If I was to describe this camera in five words, they would be: Anticipated, Quality, Professional, Simple, Original. And so here’s a review based on those five words.
Yes, it’s real. Sometimes I can’t believe it either.
Since this camera was announced, from the blue, way back at NAB in 2012, people have been wanting to get their hands on it. Production issues (eventually traced to the bond between the sensor and the glass in front of it) have caused many delays and slipped delivery dates from the originally promised July 2012. Production has finally ramped up and everyone on the list will hopefully get theirs in the next month or two.
Still, let’s step back to the announcement. To say that it took the filmmaking world by surprise would be to understate the situation. Incredulity, in a few bullets:
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. The image quality is outstanding, and… it’s from Blackmagic, that Australian company that makes video production gear? Really? It’s surprising, but at the same time, only an outsider can truly revolutionize an industry.
Here’s a video by Marco Solorio that will make you want a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and hate your Canon 5D.
Canon invented the DSLR video revolution by accident a few years ago, and brought good-quality, shallow depth of field to the masses. Still, their lower-end video cameras (and I include the 5D MkIII in that group, for video) just don’t resolve the detail that 1080p is capable of — and that’s before their compression kicks in to mush it further. Canon DSLRs can produce a lovely image, but it won’t be a truly detailed one. Nikon has the same issue, and Panasonic’s GH2/GH3 is only slightly better.
To get markedly better quality than their entry level DSLRs, you’re into five figures — a problem for personal budgets and many smaller corporate ones. Those cameras, the C300, 1DC and so on, avoid the many problems of the line-skipping strategy used by most of their cameras, but cost a pretty penny indeed — and have their own issues. Enter the Blackmagic.
Just a screen with a few buttons beneath it.
The sensor is 2432x1366 pixels, with enough headroom over HD’s 1920x1080 to give excellent quality. Unlike most DSLRs, which use line skipping to produce their video image, the Blackmagic uses all its pixels. But it’s not just about the resolution.
Dynamic range, for images, is known as latitude: the difference between the measurable shadows and the highlights. While a DSLR might cover 10-11 stops of latitude, the Blackmagic claims 13, only a stop less than the Arri Alexa’s 14. That latitude allows you to capture shadow or highlight detail without compromising the rest of the shot, and can mean you can get a great image without filling every corner with light.
Also important is that you shoot to 1920x1080 ProRes HQ at 10-bit, or 2.5K RAW CinemaDNG at 12-bit. That increased bit depth gives you 4 or 16(!) times the color fidelity of the standard 8-bit, and the reduced compression means that images remain pristine until delivery. Color grading with this footage is a dream.
Here’s a sample still image, uncorrected, shot in the lower-dynamic-range ProRes HQ Video mode — and it’s still great.
All of that means that the Blackmagic Cinema Camera can produce some excellent images. However, there are inevitable issues. How minor they are will depend on your tastes and requirements.
It feels solid in the hand, a concentrated block of professional metal goodness. Heavier than a DSLR and with a striking, attention-grabbing design, it’s comfortable to hold but perhaps too heavy to do so for long. Plugs on the left are covered by sturdy rubber flaps, and the door on the right that covers the SSD bay and USB port is solid enough that I’ve taken chunks off my finger loading and unloading my SSD.
The SSD door and miniUSB port (for firmware upgrades) behind a satisfyingly chunky door.
The back is a big rubber-edged touchscreen surrounded by several soft-touch buttons: playback controls, a menu and power at the bottom, plus an Iris and Focus button at the top on the sides. More on those later.
There’s an internal battery that’s good for 90 minutes or so, but it’s not swappable. Like an iPhone, this apparently makes the camera design more robust, but demands that you use an external power source for anything but the shortest shoots. The power requirements are flexible, accepting 12-30V through a standard DC plug, so you’re not locked in to a single expensive solution.
All the standard plugs, even some old 1/4” friends.
