7fps – marketing point or real benefit?

Flying the flag
Slower drive rates like 2.5fps, 3fps or 4fps do have real uses. Here is a sequence taken of a flag fluttering in the wind – I wanted to get a single still frame with the flag well-disposed, not covering the weathervane, spread out and visible but still clearly frozen when flying. To do so, I partly timed the shots, but also took two or three at time – a brief burst:
You can see from this that the second frame gave me the result I wanted. Here, the sequence shooting serves to simplify a process. You might decide that this can also work with people and expressions. Just before writing this, I had the chance to talk to Callie Shell, TIME photographer on the Barack Obama campaign and winner of the First Prize for Story, People in the News category World Press Photographer of the Year 2009. Callie does not shoot sequences, she works with just a couple of prime lenses (50mm and what she called 30mm – from the look of the pictures, I think she meant 20mm) on two Canon 5D bodies. “Sometimes I think I have taken plenty of shots and I find I have only taken three frames”, she said.
I asked Callie about the machine-gun shooting tactics of the press crew. “I think they are very nervous – they all have mortgages to pay, and they are all worried that someone else will catch a shot and they won’t.” Apparently Obama didn’t like the rattle of dozens of 1D MkIIs (perhaps a reason why Callie gained his confidence and was able to accompany him everywhere, then spend three months documenting his early days in the White House). He would tell them to slow down, they wouldn’t be ejected, they had time to get good pictures.
Callie came away with some classic images (TIME did a souvenir book, President Obama: The Path to the White House, published by David & Charles, ISBN-13 is 978-0-7153-3341-9 – it’s worth getting hold of a copy to look at). Motordrive tactics just were not needed.
Video freeze frame
I have a solution to the action problem. It’s my Nikon D5000. Unlike the consumer level Canon video-DSLRs, the Nikon can be forced to do something very un-cinematic and use really fast shutter speeds for video. Just by setting a a wide aperture in A mode, you can get 1/1000th or whatever you need. Combined with Nikon’s highly detailed video encoding (larger files, but SO much more detail than Canon – like a Fine Res JPEG compared to Basic Res) you can actually get 24fps 1280 x 720 pixel still photos from the D5000.
This is a three-frame clip at 24fps from the D5000 set up to expose at 1/640th (something the Canon EOS 500D can’t do, but the EOS 5D MkII has been fixed via firmware to enable). You can click it to open the full size version and see the level of detail achieved in each frozen movie frame. It’s good enough for magazine reproduction and indeed, we have done it – I’ve had successful half page repros from D5000 video frames. That is also enough to make a good 5 x 7″ photo print or run to half a page in a newspaper.
Now that is why I would like Sony to put video – preferably 1080p to the same compression standard as Nikon’s 720p! – in an Alpha. 30fps or 60fps would be even better. When you analyse motion at video frame rates, you see that many more stages in any action are clearly visible. At these frame rates, unlike 5fps or 7fps, you really can shoot a burst or a movie clip and be fairly sure of getting exactly the critical moment you want.
I believe that Sony will release a DSLR capable of exactly this function within the next 12 months. I am told it may achieve not 5fps, but 50fps – and the resolution will be higher than video, and the images will be still captures. It was half-expected for this current round of new products, but it’s destined to come in an A700 replacement, not something less. I don’t have any information on the likely burst count at such high capture speeds and it may be only a few frames, something like 1/5th of a second window producing 10 shots. This future is the reason why so many Sony insiders are saying ‘just you wait and see!’ and not worrying too much about the knocks they are taking for the 2009 new DSLR release programme.
Anyone reading this who uses a camera with 8fps, 9fps, 11fps or whatever will say ‘nonsense, my sequence shooting rate is perfect for action’. In a way they will be right, since whatever is the fastest rate you can get is clearly also your best choice if that’s how you prefer to shoot. The same people will often say they don’t need video, without noticing that HD video is very much like the old UHS mode of the Konica Minolta Dimage 7Hi – or similar new burst capture modes on consumer digitals. We could shoot 320 x 240 JPEGs at 15 frames per second seven or eight years ago. 1920 x 1080 JPEGs at 20 or 30 frames a second gets called video, but if the in-camera processing and the file format are properly handled (as Nikon have done) it becomes as good as a motordrive sequence for newspaper and web reporting purposes.
Click this to open another single screen-captured still from the D5000. Try printing it out around 6 x 4″, 7 x 5″ or maybe larger. DSLR HD video is not just about shooting movies. Sony needs to come to this party very soon.
– DK


  • Sir,
    Thank you VERY much for the very prompt response.
    And once again, you have added a HUGE amount to my education in photography.

