BT Sport produced an all-IP 4K broadcast for Arena Television in 2016 with the LDX 86N camera, delivering HD and UHD from the same truck.
Despite a host of new features and ergonomic designs that are lighter and more user-friendly than ever, for manufacturers, selling a studio camera today isn’t easy. In years past the target customer was a highly technical chief engineer or EIC. Today, in an era of increasing consolidation and fewer single stations a camera now has to serve many masters—including upper management, financial bean counters and, yes, the technical lead.
“In the past the technical people were the decision makers, today there are so many more people involved in the buying decision,” said Ronny van Geel, Director of Product Management at Grass Valley. “The financial people have as much input if not more than the technical people in buying a camera.”
For Grass Valley, this means shifting its design and sales strategies to make sure that the camera solution it is bringing to market ticks all of the boxes for all of the people involved. With the industry's gradual migrations to IP-based production, which in turn has facilitated a rash of “At Home” or REMI productions, a variety of connectivity options on the camera have become more important than ever.
“It’s important that the camera offers a migration path from Baseband to IP in order to satisfy both today’s SDI infrastructures and the next wave of what we call ‘IP-immersed’ production,” van Geel said.
The LDX 86N leverages an eLicense program that allows users to shoot in high frame rate 4K for one project and standard HD in another.
These changing market forces have led Grass Valley to introduce its LDX series of studio cameras in 2012. Designed around the company’s own XensiumHawk 2/3-inch imagers, the latest in the series is the LDX 86N Universe, first introduced in 2016, which the company calls the industry’s only “native HD and native 4K UHD” camera. This gives the user the option of shooting in 4K UHD (3840x2160 lines of resolution) or switching to native 3G/HD for all applications where uncompromised 3G/HD performance is required.
The cameras has been popular with large customers like NEP UK, which ordered 98 LDX 86N cameras in May as well as Formula One Management and The Weather Channel.
Each camera uses three native 4K XensiumHAWK CMOS imagers that support full native 4K resolution and offer a proprietary pixel technology called DPMUltra (dynamic pixel management). With DPMUltra, the camera also provides native HD (1920x1080) acquisition by combining two horizontal and two vertical adjacent pixels inside the imager, which avoids some of the challenges of 4K acquisition—such as rolling-shutter and decreased sensitivity.
“Grass Valley develops its own imagers, so we can design them to be performing as optimal as possible in multiple resolutions, and with the characteristics in mind for the application” van Geel said. “For the LDX 86N we took the Xensium design and basically added four times as many pixels as our previous generation imagers. Because we own the design, we are able to combine the two resolutions onto one chip as we see fit.”
Each camera uses three native 4K XensiumHAWK CMOS imagers that support full native 4K resolution and offer a proprietary dynamic pixel technology called DPMUltra.
He said that typically if you design a 4K UHD camera, you make the resolution higher but the sensitivity of each pixel is one-fourth of an HD pixel. If you then combine them in the digital domain, you lose about one F-Stop of sensitivity in the camera. But, van Geel said, if you combine them on the chips, like Grass Valley has in the LDX 86N, its four image cells equal one HD pixel again and the full HD sensitivity returns.
“So, it means if you had an HD job today they don't have to ‘pay’ for the sensitivity loss that 4K brings,” he said. “No one else in the industry is making cameras this way.”
In addition to the high sensitivity and global shutter acquisition capabilities, the LDX 86N features eXtended Dynamic Range (XDR), making it capable of shooting in either the HLG or PQ HDR formats. The camera’s design allows it to natively output each of the two formats by using a mapping technique that avoids banding and other image artifacts found when conversion to a certain HDR standard is being done further down-stream.
Among the newest features of the LDX 86N, now offered by most high-end studio cameras, is Creative Grading camera control. This new control philosophy, which will begin shipping in September—although it is already installed at large customers like The Weather Channel—makes shaders much more powerful. Van Geel said this unleashes the true power that’s hidden inside the LDX Series.
With Grass Valley’s new Creative Grading “bundles”, camera shaders can now easily and quickly manage adjustments, such as transitions from indoor to outdoor lighting.
Comprised of a new control panel and a companion touchscreen application, GVCG bundles multiple technical operations into intuitive packages.
