Abraham Joffe captures stills from 4K video with the EOS-1D C
© Abraham Joffe
Capturing still frames from video that are equal in quality to conventionally taken photographs has long been the Holy Grail for many photographers. Has the 4K Canon EOS-1D C DSLR finally made this a reality? CPN writer Ian Farrell investigates…
Photographers tend to react to new technology in one of two ways: overwhelming enthusiasm or blind panic. We saw this with the introduction of digital photography itself in the early 1990s, when there were early adopters and cautious naysayers, though the vast majority of photographers eventually switched over to this way of working.
Australian videographer Abraham Joffe has managed to split photographic opinion down the middle yet again with the realisation of a long-promised technology – the ability to capture stills from video that are of good enough quality to compete with conventionally shot photographs.
This is something that has been discussed for many years, but never realised because of the relatively low pixel count of Full HD video – just two Megapixels. Where Abraham Joffe’s technique differs is in its use of 4K video, produced from Canon’s Cinema EOS System EOS-1D C DSLR at a frame rate of 24fps and measuring 4096x2160 pixels in size.
Abraham Joffe got one of the earliest available EOS-1D C DSLRs and admits: “I was lucky enough to use an EOS-1D C body... and that was something I was really looking forward to. In many ways it is identical to the EOS-1D X, which is great because that is such a good stills camera, but it has radically different electronics and cooling that allow for 4K video capture.” In fact, the EOS-1D C has a full-frame sensor that captures 4K footage from an area of the sensor similar to the size of an APS-H sensor.
“The quality is just outstanding,” he reveals. “You never forget the first time you’ve seen 4K footage, and it impresses our clients too. Domestic 4K displays are not that far away and if a bride and groom can order their wedding video in that resolution they are future-proofing their investment.”
Indeed, 4K video has been likened by some as being similar to looking through a very clean window to the world outside. The 4096x2160 resolution is equivalent to an 8.8 Megapixel still image, which is plenty for a decent sized print.
Capturing micro expressions
The advantages of capturing still images in this way are obvious. By recording at 24fps Joffe can identify the tiniest changes in detail or expression and select them for the final, chosen frame. “One of the reasons people hire a professional photographer is for their ability to recognise and capture the ideal moment,” he says. “Shooting with 4K video simply shifts the point where this moment is found, from the time of shooting to the time of editing.”
Using Adobe Premiere Pro software, the 4K still image workflow is not as intimidating as you might first think. After finding the right frame in the application’s preview window, it can be exported to disk as a TIFF file, which can be output pretty much as it is. It's a great way of finding what Abraham Joffe calls “micro expressions.”
He explains: “Micro expressions are those special moments that we are perhaps only aware of on an unconscious level. This is a wonderful way to work at a wedding, when we can pinpoint the moment when there is the most happiness and love in the frame, and capture that moment on camera.”
Joffe continues: “When we first started to look through the footage we started to see small moments in time, like human expressions, that were so slight they weren’t fully noted when we were actually shooting. When a bride and groom spend time laughing and holding each other we can slow down and capture the briefest of smirks or glances. Similarly in a portrait shoot we are finding that the best expression is one that has developed over several frames. The ability to slow down time, and have all these usable frames, is breath-taking.”
The 4K technical challenge
Successful 4K photography is not quite as easy as pressing the pause and print buttons, however. There are many technical considerations to be had while shooting, especially if useable video is wanted alongside good quality stills.
“We found ourselves considering things like pull-focus shots, which look great on video, but are not a good way of capturing stills, unless you like out-of-focus pictures,” Joffe recalls. “Similarly if you turn the camera to shoot a vertical, portrait orientation still frame then you can’t use that segment for video playback, because TVs are not shaped that way.”
There is a similar problem with shutter speeds too: a shutter speed 50% of the frame rate is conventional for cinematic-looking video, which means 1/50sec when shooting at 24fps. But this might not be suitable for the still frames being captured – if motion is to be frozen then faster shutter speeds are required, which gives video a staccato appearance that is not always welcome.
“We’ve found a good compromise shutter speed of between 1/100th of a second and 1/200th of a second, but it’s important to realise that 4K video isn’t just about getting both movies and stills at the same time,” Joffe advises. “It’s about a new way of working and a new way of capturing great stills of moments that may otherwise have been missed.”
