Imaging Gear at NAB 2012: To 4K or Not to 4K?

April 20, 2012

By John Rettie

You think things are changing in the world of still photography? Imagine you’re in the traditional broadcast business. Just a few years ago professionals in radio and television gathered yearly for the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show in Las Vegas. The big broadcasters had a monopoly and few outside of the traditional industry would attend, which made sense since no else could afford the expensive gear needed to operate a television station

Now anyone, even an individual with a 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.” We sent John Rettie, Rangefinder’s Technical Editor, to the NAB Show 2012 in Las Vegas this week to see the cameras and accessories on display. It’s a techie’s dream and helped shed some light on the possible future of photography.

Here’s his brief round up of some highlights of the show, which ended yesterday

Canon EOS-1D C
Five years ago when I visited the NAB Show, it was abuzz with a new camera company called Red. The Red Digital Cinema Camera Company showed off tremendous short films made by Peter Jackson that highlighted the incredible detail obtainable from Red’s, then new 4K (approximately 4x the resolution of HD) digital cinema cameras. Red certainly shook up the established high-end video camera companies such as JVC, Panasonic, and Sony, as Red promised its cameras would be so much more capable and less expensive than their offerings.

A couple of years later at the same show, the buzz was caused by the Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR. It was a stills camera 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 thousands on a big camera. Famously, an episode of the the TV show “House” was shot with a 5D Mark II.

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.

My, how things have changed. This year at NAB, it seemed as if the whole traditional video world has been turned upside down. Canon had the largest display at the Las Vegas Convention Center as it unveiled the 4K-capable EOS 1D C, a DSLR-designed camera aimed directly at Red and other high-end 4K cameras.

The night before NAB opened, Canon showed off the camera’s capabilities at a packed theater in the Palms Hotel which has the best 4K projector system in town, according to Canon. Two high-cost short movies certainly wowed the audience. The quality of the footage especially in low light and cramped conditions gave a good idea of 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 compared to previous years. Major camera manufacturers 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, the C300 and C500 as well as the Canon 1D C, are at capturing images in low light conditions, Canon deliberately lowered the amount of light. Indeed they even turned off the lights regularly and had an actor walk around with just a small flashlight.

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 and this year was no exception. However, it announced a new Cinema Camera that caught everyone by surprise.

Much like the Red camera five year ago, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera came out of left field and it looks set to make inroads among the established players. It is not a 4K camera, however, as it only captures footage at 2.5K.

It has a different footprint from any other camera and records uncompressed raw video 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. What’s more the company plans to start shipping the camera in July.

Thunderbolt, the high-speed connection protocol currently being promoted by Apple, appears to be catching on in the video world. 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 at its booth where the chipmaker had several Apple computers on display as well as Thunderbolt peripherals.
OWC Jupiter
One minute of 4K video takes up 16GB of storage. Shoot for two hours and you’ve filled up a 2 TB hard drive. Naturally you’ll need to backup this footage so now you’ve got 4 or even 6TB of hard drive storage.

Massive high-end storage solutions that can cost thousands of dollars are a sheer necessity in the new world of digital cinema. OWC is familiar name to many Mac users, as the company has been providing upgrade components for many years. At NAB, OWC stepped into a brave new world of scalable storage with a mini-SAS storage system, called Jupiter that promises data transfer rates of 48GB/sec, which it claims is up to six times faster and six times less costly than fiber channel storage systems.

Nikon D800
Although Nikon was the first camera manufacturer to include video capture in a DSLR when it introduced the D90, its cameras have lagged behind Canon in popularity among videographers. Nikon intends to correct that with the D800 and it made it clear that it intends to be a player in the video world with it’s first ever booth at NAB.

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 that 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.