How Much Video Resolution is Enough?

Commentary2.jpgThe first rule in any business is to make a profit so it can stay in business. In the technology industry that means continually releasing new products. In the media industry that means continually releasing products that create or support ever-higher-resolution video.

But… that being said, just how much resolution is enough?

According to research done by Panavision, the differences between 2K and 4K images can not be perceived at normal viewing distances; say 6 feet for the living room or 20 feet for a theater with a 40-foot screen. To say nothing of 5K, 6K or beyond…

There is a marketing benefit to camera companies at providing cameras that shoot at higher resolutions: it gives them something new to promote. But, what’s the benefit to us?

NOTE: On a 54-inch TV, pixels for a 1080 HD image are placed about 0.02 inches (0.5 millimeters) apart, while pixels for a 4K image are about 0.01 inches (0.25 millimeters) apart. These are tiny, TINY distances requiring even tinier pixels!

I don’t know a single actor that likes being shot in higher resolution. Actors wear makeup for a reason, after all. The greater the resolution, the more we must work to soften skin tones and blur backgrounds using depth of field. Yet, blurring is the exact opposite of the benefits of shooting higher resolution.

NOTE: If you are doing effects, higher frame rate video will yield better results (meaning sharper edge detail) than higher resolutions, especially for keys and rotoscoping because it minimizes motion blur.

Yes, higher resolutions give us options for changing framing later, during editing. But, for that to work, we need more of the image in focus, which works against softer, more “painterly,” cinematic depth of field and pull-focus shots.

It is a conundrum.

I’m not advocating a return to standard def video. HD is lovely and I enjoy watching it. And I’m not opposed to anyone shooting higher resolution for the benefits it can provide; the largest of which is the ability to reframe later.

(Though, it could be argued that shooting to reframe later is an indication that the director has not done their homework on the story they want to tell, nor who is the focus of a scene.)

There are experiments being done where an 8K frame is divided into 1080 “regions.” The camera is locked down – on a football field for example – while the region, like a window, is panned as the action changes. We don’t pan the camera, we pan the picture within the camera.

But I think we are going to reach a point of diminishing returns on higher resolution. Yes, we will be able to create higher and higher quality sensors, which capture more and more pixels. But, if our eyes can’t see them, what’s the benefit?

Compounding the confusion is the codec the camera uses. Shooting 4K images only to compress it in the camera using H.264 is an exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul. What we gain in extra pixels is lost due to compression.

If you are looking for ways to invest your money for the future, I don’t think the pursuit of piling on pixels is a wise decision. Your clients will not be able to perceive the difference, which means they won’t pay extra for it.

However, there’s a different direction that both Adobe and Apple are pursuing: HDR. While the implementation of the spec is still a work-in-progress, for instance, Apple supports wide color, but not yet brighter pixels, the results are more than worth the effort.

There is a significant, perceptual improvement when viewing images with brighter pixels or richer colors. As our sister site, DoddleNEWS, wrote about this week, YouTube is now supporting HDR video posted to its site. (This means that, internally, YouTube is compressing video using a 10-bit depth codec, rather than the traditional 8-bit depth that H.264 supports.)

The cool thing about HDR is that it makes HD video look better. This new format means shooting or recording different codecs, not different image sizes. We need to shift away from capturing H.264 and into recording RAW, Log or ProRes codecs in order to capture the additional bit depth needed for this new format. This need not necessarily mean a new camera, just one that supports recording to an external hard disk that can record these much larger data sets.

But the benefits of HDR are easily perceived by inexperienced clients and equally easily billable, because they can see the difference and the difference is dramatic. And, now that YouTube supports this format, it becomes even easier to convince clients to spend the money.

This is not yet as easy as throwing a switch. You will need relatively new computers (within the last year or two). You’ll need more storage for all the extra data. You’ll need a way to monitor the new video formats. And many hardware vendors are still scrambling to support this format, so hardware will change quickly this year and next.

However, this is an opportunity that our audiences can see, clients will pay for and we can continue to make money to tell the stories we want to tell. While broadcast is still years away from supporting HDR, we can distribute our HDR work today via the web.

I think we’ve reached the point where we have enough pixels. Now, we need to make the pixels we have look better.

Just something to think about. As always, I welcome your comments.

14 Responses to How Much Video Resolution is Enough?

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  1. Phil Cutting says:

    What you say certainly makes a lot of sense. Most of the television in the UK is still watched in SD, not HD. Local news on the BBC is not broadcast at all in HD. It’s only in SD. When my clients want a copy of their programme, they ask for a DVD. BluRay? Nope, DVD. Bandwidth issues mean that the best I can view Youtube is at 720P. Someone once told me never to spend money on upgrades until I could get something 4x better than I already had. Since then, I’ve kept my Sony EX1 and both myself and my clients have been delighted with its performance. I could upgrade to create material in far greater resolutions but no-one is ever likely to see it in anything other than SD or 720P! I shall watch the HDR revolution with interest.

  2. As a filmmaker/DOP I could not have said it any better. Very wise and balanced musings Larry!

  3. Billy Walker says:

    HDR does look great. But I can’t help but feel it looks a bit artificial. I don’t know where you draw the line with enhancement but for my taste in general HDR goes a bit too far. In my opinion it leaves reality although not by much and heads over towards fantasy.

