I’ve begun to hate pixels lately. They’re actually quite evil if for no other reason than they’re simply too easy to quantify and thus be used against us. Pixels have spawned a variable arms race and in their wake left a trail of dead formats and products, all because they eventually didn’t quench are thirst for more. Did these products deserve to die? No, in truth, many of them had nothing wrong with them apart from not possessing enough of the magical squares we’ve come to “understand” and love. But what is a pixel exactly?

Wikipedia defines a pixel as, “a physical point in a raster image or the smallest addressable element in a display device.” It goes on to say that a “pixel is a sample of an original image.” And what is the original image? With regards to digital video, whether it be capture or exhibition, the original image is one that would’ve otherwise been obtained via a film medium -i.e. 35mm film etc. Unlike digital, film has no resolution -it just is, or better still, is all encompassing. Film may have aspect ratios, but those are different from resolution.

You see digital formats are largely based on their approximation of various film formats. For example, 4K is said to have the same “image quality” or “density” of 35mm film, and 2K (HD) is the equivalent of 35mm film projected upon a screen. Sounds great, except that film can be 8K, 16K or even 100K or more, provided you possess the scanning equipment required to digitize said image at such a quality. So again, film has no resolution.

Film also has no compression, sure there are sensitivity issues with regards to certain film stocks but that is not the same as digital compression. Film also doesn’t have a restrictive color space nor does it have sample rates. Because it doesn’t natively have these things it can never be rendered obsolete -though it can degrade over time and with repeat usage. So, film is still as good as it will ever get, where as digital finds itself in a constant race to keep pace.

Now there are benefits to digital, it’s (largely) consistent, easier to store (though longevity isn’t infinite) and more flexible in its everyday use. Digital is great and I for one don’t pray for its demise, nor do I feel that its presence upon the technological landscape is cancerous. That being said it is important to understand just what we’re talking about when we discuss digital video and its supposed superiority, whether it be at the capture and/or exhibition levels. With the advent of digital film and exhibition we’ve introduced new and often confusing variables to the equation; variable such as color space, bit depth compression etc. These are difficult concepts for many to grasp which is why pixels have become so sexy -they’re just numbers. We like numbers. Not only are pixels easy to quantify in numbers; those numbers are easy to convert in order to showcase better or worse. After all the more pixels the better…right?

More pixels would equal better if pixels were all we saw, or that our brains cared about when defining quality. Problem is, they aren’t. In truth our eyes and brain respond more favorably to light, contrast and color before pixels. Largely because we don’t see in pixels, we see light, or an absence of, and that helps to inform everything else we perceive in the physical world around us. A digital camera also sees light but rather than “freeze” that image upon a piece of paper or film, it must first translate it into ones and zeros that are later extrapolated by a display. This process obviously happens very quickly and has become increasingly good -though, it can never be true to life. It can never be film.

The problem facing digital is that once the “translation” occurs it’s set in stone. Meaning, if I shoot a scene using a 4K camera that scene will forever be 4K. I can “shrink” it and make it 2K or even standard definition but I can never make it more. So as digital marches on, my once state of the art image will eventually become yesterday’s garbage; antiquated, and collecting dust right alongside film. To make matters worse, much of what truly informs our eye/brain as “better” as it pertains to digital film, has been somewhat constant since the advent of HD, meaning the push for better 4K and even 8K cameras is akin to the megapixel revolution we saw with digital cameras some years ago. Once again more is more, but that doesn’t mean it always results in a better image.

As always I thank you for reading and until next time, take care and stay tuned…


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  • cruddypuppy

    Witness the Music Videos made in the 80′s are nearly unwatchable today due to their 4:3 aspect ratio and Low definition. They are lost forever. Compare this with newly converted to HD Star Trek, Leave it to Beaver, Alfred Hitchcock or even Breaking Bad TV shows now available on Netflix. You can see the pock marks on Leonard Nimoy’s face. Breaking Bad is now in 16:9 where the original AMC releases weren’t. On the other hand, still 35mm photography had it’s limitations with contrast ratios and graininess which is a quasi form of a pixel. Try blowing up to any size greater than an 8 x 10″ and the results are surely not HD. Also, We were told previously that 35mm film was the standard for HD set at 720p. from this I gathered that all old Movies and TV shows would convert to that resolution and nothing higher.

  • http://twitter.com/ARobinsonOnline Andrew Robinson

    Can I just say that I love your screen name. Thanks for reading! I appreciate it, have a great day!