The Convergence of Still Photography & Video
Shifting The Paradigm Gears
Nikon D3 with 70-200mm f/2.8 @ ISO 1250
Social adoption of technological change takes place for one of two reason...
1 – A need is determined and someone then finds a way to fulfill it
2 – A new technology evolves and people then discover what can be done with it
I believe that we are at a point in time where a profound change is about to take place in the photographic industry. It is being driven not by user demand, but by the inevitable convergence of a number of required technologies. In combination, and when a certain nexus is reached, they will allow the creation of a new type of photographic instrument which will radically change the way photographers and film makers work.
Each new step in technology requires that previous fundamental capabilities exist beforehand. As but one example, video disks couldn't exist before lasers were developed. (James Burke's TV series Connections does a marvelous job of exploring these relationships).
I believe that due to a convergence of technologies we are now about to see the creation of a new type of camera that will allow the shooting of very high quality images, which can then be purposed as stills or image sequence (for lack of a better word), or even turned into some new form of hybrid imaging presentation that we haven't yet conceptualized.
Before proceeding to understand what this might be like, we need to understand that this is taking place not because photographers and film makers are clamoring for it, (we're not), but rather because the simultaneous emergence of several new technologies will make it inevitable. It will then be up to us image makers to make of it what we will.
These technologies include...
– high resolution CMOS sensors (already here)
– high speed processors and pipelines able to handle over 100 MB/sec (already here)
– pellicle mirror systems allowing simultaneous ultra-high frame rates and optical viewing (been here for decades)
– small, fast, ultra-high capacity removable memory systems (already here; Sony SxS and Panasonic P2 as well as SSD drive systems and the new CFast specification, which will allow Compact Flash cards capable of 3Gb/sec transfer rates
Indeed, virtually every enabling technology for creating a hand-holdable camera with optical reflex viewing that can shoot very high resolution raw video and stills (20MP+) either already exists, or will be commercially available in the next 18 months or so.
The Camera Makers
It's worth taking a moment to realize that there are four companies who will be at the forefront of this sea change in visual technology. They are Canon, Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. Each one of these companies currently designs and makes DSLRs, video cameras, and imaging sensors. Each has a semiconductor fabrication facility as well. Each of these companies is positioned to create just such a hybrid camera as we are discussing here.
The Harbingers and the Place Holders
In the first half of 2008 there are two cameras that point toward where I see us going. The first is the Casio EX-F1, and the second is the RED Scarlet. The EX-F1 is shipping and Scarlet is still some 10 months away, though the RED One camera exists and has been in use for nearly a year, so that technology is here as well.
Consider what we have today in terms of both still photography and video cameras. Our DSLRs (at least the ones that are at the leading edge) have sensors of 20 Megapixels or more, and frame rates of 10 frames per second are possible with today's still cameras. Why not faster? Largely for mechanical reasons – moving mirrors and shutter mechanisms. But pellicle mirror systems have existed for decades, and so there's no need to imagine that such a camera will need to use a dreaded electronic viewfinder.
The sensors in the Casio and Red cameras are able to shoot at 60 FPS and 100 FPS respectively without mechanical shutters, and at speeds as high as 1/40,000 second, so that barrier has already been crossed.
Video cameras can now shoot raw (required for the highest quality stills or video). The RED cameras show that this works, and works exceptionally well. The Sony SxS and Panasonic P2 card technology is in current use, and existing 1080i camcorders have built-in hard drives with 120GB.
Use the new generation of self-shuttering sensors along with a pellicle viewing system, and the limitation of 10FPS no longer exists. Add in a high capacity hard drive or memory card system, and we can have still cameras able to shoot at 30 FPS, 60 FPS or even higher. (The already announced RED Epic (coming Q1 2009) will have a roughly 20MP sensors able to shoot at 100FPS and will produce raw video – and still – files).
What is it?
So, imagine a Canon 1Ds P MK1V or a Nikon D4x of 2011, just three years from now – or maybe the RED Scarlet II, when someone helps them realize that they can potentially build a world-beater still camera as well as a video camera. What would such a camera be like?
Imagine something about the size and weight of a medium format camera. It will have optical reflex viewing and interchangeable lenses. It will be able to shoot raw still images at 30 frames per second – continuously, and without the need for a mechnical shutter at just about any required shutter speed. It will have a recycling memory buffer so that it is constantly recording images, buffering the last couple of seconds and then disposing of them if not needed. That way the image can be captured even before the shutter has been pressed.
