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Educators, Adopt 4K Video Now and Get Ahead of the Curve

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It seems like it really wasn’t that long ago that educational producers were debating whether or not to shoot and deliver video in HD. Today, that question has passed us by. Nearly every new video camera shoots HD unless you’re picking it up out of the bargain bin at the drug store. While you might have some reliable old mini DV camcorders in the back of the storage closet, tape-based SD video is a thing of the past.

Now the debate is about 4K. Just a year ago, ultra-high-definition (UHD) seemed like the exclusive domain of filmmakers shooting RED cameras (and doing a lot of swearing). But in the last year manufacturers such as Sony and Panasonic have released 4K cameras at prices within reach of many educators.

The temptation to be on the cutting edge is always there, and most of us involved with educational video can’t wait to have a shiny new toy to play with. Bragging rights can appeal to the administrators who approve these purchases, but practicality is also a pretty strong consideration.

In the April issue Jose Castillo reviewed some of the technical considerations for adopting 4K production. He pointed out that 4K-capable monitors and TVs are expensive and relatively rare, even though YouTube and Vimeo have started to support UHD. In the end, he concludes, it’s smart to wait.

If the question is only about the ability to deliver full 4K resolution to your audience then I agree with Jose. At the same time, many educational producers, myself included, jumped into HD production years before most streaming platforms supported it. The logic behind that decision applies to the 4K question today.

There are several advantages to UHD for those willing to be pioneers. First, it makes your footage future-proof. Shooting in 4K today means that you’re ready to deliver it when your school’s infrastructure is ready.

I’ve been asked to reshoot programs because the original footage was in standard definition or an even lower resolution. Even if you’re delivering programs in 1080p now, having a UHD master means delivering 4K is just a re-encode away.

Shooting 4K also gives you additional flexibility today. One reason I started shooting 1080 HD footage in the mid-2000s was the ability to reframe shots in post-production. As educators we often work under constraints that mean we don’t have the time to get the exact shot we want when we want it.

Whether you’re recording an event with minimal set up time, or trying to capture a live lab experiment in cramped quarters, shooting 4K gives you the ability to reframe and effectively zoom in post in when you’ll be delivering standard HD to your audience.

This is a venerated technique among event photographers, who can shoot with more than 20 megapixels, much higher than needed for most publications. This gives them plenty of room to crop out distracting or unwanted elements. While there certainly is an argument to be made that it’s best to get the framing right the first time, reality isn’t always so forgiving.

Finally, getting your feet wet with a UHD workflow today gives you a head start for when 4K becomes the standard. While working at these resolutions will test your workstation’s processor power and storage, the situation is much better now than it was for HD early adopters a decade ago. Additionally, most major NLEs handle 4K files with aplomb.

I wouldn’t say adopting 4K today is quite like climbing Mt. Everest, but it does require some care when investing so much money and time. Those adventurous enough to plow forward will reap the rewards.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Streaming Media as "Is 4K Ready for School?"

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