Where possible, Blackmagic have tried to use “standard” plugs and formats, though they’ve used balanced 1/4” jacks instead of XLR to save space, and SDI instead of HDMI because it’s more professionally accepted. Their RAW format, CinemaDNG, is an open standard, and you can shoot to ProRes for FCP X or DNxHD for Avid. Still, not everyone is happy.
At the core of things, the Blackmagic is a simple camera to get your head around. There are only four menu screens (Camera, Audio, Recorder and Display settings) and while the options are all you need, they might not be all you want. White balance is currently limited to a set number of choices — there’s nothing between 3200K and 4500K, for example — and no auto. You can choose ISO 200/400/800/1600, but that’s all — and no auto. The rest you’ll have to do in post using the superb dynamic range and gradable image.
Changing these settings through the touch screen is quite quick and effective.
Shutter speed is expressed using the cinema-style shutter angle terminology, so you’ll need to learn about that and be happy with 1/200 second as your fastest. Indeed, to maximise dynamic range you’ll have to control the light to target ISO 800, and you’ll need an neutral density filter if you want to control your depth of field.
Iris on the top left, Focus (for peaking) on the top right.
The Iris button can help — it protects the image from clipping by adjusting the aperture, and adjustable zebras let you verify that. You can also tweak aperture manually using the transport control buttons, though a dial would have been nice. Only the most recent firmware update allows you to see the F-stop currently selected — so update!
With no auto-focus, a dedicated Focus peaking button and the screen’s double-tap-zoom-in feature can still help you to nail it. It’s the basics — the rest you do in post. If you’re used to a DSLR set to auto ISO, you’ll need to learn or relearn some skills. It’s not too hard, though.
Set the zebras to 100%, then get the image as bright as possible (while avoiding zebras) for best results. Did I mention the screen can be a tad reflective?
The Cinema Camera is not just unique, but the first camera from Blackmagic Design. The sensor, from a scientific imaging company, hasn’t been put to this use before, and the results are amazing. Australian cinematographer John Brawley was the first to put it into use, and footage from the Blackmagic was intercut with footage from the Arri Alexa. The quality of the image is like nothing else in this price range, and the main reason so many are interested.
For $3000, though, it’s not just a camera for professionals. Leaving the picture quality aside, I needed a camera to cover events where people might speak for an hour or more, and video cameras in my price range just weren’t good enough. Consumer video cameras, to my eyes, produce an oversharpened pile of saturated, noisy mush. DSLRs are very good, but limited in recording length, prone to overheating, and susceptible to aliasing and moire that can destroy an image.
Here’s a short piece I shot at a great new brewery on the Blackmagic.
Of course, all that becomes secondary as you see how staggeringly good this affordable image is. To see it is to want it. It has quirks, but they can largely be worked around. Yes, the sensor is smaller than most of the Canons, giving a higher crop factor and a more zoomed-in image — so you’ll need a good wide lens. Yes, you’ll need a battery if you want to take it outside. Yes, the screen can be reflective, but so can a DSLR’s. Yes, the current firmware has niggles, but there are fixes on the way. No, it doesn’t shoot high frame rates; 30 is the limit. We can’t have everything.
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is many things. For a film professional with a huge collection of existing gear, it’s a great B-cam. Consider the Micro-Four-Thirds mount version if you have expensive cinema lenses you’d like to adapt.
For the solo operator using DSLRs with a small kit, it’s a great A-cam, that lets you produce fantastic images with room to expand. You can rig it up, you can use it alone on a tripod, you can go naked and handheld (with a stabilized lens). It works with you, encouraging you to learn more about filmmaking as you chase that perfect image. For every tiny thing wrong, there’s a huge thing right.
Still, if you want a point-and-shoot experience, look elsewhere. For anyone who wants control, quality, and reasonable cost (at minimum $3000 for the camera, $200 for an SSD and $200 for an external battery solution) then this is as good as it gets today. To see it is to want it, to use it is to love it. And if you order now, you might even get one soon.
Stay tuned for more articles on workflows and other tips using the Blackmagic — and if you have any requests, please leave them in the comments.
Learn more about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera here.