Back in 2010, Canon showed off a "Wonder Camera" concept at its Canon Expo event in New York. The idea was that by 2030, the camera maker would have single lens cameras that would shoot only video. This magical camera would be able to record footage while keeping every part of the scene in focus simultaneously, allowing the user to pull the perfect photographic still out of the video after the fact. Think of it as the Lytro Light Field camera--which lets you refocus images after the fact--but for video too.
We're closer to that vision than Canon had anticipated. Production-quality digital cinema cameras already use sensors that are comparable to DSLRs. A camera like the RED Epic which shoots RAW 5K video has individual frames that are the equivalent of 14 megapixel photos (5120x2700 = 13,824,000 pixels). Inherent motion blur in video is a potential problem--anyone who's tried to save stills from a 24 frames per second movie knows that it's difficult to avoid blur. But these new cameras also have relatively high shutter speeds--120 frames per second--which means that the stills pulled from video clips would theoretically be sharp enough for practical use.
Photographer Kevin Arnold was able to borrow a $65,000 RED Epic rig to test this theory, and spent two days shooting sports video with a small crew. The goal of the shoot wasn't just to capture amazing-looking 5K video, but to shoot video in a way that would produce usable stills in lieu of bringing a separate DSLR camera. The details and results of the test are in Arnold's blog post, but it wasn't the technical proficiency of the RED Epic that stood out. Arnold found that the very act of shooting video instead of stills allowed him to record more natural moments:
What I hadn’t anticipated going into this was the advantages this style of shooting would offer in terms of capturing natural expressions and key moments. Obviously, when you’re shooting 120 frames-per-second, it’s almost impossible to miss a moment. But there’s more to it. Shooting video is comparably silent and, without the constant clicking of the shutter reminding them that their every movement was being recorded, the athletes were able to forget I was there. This is huge when you’re striving for authentic, candid images, a hallmark of my work.
...In the end, the dream of simultaneously grabbing stills and video for what I shoot is not quite there. It’s certainly close, and I’m convinced that it won’t be long until the dream is a reality.
Arnold's test reminds me a lot of another case where video is actually better than capturing individual stills: video game screenshots. In the old days of PC gaming, taking game screengrabs during a fast action sequence was an arduous process. Even if you're mashing a hotkey (or using a pedal) to save screenshots, you're not guaranteed to be quick enough capture the moment. When I worked at PC Gamer magazine, we used to stage action scenes using cheat codes, assigning one in-game player as a "cameraman" while the other players played the game as "actors". It was clumsy and time consuming.
Today, computers have enough processing power and storage capacity to let you use FRAPs to save full-screen uncompressed AVI video while playing a game. Those gigabytes video are then imported into Virtualdub, where you can grab the perfect frame from your gaming session. And like Arnold's realization that not focusing on photography fostered more natural and authentic expressions in his subjects, pulling game screenshots from saved FRAPs videos after the fact produces more spontaneous scenes. But another parallel exists too: just as Arnold faced the challenge of motion blur in grabbing stills from video, motion-blur in games affects the sharpness of a screenshot. And unlike in a game, you can't just go into a menu and turn off motion blur and "post-processing" effects in real life.