Should Photographers Care About 4K?


If you had to summarize this year’s NAB Show in Las Vegas in one word, it would probably be “4K.”

The NAB (Which stands for National Association of Broadcasters) Show is the world’s largest Electronic Media show, and deals largely in video. But, this year, at least one of the announcements had interesting implications for the still photography market.

That would be Sony’s announcement of their third full-frame mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, the Sony A7s. With an ISO range going up to 409,600 and the capability to record in 4K resolution (with an external recorder anyway), the A7s looks to be targeted at photographers with an interest in videography or to videographers and photographers with a need for action-stopping shutter speeds in extremely dim environments.


But Sony isn’t the first company to introduce 4K video to a line with a heavy dual emphasis on stills and video. Panasonic introduced their 4K-capable GH4 last month, and made sure to show off its capabilities as both a still and video camera.

Plus, now it looks as if one of the most illustrious names in the pantheon of purist still-camera manufacturers, Leica, will be implementing 4K video in an upcoming medium format camera, at least if their rep at the NAB show is to be believed. Canon, too, features 4K video on their cinema-themed EOS-1D C

So what does 4K mean, why is it one of this season’s hottest buzzwords in consumer imaging, and should still photographers care?

Saying that a video is 4K means that its horizontal resolution is somewhere around 4,000 pixels, making it about four times the (horizontal) resolution of current HD formats like 1080p.

Offering 4K video in still-camera bodies is just the latest in a string of efforts by still-camera manufacturers to attract the interest of videographers to their systems. The trend, so far, has been for companies to offer specialized video-focused versions of their main camera brands, often at greater cost, indicating that they view it more as a niche feature than one that will attract more photographers to their main lines. Offering these specialized versions of already-existing camera models is a great way to utilize exiting brand identities and maximize the value of exiting production lines.

Another popular tactic is for companies with lens clout, but not a significant history of involvement in the motion picture industry, to introduce cinema lenses. That’s what Canon did in addition to introducing an entirely new line of cinema-quality video cameras.

But I’m not particularly interested in shooting video, so why should I care? Two words: still-capture.

Last year, much of the buzz that surrounded the announcement of the 4K-capable Canon EOS-1D C centered around a debate over whether high-resolution video still-capture has the capacity to supplant some kinds of traditional still photography. Consider this: a 4K camera in a 3:2 aspect ratio is going to have a resolution of about 4,000 X 2,666, which is equivalent to more than ten megapixels. If you could pull a single frame from that video, the result would have resolution plenty high enough for making 8X10 prints, or even for producing magazine covers.

If you don’t believe me, check out this list of high-profile magazine covers and features shot using a RED high-definition video camera. Canon also released a promotional video to demonstrate how their 1D C could be used for this purpose.


In addition to the need for a highly controlled environment, one of the major difficulties with video-still photography has always been the cost. You’d have to pay ten grand for the 1D C, body only, and that’s a relative bargain compared to other major 4K offerings, like those from Red.

But those prices keep falling. The rumor mill is suggesting a price of just over $4,000 for the Sony A7s, while the Panasonic GH4 can be had already for less than $1,700. That’s cheaper than almost any dedicated video camcorder with 4K functionality, like the Sony FDR-AX100. As the technology gets more affordable, more people are going to have access to video-capable cameras with high enough resolution, making video-still capture will a more viable option for many hobbyists and amateur photographers.

I can foresee 4K video in still-photo bodies being primarily interesting to two group of photographers: those who might want to try offering video with their standard services (like wedding photographers) and those who find themselves shooting in highly controlled environments and want to try still-capture photography. If you’re not in one of those camps, you can probably just let this trend pass on by.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons User TRauMa

  • David Vaughn

    Wouldn’t the slow shutter speed in cinematic production make a big difference in the amount of useful, non-blurry images? From what little I know about video, traditional cameras shoot with a shutter angle (or something?) of 180 degrees for cinema which means about double the shutter speed in relation to the frame rate, so shooting at 24 fps would mean a shutter speed of 1/48 (1/50 or 1/60 on a DSLR).

    Although it could work for some applications, I don’t see what situations would require so much precision in moment capture that the 12 fps in the Canon 1DX and Nikon D4 could not capture it just as well with (most likely) better fidelity.

    To me it’s one of those things that CAN be done but…Is it really something that is better than the more traditional alternative? Kind of like shooting TIME magazine photos with an iPhone. :P

  • @JacksonCheese

    Not until we can get a consumer PC with a 100TB solid state hard drive, a 16 core processor, and 64GB of RAM to handle the editing and processing of these ginormous video files.

  • Joseph Hill

    One detail: It’s not 4 times the horizontal resolution as 1080 but 4 times the total resolution, 2 x horizontal and 2 x vertical (since 1080 is a vertical count, 4k is a horizontal count).

  • Renato Murakami

    I think that perhaps this is a signal of yet another division between people who would be interested, vs people who can’t be bothered with it. Pro niche market vs the rest. Perhaps reminiscent of Medium format vs regular APC-S and full frame crowd? Or even, more recently, dSLR vs mirrorless?