When the shutter is pressed the last couple of seconds are saved to disk or card and the camera now continues to record, as long as the shutter release is held down, and without any real time length constraint. So if 5 seconds are recorded, 150 frames are as well. The still photographer or editor can then later choose the frame that is best.
The videographer, if that's who's at the other end of the eyepiece, will have theater-quality motion capture. And if the still photographer needs higher speed, at least 100 FPS will be possible. At that speed the videographer also has lovely slow motion recording capability.
Who's it For
Who needs this? How about photojournalists?! How about sports photographers?! How about wildlife photographers?! Would any of the above not give their mother's eye teeth to have such capabilities? These are the very photographers who buy the current high speed cameras from Nikon and Canon. They are therefore the natural constituency for products like this.
Thinking Outside The Box
Nothing I've described so far is theoretical or impractical. All of the pieces are existing technology. All that's required is for these pieces to be put together and marketed at a price that potential purchasers can afford.
But – be afraid. Be very afraid!
What I fear is two-fold. Firstly – history has shown that the major camera makers' products are designed by engineers first, marketers second, and users – hardly at all. This means that early generation products will likely not meet the true needs of working professionals and users. This will take time, as user feedback makes its way slowly back to the design teams. This is especially true for the big Asian companies who unfortunately have an almost xenophobic "not invented here" mentality when it comes to implementing requested features and functions. (Need I mention the words Canon and mirror lock-up in the same sentence?)
My second concern is that we, the potential users, simply don't yet understand what these new tools will really be able to do for us. We can postulate, as I have above, how one might use a hand-holdable camera that can shoot professional quality stills and video simultaneously. But that's old think. That's not what these tools will really be about. Their potential lies in applications that no one has yet conceived of.
That's what excites me the most. Give a creative professional photographer a still camera that can simultaneously shoot movies, and a cinematographer a movie camera that can shoot pro-grade stills, and what kind of creativity will this engender? I don't yet know, but it's very exciting to contemplate.
Toronto – May, 2008
If you have ever gone out to shoot with both a stills camera and a video camera in your kit at the same time you'll immediately understand what I'm saying when I discuss how hard it can be to use both on the same day, let alone simultaneously. The languages that each speak, so to speak, are as different as Japanese and English, not just in their vocabulary, but in their grammatical structure and syntax.
Whether we are still photographers or film makers, we are at the core story tellers. But still photographers can be said to take visual verbs, adjectives and nouns and lay them out for the viewer (reader?) to organize as they see fit, or are able. A maker of moving pictures (what a lovely phrase that is) is much more akin to a novelist or poet, who takes the various words and parts of visual speech available and structures them into a cogent narrative.
The film maker (another soon-to-be antique construct, like dialing the phone), blends images into sequences, unfolding the story in a predetermined matter, along with motion and sound. The still image can require more work on the part of the viewer, and is therefore by definition more enigmatic, while the moving picture can better lead the viewer where its author wishes them to go.
From a functional perspective the creation of stills and movies are quite different. The photographer finds moments in time and space and freezes them to share with others. The film maker, even when doing documentary style shooting without a script, finds sequences of events in time and space and them blends them together into a coherent narrative. These are almost diametrically opposed activities and quite difficult to do simultaneously.
If therefore the convergence of stills and motion pictures comes to pass I don't believe that it will produce works of either art or visual communication that are simply extensions of what we currently do, but rather, I expect, (and hope) something new.
Electronic paper has been talked about and shown in prototype form for some time, and is getting closer to reality. This is a malleable plastic sheet as thin and flexible as paper that is capable of displaying changeable text and images. Now imagine a newspaper or a magazine where the pages are made of electronic paper and where the content is transmitted and updated wirelessly.
The Amazon Kindle electronic book is one such device – an opening salvo if you will. Ultimately we will have multiple screen pages instead of just one, and in colour and with motion instead of B&W and just text.
If you can visualize such a magazine / book / device, now think about what its content would be like. Imagine a car ad where instead of a glossy still image of the latest model you actually have a mini-video commercial. It looks like an still image, but swipe your finger on the page, or leave the page open for more than a few seconds, and a motion video versions begins to display.
