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The TV camera: Past, present and future

One key to predicting the future of a technology is being able to analyze its past. Over the past 50 years, Broadcast Engineering has followed technology trends. This article takes a look at the history of the television camera and predicts where the technology is headed.

The early days

Early cameras from the 1940s and 1950s may be dinosaurs now, but they're still relevant in that they've captured the curiosity of collectors like Chuck Pharis. He currently own 130 cameras, primarily made between the 1930s and 1960s.

Pharis was bitten by the camera bug at the age of seven when he watched the PGA Golf Tournament on ABC's “Wide World of Sports.” As an adult, he became a cameraman for that same program. He began collecting and restoring cameras after finding an old camera in a dumpster outside of a TV station. He took the camera home and rebuilt it into working condition.

Pharis' collection includes an RCA TK-30, which was the first camera he ever used. Not surprisingly, it's one of his favorites. The focus of his collection is on RCA and DuMont cameras from the late 1940s.

“They're black and white, and some of them are crudely made,” he says. “To be able to go back and take a piece of '40s television equipment — and some of this stuff has been sitting for 30 or 40 years in peoples' basements — and take it apart, rebuild it, and actually make an image on it is just fascinating to me.”

One challenge to his endeavor of bringing these cameras back to life is that the proper parts are difficult to come by.

The elusive camera that has yet to make it into Pharis' collection is the Iconoscope.

“It was the first decent, working camera tube,” he says. “It didn't look very good, but it made an image.”

It took a lot of light to make an image that wasn't that good. However, once the basic circuit was made, people used it as a foundation to make better cameras. In the early days, Pharis says that there were a lot of experimental cameras homemade by TV stations. They were often strange looking and difficult to move around.

“And those got junked really fast,” he says.

In the late 1940s, the image orthicon was invented, and that was when TV as we know it today really got its start. It was on two GE image orthicon cameras that industry consultant John Luff started his career working at a college TV station. Color was just breaking onto the scene. And that's when camera technology really took off.

Color and mobility

“The move from black and white to color, from a technical standpoint, was a quantum leap,” Luff says. “It became one of the reasons TV studios grew such large engineering staffs.”

And while it's still a technical job, back then, Luff says, operating a camera was something of an art with position, temperature, alignment and location. A good video operator was highly prized. Then, with solid-state cameras, it became quite a different job, according to Luff. Cameras became more stable, and registration was set at the factory.

The monumental move from black and white to color came with an equally monumental camera. The RCA TK-40, which was soon followed by the TK-41, was enormous. It had three image orthicon cameras sandwiched into one case.

These cameras weighed several hundred pounds, and it took four people to carry them up to the top of a stadium.

“RCA tried to make these cameras a little lighter and easier to move,” Pharis says. “So, they came out with the TK-42. It was a miserable camera to operate because they put the zoom and focus controls right on the back of the camera instead of on the handles. And you couldn't tilt the camera down. You couldn't pan it properly. RCA improved it with the TK-43, which is the same camera body, but with the zoom and focus handles back on the camera.”

These first steps toward making cameras more portable were still far cries from the camcorders we use today.

“A camcorder was a physical impossibility 30 years ago,” Luff says.

A camera rig required two or three people to operate. One problem was that lighter weight camera cables were needed. The Hawkeye was developed as a portable camera with a portable recorder. The TK-76 offered the first practical CCD camera.

That mobility is important. Pharis remembers working on a 1970s disco show with a PCP-70 strapped to him. He could only carry it for one hour at a time. Two-shoulder camera rigs are not very portable portable. And now, all cameras are portable, as most manufacturers no longer make large studio cameras. Instead, portable cameras are placed into a sled to be used as a studio camera.

The prosumer shift

“Broadcasters need equipment that's extremely rugged, extremely versatile, can shoot in very low light and can handle wide temperature swings, day in and day out,” says veteran cameraman Barry Braverman.

The focus is now on equipment that does everything at a low price. Enter the prosumer camera.

“The technology makes it possible; the economics makes it necessary,” Luff says.

To continue downward on price and performance, manufacturers need to increase the number of pieces they sell. However, Luff says we've hit the long tail. The economics will require the broadcast market to be part of a bigger market. Manufacturers now design products for the consumer and professional markets with some of the same parts. The DVC Pro, for example, started out in the consumer market and evolved to the professional market.

The DX1000, a consumer/prosumer DV camera, marked a shift in camera production, Braverman says.

“The Sony DSR150 and the Panasonic DVX100 were a huge step forward from a production perspective,” he says.

And he adds that the Sony EX1 and the HDX200 are a continuation of low-cost cameras that do everything, just sometimes not as past professional cameras. For example, he says, a big factor for many shooters is the optics in the cameras. However, as the price of the cameras decreases, the optics get worse and worse.

“Manufacturers can't give you a $25,000 lens on a camera that costs $8000,” Braverman says. “The way they do it is pretty clever. The camera compensates for the relatively modest lenses that come with the camera. So, they provide $8000 industrial lenses, but they have a lookup table in the camera that recognizes that lens and its defects and applies a digital chromatic aberration compensation.”

Every manufacturer does this in cameras that have integrated, permanently mounted lenses. Panasonic was one of the first to do it with interchangeable lenses, starting with its PX5000.

“What that means for the industry is that broadcasters can get nearly — but not quite — the performance out of an $8000 or $10,000 lens that they used to get out of a $20,000 lens,” Braverman says.

