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Opinion: 8K video can be worth the hassle. But not for everyone, and perhaps not for the reasons you might think…

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2020 was the year 8K video finally arrived on the enthusiast camera scene, courtesy of the Canon EOS R5. A few months later, Sony followed suit with its flagship a1, Nikon pre-announced support for 8K on its future Z9, and more announcements are surely in the pipeline.

The emergence of 8K as a mainstream technology gives manufacturers a new opportunity to differentiate their products and marketers a new number to put on the box. And, they’re hoping, another reason for you to upgrade to a newer camera. But should you? And even if you upgrade to an 8K-capable camera, should you be shooting 8K?

The (not so new) benefits of 8K

8K provides a lot of great benefits. Creators can capture higher quality video, have more flexibility to crop, pan and zoom in post-production, generate stills from video, add stabilization in post and more. Consumers will benefit from better-looking, razor-sharp video that burns their eyeballs in realism.

Whoa! Time out. If you just read that last paragraph and said to yourself, “Wait, isn’t that exactly what the industry said about 4K?” you’re right. You’re not experiencing deja-vu. In fact, we probably could have written a 4K explainer that said those exact same things. Oh wait, we did.

8K delivers four times as many pixels as 4K.

8K unquestionably delivers a lot more detail than 4K. Still, the differences are less distinguishable to the human eye than the jump from HD to 4K, particularly at typical viewing distances. There are some compelling reasons to shoot 8K, but there are also quite a few to stick with 4K for now.

8K for content creators

Content creators have the most to gain from 8K, and yes, they’re the same things we heard about when 4K landed. The important difference is that the expected baseline for video quality has shifted from HD to 4K over the past decade. TVs and computer displays are getting larger, consumers want 4K, and if you’re doing commercial work, some clients may demand 4K even if they don’t need it.

Shooting in 8K is just the next evolutionary step that gives creators flexibility in post while retaining full 4K resolution in their final product. If you really need (or want) 4K, it’s tough to argue against these benefits on the production side of things.

Content creators have the most to gain from 8K, and yes, they’re the same things we heard about when 4K landed.

There are creative reasons to shoot 8K beyond basic cropping or zooming. Love it or not, vertical video has become more popular and this trend is likely to continue. What if you need to shoot content that works in either a horizontal or a vertical format? 8K video gives you enough resolution to crop a vertical frame and still retain 4K resolution. Marketers who need to deliver the same video to multiple content platforms will love this.

Similarly, 8K resolution will allow for things like distortion-free, in-frame whip-panning or adding artificial shake to footage: visual effects that simulate camera movement without actually having to move the camera. Again, while retaining 4K resolution.

8K cameras have come along way since I saw this one at NAB in 2015.

There’s also the argument that 8K will deliver better 4K footage through oversampled resolution and improved chroma subsampling, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it. In part, that’s because many 4K cameras already oversample 6K resolution to output 4K video, but mainly because it can be hard to see the benefit of 4K anyway – much less the difference between good and great 4K.

Another area where 8K will useful is huge screens, signage, and multimedia displays. I experienced this firsthand several years ago at the broadcast industry trade show NAB. I visited the booth for NHK, the Japanese broadcaster that’s been at the forefront of 8K technology, and saw a huge 8K display in person. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it.

It’s not that I wasn’t used to seeing screens that large or screens that sharp, but I wasn’t used to seeing a screen that large and that sharp. It got me to stop and stare. On very large displays, 8K resolution can make a perceptual difference.

There will even be some benefit to creators who need to extract high-resolution still images from video. However, in an era when mirrorless cameras shoot Raw files at 20-30fps, this is a less compelling argument than it used to be. It really only makes sense if you truly need to isolate frames from your video instead of using video as a proxy for high-speed shooting.

Future-proofing content

Future-proofing content is often cited as a reason to shoot with the newest, highest resolution available, whatever it happens to be. Historically, there was good motivation for doing so.

The move from standard definition (SD) video to HD was huge. Within a short period of time, SD content viewed on high-resolution screens looked dated, as though from another era. The difference was significant and noticeable. Even amateurs shooting home videos on camcorders benefitted from jumping on the HD bandwagon. This was a case where future-proofing content really made sense.

The Canon EOS R5 was the first mirrorless camera to support 8K video capture.