Where does the image / motion video come from? WiFi of course. Just as an Apple TV gets content from its built-in hard drive, your computer located in another room, or over the Internet via a broadband connection, and where the actual images and sound you're viewing are coming from is transparent to you at any given moment, so to an electronic magazine would reach out wirelessly to various sources for content and updates.
Now, think about who's going to create this content, and how?
Real Photographers Don't Need High Speed
I can see it now. No sooner will this essay be online than someone on one of the forums will lament how cameras such as what I've described will be the work of the devil, because real photographers wait for the moment of peak action and then take the one shot that captures it best. Machine-gunning in the hope of getting the decisive moment will damn photographers that use them to hell, or at least lead to scorn from ones peer.
OK, fine – whatever. But trust me – people who have to make their livings by capturing action photographs don't give a rats derier what those forum folks think. They've got an editor waiting and deadlines to meet, and if 30 -100 FPS gets the shot, then it's the ticket. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.
Film Director / Cameraman Chris Sanderson comments...
My guess is that it will be forward-thinking photographers who can visualize how these new media will converge, and who will in turn invent the new visual language that will be needed while utilizing the exciting tools that are on their way.
I can 'see' that a new form of image sequence that uses motion to explore the nature of a subject and yet relies on the definition and 'scrutability' of a still image is likely. Where the two exist harmniously together as a whole. Motion culminating in the still. (or vice versa)
Imagine a newspaper photoeditor (oldspeak for clarity) looking at the sports photojournalist's output for the medal ceremony of the Olympic 100 meters. The 'still images' start with the anticipatory look down at the medal and presenter, she bends to receive the medal and then stands straight and raises her arms.
The editor will pick the last image because it says "triumph".
The image sequence editor will pick the whole sequence from the bend which highlights so much of her physicalty and let it play to the final image. Here we get to see her in motion.The viewer passing the flat screen on the subway platform will see how the body moves and the muscles stretch and then be able to absorb the triumph of the final still image...
Published in April, '08 in Technology Review...
Well known commercial and fashion photographer James Russell comments...
After 10 years in LA I got bitten by the film bug and decided to build my reel as a director.
I shot 16 and DV usually on the side of still productions, sometimes dedicated to a specifically to movement and like all personal projects once I learned to cut, effect, title, time and display it, I pretty much just got back to my day job and forgot about it.
Then I had a few clients ask if their film/video crew could shoot on our still sets and I said well, we can do both so those doors opened up to us.
After a few years the momentum built, especially once we moved to digital still capture and the cross over from digital still technique o digital moving technique was not that great of a leap, so we continued.
The issues I had with digital video capture, especially in standard def was the look and the quality. Once past web play or even a 12” television screen small DV just wasn’t that good and couldn’t be purposed over from moving to still even in a freeze frame. With a lot of post processing it just got worse. In fact the still imagery I inserted in moving images, even on SD was much more clear and “film like”, partially because it captured so much data to begin with and partially because the still cameras I used had larger chips and the ability to throw focus, crop, drop out backgrounds etc.
In this process I was always amazed that Canon, or Nikon didn’t take their 1d, or their D3 and just ramp up the processor, add a huge buffer and at least give us 24fps.
It is o’ so close and if you’ve ever taken a Canon 1dmk2, set it on medium jpeg and shot with your finger on the button you will get a series of 8fps still images that rival 35mm film capture, (well at least when you freeze them).
Now how does this equate to converging the two mediums?
It’s not the medium that is lacking, because it’s here today, on your laptop, desktop, cell phone and in Times Square. It’s not even the bandwidth to play it, because in many areas there is already fiber optic connection and with the G network we have public wireless transfer that is almost fast as usb2. The blank canvas is sitting there for someone to put something unique on it. It’s the capture equipment, costs and traditional mindset that keep the two genres apart.
I can’t comment on the Red because I haven’t used it, but I can comment on how much closer even the prosumer hdv cameras have come to our standard still digital capture.
The only difference I see is the inability to throw focus and the massive compression that makes holding detail when the files are crushed, or abused in post for a film like effect and once again why Canon, or Nikon haven’t produced a 24fps still camera is beyond me.
I was instrumental in designing a still stage on the Sony Culver movie lot, so I work there periodically and have a good view of how extremely large budget film production is carried out.