  4. Clayton Moore says:

    Panasonic says that the GH5 (released next year) will be able to shoot internal 4k @ 10 bit 4:2:2. – $1,800-$2,000 price point. Thats pretty remarkable. I would guess H265 but don’t know for sure. I would expect to see virtually every camera from $1,200 and up to have that capability by NAB 2018.

    The HDR I have seem looks very good and depending on how it was graded the added picture fidelity can either look just like what you see with your eyes and as smooth as can be, or it can look more artistic and saturated then reality (kinda sorta like CSI Miami)

    Either way more resolution + more picture fidelity can add up to much more fixability over all.

    8k may be more relevant in new goggle or non-traditional display tech like direct to retina scan display technologies.

    In the end however, your exactly right that once a specification is beyond human perception the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

    Oh and by the way for all of us 24 fps purists out there, it just dawned on me, real life goes by faster then 24 fps “sarcastic look on face”

  5. Jeff Cipin says:

    REALLY interesting POV, Larry. However, I’m not showing your article to my wife. I’ve been psyching myself up to buy a 4K TV as Black Friday looms closer with every passing day. Sigh, your comments are like a cold shower. Sometimes necessary. As a producer/editor I’m not eager to offer 4K to my clients. Some of the freelance videographers that I work with have upgraded to 4K gear, others are just renting when required. I have yet to be convinced that the jump from HD to 4K is as visually obvious and of value as the jump from SD to HD really was. I am very curious about HDR but agree with those who feel it may have specialized niche rather than universal application. Keep your opinions coming, Larry!

  6. Bob O'Brien says:

    Good points, as always, Larry. You are such a wonderful resource!

    With my Sony FS7, I have have shot many productions in 4K for 1080 distribution. It is absolutely wonderful to be able to re-frame shots and add subtle zooms.

    I recently shot at 4K a performance of a young virtuoso guitarist jamming to a backing track. By recording him in a framing from knees to head, I was able punch into a close up of his guitar at will during the edit, assuring me of perfect continuity of performance.

    For interviews, being able to record a medium shot and cut to a close up at will using only one camera is so very useful.

    Does 4K allow me to charge more money? Some do. But, while I do not charge more for 4K, the technology alone has brought me additional work… and my fully loaded iMac running Adobe CC handles the bandwidth just fine.

    As for HDR, it’s too bright for my eyes. I cannot imagine looking at an image that bright all day on my computer. I know it’s coming, but I’ll wait for it to catch on.


  7. John Taylor says:

    Well, I look forward to the 4K HDR resolution tide to wash over the industry and transform it as costs are driven down. I’ve had enough 720p “HD” broadcast video and 8-bit pixel depth with its limited color and brightness range. I don’t think we know how much video resolution is enough for the future we are all headed towards, but the new video technologies presents us with great new opportunities to find out how far we can go to achieve a rewarding visual experience.

  8. James Duke says:

    I was too young to remember Color vs B&W or Stereo vs Mono – I read that the discourse was lively. But I do remember HD vs SD very well. I think the market forces are “solving” this problem for us. According to several market studies appx. 24% of TVs sold this year are 4K and 16% are 4K HDR (mostly HDR-10, but some Dolby Vision). Most of the large sizes TVs are HDR. Most manufacturers state that their 4K HDRs handle 10-bit color. The percentage of HDRs is projected to double in 2017 and then almost double again in 2018. In May of this year counted 13 Netflix and 24 Amazon HDR titles available. I asked both YouTube and Vimeo support about their plans, but got a vague answer – something like “we are always working on the new stuff.”

    Larry, you mentioned DoddleNEWS writing about YouTube and HDR. Would you point us to the article please. Do they now accept the 10-bit material?

    As far as an exercise in robbing Peter to pay Paul by converting 4K to H.264, you are absolutely right! That is why the market for the SSD external recorders is expanding. I use Atomos with ProRes 422HQ recording and 4K Panasonic DVX200 with VLog and the video quality is stunning. I think eventually (maybe sooner) the camera-recorder combination will come down in price (within under $6K market) and may come in one package.

  9. I understand hardware manufacturers must improve their products in order to sell (and survive). And I understand consumers when they want to have the last release in their living rooms. It was first the HD ready, then the Full HD, later de 4K and now the 4K HDR. And there are many surveys showing the huge penetration of 4K/4K HDR TVs in the market…

    However, as a wedding video producer, 99,9% of my work is delivered in DVD (BRD, rarely). Although recorded in 1080p, they require it in SD, since they do not have proper players or do not know to deal with files.

    In my industry, have not moved yet to the HD, so to talk about investing in 4K/HDR technology is still far away.


  10. Here in Sweden the national tv network has two channels sending 720p, all other Swedish networks use SD.
    But as a wildlife film maker I have just been told by Swedish television and a lot other tv networks around the world that they will no longer buy wildlife videos if they are not filmed in 4K. Sometimes I wonder what these people know about the technical side of things.
    I also know people who still use their VHS players and not a few who still shoot DV…

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