Why 4K May Mean Zero to You

Did you hear that NBC Sports is going to show part of the Rio 2016 Olympics in 4K?!

‘What does that even mean,’ you ask? Well, it will be awesome and almost meaningless at the same time. You may have heard of 4K video (or “Ultra HD”). It’s “four times” the resolution of your standard 1080p “Full HD” video – the format of most of your current favorite TV shows. What’s the difference between the two? Basically, a bigger image, but not necessarily a better image.

However, chances are neither your TV set nor your cable provider will support it. Oh, and you can’t get 4K with over the air broadcast TV either. Also, NBC won’t be showing anything live in 4K. The content will be available on a delayed basis over a yet-to-be-determined internet delivery channel.

While certain events will be recorded by NBC in 4K, such as the opening/closing ceremonies and some swimming and track and field, your TV may not display all the pixels in those images.

Still, plain old Full HD video is still fantastic quality and almost as much resolution as our human eyeballs can really process. That is, unless you are sitting four feet from your 84-inch TV, but most of us aren’t doing that.

At this point, 4K distribution is limited almost entirely to internet distribution, however some providers offer streaming in 4K. Netflix, for example, will deliver some shows, such as “House of Cards,” in 4K, assuming you have have a TV that supports it. Amazon also has some shows in 4K and 4K Blu-Ray, but that one has even slower adoption.

Now you may ask, ‘are there any benefits to 4K?’

Yes, but the benefits are found mostly in commercial video production and video post-production. 4K is widely used as a professional format. Video production companies capture footage using 4K cameras so they can have more flexibility in editing. A larger image allows for more flexibility in terms of re-centering or cropping a shot. It’s analogous to the way we all have learned to work with digital photos, cropping out space to make the image more attractive, whether you are printing an 8×10 or just posting to Instagram. The truth is, just shooting in 4K won’t necessarily create a better experience for viewers, but it does make it easier for people in video production jobs like me. That said, if video is shot poorly with bad framing, lighting and sound, it doesn’t matter how big the picture is.

At Jackson Spalding, we produce video content using all kinds of frame sizes, from cutting-edge 4K cinema cameras to standard web cams. It all depends on the concept of the project and the experience you want your viewers to have with your video.

So, come August 5, when you sit down at your “plain-old” HDTV watching live coverage of the Olympics from Rio in “regular” 1080p, don’t be envious of friends who will have to wait until the next day to watch the same thing on their UHDTV –  and may not even notice the difference.