High-Speed Cameras Continue To See Gains

The demand for cameras that can record images at more than 300 frames per second (fps) have become a market in recent years: a number of manufacturers have taken cameras originally built to analyze rocket launches and turned them into tools to analyze athletic performance. But, for all the improvements, some challenges remain in terms of product design, and those challenges were the subject of a panel discussion at last week’s SVG FutureSPORT Summit in New York.

One of the key players in the market is Vision Research, a company that is advancing technologies so quickly that it introduced three cameras in the past year alone. Each advance has improved performance in low-light-level situations and continues a drive to offer a camera that can be used simultaneously for both high-speed replay and live production.

Vision Research Broadcast Business Manager Patrick Ott de Vries said his company’s current goal is to approach the sports market from an enabling perspective, delivering products that do more than just offer improved sensitivity for low-light shooting or higher frame rates. The current top model, the Phantom 642, offers 2K resolution and can also record up to 1,500 fps.

“The camera streams content off the back of the camera all the time it is recording, and we integrate with manufacturers so we can focus on what we are good at,” he explained. Another focus is color-matching more-traditional broadcast cameras from Sony, Grass Valley, and Ikegami.

“We want to integrate with the look and feel of those cameras,” he said.

That continued integration will be important, as the Sony HDC3300 slo-mo camera, for example, continues to find plenty of applications. The camera cannot record at ultra-high speeds but offers recording at 180 fps, a speed well suited for traditional sports replays.

But, said Sony Electronics Senior Marketing Manager Mark Bonifacio, the market is demanding different cameras for different applications. And Sony is working with other vendors to ensure that it helps the industry move forward.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for a Holy Grail, a single camera that can record high speed [and be used for live production] but with a good cost-value proposition,” he said. “Right now, all tools have a place, and it is up to our broadcast partners to decide which tools they want to use.”

The desire to offer products that meet that wider variety of needs is one reason Sony camera heads are being integrated with super-slo-mo backends like Vision Research’s Phantom cameras. AbelCine, according to Moe Shore, director of Business Development and Strategic Relations, has successfully integrated the Sony camera, offering a unit that feels as much like a regular production camera as possible.

“Three years ago, NFL Films came to us looking for a broadcast system, but how do you make a broadcast lens work with a 35mm sensor?” Shore asked. “So we built an optical adapter to take the 11mm B4 lens and fit the 1920×1080 of a Phantom 640.”

Out of the NFL Films work came AbelCine’s latest Sony/Phantom offering, which integrates with common remote-control panels and EVS servers so that the Phantom 642 is treated as simply another hard drive in the system.

Earlier this year, both Ikegami and NAC Image Technology made headlines with the integration of an Ikegami camera head that has three CMOS sensors with NAC’s high-speed camera. Known as the Hi-Motion II, the camera is available in the U.S. via Fletcher Chicago and is the latest advance toward a high-speed camera that can also perform well enough as a live-production tool.

Fletcher Chicago VP Dan Grainge says the Ikegami frontend has allowed the unit to take a leap ahead in terms of such features as gamma and black stretch.

“You can see a difference in the live-picture quality [versus the competition],” he said, adding, “but there is not much overall difference in quality on a replay.”

Fletcher Chicago owns 12 NAC Hi-Motion cameras (as well as 12 I-MOVIX Phantom systems), six are available in the UK, and 30 systems are expected to be in use by this summer.

A challenge for the broadcast client is that the cameras are still a rental item and not part of the traditional equipment complement of remote-production service providers. Given the current pace of change, that situation may not change soon.

“We went through three models in the course of a year,” said Grange. “It’s difficult for a truck company to keep up with that.”

Another issue is that not all events require a super-slow-motion camera, making it harder for a remote-production service provider to depreciate the camera properly.

“That may change in the future,” Grange observed, “but we are at least one generation away.”

The one thing certain is that the market for ultra-slow-motion cameras will continue to see new developments and continued advances designed to make the cameras more than simply one-trick ponies.

“The high-speed market will grow, and there will be different ways to get the technology into the hands of different users,” said Shore. “We don’t know what those channels will be, but the cameras will continue to integrate better, the price performance will change, and the models will evolve.”