High Definition Television (HDTV) seemed like it was just beyond the horizon for a long time, but now it’s safe to say that the format has officially arrived. With the rapidly growing number of HD programs available on cable and network TV, it’s clear that the eye-pleasing transition away from Standard Definition Television (SDTV) to HD is finally taking place.
It’s been the objective of governments, broadcasters and production companies worldwide to take the next step in TV for a long time, providing an experience much more like you’d get in a movie theater, instead of sitting in front of a small screen. For houses of worship, the power of HD goes even deeper, bringing the feeling of being one inside the congregation, instead of an outside observer. Now that the cost of production equipment and home receivers has finally come down, new HD content is coming in a rush, with an ever-larger audience capable of watching it.
Broadcasters have been gearing up for the change for years, but it’s only recently that the larger houses of worship have begun making preparations for the move to HD. While incredible image quality, both in projections at the congregation and over the air, is the most obvious benefit that comes with HD, knowing how to make the transition can also make for superior archiving, improved overall production values, and an enhanced experience for everyone involved with the service.
A quick comparison between SD and HD shows why the new format is picking up steam. One frame of the conventional SD systems has 480 scanning lines, while the number of scanning lines for HD is 1.5 times higher than that. Also, the density of the scanning lines is greater because an HD screen has an aspect ratio of 16:9, as opposed to SD’s 4:3. All of that adds up to rich, film-like image resolution with the immediacy and flexibility of video, which makes viewers and producers alike equally happy.
The dropping costs of acquiring HD production equipment, as noted above, has been the primary reason that the largest congregations are making HD part of their plans for the near future. When HD technology was first introduced to the market a decade ago, the typical portable camera cost between $250,000-$500,000, and the lens went for between $100,000-$250,000. Today, that camera tops out at $60,000, and the lens should cost about $30,000. That’s still more than an SD package might cost, but not a lot more.
To transition from SD to a complete HD facility is a fairly complex proposition that goes beyond just switching the cameras and lenses. Houses of worship will find themselves consulting with their integrators about upgrading switching, routing, audio, editing and maybe even duplication. Recording and storage devices may not be videotape anymore, but hard drives and DVD. While there are many pieces of gear today that are “switchable” i.e. capable of working in both HD and SD formats, everything will have to be up to the same HD level of quality to make the final transition.
Naturally, changing formats means more than simply changing equipment: It helps to know about some of the finer points of production techniques routinely affected by the increased imaging capabilities and different dimensions of HD shooting. For example, the sensitivity of the HD camera and its ability to shoot in low light, although steadily increasing, is still slightly lower than its SD counterparts. Therefore, it’s important to know the minimum light levels needed to capture great video in the congregation, and adjust accordingly. This relates to the lens as well – initially HD lenses did not transmit as much light as an SD lens did. Today’s HD lenses are much closer to SD than ever, but it’s still a factor to keep in mind.
Also important is the aspect ratio, or screen width-to-height measurement, which in HD expands to 16:9, as compared to SD’s 4:3. Since HD gives a wider look, producers will want to think about how wide the front of the church is – will the new aspect ratio make people look smaller lined up in front? Do you want to move your on-camera plants and walls? People used to think in 4:3, which determined how certain things were placed. So if the lens and camera are 75 feet away, it pays to think about what the new image is going to be, since at that distance, there are differences between what’s visible in the viewfinder in 16:9 as opposed to 4:3.
An issue that relates specifically to how the lens is employed is depth of field. Depth of field is the area in which all objects, located at different distance from the camera, appear in focus, and it depends on the focal length of the lens, its f-stop, and the distance between the object and the camera. In HD, the depth of field is approximately half of that in SD, given equivalent circumstances. Therefore, if you were just getting by keeping things in focus in SD, things may get more complicated in HD. If that happens, the fix may lie in increasing the lighting, shortening the distance between camera and subject, or going for a wider lens.
An example of when this comes into play might be when you want the audience to only be watching the clergy delivering the sermon, and not the choir moving in the background – by applying the correct depth of field formula, this can be easily achieved, and the eye will naturally stay in focus with the subject. Fortunately, because the market is maturing as fast as it is, there’s an extensive range of portable or long studio/field lenses available that are HD. That’s good news for houses of worship, where lenses and cameras have to be particularly unobtrusive, located in the back, up high or on the sides where they won’t be in the way of parishioners in attendance.
More and more houses of worship are carefully archiving the video from their services, and since the transition to HD will continue happening for several years, it pays to start archiving now in the highest quality possible. A major objective of archiving is to make it look good for as long as possible — this way, when you want to make effective use of the footage later, it will work well with the available technology, which is going to be HD. The other scenario is akin to watching the kinescopes of old Jackie Gleason shows today: The conversions can be made, but it’s evident that the original footage is not as high quality.
In addition to preparing the archives for what’s to come, thinking about HD now is a way for houses of worship to “future-proof” their next production equipment purchases, and actually safeguard the budget. Many components in the production chain, such as lenses, for example, are capable of working in both the SD and HD formats with the flick of a switch (in fact, an HD lens will deliver an improved picture, even if the lens, camera and the rest of the chain are still operating in SD mode). If it looks like the next lens purchased may have to transition to an HD camera during the life of the lens, a church or congregation can eliminate the guesswork, and safely buy just one lens. Since a well-maintained lens today can easily last 10-15 years, HD/SD lenses make it possible to get the highest quality lens today, and make a smooth transition into HD later.
In the long run, for the many houses of worship that work with their local TV stations for the crucial task of broadcasting services to home-bound viewers, understanding HD will be a necessity. The eventual transition to digital transmission and HD has been mandated by law for all TV stations, which means that churches, entertainment producers, and all other video professionals are going to be building new facilities or upgrading existing ones, in order to meet the same requirements that the TV stations themselves must meet. It’s not mandatory yet, but down the road, houses of worship will need the ability to provide content compatible to what their local and national broadcasters are putting on the air.
While planning for HD may have its complexities, making a smooth transition to the format is not only highly doable, it’s also a necessity. Houses of worship that think out their upgrade path well in advance will enjoy the benefits of increased production values, and actually be able to streamline their long-term budgets in the process. Ultimately, the powerful capabilities of HD are going to be about more than just superior video and audio: For parishioners, it will make a real difference between watching a service and really being a part of that service, no matter where they are.