Outside Hollywood

Blackmagic Design’s New Cameras
Posted: April 9, 2013 at 11:53 pm, by Isaac

A year ago, BlackMagic Design announced their very first camera. Not being a camera company, they created a clunky box that was a short on ergonomics and frills, but being a top-flight digital imaging company, they built a sensor and processor package that shot excellent images. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera shoots a rather unorthodox 2.5k image on a standard 16mm sensor, accepts standard EF lenses and records to standard SSD drives. The 12-bit RAW image quality easily rivals that of the RED Scarlet, but the BCC ships ready to shoot for only $3000.

This year at NAB, they announced their second and third cameras. First, they unveiled an upgraded version of the BCC which shoots 4k video on a Super35 sensor through a global shutter. Like its predecessor, it comes with a free copy of daVinci Resolve (normally $945), and is still only $4000. As astounding a camera as this is, I found the announcement of the Pocket Cinema Camera even more interesting.

Blackmagic Design's 2013 Cameras

This camera is a mirrorless point & shoot, with a Super16 sensor shooting native 1920×1080 HD footage. Currently, the prototypes record 10-bit ProRes to SD card, with a slightly compressed 12-bit DNG RAW codec coming soon. The sensor promises extreme dynamic range, and by shooting at a native res, there will be no problems with aliasing or moiré, and it will have larger photosites that should give it very impressive low light capability.

In addition to standard SD cards, it takes standard Nikon batteries, and has a standard active Micro Four Thirds lens mount. This gives it a pretty wide selection of Panasonic and Olympus lenses, and adapters are in the works to support a number of classic 16mm lens mounts. It’s pretty capable video camera for $995… especially when you consider that this is roughly the current price for a used Canon 7D.

Of course, a video-enabled DLSR like the 7D is a dual purpose device, primarily a serious still camera. The Pocket Cinema Camera, despite looking like your average point & shoot, will not have even have the capability to take cellphone-resolution pictures. Its tiny size and cute design aside, this is meant to be a pro camera, with a pro sensor recording to pro codecs. I’m pretty sure that the ungraded RAW footage won’t even look that flashy.

That’s not a downside, though. What might be, however, is the somewhat limited control scheme. It uses the same menu system as the original BCC, which is a very full-featured touchscreen-based setup. The PCC, on the other hand, doesn’t have a touchscreen. In a way, that’s good; since a tiny camera like this will probably need a finger-blocking viewfinder eyepiece, it’s nice to have buttons off to the side.

pcc_menu

The problem is that using directional buttons to navigate an interface designed for a touchscreen can be slow. For a cinema camera on a controlled film set shooting planned shots, speed is not essential… but the price and size of this camera make it perfect for run-and-gun documentary shooting, and in that environment speed is much more important. If I’m moving fast, I might need to adjust iris, ISO, shutter, white balance, and audio levels in between shots, and that’s five different settings with only one set of buttons.

To make matters worse, a number of MFT lenses don’t have physical focus rings, so that’s a sixth set of parameters to adjust using five tiny chicklet buttons. I wish the camera had a control wheel in addition to the directional pad, since it will be very hard to rapidly press the clicky buttons on a camera this small and light without jiggling it. Not a great way to do follow focus, so clearly physical focus rings are a must. At the moment, there’s no telling if this camera will have auto-focus or auto-exposure; the original BCC is purely manual control, with only a very basic one-time auto-iris.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see a no-frills camera designed purely for video quality, especially when it has been priced lower than DSLRs that have squeezed video in as an afterthought. The more professional features like focus peaking and the headphone jack (I never thought I’d consider a headphone jack a “professional video feature”) make it easy to overlook a few rough spots, and there’s a lot of room for firmware updates between now and the late July shipping estimate.

