Lens Suppliers Focus on Today’s Needs With Eye on 3D, 4K

The 2012 NAB Show is only a week away, and it seems destined to be one where discussions of image quality — whether 1080p, 3D, or 4K — dominate the conversation. Attendees will have an opportunity to fall in love with images that sparkle like nothing ever seen before on an NAB Show floor. And then they will wander off muttering about the inability to deliver mesmerizing images to viewers and, possibly, build a new business.

Two places where the former will be on display will be the Canon and Fujinon booths. The two manufacturers of the most dominant lens brands in the broadcast market will tempt attendees with improved image quality, wider images, more-accurate auto focus, steadier image stabilization, and more.

But what is the market asking for?

“Making moves toward [next-generation broadcasts] is one thing, but practical implementations is another,” says Thom Calabro, director of marketing and product development, optical devices division, FUJIFILM North America. “And, while they are quite a few years away, you will see [developments] on the production side first.”

Options for the Here and Now
NAB attendees looking for help from lens manufacturers with more-immediate broadcasts of 720p and 1080i HD images will find new options at the show, although both Canon and Fujinon are keeping the latest news under wraps until next week. But reading between the lines of customer demands can give a sense of what to expect.

“There is a continuing plea to not go beyond 100 times [magnification] and instead have longer lenses that can give a wider image,” says Larry Thorpe, senior director of professional engineering and solutions, Canon. “That is one reason we introduced a 95x lens that has an 8.2mm [focal length]. We are also hearing for improved optical performance and more resolution as the cameras continue to get sharper. And there is also a big plea for better image stabilization.”

New Tricks in Image Stabilization
Developments in image-stabilization technology have become a yearly NAB tradition, and this year will be no different. A shaky camera image underneath a steady graphic superimposed into the frame can be unsettling to viewers. “But now we can offer rock-solid imagery that is stable,” says Thorpe. “We’ve been flogging away on a couple of generations of image stabilization and now have a totally new system that we think is really good.”

The trick is a new sensor system and a new algorithm that provides more feedback. Thorpe says it also solves another vexing problem of stabilization systems: keeping the system in tune with pan and tilt movements.

The trick is a new sensor system and a new algorithm that provides more feedback. Thorpe says it also solves another vexing problem of stabilization systems: keeping the system in tune with pan and tilt movements.

“We’re very eager to see the industry reaction,” he adds.

The Potential of Auto-Focus
Image stabilization seems to be destined for acceptance on a larger scale, but one feature that continues to have trouble finding an audience in the U.S. is auto-focus.

“The camera people think that they are getting something taken away from them, but it really allows them to concentrate on framing and the creative things,” Thorpe explains. “We are stepping up our efforts to get it in front of high-profile camera people.”

One development that could lead to acceptance of auto-focus is the potential move to 1080p broadcasts and using 4K camera systems and extracting 1080p images to provide high-resolution closeups. Camera operators using non-HD 7-in. viewfinders will be challenged to deliver sharp images that can stand up to the scrutiny of viewers at home watching on an 80-in. 1080p screen.

“Defocusing is still a problem, and focusing properly is really tough,” says Thorpe. “And, when the director asks the cameraman to zoom or pull back, [auto-focus] will track a fast-moving object. It holds up extremely well.”

Calabro adds that auto-focus systems are also important in an age when camera operators are often working in sports environments where there is diminishing ambient light.

“The iris is wide open, and they are looking at a monitor that is small and not high resolution,” he points out. “The operators should embrace things that can help them.”

In Europe, Calabro adds, auto-focus systems have found more success. In the U.S., it is often production environments that rely on less skilled camera operators, such as the church market, that see the benefits of auto-focus.

“It’s well-suited for an application where you are shooting a person on a stage for a few hours at a time and a single shot is used for 80% of the show,” he explains.

In any situation, adds Calabro, precision focus can improve a production. “But, on the high end, you have the operator ego, and, on the lower end, the economics come into play.”

The Role of 4K Lenses
As for 4K lenses and camera systems, placing them at two or three strategic points around the field of play could go a long way toward getting high-resolution closeups of game-deciding plays. The problem? No testing has been done during an actual sports event, testing that could help lens and camera manufacturers address concerns over such issues as how fast-motion blur will negatively affect an image that is all about sharpness.

“We still need to know what focal lengths are needed and what the lens requirements would be,” Thorpe explains. “Tests would help us steer product development.”

Calabro agrees that there is work to be done to find out just how 4K lenses can be applied to the sports world. First, the camera/lens configuration is physically different from that used in live sports production. And, although there is expense associated with the lens and camera, moving data into and then out of a production truck has not happened yet, and the expenses related to making that possible — new signal-transport gear, more replay gear, new monitors — could dwarf those of the lens and camera.

“Why shoot in 4K if you can’t get the information out of the truck?” he asks. “And we can see 2K applications for sports, but it is a question of how far that is down the road.”

And Then There Is 3D
“It’s difficult enough to make an HD lens, but now you need to make two that match,” says Calabro. “It’s going to be very difficult to get the price down on lenses for 3D. There are some things that can be done in the cameras to help correct lens aberrations.”

He adds that developments in 2K and 4K lens design also could have a positive impact on 3D needs.

The Camcorder Market
The broadcasts of actual sports events may rely more heavily than ever on larger lenses, but the opposite is happening when it comes to news acquisition and reporting.

Camcorders continue to get smaller and are relying on ⅓-in. sensors instead of ⅔-in. sensors. Thorpe says that smaller sensors also mean lighter cameras and a desire for lighter glass to maximize portability. There is also a stronger desire for needing only one lens instead of two.

The need for more-affordable lenses is one reason Fujinon offers the Select Series and last year introduced the Exceed Series. The former is based on the company’s Premier Line of lenses, and the latter is a completely new approach to lens design and manufacturing.

“The Exceed Series has features like quick zoom and cruise zoom, but we cut the price by using some different materials,” says Calabro. “We had to shave it down a little bit to get it where the price points demand.”

New this year at the NAB Show will be the XA 20sx8.5 BRM, with an 8.5-170mm focal length, 20x zoom, and quick zoom. Fujinon also announced that the newest member of the Premier PL Mount Zoom family, the 19-90 Cabrio (ZK4.7×19) features an exclusive detachable servo drive unit, making it suitable for use as a standard PL lens or as an ENG-style lens.

NAB attendees can expect a mix of the practical and impractical on the show floor next week, but Thorpe — who has been at the forefront of the march to HD, digital cinema, digital formats in general, and more — sees a future where the impractical is practical.

“There is no doubt that, given time, we will be able to transmit [4K and 3D] and, in the meantime, the industry will rely on alternative delivery methods. Cable operators could play with their bandwidth, satellite delivery is possible, and then fiber is out there. And then there is packaged media. But distributors are listening, and we are seeing moves made.”

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