Why I would rather shoot 2K raw than 4K compressed

I’m reading a lot of hype about shooting 4K. Camera geeks seem to be drooling over the possibilities, but I’m not buying it.

There are two reasons for this:

  1. The market isn’t ready for it.
  2. Uncompressed raw is superior compared to compressed 4K images

If you’re not convinced that there’s a market for 4K, bone up on the market research:

Cutting Through the Hype: Ultra HD Not Going Anywhere Fast” by Troy Dreier at SteamingMedia.com. Citing Avni Rambhia, we learn:

“If you look at the VOD revenues that ultra HD generated this year, even the forecasts we’re seeing for three or four years, they’re not particularly spectacular. As far as ultra HD encoding revenue forecasts are concerned, they’re less than ten percent of the total encoding market, even if you look four years out,” Rambhia said. “4K TVs are going to be probably less than 5 percent of the total streaming destination.”

The Dirty Little Secret About 4K Streaming: Content Owners Can’t Afford Bandwidth Costs” by Dan Rayburn. He writes:

“The average broadcaster, news site and publisher, even the large ones, won’t be able to do 4K streaming as the cost for all the extra bits means they will have a content business they can’t monetize. Just think about how much content you view every day, from major content portals, where the max bitrate is 1Mbps. Why aren’t those websites delivering the video in 3Mbps? The answer you get when you ask them is that they can’t afford the extra bandwidth costs associated with it.”

And when you factor in the fact that “the bitrates they plan to use to deliver 4K content, using HEVC, will be between 12Mbps-20Mbps”, then you’ve got to wonder, why would independent filmmakers, digital journalists, and students want to go 4K if there’s no real market for it? Avoid the hype from the camera makers.

I for one would much rather shoot 2K or 1080p HD raw than compressed 4K. I prefer to shoot “thicker” images, than something that contains more breadth of pixels, but are too thin to really make it feel like film.

I like Marco Solorio at OneRive Media. His piece on an early model of the  4K Blackmagic Production Camera is fun to watch:

Compared to 8-bit DSLRs, this is fantastic. Remember, film isn’t about getting a sharp image. The dynamic range is great, but I sense that the image is thin when compared to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, and especially when compared to the Digital Bolex D16 and the Ikonoskop A-Cam dII. I shot projects with each of these cameras, and they each have their pros and cons, but fundamental to them all is a “thicker” image, the ability to shape a postproduction feel to your film project.

Ikonoskop example by Jon Yi:

We can see a 16mm vintage film look coming from these shots and the skin tones are accurate. Yi writes:

The A-Cam DII’s image has an inherently nostalgic feel to it, so I decided to shoot this test video in Coney Island using just one simple prime lens to emulate the style of a point and shoot vacation camera. Coney Island is a nostalgic place for me, as it is for many New Yorkers, and it was the first “special” place I took a girl when I moved to New York as a poor teenager. I decided to cast Elle Vertes since her youthful enthusiasm and style fit the part.

Blackmagic Cinema Camera example by Kurt Lancaster:

I love the thickness of the raw image coming out of this camera. It has texture. From the back of the theater house I was able to get a sharp image on stage. Ultimately the ergonomics are not how I want to shoot.

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera by Kurt Lancaster

Again, I like the thickness and texture coming from this image, from the raw elements of the CinemaDNG codec. The color doesn’t seem to be as rich as the colors coming out of the Ikonoskop and D16 Digital Bolex, seen below.

This film was shot with the beta version of the D16, but as soon as I started shooting with it, I knew I was using something special, something different from any other “electronic” or digital camera I’ve ever used.

Part of the problem with many of the new cameras coming out is the CMOS sensors (the Blackmagic cameras compared to the D16 and A-cam).

Joe Rubinstein, the president of Digital Bolex and the developer of the D16, recently posted on the Digital Bolex forum on Jan. 14, the importance of the wide range of capabilities when designing the front end of a camera:

With a CMOS sensor a developer may be able to squeeze the code to get a higher ISO or frame rate if they have left some capability room with the hardware, as we have seen with both Canon and Sony lately.

But with a CCD sensor a developer can actually continue to sculpt the code to change fundamental image quality things, almost indefinitely. There are so many subtle ways to control the image. It’s really awesome.

The one thing I’ll say about Rubinstein, is that from the beginning he wanted to attain a 16mm film look with the D16. He could have utilized nearly any sensor for the camera. He become convinced that a CCD, as an analog sensor, provided the capabilities to attain a 16mm film look more so than a CMOS sensor. The skin tones seem to be more natural, while at the same time when combined with the proper front end design, engages a 16mm film-like look.