I am seriously considering pre-ordering one of these. The native lenses are pretty cheap, older S16 lenses are abundant, and if the dynamic range and low light capabilities of the sensor are similar to the original BCC, it will shoot an amazing image. To some extent though, despite being cheap and tiny, it is more camera than most of us actually need. Canon’s compressed MPEG4 video is sufficient for most video productions, and the full frame sensor of the 5D is still very hard to beat.

bcc4k

I believe that the 4k Cinema Production Camera will do very, very well. It brings all of the RED Scarlet’s capability to the table for a fraction of the cost. It can’t compete quite as well with the Epic or the Sony F65, but the people who buy or rent cameras in that rarified price range tend to be able to decide what they need and could pick it up. In comparison, the Pocket Camera is practically an impulse buy, but it is a more complicated product to predict.

Ultimately, the success of this camera will depend on how many shooters are serious videographers who want to get better at their craft, and how many wannabe filmmakers just want a fancier camera because they think that their tools (or toys) define them. The PCC is capable of shooting a vastly superior image to existing DLSRs, but it will take a lot more work to get that better image. The codec open up a whole new range of grading options, but it also requires a whole new level of grading.

Casual shooters will probably be frustrated by this challenge, and serious pro shooters should probably be considering the more expensive 4k version. A pocket-sized RAW HD camera feels custom-made for guys in between those two groups – like me – but I’m just not sure how big that demographic is. Right now, the original 2.5k BCC is highly sought after, and even after the 4k version hits the market I expect that used bodies will be scarce and expensive.

So the only reason that I’m holding back on the pre-order is that I’m not sure how many used Pocket Cameras will be for sale by the end of the year. Any thoughts?

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7 Comments

  • What a wonderful time it is to be in the market for buying a camera. Absolutely delightful to see manufacturers who finally understand what’s important for the indy filmmaker!

    The Pocket Cinema Camera is on my list as a second camera, as soon as a project constitutes its use. Though it probably will become the primary cam…

    I just made the switch from the 5D2 to the GH3, and am so glad I did. Selling the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 IS and using Panasonic equivalent 35-100mm 2.8 is an interesting adjustment, but worth it. Pany has made an amazing little camera that most people won’t touch because of the Full-Frame Religion. Though it sounds like a controversial switch, I’ll never look back. The versatility and workflow is stunning for video, and the speed of autofocus in photos I think holds the record at the moment. It may not have the abstract qualities of FF, but it makes up with sharpness and codec integrity. I have a lot of wonderful things to say about the GH3, but the best thing to say about it is that it makes me want to hate the 5D2, strictly for performance reasons. Not to mention the ease of use.

    The PCC is a perfect companion to the GH3, and vice versa. The fact that they can use the same lenses is awesome. Olympus has fantastic primes for the m4/3 mount. I don’t much care for Canon glass, even the L series, in comparison to Pany and Oly glass.

    2 things I’m excited about this year in cameras: the PCC and the imminent GH3 hack.

    I’ve heard that due to stupid Japanese regulations, Panasonic is only utilizing half of the GH3′s quad-core processor at the max. This is where a hack could come in handy…

    I’d put the PCC on my list if I were you, but move the GH3 up higher as it can replace Canon’s expensive paper weights, and put more cash in your pocket for better lenses that the PCC can also use.

    Posted by Bo on April 10th, 2013 at 7:51 am
  • I sort of doubt many of these will float in the used market until 2014. Cameras are a very difficult beast to predict, because the market shifts more than quicksand. My thoughts so far, is based on is it an upgrade for me and does it make sense for where I am now?

    I cannot really afford a FS700 or the Blackmagic 4k for now, and I could use a camera that does double duty for personal home videos, small weekend projects, and some light commercial work. I think the pocket camera will meet those needs.

    I currently have a GH2 and have been unhappy with the cliff between midtones and blacks, not much grey. Also, I do not really need a higher end dslr for photos. So, personally, I would like a simple video camera that I enjoy shooting with and a point and shoot for photos.

    Also, the Active Micro 4/3 mount means my GH2 lenses will work! And all my lenses do have manual focus rings.

    Do you expect this camera to be better in low light than the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera? I’m hoping it will land somewhere between the GH3 and the 5D Mark ii/iii

    Posted by Morgan on April 10th, 2013 at 10:11 am
  • It’s hard to say about the low-light. It should be better than the BCC, since it’s the same sensor size with fewer, larger pixels, and it’s probably newer tech, but since it’s being made by a different manufacturer, we don’t know for sure.

