Although 1080p has all of the buzz in the HD video world, it’s not necessarily the best format to be using. 720p offers some distinct advantages for a lot of photographers. Smaller file sizes mean faster processing pipelines and more streamlined workflows, and for photographers in the field, it can mean the difference between making a deadline or not.
Myth: 1080p is the only viable video format for D-SLRs
Originally, when 1080p was relegated exclusively to the realm of the wealthy, 1080i was offered as a high-resolution alternative to 1080p, presenting a high-quality image without consuming as much bandwidth and thereby consuming less processing power. Because the interlaced scan is played on a screen with 540 lines at a time, however, and because of the problems with dividing an image’s resolution into two scans, such as horizontal line flicker, 720p had a better vertical resolution at 720 than 1080i does at a practical 540. For this reason, the progressive scan of 720p had a greater appeal than interlaced displays, so 720p took a foothold in a nascent market, and it has been a foothold that still holds sway with nearly all available video-capable cameras still offering 720p capture as an option.
That being said, the real truth here is that video capability in still cameras is still a technology in its youth. Many photographers who have previously only had to deal with the “decisive moment” are themselves fumbling around with what’s an entirely new angle for capturing the world around us, and it should come as no surprise that camera manufacturers are also unsure of the long-term future of a very new innovation. It’s been an unexpected surprise to some that so many cinematographers and filmmakers have been looking at video-capable D-SLRs, especially with the numerous limitations in them, including limited clip lengths, difficult audio capture and lackluster focusing capabilities.
The reason that filmmakers have become so interested in them, of course, is because of the amazingly shallow depth of field that you can get with such large sensors and quality lenses, which, ironically, results in a “filmesque” look that videographers haven’t really been able to achieve until now. It also helps that cameras like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1K and Nikon’s D90, D5000 and D300S also have cinematic 24 fps modes, and the Canon EOS 7D even offers a variety of selectable frame rates. This all has led to even more cinematographers becoming interested in testing the waters.
Speaking of getting your feet wet, it’s important to note the target market for these cameras was initially the professional photographer or photojournalist who wanted to be able to include video for outsourcing to the web or on blogs. For these markets, 720p is more than good enough, and in fact, circumventing the extra step of format conversion for photojournalists and documentarians proves to be an advantage for photographers far removed from the safety of fast Internet connections and big hard drives.
For manufacturers, as long as the needs of their consumer base are being met, it makes little sense to pursue more costly solutions, especially when it means making big changes to amazing D-SLR processors that have been perfected to do what they do best—take great still shots.