He adds: “A photographer might decide to shoot stills conventionally and roll video for 10% of their shoot when they really want to capture a moment – in the vows, for instance. But if you’re a videographer your primary focus will be the video, and you might pull some stills out of the footage if you can. How 4K works for you very much depends on the approach you’re taking.”
Joffe says that the limited dynamic range of Motion JPEG video may also be an issue for those used to the latitude afforded by RAW shooting. “I’ve got used to shooting very cleanly because I work with video so much,” he admits. “I get exposure and white balance correct in camera. Video footage is compressed a lot, so there is little room for correction in post-processing.”
The ability to shoot RAW video formats is not available in the EOS-1D C, although it is in other Cinema EOS System cameras. However, even with Motion JPEG footage, 15 seconds of 4K video takes up a gigabyte of storage space. “Our 16GB cards hold just four minutes of video,” says Abraham. “We’ve recently tried 128GB cards from SanDisk, and these are more practical, holding 30 minutes of footage.”
Points of view
So, if all new photographic technology attracts both champions and naysayers, what have other photographers thought about Abraham Joffe’s experiments in 4K video capture? “I invited a number of photographers from the Sydney area to come and see the results of our experiments for themselves at the studio,” he says. “Reactions from each photographer varied from shock and amazement to almost complete disbelief. And the wedding couples I’ve shown have really got the idea, and think it’s a beautiful way of working.”
But not everyone has been so positive. Several commentators on Joffe’s blog have been less enthusiastic, leaving comments like “Cartier-Bresson would turn in his grave,” and “The nails for the wedding photographer's coffin have just arrived.” Is this just fear of unknown technology? Or is conventional stills photography actually dead?
“Stills photography is certainly not dead,” Joffe re-assures. “Resistance can be down to a fear of change or a feeling that something is rocking the boat when a photographer already has a well-established business model. When people say ‘does this make me less of a photographer?’ The answer is ‘no’. If you are skilful at the moment then you’ll be skillful working in this way too.”
“People should look at 4K motion capture as a new tool in their arsenal,” he continues. “Same as flash, long exposure, high-ISO shooting, and so on. It’s a new tool. There are so many forms of photography and this is a new one that can be used at certain times. I sometimes think that if people saw 4K as a 24fps JPEG burst mode, then there might not be so much controversy about it.”
The 4K future
The 4K technology in the EOS-1D C is clearly here to stay, and can be used by stills photographers – in the right conditions – to great effect. So, what future refinements of the technology will help stills photographers wanting to find their own definitive moments and micro expressions with still-frame extraction techniques?
“We’ll be able to do this in the future with cameras shooting 50fps or 60fps for sure,” Joffe predicts. “Some cameras can do 120fps and shoot the video equivalent of a RAW file for more flexibility in post-production, but then they are not really portable-useable stills cameras, which is where the EOS-1D C scores. I do think we’ll see RAW frame capture in cameras like the EOS-1D C, though. And maybe even 8K resolution in the more distant future as 4K becomes the new standard in video.”
What really gets Abraham Joffe excited is the potential applications of such technology, especially something he calls “motion photography” – a hybrid of stills and video that is already seeing popularity with advertising companies producing moving images for electronic billboards in shops and on public transport networks.
“This should excite photographers: their skills sets are about creating beautiful images that work, and I think motion photographs will take more photographic skill than video skill,” he reveals. “Video is about multiple shots that work together to tell a story; motion photos have sound and camera movement stripped away and you are coming down to one moment in one frame that happens to be moving. That is very exciting for me.”
Biography: Abraham Joffe
© Abraham Joffe
Abraham Joffe is an award-winning cinematographer and regarded by many as one of Australia’s top DSLR filmmakers, with a great passion for storytelling and filmmaking in the real world. He is also an experienced underwater cameraman, with several documentary films to his credit. Joffe spearheaded the DSLR revolution in the wedding market, shooting the first multi-camera DSLR weddings in Australia. His company, Untitled Film Works, is regularly booked for both interstate and international weddings. In 2012 Abraham Joffe and his team won a record seven Australian Video Producers awards at the national awards in Melbourne including the coveted Wedding Highlights of the Year Award for the fourth year in a row.