batteries, and you’re definitely going into hours, three or four hours, with the medium-sized batteries. And with the DRAGON, I couldn’t do street photography without having a backpack full of batteries, whereas now that’s no longer the case. All these little things add up.”
Much as a photographer armed with an HD-capable DSLR typically shoots either stills or video at any one moment, Laforet suggests that photographers armed with an 8K WEAPON should first consider the subject matter before selecting the most appropriate technique for recording it. This is primarily because of the shutter speed challenges that can make it difficult to capture video and stills simultaneously—though not all the time.
“There are two kinds of case studies here,” Laforet says. “One is this idea of shooting video and simultaneously being able to pull stills out of it. I think the reality of it is, that will work in certain cases. If you’re shooting at 24 frames per second with an effective 180-degree shutter, which gives you a 1/48th of a second shutter speed, if you’re shooting someone walking or even a talking head or a vista, that works just perfectly, actually. And one would have to ask oneself, if you’re shooting an incredible landscape, there’s nothing I can think of—unless you’re going to 50 or 100 megapixels, and a very small percentage of people are—why you wouldn’t use the RED.”
The RED WEAPON is capable of superfast shutter speeds just like any DSLR or mirrorless still camera. But shooting at high shutter speeds, while beneficial for sharper stills of moving subjects, isn’t ideal for video. For photographers unfamiliar with the intricacies of cinematography, understand that video recorded with a particularly fast shutter speed tends to look strange during playback, unlike slower shutter speeds that add a bit of pleasing motion blur that makes for smooth video. But those motion-blurred images don’t make for good stills. In situations such as this, Laforet says, the photographer must decide whether to shoot stills or video, as doing both simultaneously is bound to cause an unfortunate compromise.
“I want to be clear,” he says. “The shutter speed reality will never go away, meaning you have to make a decision. Now, what RED does that’s interesting is, you can shoot with this HDRx Mode where you shoot a second exposure simultaneously, right? So you can shoot the regular mode and simultaneously you can shoot one that’s one or two stops darker. And, if you expose between the two, you can kind of get the best of both worlds. It’s an interesting way to take your 1/48th of a second shutter speed to 1/96th, which is fast enough for a lot of stuff—not sports, not crazy things—but fast enough for a lot. And, granted, that image will be one stop underexposed, but these sensors have such incredible dynamic range, you can definitely overexpose the main image by half a stop, and have the still image half a stop underexposed and not really see any detriment to it. That’s interesting.”
Laforet first used the WEAPON as a still camera on a trip to Iceland. He asked a tailor he met on the street to pose for a portrait. The session that followed, and the resulting images it produced, opened the photographer’s eyes to the possibilities this technology provides
“I did my first portrait ever where I took the camera out,” he says. “I was not trying to shoot video, because video is jerky when you shoot it at 1/250th or 1/500th of a second. I went with the purpose of shooting a portrait. I met this incredible tailor in Iceland. I was able to have a conversation with him, I was able to be more connected in the moment with him. The only thing I had to keep keen attention on was focus, because I was focusing manually with an electronic fingerwheel. But it was a much more intimate procedure than pressing the shutter all the time and feeling you’re capturing something. That was something of a—I don’t know if violent is the right word, but there’s something slightly aggressive with the big clunk-clunk. There’s something beautiful about it, too, of course. But I was able to scrub through that whole interview, hearing the audio of us talking, a month later, which is kind of special. To actually hear what he was saying and pick that 36-megapixel still—that’s where I went, you know what, this is very viable and it does allow you to do things that nothing else allows you to do.”
As if all of this weren’t enough, the RED WEAPON has another astounding feature. It’s an impressive technological breakthrough that gives a creative advantage both for video and still photography. It’s called pre-record.
On most cameras, the pre-record function stores the few seconds of video prior to pressing Record in buffer memory. In practice, it means that, along with what comes after they press the shutter, the shooter also captures the moment just before. The RED WEAPON takes this technology to new heights with a pre-record feature that practically travels back in time to record the 30 prior seconds. Coupled with the features above, photographers now have a camera capable of producing 35-megapixel RAW files that all but guarantees never missing a moment again.
