Thursday, November 13, 2008

RED Alert

Some background here: Jim Jannard is the CEO of RED Digital Camera. He made his fortune by founding Oakley, the sunglasses-and-similar company. Jim's also into photography, so he founded another company, RED Digital Camera. According to Wikipedia, Jim likes to take pictures of his company-sponsored race cars, his dogs and his company jets. In short, our sort of bloke.

Anyway, we discussed here a while back how RED was threatening to shake up the industry with its emphasis on merging still and motion capture through the introduction of a new digital convergence device, the DSMC Scarlet & Epic camera systems. Jim's a bullish, "we will win this war" sort of chap, and it's easy to be seduced by what he says on the topic. However, I also mentioned that the big boys weren't standing still, and so was gratified to note that not long after both Canon and Nikon introduced new members of their own DSLR family that also now featured the ability to take HD video sequences.

Today, Jim revealed his counter attack. And it's no mere "sniping from behind a wall" sort of thing but rather a full-out, blitzkrieg-style frontal assault. Good stuff! Having fought his way into the professional video market, he's now heading out beyond those borders to conquer new territories.

You can look at the specifications and decide for yourself the pure technical merits at the sensor level, and there's plenty to look at! The FF35 looks very interesting, especially with 16 bit capture and a very decent resolution of 24 Mpix. Being RED, the other specification to look at though is the frame rate: from 1 to 30 fps .... which is very impressive indeed. Just imagine how fast that thing - somewhere in the lower-middle range of what's been announced - is pumping data when running at the full frame rate? Actually, you don't need to imagine, it's 1.44 Gbytes per second. Serious stuff.

However, there's another aspect to what's being announced here, and that's the complete modularisation of the camera's main components. The sensor block is of course separate from the lens but unlike a DSLR, RED's use of electronics instead of a mechanical shutter, combined with the lack of moving mirror mechanisms etc., makes this now a much more attractive proposition, more like the digital back approach applied by the likes of Hassleblad, Phase One and others.

Downsides? Price of course. The new Canon 5D Mk II is around $3,000 for a full-frame sensor, 6fps frame rates for still use and a very decent HD video capability thrown in. The FF35 RED sensor "brain" is listed at $12,000 alone, before you add the viewfinder, battery packs, control grip and the rest. And whilst we are looking for problems, I have no idea as to what the metering is like, how the autofocus operates or indeed any other the other aspects of the photgraphic capture process we take for taken for granted in current generation pro/am DSLRs. After all, even 24 Mpixels at 30 fps is pretty useless if what you are shooting remains out of focus 90% of the time. In the video world, all of this is more manageable than is often the case in the stills market, but again perhaps that's just old-world thinking. We will see when all this starts to roll-out in mid- to late-2009 and the classic camera users begin to get their hands on one.

Modularisation always comes at a price, regardless of who is producing it, and in many markets it's a price consumers are unwilling to pay. I think it's definitely the right way to go at the high-end, especially for this class of device that has to cover still and motion capture, but don't expect this particular innovation to work its way down the food chain very far. Built-in obsolescence is alive and well in the halls of Sony, Nikon and Canon, and that's where what most of us will continue to get our equipment fixes from.

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