    More resolution on video and images is great, but for 4K there’s a huge impact on several steps of the workflow.
    Video people that will or already are working with 4K will tell you: You need a crazy powerful computer to edit those things, it’ll take crazy ammounts of time to render, you need plenty of space to store files and there isn’t a whole lot of demand for it right now.
    I mean, we just reached a point where editing fullHD videos on a laptop that’s readily available on the market for less than truckloads of money, then comes this.
    I’m not shure if you can even make plain edits with the best gaming laptop out there…
    Yes, 4K downsized to FullHD means more room to work with and all that, but the problems remains.

    For photographers, I imagine the people who’d be interested becomes even more of a niche thing. I mean, it’s hard enough going through hundreds of photos from bust mode… imagine going through 30fps videos? I mean, for certain very specific situations it can obviously be useful, but man… talk about a hellish workflow.

    On the other hand, it’s good to also notice something going the opposite direction from a product noted here: A7s.

    It brought 4K via HDMI, yes, but also notice how they sacrificed a whole lot of resolution for stills in favor of low light performance. See how most people are taking it pretty lightly… if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy. A7s has what? A third of A7r’s resolution? 36Mpx for A7r, 24Mpx for A7 and then 12Mpx for A7s.

    Me? Well, I’m ok with even regular ol’ HD. Yeah… my sight is not that great, I must admit. But really…. sometimes I can’t even notice the difference between HD and fullHD. 4K is something I’d call overkill.
    It’s along the lines of, just as much as I don’t care for ultra high fidelity in sound, because I’m kinda deaf and definitely not an audiophile, I also can’t care much for 4K. Not that others shouldn’t, this is a personal stance of course.

    It took me a long time to buy a fullHD TV simply because I didn’t feel the need for it, and when I finally bought it, it was mostly because there wasn’t a significantly cheaper choice for an HD TV the size I wanted. 4K will probably go that way too, if ever. And then, there will probably already be 8K TVs out there.

  • Jeff B

    I do think this is the future, for some. I have been experimenting with pulling stills from 4K video and recently shot a fashion and beauty story for a magazine with the Sony F55 in 4K RAW. Yes, as some have said, the files are rather larger comparatively. And to address David Vaughn below, I shot with a 45 degree shutter to limit motion blur. Regardless of the larger files, the convergence of stills and motion continues and I’m very encouraged by my results with the Sony F55.

  • Ken Elliott

    Well, the HP Z820 has 12 cores, 512GB of RAM, and you can certainly attach a rather large RAID array of almost any size. So you can actually buy something darn close, or better than what you are asking for. But what you actually need is GPU acceleration and plenty of RAM. Both the new Mac Pro and the entire HP Z-series workstation line have that. As big as you may think video files are, there are other things (FEA, computational fluid dynamics, etc.) that make 4K video editing look easy.

  • Deveron

    Oh, pish posh. 4K editing doesn’t take that many cores or that much RAM. I can edit 4K right now on my $1000 Lenovo ideapad y500. I *am* editing 4K on my $1000 Lenovo right now. The main thing is to have sufficient storage. Which I do.

  • Azety

    Thats exactly why i keep my D700 and im afraid about the D800.

  • Rob S

    So I guess this is something you could learn. But when I think about how I shoot with models I can’t imagine being able to get what I want from basically going into record mode and then giving direction. Im looking for that one moment and then click. Also, I have no idea how you chimp with 4k video!!

  • BDWT

    Yes, you’re correct about the shutter speeds of film cameras. There is a bit of a buffer zone though, at 24fps you can acceptably push the shutter up to around 1/80th or 1/100th of a second before you start seeing visible “strobing” (à la 28 Days Later or Saving Private Ryan, both of which used a cranked up shutter speed effectively to convey tension through the images). If I recall correctly, even the Bolex’s I used in school shot at 1/80th of a second by default.

    I agree that 12fps is adequate for almost everything- but I think the ability to take grabs from 4k video is great, much like shooting 35mm motion picture film it would be nice to be able to be able to take a high res still frame and use it for print (posters, artwork etc..) which you can’t really get away with, with 1080 footage.

  • Albin Roussel

    you beat me to it

  • Albin Roussel

    I wish 720p was more often available!

  • delayedflight

    Hardly this truism has been parroted on the internet by people with no experience shooting with the D800.

    The RAWs handle just fine even on older hardware I process my work on the relatively lightweight Macbook Air [late] 2013 (with optional i7 processor and 8 gigs of RAM) – ~$1300 AUD.
    It struggles a little with export as there’s a lack of processor power but otherwise editing is quick and seamless.

  • Traingineer

    6 cores is already enough for video work.

  • Azety

    So ?
    Still got to use an early computer, and expansive.
    And what about storage ?
    i got an old laptop ( core2duo ) and my raw are maximum 30 MB.
    it work fine for me.
    Dont want a 36 MP camera with 70 / 100 MB each raw.
    ( and i used a D800 and didnt like it. Please ask before talk next time
    D4 was better but no money for it )

  • Fred Pedroza

    Sir: Mr.Adam Griffith makes a better story than most.
    Adam is very inilluminating .the photography is just ,
    Is just so so.