VINCENT LAFORET ON THE RED WEAPON’S PRE-RECORD FUNCTION: “I grew up as a photojournalist, and my goal was to capture the decisive moment. And as my career evolved, I realized the best photographs are when you line everything up as a photographer—the lighting, the framing, the special relationship of people within the scene, you can do only so much—and you get great pictures. But the pictures you put in your portfolio are when you do all that and something unexpected happens. A lens flare, an expression, a juxtaposition, and a lot of times you never saw those with your eyes because the shutter was up or you were just lucky and you’d see them in the edit. Think about how much that would change with this!”
“I can tell you the only thing that causes me stress when I pick up a camera these days,” Laforet says, “is missing the moment. It’s not framing, it’s not exposure, it’s no longer focus. That stuff I can kind of do in my sleep. Most of us can do it. What we can’t do is, we can’t really predict the future. And this is a tool that allows us to effectively go back in time. That’s what I find really groundbreaking.
“I now have the chance of using a tool that shoots at a higher-megapixel setting than the average camera,” he adds. “I can shoot at 60 frames a second, which no still camera can do in the world to this day. I can shoot a RAW image just like a DSLR with the highest-rated sensor in the world based on DxO ratings, better than all the other still cameras, but more importantly, it has one killer feature, and that is it has the pre-record function, which means that if you’re covering a protest or if you’re photographing a child, or anything that has a moment to it, the second that moment happens, even if you’re late to push that button by two or three or, in fact, 28 seconds, you have it. It’s not a time machine, but it’s the closest thing we’re ever going to get to guaranteeing that you can not only capture the moment, the decisive moment, but the 20 or so seconds that led up to it.”
So why isn’t every serious photographer already armed with a WEAPON? For two primary reasons—first, the amount of data generated by shooting 60 35-megapixel images per second is enormous. It requires a working environment robust enough to handle such a tsunami of information. Second, and likely the biggest barrier, is the price. The body only, or what RED calls the “Brain,” retails for just shy of $50,000. Fully outfitted with the necessary lenses and accessories, the WEAPON is out of reach for the vast majority of photographers. Laforet understands that this limitation is very real, but he says it’s shortsighted to discount the technology based solely on the price.
“Getting into the economics of this makes no sense,” he says, “because it’s obviously more expensive now, by far, compared to a DSLR camera. That being said, they’re selling these in Apple stores right now. And I think the price will solve itself with scale. I have always told people you should never look at the price today. You should look at the technology today and realize that with time the price will go down. Had I told you that you would be shooting a 12-megapixel iPhone with a depth effect five years ago, you would have called me crazy. What I want people to think about on a purely intellectual level is this: You have a camera now that can produce a quality image that’s more than sufficient, especially as we move more and more toward the web and further and further away from print. It is significantly more than sufficient for what we need on the web. And, if you really care about capturing that moment, whether you’re a news photographer, a sports photographer—and granted, on that level autofocus is an issue—or just as a portrait person or a wedding person, whatever it is you are, this is a technology you should start paying attention to, if not delve into and try.
“I can set the WEAPON to the exact same settings I would as a still camera,” Laforet continues, “meaning 1/250th of a second, 1/1000th of a second, whatever you want. Shoot it as if it were a still camera and get 60 frames a second and 30 seconds back in time. That, to me, is where this starts making a big, big difference. I really want people to think a little more broadly and think about where things might be going and how this tool might become part of their toolbox—sooner rather than later.
Even if the WEAPON remains out of the price range of photographers, some still photography systems are already starting to offer similar functionality. The Panasonic GH5 grabs still frames from 6K video streams. The Sony a9 is a 20 fps still camera. As these still cameras evolve to function more like frame-grabbing video cameras, and as video cameras evolve to function more like still cameras, the future looks a lot more like what Laforet has been doing with his pioneering work. “I think we’re catching a glimpse of the future,” he adds. “It’s just that simple.”
See more of Vincent Laforet’s work at laforetvisuals.com