The transition from HD to 4K provided another opportunity to future proof content, though the visual difference to most viewers wasn’t nearly as big (if they noticed at all). If you had the ability to shoot in 4K, that was great, but it wasn’t quite as critical to jump on the bandwagon so early.

Few viewers will be able to visually discern between 4K and 8K footage unless they’re using huge screens. (Unless they’re like our Science Editor Rishi Sanyal, whose typical viewing distance is about 5cm from the glass. #geeks)

Few viewers will be able to visually discern between 4K and 8K footage unless they’re using huge screens.

I recently had an opportunity to interview Canon’s Larry Thorpe, a legend in the broadcast industry, and he had some pretty strong opinions on this topic. ‘I’ve been a little skeptical about 8K in the living room,’ he noted. ‘Because you’ve got to have a screen that grows proportionally. The average viewing distance in the home today is about 10 feet, and to get 8K that does full justice to the capability of the human visual system, you’re going to need a screen with about a 300-inch diagonal, and I don’t think you’re going to see that in the home. 4K is equally questionable.’

The Sony a1 brings Sony’s mirrorless system to the 8K party.

This makes the argument for future-proofing in 8K a lot less compelling. Sure, someday in the distant future, we’ll have walls that magically turn into displays, but I question whether anyone that far out is going to want to watch most of the content we shot in 2021. If you’re a Hollywood studio, it’s a valid concern, but for most of us? Not so much.

Should you be shooting 8K?

There’s no right or wrong answer since everyone’s needs are different, but here are some things to consider.

Just as when 4K arrived on the scene, you’ll probably need to upgrade the rest of your workflow to support 8K. That means faster computers, faster video cards, bigger SSDs and a variety of other things. Of course, technology will catch up, and costs will come down. Today, vloggers shoot, edit and publish 4K videos from their smartphones. The same will eventually be true of 8K. As usual, you’ll pay more to be an early adopter, but the benefits of doing so are a lot more questionable when it comes to 8K.

Also, keep in mind that while TV screens are getting larger, online video – particularly content on sites like YouTube – is increasingly being viewed on screens that fit in our pockets. This is one of those times when it’s worth really thinking about who’s going to watch what you make. Are they more likely to see it on a large TV or a smartphone? For most of us, it’s probably the latter.

It’s worth considering where your viewers will see your content? Big screen or small screen.

However, if you really need to deliver 4K content and retain the flexibility to do a lot of cropping or other post-processing, shooting 8K today arguably makes sense. Small production houses doing commercial work come to mind. Similarly, independent filmmakers that really care about future-proofing content would benefit from 8K.

An informal survey I performed of independent producers who have 8K-capable cameras suggests that most of them aren’t actually using 8K today, despite having the means to do so. But there’s certainly excitement around it.

DPReview’s own Jordan Drake sums up the current situation well: ‘I haven’t done any 8K work outside of [DPReview TV] episodes yet, despite having the R5 for a while,’ he explains. ‘8K is a huge storage and workload burden, and the R5’s 4K HQ mode gives a lot of the resolution benefits without the huge file sizes. I regularly use the S1H’s 5.9K recording for two-person conversations since it gives me some room to punch in. Once 8K footage is more manageable, I could absolutely see myself doing the same thing.’

Final thoughts

Technology advances, and marketers will always need something new to sell. 8K is inevitable, and it will become mainstream; it’s just a matter of time.

However, there’s a lot less incentive to be an early adopter this time around. You get some of the same benefits that 4K promised over HD, but we’re well into the realms of diminishing returns at this point, not because of the technology but because of the limits of human eyesight (and the degree to which resolution matters to humans).

You get some of the same benefits that 4K promised over HD, but we’re well into the realms of diminishing returns at this point.

If you’re not ready to make the jump, don’t feel pressured by the marketing. Unless you’re doing something very demanding or have a real need to future proof your content, your audience probably won’t know the difference.

What they will notice are improvements to things like dynamic range and color gamut, which you can get without upgrading to an 8K workflow.

Oh, you’ll eventually make the jump because technology will catch up, costs come down, and there will be no reason not to shoot 8K. We’re not there yet, but we will be. At that point, we’ll surely be inundated with 8K content, including the requisite cat videos. Do we need cat videos in 8K? No. Will we get them? Yep. Because that’s how the internet rocks.


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