NAB Show Reflections: “4K” is the New Buzzword
June 1, 2012
If you think things are changing in the world of still photography, imagine you’re in the traditional broadcast business. Not that long ago, radio and television professionals gathered yearly for the giant NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show in Las Vegas. The big broadcasters had a monopoly, and few outside of the industry would attend. After all, few companies, let alone individuals, could afford the expensive gear needed to operate a television station. Now anyone, even an individual with an iPhone and an Internet connection, can become a “broadcaster.” No wonder the theme for this year’s show was “The Great Content Shift: Defining Your Evolution.”
Was there anything at this year’s NAB of interest to a still photographer? Not really, if you never shoot any video.
However, in today’s multimedia world just about every professional photographer needs to be capable of shooting video. And since almost every modern DSLR includes video capture capability, it’s easy to at least take a stab at it without investing in a dedicated video camera system.
Nikon might have been the first camera manufacturer to include video capture in a DSLR when it introduced the D90, but it had never attended NAB as an exhibitor. It corrected that omission with a booth showing off the capabilities of the recently introduced D800. Nikon made it clear that it intends to be a serious player in the increasingly important world of cinematography and video.
Five years ago when I attended NAB, it was abuzz with a new camera company called RED. The company showed off a tremendous short film made by Peter Jackson that highlighted the incredible detail obtainable from RED’s new 4K digital cinema cameras. RED certainly shook up the established high-end cinema camera companies such as JVC, Panasonic and Sony, promising that its cameras would be much more capable and less expensive than the others’ offerings.
A couple of years later, the buzz of the show was caused by the Canon EOS 5D Mark II—a DSLR that just happened to produce such good video that it quickly became a darling with independent moviemakers and Hollywood cinematographers who wanted a film look without having to spend $50,000 or more on a big camera.
The success of the 5D Mark II caught everyone, including Canon, by surprise. At the time, Canon’s video and stills divisions were totally separate, so the camera had to be displayed on a separate booth. How things have changed.
Canon EOS-1D C
This year at NAB, it seemed as if the whole traditional video world had been turned upside down. Canon had the largest display at the Las Vegas Convention Center to unveil the EOS-1D C, which is aimed directly at RED and other high-end 4K cameras. It’s essentially all but identical to the EOS-1Dx, but produces 4K video (4096x2160) as well as standard HD video (1920x1080). It will not be available until later in the year and will sell for $15,000, which is quite a jump from the $6,799 price tag on the “regular” 1Dx.
The night before the show opened, Canon showed off the EOS-1D C’s capabilities at a packed theater in the Palms Hotel, which has the best 4K projector system in town, according to Canon. Two high-budget short films wowed the audience. The quality of the footage, especially in low-light, cramped conditions, showed what the 1D C camera is capable of capturing.
Once inside the show, the first thing that struck me was how dim the Canon displays were—with still DSLRs and regular camcorders being displayed together—were compared to previous years. Major camera manufacturers always set up elaborate studio scenes so potential buyers can try out cameras and lenses. In order to prove how good the new EOS Cinema cameras were (including the Cinema EOS C300 and C500 cameras as well as the EOS-ID C) at capturing images in low light conditions, Canon deliberately lowered the amount of light. Indeed, the lights were even turned off regularly as an actor walk around with a small flashlight making up the only source of light.
Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Ironically, although Canon stole the initial limelight at NAB, it was another company that was creating the most buzz by the end of the first day. Blackmagic Design is a relatively new company that specializes in high-end format converters and ancillary components. It has always had one of the most impressive displays at NAB, and this year was no exception. However, it was the announcement of its new Cinema Camera (www.blackmagic-design.com) that caught everyone by surprise.
Much like the RED camera, this came out of left field and it looks set to make inroads among the established players. It is not a 4K camera as such; it only captures footage at 2.5K (2432x1366). It has a different footprint from any other camera and records uncompressed RAW images onto a SSD card or through a Thunderbolt connection to a Mac. The amazing thing is that the camera only costs $2,995, and includes DaVinci Resolve software that normally sells for $995. The company plans to start shipping in July.
Speaking of Thunderbolt, the connection protocol, which is currently being promoted by Apple, appears to be catching on. There were several companies, such as G-Tech, WD and OWC, demonstrating external Thunderbolt hard drives. What caught my eye was that Intel was heavily promoting Thunderbolt on its booth, where the chipmaker had several Apple computers on display, as well as Thunderbolt peripherals. Thunderbolt makes a lot of sense in the world of video, where high-speed connections are required.
Action Life Media
I doubt anyone attending a NAB show a few years ago would ever have dreamed that a phone would be viewed as a viable tool for capturing professional video. It wasn’t difficult to spot several companies displaying accessories for the iPhone at NAB. Indeed there were several “TV” reporters using iPhones for their reporting. Action Life Media was showing off its mCAM system (www.actionlifemedia.com) which uses a tough billet aluminum casing to make it easy to add external peripherals, such as lights and microphones, to an iPhone to turn it into a compact, lightweight HD “pro-looking” camcorder.
3D—Where Art Thou?
Two years ago, 3D was the major buzz at NAB. This year it was barely visible. In fact, Sony was really the only major company actively pushing 3D. Does this mean it’s a fad that’s passed? Again? Only time will tell. Right now, though, it looks like 4K will be more significant in the near future.
Video Reflections on My Combined Review
Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find my “First Exposure” review of the Canon EOS-5D Mark III and Nikon D800 (page 118). You may wonder why I didn’t review either camera’s video functions; a large part of the reason was that all my assignments during the time I had the cameras on loan were for still photography. Each time I thought about shooting video, I realized it would create a serious distraction from my primary assignment.
At the Mexican 1000 Rally in Baja, I watched a seasoned cinematographer shoot video using a handheld Canon 5D Mark II. As he moved from lying on the ground to shooting overhead, it reminded me of how you need to have an entirely different mindset when shooting moving images compared to still images.
Serious cinematographers can undoubtedly nitpick positive and negative aspects of the video output from both cameras. As far as I was concerned, both can produce excellent, high-quality footage. The ergonomics involved in shooting still leave a lot to be desired. Lack of a rotating rear monitor is but one shortcoming.
John Rettie is a photojournalist who has been covering digital photography since its earliest days. He resides in Santa Barbara, CA, and readers are welcome to contact him directly by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.