Digital Cinematography: Lesson 37: The Differences Between 2K And 4K Digital Cinema

Before I get into the new art of Digital Cinematography first lets clear up the differences between 2K and 4K digital cinema.

First off some cinemas have opted for 2K projectors, and others 4K projectors. This decision will affect the quality of their presentations for years to come. Deciding whether to shoot 4k or 2k depends on what you need to produce. I think for most productions 2k is enough. If you are doing lots of post production work like special effects, etc. 4k is for you.

First off does 4K really make a difference?

2K digital cinema provides an image container roughly 2000 pixels across (2048 x 1080 or 2.2 million pixels). 4K digital cinema doubles those dimensions to 4096 x 2160.

This equals 8.8 million pixels, exactly four times the count of 2K projection. On paper, 4K is obviously the superior solution. But what about the real world? Will the ticket buying public actually be able to perceive the benefits of 4K resolution in actual theaters?

Not entirely!

But why?

It all  depends on where you sit in the theater, and how acute your eye sight is.

Another question is does anyone really care? I know lots of people who don’t.

They like good stories, as long as it is in focus, and holds their attention, they could not care less if it was shot in a 16 mm Bolex camera from the 60ties. For some one like me I enjoy the best quality possible.

But the truth is that to the average viewer 4k and 2k are not that far apart. Now perhaps when 8k is used at 60FPS there will be an even larger difference that anyone can see no matter where they sit in the cinema?

Anyway, is it true that 4k is only meaningful for very large cinema screens.


The real measure of an audience member’s ability to pick out detail is the relative distance from that person to the screen, the viewing distance.

Basically the further you sit from the screen, or the closer you sit to it, will determine the amount of clear detail you will see.

Ultimately 2k will start to break down and get fuzzier  the closer you sit to the screen, for some people a larger viewing distance, 4K digital cinema projection will appear no sharper than 2K.

But like I say there’s a flip side. For audience members who sit close enough to the screen, 2K projection will have visible limitations.

On the other hand, until recently, film projection has always been 2K, which means people are familiar with it.

Some have even complained that 4k is too sharp, and takes away their ability to believe in the story.

I think if the story is good enough people will get lost in it regardless of the medium you produce it with, and 2k/4k quality no longer becomes an issue.

Again what you see depends on your visual acuity. If you have perfect 20/20 vision you will see more siting close to the screen or further away from it.

I do think that people will fall in love with 4K, and will go out of their way to go to theaters that offer 4k projection, but not all people will care about it enough to do this.

Today, increasingly affordable 1080p high-definition televisions challenge the cinema with resolution that is in comparable to 35mm film, and is almost exactly equal to 2K resolution. With 1.85 aspect ratio content, 2K has exactly the same number of vertical pixels as HDTV, and just 4.1% more horizontal pixels.

Compare 1080p HD with 2k, and you will see that they are almost identical, that is why the DSLR revolution has been so exciting:

1080p HD: 1920 H x 1080 V, 2,073,600 pixels

2K Projection: 1.85 Aspect Ratio, 1998 H x 1080 V, 2,157,840 pixels

When projecting 1.85 aspect ratio content, 2K provides only 4.1%
more pixels than HDTV showing 1.78 aspect ratio content.

It is true that 2K is insufficient to position the cinema as clearly superior
to HDTV, because of this narrow margin, and because cinema needs to be bigger and better to get people into the theaters, 4k has its place.

Investment in 2K digital cinema projection is in effect a bet against 4K, which has experienced rapidly growing support among exhibitors, studios and digital cinema equipment companies.

But the world no longer just goes to movie theaters. 4k, and beyond will definitely rule the theaters sooner or later, but 2k has its place in HDTV releases, HD internet viewing, etc. Act of Valor was shot on a DSLR at 1080p and looked great projected onto a 40 foot cinema screen.

It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between 4k and 2k when viewing them side by side online or through Netflix, etc. More important is sensor size, and dynamic range in many cases, as resolution is not that significant to create the film look.

If you think about it, frame rate is more important for capturing detail and movement. The human brain sees reality at about 60 frames a second. Ultimately I think digital cinematography is heading toward 60 frames a second. The Hobbit was shot in 4k at 48 frames a second, which increase detail and sharpness.

Go To Digital Cinematography: Lesson 38: The Benefits Of Shooting On a Digital Camera

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