Without a doubt high end production, still or video takes dedicated professionals that are trained in their specific tasks, but when I hire film/video crews and shoot a combination of still and moving imagery, I see the roles and lines blurred. A still assistant is just as capable of hanging a 2k hmi as a lighting grip, a still digital tech can calibrate a monitor just as well as a camera tech and a still photographer is just as expert and exacting as crafting a scene as a director, DP and cinematographer and I don’t buy into the thought that if I work a traditional vertical frame, I can’t design a wide 16x9 image.
Maybe this isn’t traditional thought and some traditions die hard, but if money is involved they usually die fast. 6 years ago every lab in Los Angeles, New York and Paris told me that still digital capture would never be a standard and film is far superior. Of those labs only one is in existence today and still trying to find their way in the digital market, so that tradition is history.
I work closely with a few clients that sponsor celebrities and world class athletes. They need released, dedicated imagery in still and video and the still part is easy, the video part is way more problematic and not because it’s that difficult of a medium, but because the traditional mindset is a “film” production must be dedicated only to the specifics of film including the higher costs of locations, talent, unions, broadcast rights, etc. and because it is impossible for me to shoot one camera that will capture both images in the look and quality that is desired.
Don’t think for a moment that this sequence would not have been more compelling at 24fps, vs. 6.
Don’t think that even at 12mpx the client would not have preferred 20mpx.
So I guess after going all round the houses, I think that convergence is coming and though the Red is an incredible leap forward, it will take more than one camera to do it.
It will take a new generation of easier to use non linear editors, quicker and more simplified color correction, (maybe even a lightroom for video (see da Vinci 2k) a standard codec that plays on TV and the web, (this I could write 10,000 words of confusion on) and most of all an opening of the mind by artists, clients, networks, carriers and manufacturers.
The “protect my area” process never has and never will work.
Radio marginalized newspapers, TV marginalized radio, the web is marginalizing them all, including print.
it’s not the consumer that stands in the way of convergence, it’s the producers and providers, trying to hold on to their last acre of territory. Broadcast networks don’t really want to embrace the web, cable wants to hold onto it’s pay for view market, the internet providers want a cut of the action and print just languishes behind not really knowing if they want to put their magazines on line or just give keep pushing paper on the newsstands and in discounted subscriptions.
The unions and talent agents still don’t have a handle of how to judge web play or compensate their artists for the content and commercial production has the mindset that commercial production must be 2 to 10 times the costs of still production.
The viewing consumer doesn’t care if the image is in a magazine, or a billboard, a wall, a moving truck, or the inside of a NY taxi. The consumer just doesn’t notice unless the message is compelling.
The consumer doesn’t care if they click on apple TV to see a television show or watch the news, or for that matter, any device as long as it’s easy, inexpensive and convenient.
The consumer doesn’t care if they read the NY times at a bus stop or the laptop as long as it’s readable, accessible and makes sense.
I shot one still and video session for a large lingerie concern and the you tube video and web play far outpaced the viewer ship of a million dollar print run, so the power of a free carrier doesn’t go unnoticed by corporations or advertising agencies.
Personally I think it’s time the visual creation industry pulled their head out of the sand and started embracing all of this as new opportunity rather than holding onto traditions that nobody is asking for in the first place.
The viewing numbers reflect these changes and people are spending less time in tradition media, more time on the computer and as we all know the only tradition that will not change is the 24 hour day.
From a technical standpoint I believe it will be the lower ends of the market that drives this. First the hobbyist that wants decent stills and video of their summer vacation or that once in a lifetime trip through Europe.
Next will probably be the huge wedding and event market, where video and stills have converged for a long time. After all it was the wedding photographers that originally drove the professional still capture market, (and probably still do).
It’s going to converge whether we embrace it or not. Getty, Corbis and the stock industry are fighting to hold onto numbers in the face of dollar stock but most of that is because they are working with large antiquated film libraries (in both moving and still). Imagine if they started fresh today and every stock production was accompanied by parallel high quality footage.
So in my view the convergence is here, the only thing left is affordable cameras of quality.
I attended a lecture/slide show/presentation by photographer Sam Abell last week, as part of the National Geographic Live! season in Minneapolis. Mr. Abell has had a 25-year career shooting for National Geographic, and he was asked what an aspiring young photographer who wanted to follow in his footsteps should do, He responded that the National Geographic now looks to only hire still photographers who are also video-trained! His advice was that young photographers should be sure they are versed in both disciplines.
So, we may be seeing not only the tip of the iceberg on the technology side, but truly a convergence on the artistic side, as well.