• Dr Alex Baker

How to take photographs with an 8K camera

Our latest video goes behind the scenes on a test launch for one of our custom RED DSMC2 Helium 8K cameras, flown into space from the highlands of Scotland to test the camera’s capability to capture high resolution stills. In this post, we’ll explain how developments in camera technology might make the practice of shooting photo and video on separate devices a thing of the past. Learn more below the video.

Using a cinema camera to produce photographs might seem like an unusual approach. Practically since film cameras were invented, taking stills from a video was no substitute for using a dedicated photographic camera. A single frame from a video would be low resolution and blurry due to subject movement. The dynamic range of a video camera is often lower than an equivalent quality of photo camera, meaning individual frames might be poorly exposed, and the slow-moving rolling shutter could cause artefact issues.


While a single frame from a film reel or digital video might happen to look good and a competent production team can frame a shot to increase that likelihood, in most situations where both stills and video were required, the best solution has long been to use two cameras. Now, that has begun to change.


In the last decade, advancements in digital imaging technology have reached the mainstream and the standard of image quality has drastically improved . 4K TVs and displays are commonplace and action cameras capable of shooting in 4K cost less than a current-generation games console. That increase in resolution has done a great deal to bring frame grabs closer to the quality of a photograph from a dedicated stills camera.


But resolution is not everything, and indeed until recently the focus for consumer cameras was on increasing resolution to the exclusion of any other consideration. It’s only in the last three years that smartphone cameras have started to prioritise features like dynamic range and shutter speed, as the average consumer becomes more interested in and knowledgeable about image quality.


So why is the RED so good for stills? Well, there are a number of reasons. Despite what I’ve just said, the most obvious factor is image resolution. A still taken from an 8K video is the equivalent of a 33MP photograph. That’s large enough to print at billboard scale without seeing pixelation, or crop to the content you want while maintaining acceptable quality for digital and print uses, relieving the need for a zoom lens.


Secondly, let’s talk dynamic range. Simply put, dynamic range is how much variance in brightness a camera can capture in one shot. The Helium has a dynamic range of 16.5, meaning all areas of an image can be captured without looking over or underexposed in even the most challenging of conditions. Traditionally photo cameras have had a broader dynamic range than cinecams, and the photographer can frame the shot and adjust aperture settings to make the most of the lighting available, but the Helium renders a lot of this unnecessary, by allowing you to capture all the image detail and adjust in post-production.


This brings us to file formats. Without getting too technical, normally a digital video camera compresses each frame as it records. This is fine for video, but means individual frames can’t accommodate many changes in post-production without showing compression artefacts. RED cameras record using a proprietary file format called RAW R3D, which keeps all the data captured in every frame to allow for maximum flexibility in editing. This comes at a cost of hefty file sizes, but means that far more frames from a video are viable for use as standalone imagery.


Finally, unlike most video cameras the RED DSMC2 Helium uses a global shutter. Usually, a video camera shutter processes the image line by line from top to bottom, much in the same way as an old film reel would move across the lens. When filming objects moving at speed or changeable lighting conditions, individual frames from a rolling shutter camera can look different from top to bottom. The RED’s global shutter captures sensor data for every pixel simultaneously, meaning shutter artefacts are no longer a problem.


In short, our unique camera set up, developed with the help of RED, allows us to capture astonishing quality stills alongside video with the same device, cutting down on complexity and saving weight on our launch vehicle that sets us even further apart. If you’re looking for 8K video and stills of the Earth from space, there’s simply no better people to ask. Get in touch today to discuss your 8K production with our creative lead.