Phil Hall explores the potential in shooting 4K video stills on location to see how it compares to standard camera stills

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I rarely shoot video, partly because I’ve just never felt the urge to hit the red record button and also because I’ve always considered myself a stills photographer first and foremost. The idea, then, of pulling stills from ultra high-quality video footage was a little disconcerting for me at first, but at the same time I didn’t want to dismiss it before giving it a go.

We arranged a portrait shoot to try out capturing some 4K still images and I approached this shoot just as I’d approach a typical stills shoot. Using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4, I partnered it with the rather lovely Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2. Delivering a 35mm focal length equivalent of 85mm, this moderate telephoto is made for portraits, producing a lovely creamy bokeh for pleasing defocused areas at fast apertures. One thing to consider was the lighting: flash obviously wasn’t an option, so I kept things simple, relying on the soft, diffused light from the overcast sky.

Shooting in 4K at 60fps, the exposure settings really didn’t stray that far from what I’d want to shoot with if I was taking stills, opting for an exposure of 1/800sec at f/1.2, with an ISO of 500. Working with a pretty fast shutter speed like this would mean that I’d avoid the risk of introducing motion blur into the footage, helping ensure each frame was in sharp focus. The payback is that the video footage doesn’t have quite the same pleasing fluidity as if I was using a slower shutter speed.

While it’s unworkable if I was intending to come away with both still and moving footage, I opted to frame my shots in portrait format. It’s worth mentioning, though, that you’re shooting in 16:9 aspect ratio as opposed to 4:3. This is something to consider when framing up, as you’ll perhaps want to crop to a more traditional format later – more on that in a moment.

Shooting 4K video stills on location

Shooting portraits with 4K requires framing in portrait format, which isn’t something you’d usually do when recording video

Once I’d framed up, I asked our model to run through a series of poses and it was quite liberating to just view the rear display, knowing I’d got a particular look or pose, rather than worrying if I’d missed anything in between firing the shutter. For focusing I used continuous AF, with the GH4’s eye-detection impressing during the shoot. The speed and precision with which it adjusted focus due to subtle changes in distance between me and the model saw it consistently deliver spot-on focus.

Because I was shooting video files, though, and not nice, large raw files, I did feel like I wasn’t making the most of the situation and not coming away with the best quality I could – especially when you crop the image to a 3:2 aspect ratio that sees the resolution drop further to 6.9 million pixels. This meant I lapsed into shooting some stills as well and have to say I’m glad I did – the extracted files don’t have the same ‘bite’ when compared to a raw file from the same shoot, while they just don’t have the same latitude and flexibility of a raw file if I want to push it further.

In camera jpeg vs frame from 4k when shooting 4K video on location

Image quality from a 4K frame isn’t going to match a full-resolution still, but the difference in print may be smaller than you’d think

Shooting 4K video stills on location: Conclusion

While I can appreciate the appeal of 4K for some other disciplines, for portraits there’s more to lose than gain at the moment. The ability to capture every single movement from your subject is a nice thing to have, but that’s about all it’s limited to and is worth sacrificing for the superior image quality from a still raw file. And there’s something satisfying about grabbing that moment when I fire the shutter, rather than simply point the lens at my subject and then replay the event in front of a computer screen later, flicking between hundreds of identical frames to find the ‘one’.

4k video still on location