Camera Setup Cheat Sheet for Producers – Part One: Frame Rate and Resolution
If you’re a producer or director, you have a zillion different things you’re juggling: keeping your clients happy, watching your budgets, scheduling your shoot days, and putting out any number of small fires each day. Every single thing lands in your lap. Increasingly, that means you’re expected to know lots of very specific camera settings that you have to tell your shooter. There are literally more than a thousand ways to set up some cameras.
Don’t let that overwhelm you. The main concepts are pretty simple. In this post, we’ll look at two of the most important settings: frame rate and resolution.
TL;DR: You don’t have to know all of this technical stuff. If in doubt, just ask your editor. If you don’t have an editor yet and you don’t know all of the technical requirements, discuss the project with your shooter. By knowing where you’re from, where you’re distributing this and what the scope of your project is, they should be able to figure out pretty good camera settings for you.
Most projects are at 24, 25, or 30 frames per second. Traditionally, 24 fps was the frame rate that movies used. In TV, Europe decided on 25 fps, along with most of the world, but North America chose 30 fps.
Now that most videos go directly online, you can shoot and distribute your video in whatever frame rate you want. However, most companies are still sticking to the traditional frame rate of whatever region they work in. And directors who want to make their video look more like film often choose 24 fps.
One thing I’ve found surprising recently is the number of TV broadcasters that are happy to accept shows shot at 24fps. TV networks spend millions of dollars buying equipment for a streamlined pipeline that’s generally not very flexible, and it used to be a complicated process to convert footage to 25 or 30 fps for broadcast. But the old guys have come around.
If there’s a mistake and you get the frame rate wrong, don’t worry too much about it. Your editor can fix it easily, and usually the viewer can’t notice the difference. This is one of those things where it’s super-important to all us tech people, but not so much for anyone else.
Resolution: HD or 4K?
4K is four times the resolution of HD. Most cameras shoot 4K, most edit suites can edit it, but very few people will watch your video in 4K just yet. If they do, most people are so far back from their screen that they won’t be able to see the difference. So why shoot 4K? There are a few good reasons:
There’s almost no extra cost involved. You’re not paying extra to rent a 4K camera or lenses since pretty much every shooter has these now. Heck, most phones now shoot 4K video. The footage will take up a bit more hard drive space, but depending on the codec (see Part Two) this can cost just $1.50 more for each hour of shooting. Your parking budget is higher than the cost of upgrading to 4K.
Options in post. For a long time, photographers could zoom in and crop their photos, however, in video, the footage would start to look soft. But if you’re delivering in HD, you can shoot in 4K and now you can crop in on your video without losing quality. For instance, you can shoot an interview in a medium shot, and then make it a close up in the edit suite. You can also apply all sorts of filters that would degrade the footage in HD, but aren’t visible if you shoot in 4K. For instance, you can sharpen the eyes of an interview subject to really help them sparkle. If you do this in HD, it brings out compression artifacts, but in 4K, it looks stunning.
Archive it for later. Maybe you’re delivering in HD for this project, but you may want to use the b-roll in another video next year, and by that time, you may be delivering in 4K.
Right now, in the summer of 2017, I’d say about half my clients want 4K and half want HD. If this is a TV broadcast, fast turnaround, or not a heavily visual project, HD is often just fine.
If you’re not sure what resolution you should be shooting in, ask your editor. Some are reluctant to handle 4K because they have a specific pipeline set up and there’s no time in this project to change it around.
On occasion, a producer wants to shoot 4K, but their editor or network has turned it down. If you’re not sure what to do in the tradeoff between expediency and flexibility, you can record both and decide later. I have a setup where I can record 4K and HD at the same time. I’m also happy to shoot 4K, and then convert it to HD afterwards and upload both versions.
One final 4K note: there are two kinds of 4K. They’re both the same height, but one has more pixels on each side. DCI 4K is 4096 X 2160. UHD 4K is 3840 X 2160. When people say 4K, they almost always mean UHD. DCI is mostly a niche for theatrical releases, since TVs can’t show those extra pixels. Unless stated otherwise, shooters will assume you mean UHD when you say 4K.
That’s a lot of the camera info to digest, but it'll help you get exactly what you need from your shooter. Once you’ve got this down pat, forge ahead toPart Two: Codecs and Gamma Curves.