    I’m not sure it will be the best camera for casual weekend projects, though. ProRes HQ’s bitrate is nice and all, but it won’t even give you an hour of footage on a single 64gb card, and then it will need grading, and it won’t play on everything. Losslessly compressed RAW files will only be bigger and more finicky. It will take a certain level of commitment to use this for home videos, unless the guys at Blackmagic add a low-fi MPEG-4 codec option.

    For all of H264′s compression artifacts, it is an efficient and friendly codec. With my 5D2, I can dump MOV files onto my phone or tablet, upload and email the files, anyone can watch them anywhere, and they look good without grading. They are crushed and compressed to within an inch of their 8-bit lives, but it’s a much simpler and faster workflow.

    If I did go with this camera, I’m sure I’d keep the 5D for stills and also home video projects and things that are just going on the internet. I am really itching to try out a GH3, but I’ve heard so many complaints about the DR of the GH2 that I’m hesitant to go that way unless it’s considerably improved. Lens sharing with the PCC is a definite plus, though.

    Posted by Isaac Botkin on April 10th, 2013 at 2:12 pm
  • Don’t know when we’ll be in your neck of the woods next time, but it’d be interesting to see what you think of my GH3.

    The codec on the GH3 (the 72mbps All-Intra H.264 one) is really nice. The dynamic range of the GH3 is better than the 5D2, probably somewhere between 1-2 stops more. But the samples online don’t do it justice, you have to push the footage when grading and see just how far it will really take a beating; and it will. The footage just screams “stretch me!” And when you do, it’s rather rewarding as it stays amazingly clean. Especially when grading natively.

    One thing you have to watch on the GH3 when you’re shooting critical stuff that you’ll be grading is that you have to avoid ISOs like 500, 1000, 1500, and so on as they’re noisier.

    The GH3′s noise structure is more organic and grain-like than the 5D2. 3200ISO is acceptable on the 5D2, but 6400ISO is unusable on it. Whereas on the GH3 the it’s noisier at 3200ISO, but it doesn’t increase much at all at 6400, and is perfectly useable.

    Posted by Bo Schultz on April 10th, 2013 at 5:19 pm
  • Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that Magic Lantern is useful. Not only can it disable the “bad” ISO settings, but it can introduce new ones. This lets you pull some noise out of the shadows before the 8-bit conversion and compression stage.

    Posted by Isaac Botkin on April 11th, 2013 at 9:43 am
  • Very interesting. The idea of a point-and-shoot sized cinema camera does seem just about perfect for documentary filmmakers; especially as it allows you to go practically unnoticed while shooting pro-grade footage. As for the lenses, Redrock does make a “smart” EF to MFT adapter that allows aperture control of the lens. You don’t need autofocus anyway, so that’s not a big deal. Only problem is that the adapter costs nearly $600 new. The other very interesting option that this allows for is the use of Voigtlander’s excellent m-mount quality f/0.95 Nokton MFT lenses (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/855215-REG/Voigtlander_BA175M_Nokton_17_5mm_f_0_95_Lens.html, http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/754598-REG/Voigtlander_BA305A_Nokton_25mm_f_0_95_Lens.html). These are manual-focus only, with a focus ring. Everything that I have read about them basically boils down to “Leica quality at 1/10th the price.” I must say that I would really like to have one of these cameras.

    Posted by Joshua Kleveter on April 12th, 2013 at 9:33 am
  • I think getting good glass is a bigger issue than sensor resolution once you get into HD and beyond. Get a Zeiss lens or something, and I’ll appreciate that more than 500 or 2,000 extra pixels in most circumstances. Don’t forget about the law of diminishing returns.

    As for sound in a controlled environment, I do not care at all about sound capabilities in a camera. If there’s not even a on-board microphone, get the talent to clap his hands.

    Posted by Adam Terrell on April 18th, 2013 at 5:38 pm

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