Ultra high definition video gives firms clearer picture
Ultra High Definition (UHD), or 4K, TV and video is coming hot on the heels of HD, promising pictures so crystal clear you feel you could walk through the screen.
While consumers may be wary about the limited amount of 4K content currently available and the cost of upgrading their kit so soon after the HD upgrade, the business world is getting very excited about it.
At October's PDN Photoplus Expo in New York City, where stills photographers convened from all over the world, 4K video tech was the talk of the town.
Several photographers told me they are not waiting for 2015 - they are ready to jump in now.
That's because the release of several affordable 4K cameras, including the Panasonic GH4 and the Go Pro Hero4 Black, give them the ability to record amazingly detailed video - four times HD resolution - and also extract any frame of video as a high quality photo of around eight megapixels.
This is good enough quality to print at a decent size, although it's still way below the 18-to-22 megapixels professional-grade stills cameras can now achieve.
In many circles - including the porn industry, which invariably can be found at technology's cutting edge - this facility could see photography and videography merging into one discipline.
Panasonic Corporation's Darin Pepple says the future is already here and uses terms such as "hybrid photography" and "changing photography" to describe the trend.
The latter is the motto Panasonic has already been using liberally in the US and UK and will soon use world-wide in marketing materials.
"A photographer has to get over his fear of video and really just accept it as another component within their wheelhouse," he says.
"And you now need constant light instead of just flash light. So the look of your photography can change a little bit, but adding video to the mix is important."
But Jason Groupp, director of WPPI - Wedding and Portrait Photographers International - doesn't believe stills specialists need to worry about videographers taking their business.
"There's a difference between shooting video and shooting pictures," he says. "The way that the images are captured from the standpoint of connecting with your subject is different.
"If you are just pointing a camera at somebody all the time the emotions and expressions that you're going to get are different from when you shoot stills."
Recently, hotel chains, estate agents and fashion houses have been reinventing "living photographs", or cinemagraphs, using an app called Flixel that works best with 4K video.
The result is a static image with one or two elements within the picture that move - steam rising from a coffee cup or flowers swaying in the breeze, for example. It's done by combining a single still frame with moving elements of several other frames from the same scene.
Robert Lendvai of Flixel Photos claims these pictures, when used in online adverts, can engage viewers 5-to-10 times longer than ordinary photos. Consumers are also much more likely to click on them, he says, making them more valuable to advertisers.
"The human eye is definitely attracted to something with a little bit of motion, especially when it is very subtle which is what a lot of these ads are presented as. People look at a living picture and try to work out which bit is moving".
Another 4K commercial application is security cameras. Already stadiums, shopping malls and casinos are investing heavily in the latest technology and it's easy to understand why.
With standard, or even high, definition cameras, the security operator typically has to follow the subject in real time to get the required level of detail.
But with 4K video, the footage is such high resolution that an operator can zoom in at a later date and see details that would not have been visible using older systems.
However, four times the image quality also means a lot more raw data is passed though the system. Instead of megabytes per minute as with traditional video, 4K can mean you're recording gigabytes of data per minute.
The collection and storage of all this data can become a challenge.
Cheryl Bard from Bosch, a maker of 4K security cameras, reckons her company has an answer to this.
"We have a feature called Intelligent Dynamic Noise Reduction [IDNR]. It is a way to use lower bit rates with 4K cameras," she says. "Typically we say bit rates can be reduced by up to 50% using IDNR technology."
The technology is able to distinguish between quiet scenes where not much is going on and "noisy" scenes where lots is going on.
As the quiet scenes don't need particularly high quality video, lower bit rates can be applied, which reduces the data file sizes. But the noisy scenes need very high quality pictures, so the bit rates are higher, increasing the data file sizes as a result.
The IDNR automatically works out which bit rate it needs to apply.
Raw video crushing
The 4K industry has been grappling with the issue of compression - squashing digital files so they take up less space - for years. In many cases it's the reason why companies have not yet jumped on the 4K bandwagon.
One current compression format, or codec, called h.264 is used in a wide variety of applications because it can crush raw video data to a fraction of its original size without much loss in picture quality.
But a newer codec, h.265, or High Efficiency Video Coding, can cut h.264 data totals in half. It is already starting to appear on smartphones and streaming services.
Increasingly efficient codecs are important given that the broadband speeds offered by internet service providers (ISPs) often less than stellar.
Businesses that have to collect 4K data and move it around will need a pipeline that can handle this increased volume of data.