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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