If you check the forums for popular consumer cameras and smartphones, you’ll find thousands of people wondering why their slow motion videos always turn out so dark. This common question, “Why are slow motion videos so dark?”, is one of the most frequently asked photography questions of the modern age.
Many people have purchased a slow motion capable camera with dreams of YouTube fame, imagining themselves smashing pumpkins and water balloons in brilliant slow mo. While you can find professional high speed cameras for sale today, most consumer cameras aren’t capable of creating high quality slow motion because of this exact problem.
So why are slow motion videos so dark? To understand the answer, we have to explain how cameras work in the first place.
Most professional TV and movie footage is shot with a frame rate of 24 to 30 frames per second. This mean the camera records 30 distinct images for every second of action. The reason most movie cameras operate at 24 fps is because that’s about as fast as the human eye can process visual information. In still photography, most commercial cameras have a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. When the shutter opens, the camera records a snapshot of the light that passes through, creating an image. Yet high speed cameras operate with shutter speeds of 1/8000th of a second, while ultra high speed cameras can operate at shutter speeds of 1/100,000 frames per second.
Yet when you operate with the super high shutter speeds necessary for super slow motion cameras to work, far less light is able to pass through the shutter. This leads to much darker images. So the higher the shutter speed, the darker the image. Put another way, the slower the slow mo, the darker the image.
In the most famous slow motion scene in recent Hollywood history, Evan Peters filmed an action scene in an X-men movie as the character Quicksilver. The film made famous use of high speed cameras to create the slow motion effect, but the director had to use an incredible amount of lighting to make the scene work. With all those extra lights on set, Peters said he was sweating like crazy the entire time, and the final scene still looked darker than normal action scenes.
There’s another major limitation to slow motion cameras, even the high frame rate cameras used in high tech research laboratories. In addition to the light-dark issue, researchers who use high speed cameras have to deal with poor resolution problems.
Remember that in order to capture slow motion footage the camera must take hundreds of thousands of frames every second. While this effectively reveals things invisible to the human eye, it also requires a lot of data. Even the best ultra high speed cameras have their limits. So in order to create and record that much data, these cameras have to sacrifice picture quality. It’s one of the circumstances in life where quantity really does trump quality. But the only way to create images that quickly is to make sacrifices on the picture resolution.
So while a typical iPhone has an 8-megapixel camera (a 3-megapixel camera can take photos with better resolutions that your desktop computer monitor), even the best slow motion cameras in the world have to decrease resolution as they increase speed.
Together, low light and low resolution are the two biggest drawbacks to super high speed cameras, forcing researchers to conduct a balancing act as they seek to slow down the world around them.
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