The move toward HD has put a lot of pressure on lenses and optics.

“While they see greater amount of picture detail, they also see, unfortunately, a lot more lens defects,” Braverman says.

Standard-definition lenses on high-definition cameras can be problematic because we suddenly see all the problems that before were hidden by standard definition's rougher edge.

Evolution of the craft

Changes in camera technology also reflect a change in production values, Luff says.

Braverman agrees, saying, “We're seeing the convergence of field reporters into one person — shooting, writing, directing, editing, going for coffee. That one person's attention is now spread across multiple disciplines. So, the tools required then also have to be spread across multiple disciplines.”

The introduction of the MXF format used in the P2 camera lends itself to this multidisciplinary approach. With the P2 system, files are arranged in folders, so the user can easily produce proxies that can be uploaded by satellite and sent back to the station. Now there are cameras with built-in MPEG-4 encoders, which enable reporters to relay the proxy to the station, so the station can start working on the show before they get back with the physical media.

“Camera people used to be an elite group. Now there's a sense that anyone can pick up a camera and produce remarkable pictures,” Braverman says. “It used to be a question of who owned the tools, because the tools were expensive, they took some expertise to run.”

For example, Braverman says with film cameras, the operator had to know how to load it and understand F-stop, depth of field, and all kind of issues. Then, as time went by, the tools became available to everyone.

“Today, it's not a matter of who owns the tools,” Braverman says. “It's a question of who owns the craft.”

Today's cameras are infinitely more capable and rugged, and cost one-third to half of the price. Manufacturers are responding to the economic necessity.

“But from a shooter's perspective, going out on a job, we're asked to do the same level of work, except we're handed a $6000 or $7000 camera instead of a $50,000 camera,” Braverman says. “And the capabilities of the two are just not comparable. From a shooter's perspective, it's a challenging time.”

The move away from full-sized professional cameras with broadcast optics has made it much more difficult to produce clean, professional looking images, according to Braverman.

“On the other hand, from a broadcaster's perspective, the lower cost means the ability to buy 10 cameras instead of one camera,” he says. “And the fact that they're less sophisticated means that you don't need a cameraman with 20 years of experience.”

This proposition is attractive to broadcasters, especially in these economic times.

Where does that leave the craft? With this new economic reality, Braverman says that the apprenticeships and the opportunity for a young shooter to learn from a master have vanished.

“And this has led to a lowering of standards in many ways because the reference isn't there,” he says.

Stewart Pittman, a cameraman for Greensboro, NC, FOX affiliate WGHP-DT agrees.

“I was lucky to start in '89 at an old station with old equipment and old veterans to train me,” he says.

He found that carrying a TV logo was a powerful tool. With a TV camera in hand, he could go anywhere. He says that that power has faded a bit in recent years, in part due to cameras no longer being a tool exclusively held by the cameramen elite.

What these smaller cameras offer, according to Pittman, is a far more intimate approach. The small DV cameras are less intrusive. He sees this change as a small part of the overall changes happening to local news, yet he's reluctant to give up his full-sized XD camera. Having to go into the menus to tweak one little thing on the DV camera bothers him.

“I know my job's not going to get any easier,” Pittman says.

But he's also looking forward to a more organic approach to news. A more organic approach is a friendly way of saying one-man-band journalism, something Pittman knows about. He currently works as a solo photographer, creating his own packages for someone else to voice, and he's grooming other photographers to be able to do the same.

“We're operating in an environment where one person is doing it all,” Braverman says. “That's changed the demand in the industry for that equipment. The demand is now for equipment that can do it all without a lot of expertise.”

Today, the skills required have changed.

“We will never go back to an era of specialization,” Braverman says. “It's just the economics and the fact that the broadcast market is so fragmented. Viewers have many, many choices. It's not just the three big networks. Today you have hundreds of choices on cable and satellite, and on top of all that the Internet — all working against the specialization that we once knew.”

The full-dimensional future

So where do we go from here? The experts agree that they foresee no great leaps.

“I hate to say it, but we're reaching the point of diminishing returns,” Luff says.

Optical science, for example, is reaching the limits of what is possible to diminish the size of the lens. Luff calls this the long tail. But, then, he admits that if you had asked the same question 30 years ago, he probably would have says the same thing.

“Changes are incremental now rather than revolutionary,” he says. “A camcorder was a physical impossibility 30 years ago.”

Pharis takes a step even further back looking at the strides the industry has taken.

“You go back to the 1930s and 1940s with this big huge technology, and now you can take hundreds of components and put them in a space the size of your thumb,” Pharis says. “You still need a camera that someone can hold onto and operate stably. It needs to be big enough for stability.”

We tend to think HD is new to our industry. But we've been working on this idea for 30 years. People have been playing around with 3-D for decades. And while the 3-D equipment will be bigger and more complex than what we've become accustomed to, the size will come down, following the same path as HD.

In fact, Luff predicts that we'll have 3-D before 1080p. He says that there's a bigger push for 3-D because it will require consumers to buy new displays.

“New technology introductions, to some degree, are forced on us because manufacturers have to find something else to sell,” Luff says.

The important element in looking toward the future is seeing the past. The first Iconoscope cameras produced unimpressive images, but they inspired people to improve on the technology. Obviously, today we're in the microprocessor age, with surface-mount components and CCD cameras, and of course there's HD, and next is 3-D. Who knows what will happen after that.

Spring Suptic is an associate editor for Broadcast Engineering.