The Cost of 4K

(commentary)

If you’re thinking “I don’t have to read an article about video because all I do is shoot stills, keep reading. I’ll pivot my statements to be relevant to still photography at the end.


Back in February I wrote about why I didn’t think 4K video was the be-all, end-all solution that would solve all DSLR video problems. Now that some 4K video cameras are entering the market, I’m amused at some of the comments that are coming along with the camera reviews. 

Here’s the thing, you almost certainly need three things if you’re going to shoot any 4K video:

  • Fast and expensive media. For example, the Panasonic GH4 requires a UHS-II Class 3 SDXC card to record at the highest bandwidth. Not just a 95MBs capable card, but a state of the art one that costs US$250 for a 64GB card. That might net you 80 minutes of video (still haven’t gotten a chance to verify that). You can use a different, slightly higher compression, but you don’t want to be the “fuzzier” provider of 4K output, do you?
  • Lots of storage. Thing is, you’re likely to want to preserve video quality during editing, which means transcoding into something like ProRes format. Prepare to be shocked at how big the files get. Really shocked. As in your 80 minutes of video off that expensive card is now 256GB or larger. By the time you build proxies, create a timeline, etc., your single card now may taking up more than half a terabyte. Remember, you also need backups to everything, so okay, we’ve probably crossed the terabyte line.
  • A new MacPro. This was an eye-opener to me. My current gear is quite capable of editing and running the video projects I do (all 1080P at the moment) in real time. My first 4K test? Uh, not so much.


The real question is whether 4K is really the future or not. The answer is still a bit unknown. We don’t currently have a real distribution method for 4K video, even compressed. However, I’ve learned not to bet against bandwidth restrictions, just as I don’t bet against CPU speeds or memory/storage restrictions. All these things continue to benefit from Moore’s Law, and thus, over time, go away. 

But that’s the key thing here: time. How much time will there be between being able to shoot/edit 4K (which we can do today) versus reliably distributing it to a wide audience? I know Sony would like that answer to be: not very long. But given that Netflix is already having to buy Internet speed for compressed current video distribution, that most folk aren’t going to buy a 4K TV when they have nothing to play on it other than 1080P best case, and that the broadcast system hasn’t come close to getting on board, “time” may be the biggest cost of 4K.

I’ve been at the front edge of technology for 40 years now. The one thing I know is that early adoption is costly. The products cost more, the time and support expenditure costs more, and you sometimes discover that the technology morphs slightly into something different than you acquired so you have to adjust. 

So what’s the answer? Simple: in any investment, don’t bet against the future. Buy based upon the assumption that you’ll need more, and sooner than you think. Video is currently 1080P and you could just go out and buy storage and an editing system that supports that. But when 4K does finally start to get a leg in the market: you’ll be starting over. And what happens when 8K comes around (it’s already starting, and the next Olympics will be partially recorded in 8K)?

So you buy your editing and storage based upon the assumption that you’ll need more sooner rather than later. In other words, a MacPro or equivalent and lots of fast drive capacity. Then you grow into it. 

So does this have anything to do with still photography? Yes, it does. 

Back when the D800 came out the biggest complaint was “I’ll need more storage space.” Yes, a 36mp raw file takes more space than a 12mp one, so you did need more storage space. But I didn’t see that as a problem, I’d already anticipated that. Indeed, I’m anticipating 54mp cameras and maybe even 102mp cameras in my remaining shooting career. I don’t want to be behind that curve, I want to be ahead of it. 

Likewise, the computer itself starts to be factor as you start throwing larger and larger files at it. With still photography, I can tolerate a bit of slowness: I’m usually not in a hurry when I’m working with getting images the way I want them. A little bit of delay actually gives my brain some thinking time. Too fast a computer will make me slow down ;~). 

Still, the relevant point here is simple: build out your infrastructure for your future (gee, I wish that Congress understood that message ;~). The actual camera you’re using today (1080P, 12mp, or 24mp) isn’t as important as realizing that you’ll eventually be dealing with more (4K, 8K, 36mp, 54mp, 102mp). Build the infrastructure that will let you grow into it with whatever the camera makers throw at you next.  

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