  • The Press already uses frames from video when needed, I’ve been asked many times over the years to extract frames from videos (even going to old tape days) for newspaper use. The HD Video standards – whether 1280 x 720, or 1920 x 1080 – are so much bigger than old VHS, and the information is far more detailed. As I hope I have shown, a Nikon 24fps 720p video is not far off being the same as a 24 fps motordrive sequence with a ‘One Megapixel’ camera. The Canon 5D MkII when it first came out made the equivalent of 2 megapixel still frames, but at very slow shutter speeds – generally, 1/60th or so was the fastest.
    The Press users were frustrated in the extreme – if they shot video, the images were sharp enough to extract for half page newspaper use, but they could not freeze movement. Canon then introduced new firmware which allowed the 5D MkII videos to be shot with full control over shutter, aperture and ISO instead of programmed control. The camera can now be safely used to film video-takes of events, knowing that if a really great moment happens, a pin sharp 2 megapixel frame can be extracted with 30 fps ‘drive’ to catch exactly the right expression or action.
    The EOS 500D is not much use as it lacks the firmware and shoots everything at slow shutter speeds – bump up the ISO, and it just stops the lens down more! The Nikon D90, D5000 and D300S are all pretty useful as using A mode can force fast shutter speeds in video. Regular video producers do not like fast shutters, they think it makes action look jerky and prefer slight blur. I love video with fast shutter speeds.
    Press shooters are often being trained up to shoot video clips, newspapers can syndicate to TV or use vids on their websites. But the majority of shots continue to be still frames. There are predictions (not mine) that one day, it will all be video, and all still frames will be extracted from even higher quality HD video than we have today.
    If you want to analyse someone’s golf swing, 5fps is useless, 10fps is nearly useless, 24fps is acceptable, 30fps is good and 60fps is perfect.

  • Dear Sir,
    Thanks VERY much for the article, it really was an education. It really is interesting how many of us, myself included, hanker after this spec and that spec without really FULLY understanding what the benefits may or may not be. So now, thanks to you I am no longer that impressed by 9fps and 11fps cameras, nor will I feel short changed if my cam does 5fps and my pal’s does 7fps.
    You stated that: “I’m not confirming anything (I have no more information than others), the article is intended as a general discussion of the value of higher fps rates and the big difference which HD video makes to catching the right moment – as the press is finding out mainly with the 5D MkII at 30fps and 1080p.”
    Sorry for being a bit dim but what do you mean exactly? What is the big difference that HD video makes to catching the moment? And what is it that the press are finding out with the 5D MkII?
    Thanks in advance.

  • I’m not confirming anything (I have no more information than others), the article is intended as a general discussion of the value of higher fps rates and the big difference which HD video makes to catching the right moment – as the press is finding out mainly with the 5D MkII at 30fps and 1080p.
    The 5fps of the A700 is strictly limited to MANUAL focus (not even locked AF-S) and shutter speeds of 1/250th or shorter. Of course, it does C-AF during sequences, but you don’t get 5fps. You get whatever it takes to maintain focus, and even that is not always guaranteed. One of the main problems with AF-C plus Hi sequence shooting is that if the focus accidentally shifts to a different plane (background) while following a subject, it thinks the focus is confirmed and you get a useless frame – it then has trouble getting back to the subject.

  • Thanks for the article. There’s seems to be a lot of conflicting ideas on this point though, for example the slow down in A700 fps in low light suggests some role of AE cycle each frame. By the way are you confirming the 7 fps spec for the A550 or just assuming the rumours are right?