Thus, the “thickness” of images coming out of CinemaDNG raw cameras, for me, provides superior imagery to images made from compressed images. For me, that’s the bottom line. Not whether or a camera is 4K for a market that’s not there.

Rather, when I pick up a digital cinema camera, like the D16 or A-Cam dII, it contains some kind of magic that makes me feel like I’m shooting on film again.



Kurt Lancaster is the author of DSLR Cinema and Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, coming out from Focal Press in Spring 2014. He teaches filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University.

15 thoughts on “Why I would rather shoot 2K raw than 4K compressed

  1. Hi Kurt,

    You mentioned that the Black Magic 4k camera footage looked “thin”. I am not sure what specific quality you are referring to here, but you suggest that CinemaDNG Raw capable cameras put out a better image. What you need to remember is that none of the footage coming out of the BM 4k camera is Raw, yet. But it will very soon with the forthcoming firmware update.

    Best regards,

    1. Yes, I’m referring to compressed non raw modes. I’m stating that 2K raw is better than 2k compressed and 4K compressed. We’re not in a 4K world, yet, despite what the marketers try to tell us. I’ll take a Digital Bolex D16 at 2K raw with two 24-bit audio, audio meters, a global shutter, and a form factor that allows me to handhold it any day over some of its competitors.

  2. Kurt,

    Thank you for this article. It is a very useful analysis of what is available in the sub $10K budget.
    You mentioned you have shot with all these cameras.
    I am currently hesitating between the Ikonoskop and the d16.
    It seems the Ikonoskop has a smaller sensor than the d16, Ikonoskop’s sensor being actually smaller than S16.

    Is the Ikonoskop a superior product in terms of image quality? or is the d16 a superior (and newer) product with the bigger CCD sensor?

    Thank you,

    1. Thierry:

      You can only buy the Ikonoskop used right now. The company has been bought out and it’s in a holding pattern right now.

      In either case, the D16 is 2K at S16, so the sensor is a bit bigger than the Ikonoksop. The image quality is very similar and both camera provide a digital 16mm film look (they both use CCDs and contain a global shutter). In addition, the D16 has two XLR 24-bit audio inputs and is one-third the price. Get the one with a 500GB SSD (you don’t need the cards) at $3600. I’ve shot two short documentaries and a hired promo gig with it. The Digital Bolex D16 a great camera–you can’t go wrong with the choice. I consider it the best cinema camera for under $10K on the market, today.

      1. Hi Kurt,

        Thank you for taking the time to reply.

        I guess I was wondering if the Ikonoskop had still a bit more to offer for 3 times the price, especially IQ.
        It seems it is not the case. That is great news.

        Thanks again,

      2. Hi
        I saw a few of your D16 movies. I like it very much and you are not so far to convice me!
        I read you told Thierry that with a 500G SSD he wouldn’t need the cards. But how will he do when the disk is full? How long can you film with that SSD?
        Thank you!

        1. 2 hours in full HD. About 90 min in 2K. Offload with USB 3. Use cards to buffer and offload if you need to shoot more in a day.

          1. Thanks again.
            I assume that cards are needed when shooting outside. When making a documentary, 90 mn may be short…

  3. It all depends how much you shoot in a day. I’ve never used cards and I’ve shot inside and outside. If you’re doing long interviews then that’s when you may consider cards. If you have a long lunch.break you may be able to dump 500gb.

    1. Yes, thank you. That’s the point. One difficulty: I will be in the middle of nowhere in Africa. I will need cards…
      By the way, maybe can you help for another thing: how do you consider the D16 in low light? For instance: making an interview by night without any electricity, just candles; do you think it would be possible? (Even if it’s dark, I don’t mind – just need to see the man face to the cam!)
      Thanks again!

      1. You’ll also need batteries (like several Switronix) if you don’t have a way to charge each night.

        You’ll need a fast, fast lens like a 1.2 — no camera can deliver that image unless you have enough cameras and the light is close to his face. Get the light meter app: Cine Meter and test before you go.

    1. What is your budget? I would rent several different cameras before the shoot and test them with your cinematographer (such as http://borrowlenses.com). There are so many factors you have to consider and answer many questions and then test them. Are you doing heavy post work? Then shoot raw. Do you need 4K, or is 2K or full HD good enough? What kind of lenses do you have access to, etc?

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