The video industry is changing.
This isn’t a new thing. It’s always been this way. Early 20th century pioneers brought us the Cathode Ray Tube, the first piece of technology for transporting live images remotely. Not long after that all the radio broadcasters became TV broadcasters too. The 50′s brought color TV to our homes for the first time. Since then we’ve seen television sets grow to become the centerpiece of the American living room. Over the years TV’s got bigger and bigger. With LCD technology they got thinner and thinner. In 2014, the video your smart phone can display is far more impressive than the very best television from 1985.
In many ways this change is a good thing. It’s brought a better viewing experience to viewers and greater choice to consumers. But all this change can also create confusion and cause people to waste money. Anyone who rushed out to buy a Betamax tape deck can attest to that (if you’ve never heard of Betamax it’s because that format lost out to VHS in the tape “format war” of the 80′s)
Which brings us to the newest “shiny thing” I’d like to address: 4K Video
What is 4K video?
First a quick history lesson. I promise not to bore you.
In the olden days when TV was first introduced it was only possible to capture images in a square that amounted to 720 pixels wide by 480 pixels tall. So all TVs displayed 720 pixels by 480 pixels. This has come to be know as “Standard Definition” (or SD). All TV was broadcast in SD from the 1950′s until around the first part of the the 21st century. Starting in the early 2000′s, it became possible and economical for TV cameras to capture much larger images. “High Definition” TV was born, which boasts an image size of 1920 x 1080. Starting in around 2001 and for the next 10 years or so, television makers started selling HD TV sets and TV broadcasters started broadcasting in HD. At the time of this writing, around 75% of U.S. homes have at least one HD set.
While the SD to HD conversion was happening, camera and display technology was rapidly advancing. Cameras became capable of capturing much larger images and display technology allowed for the display of those images. This led to the introduction of 4K, which is a little over double the size of HD at 4096 x 2160.
That’s around 4 times the number of pixels, which is pretty significant. So it only stands to reason that the picture will look 4 times sharper, right?
Well not exactly… which brings me to the next point. And get excited, because it involves science!
A quick science lesson… from some smart people
The reality is that resolution does matter, but only to a point. At a certain point, the human eye loses the ability to distinguish pixels. At that point more resolution doesn’t matter because it looks the same to the human eye. More on this from this insightful article from Geoffrey Morrison, quoted below.
The human eye, for all its amazingness, has a finite resolution. This is why you can read your computer screen from where you’re sitting, but not if you’re on the other side of the room. Everyone is different, but the average person with 20/20 vision can resolve 1 arcminute. One arcminute is 1/60th a degree. If you assume your field of vision is 180 degrees (it’s not, but go with me here), and you take 1 degree of that, you’re able to resolve a 1/60th sliver of that degree. Close up this means you can see hairs on your arm, wrinkles on your thumb, and so on. At distance, these fine details disappear. If a friend waves at you from across a field, you can probably see the person’s thumbs, but not any wrinkles or hair. Far enough away, you probably won’t even be able to see thumbs, unless those are some really, really big thumbs.
Given that, here are a few general guidelines for pixel resolution, viewing distance, and screen size:
- The larger the screen size, the more pixels you need to achieve a sharper image
- The closer the viewer is to the screen, the more pixels you need to achieve a sharper image
- The more pixels there are, the larger the screen needs to be in order to take advantage of those extra pixels
Here’s a handy chart from Carlton Bale that gives a visual of this relationship.
Relationship between viewing distance, pixel count, and screen size
Should my company be producing 4k video?
Given the information above, it makes it a little easier to make that decision. It will depend on how your video will be shown and in what context the audience is watching it. If your video distribution strategy is web only and you know that most of those web viewers will be watching your video on their smart phones, then it doesn’t make sense to produce your video in 4k. Viewers won’t be able to tell the difference on their tiny 3″ – 6″ screens.
However, if your video is destined for a very large screen then it could make sense to shoot in 4k. Or if you think that at some point in the future you’ll want to display your video on a very large screen, then a good way to future-proof your video for that purpose can be capturing in 4k.
For all other purposes, at least right now, you’re not going to see a massive benefit from 4k. You will, however, see an increased cost in producing in 4k due to more expensive equipment and greater hard drive storage requirements.
So is 4k a fad or the future of video?
That’s a tough question to answer just yet. In order for 4k to get wide adoption the price for TV sets needs to come down a good deal, probably under $1,000. This will happen soon enough, but I don’t expect everyone to run out right away and replace their HD sets with 4k sets. Television broadcasters are still nursing their HD switch hangover so they certainly aren’t chomping at the bit to upgrade their systems to 4k after coughing up millions switching to HD. 4K is far more likely to catch on quickly in the online video world, where there aren’t as many technical challenges to overcome to implement it. But even then, don’t expect an enormously different viewing experience. In terms of web video, corporate video, and other branches of the video business outside of Hollywood features, I think 4k will remain a small niche for a long time.
Cover Photo Credit: Brandon King
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