Camera shaders can now easily and quickly manage adjustments, such as transitions from indoor to outdoor lighting. They can also easily manipulate images via an ultra-fast connection between panel and control and the dynamic adaptation to any format such as HDR, WCG, 4K UHD in real-time.
“Creative Grading is taken from a creative point of view and not from a technical view,” Van Geel said. “This allows the director or the producer to adjust settings and get the exact look they are after. We map the technical controls onto a graphical interface and group settings that have a direct relation. This allows people to tweak powerful controls without having to understand the underlying technology. This lets less-experienced people, like volunteers that work at houses of worship, to have more control over the look of the image. Experienced shaders who know the exact function of every parameter, become much faster and can discover the next layer of controls.”
He said that on average only a favored set of about 30 controls are being actively used today, and that’s it. But that’s only about one-tenth of the controls that Grass Valley makes available in the camera. With Creative Grading, Grass Valley has found that less-technical people are already using double the amount of controls they did before, without realizing it. Resulting in more pleasing images and better storytelling.
“Another one is, none of the panels today has an “undo” button. So if you want to go back five steps in today’s panels, there’s no way to do that, unless you’ve remembered exactly what all the values were and undo them manually. With Creative Grading there now is a path back to where you started, which enables you to really start playing with the power that’s built-in.”
Once created, a look can be instantly shared across multiple cameras. And unlike existing control panels, GVCG eliminates the need to memorize individual steps when tweaking image parameters.
Finally, addressing the multi-headed buying team approach, Grass Valley has implemented an eLicense program for its LDX series cameras that gives a customer access to software upgrades on a daily, weekly or perpetual basis for features like native 4K, HDR and high frame rate acquisition. The unique sales program, unveiled by Grass Valley when the LDX series was first introduced in 2012, has been extremely popular because it allows a broadcast TV station or production company to purchase a less featured LDX Series camera and then add features for individual projects requiring them. These software-enabled features automatically switch-off again once a job is completed. This program has resulted in increased market share for Grass Valley cameras among TV studios and mobile production companies shooting live sports projects.
“Knowing that a typical studio camera has a life of about 7-10 years, eLicenses have caused a huge change in how customers look at cameras and their feature sets,” van Geel said. “In the past, three-quarters of our camera sales were for the highest model with the most features to future-proof themselves. Now, we have an intense relation with our customers where we track trends and needs together. Most people now buy the model they need today and upgrade if their needs change. That’s the beauty of eLicensing.
“We as a company cannot predict how your company likes to work,” he continued. “This strategy also makes the financial people happy, because we’re changing the cost structure from a CapEx model to an OpEx one. That’s very appealing to many. The old LDK series [which sub-brand lasted for roughly 50 years] was about getting the most performance out of the camera. The LDX series is about reliability and customization. This strategy has also opened up new markets for Grass Valley that perhaps wouldn't consider a Grass Valley camera before.”
At the end of the day, van Geel said his team’s goal (located in Breda, The Netherlands), as camera designers is always to have the best offering on the market, in terms of features and cost, listening to its customers. That, said van Geel, is how to successfully sell a studio camera in today’s highly competitive market.
“People want choice and the eLicenses make it easy to get more out of your camera without spending a lot for it,” he said. “It allows customers to be more flexible and more bold in their production choices. With this strategy customers can chase opportunities they could not before and they only pay us if they secure those new projects. It’s turned out to be a win for everybody [technical and financial] involved in that camera buying decision.”
The LDX 86N system cameras work with the company’s XCU XF fiber base stations and XF Transmission adapters. As with the existing LDX 86 Series, the LDX 86N Series is available in multiple configurations that are easily switchable with software licenses. The series includes:
- LDX 86N HiSpeed 1X/3X HD super slow-motion camera.
- LDX 86N XtremeSpeed 1X/3X/6X HD and 1X/3X 3G super slow-motion camera.
- LDX 86N WorldCam for 3G/HD content in 1080i/720p/1080PsF/1080p.
- LDX 86N 4K with all the features of the WorldCam plus 3840x2160 UHD.
- LDX 86N Universe offers universal format support with switchable 1X/3X/6X HD, 1X/3X 3G and 1X 4K single speed capture.
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