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Blackmagic Cinema Camera: A Basic Shooting Guide

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You got one? Or it’s coming soon and you want to be prepared? Here’s the essential guide to how to operate a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, from lenses to menus to add-ons.


Gather your lenses

Because the sensor only uses the center of a lens, you’re effectively zooming in on the image when compared to a full frame camera (like the 5D) or APS-C (like the 7D). This makes all your lenses “longer” by 2.3x, so a 50mm lens on a Blackmagic Cinema Camera is like using a 115mm lens on a 5D. If you’re coming from full-frame, this could be a shock, but not such a big deal coming from an APS-C sensor (which has a 1.6x crop factor). In general, EF-S lenses, designed for the APS-C sensor, tend to be wider to counteract this zoom-in.

Various crop factors visualised — but remember that lenses for smaller sensors are wider, to counteract this zoom in.

Various crop factors visualised — but remember that lenses for smaller sensors are wider, to counteract this zoom in.


We’ll cover specific lenses in a future gear rundown, but if you like a zoom for general use, look to a fast, wide, stabilized lens in the 17-50 range. Sigma, Canon and Tamron all make these. Focus is all manual, so make sure you enjoy the manual focus action on your lens of choice, and if you plan on using ND filters, be sure that focusing doesn’t rotate the filters as the basic kit lens does.

Anyway, got your lens? Make sure the camera is off when changing lenses. That’s about it.


Prep your SSD

Since you’ll be recording onto a 2.5” SATA solid state drive, you’ll need one — and make sure that it’s on the supported list. Not all drives can sustain their advertised data rates, and Blackmagic have published a list of recommended drives. To get it ready, format it in HFS+ (the default format on the Mac) or exFAT (a more Windows-friendly format).

Select your disk on the left, then Erase on the right.

Select your disk on the left, then Erase on the right.


How to connect the SSD to your Mac? Hard drive docks are easy to find these days, though most are USB3 only. If your Mac doesn’t have USB3, consider a FireWire dock, or an eSATA dock if you have an eSATA card in a Mac Pro. There are no Thunderbolt docks yet, but you can use a Seagate BackupPlus (once called GoFlex) Thunderbolt connector to connect most bare SSDs instead. Once you’re connected, you can use Disk Utility to erase the disk quite easily. When done, unmount, eject, then pop the SSD in the side of the camera.


Charge your batteries

If you’re only shooting for an hour or so, just make sure the camera is charged. The internal battery will charge up whenever a power source is connected — camera running or not — and will last for about 90 minutes. For longer shoots, you can easily extend that with an external battery solution and a cable that matches the supplied power adapter.

I’m using a Globalmediapro V-mount battery and cable (which they supplied for review) and it works well, running for an additional 4 hours or more. The battery goes in a belt bag or hangs from the tripod, but there’s no problem if the cable comes loose; the internal battery kicks in straight away.

Only 25%? Time to charge up!

Only 25%? Time to charge up!


Set up the audio

If you have an external microphone (and you should) get out your adapters: you need to adapt whatever you have to a balanced pair of 1/4” jacks. Your local music store will probably have some handy cables. As usual, an external preamp will produce the lowest-noise possible, but you can get good results straight into the camera too. Plug in your headphones to monitor the audio, but note that there are no visible audio meters (yet). Beware! Set the audio levels fairly low (30% or so) if you’re not using a preamp.

The audio settings page — you won’t change this one too much.

The audio settings page — you won’t change this one too much.


Starting up the camera

On the back of the camera, hold the power button, in the bottom right to turn it on. It shouldn’t take more than a second or two to start up. You’ll want to dip into the menus to set some basic options first.

For flexibility in post, set the Recorder Settings dynamic range to Film, and the Display Settings dynamic range to Video. This way, you’ll see something close to a “normal” image, but you’ll record a wider dynamic range for a much better post production experience. I stay with ProRes most of the time for ease of workflow.

The Recorder Settings page — when you want to change format or use timelapse.

The Recorder Settings page — when you want to change format or use timelapse.


All about light

Next, set the white balance, in Kelvin. If you can’t get it quite right, that’s OK — it’s easy enough to fix it in post. There’s no custom white balance setting at the moment.

Set ISO to 800, the native sensitivity of the sensor, if you can. Reducing ISO to 200 or 400 won’t shift where the sensor clips the highlights, but increasing it to 1600 will shift the clipping point a little darker.

Set Shutter Angle to 180° to give a natural look to motion. A lower number (down to 45°) is a higher shutter speed and a higher number (to 360°) is a lower shutter speed. While these other settings can control the light, they’ll also affect the look of the footage, so use with caution.

The Camera Settings page — you’ll be here all the time.

The Camera Settings page — you’ll be here all the time.


What am I looking at?

Under Display Settings, make sure that Zebras are visible, and set to 100%. Zebras are diagonal lines that show bright areas where the sensor has clipped, and they’re important to this camera especially. While low light areas can be noisy, bright images aren’t a problem — so long as they don’t clip. Because the dynamic range is so good, and the color fidelity so much better (at least 4x the data of most cameras) it really doesn’t matter how bright it gets if it’s within range.

If you want to control depth of field precisely, you’ll need to stick to a specific aperture — low numbers for shallow depth of field, high numbers for deep depth of field. That means you’ll need to use neutral density filters to control light if you want a wide aperture, or possibly add lights for deeper depth of field.

If you can be a little more flexible with DOF, press the Iris button at top left to adjust Aperture to the brightest possible setting without clipping. Next, use the previous/next transport buttons to adjust aperture manually — making the image a little darker if the light might increase during shooting, or brighter if you would rather blow out some highlights to avoid noise in the shadows.

The Display Settings page — to change how you look at things.

The Display Settings page — to change how you look at things.


Metadata

Before you shoot, tap the screen once, then type some brief metadata in. At the very least, set the scene/shot/take number, then press the “auto” button next to the item to increment automatically. For a drama, this would probably be “take” and for a less formal shoot, perhaps just “shot”.

The Metadata entry page — to add notes about the current shot.

The Metadata entry page — to add notes about the current shot.


Focus, focus...

Double-tap the screen to zoom in, then set focus manually and precisely. With the detail in the camera, good focus does matter, and you probably won’t nail it without some help. Use an external monitor if you wish, or just double-tap.


Action!

Press record, either on the back at the lower left, or the shiny button on the front of the camera. Press again to stop. While you record, you can change aperture, but most of the other settings require you to bring up the menu.

All the buttons at the back.

All the buttons at the back.


Reviewing your files

When you’re done, press Play to review your clips. Note that they will play back as recorded, so even if you’ve set the display to show the Video dynamic range, if you recorded in Film, they’ll look flat in playback. This is normal.

You can press and release the transport controls to skip to the previous or next clips, or hold the transport controls to play faster or slower — great for longer clips.


Copying and erasing the files

All done? Turn the camera off, remove the SSD, pop it in your dock, then copy the files to wherever they’re going to live more permanently. As I use FCP X, I just drag them from the Finder into an Event. If you shot in ProRes, that’s it. If you shot Raw, you’ll need to use Resolve, After Effects, or something else to process them in much the same way as you’d process stills into a timelapse movie.

Files copied? Backed up? Wipe the drive with Disk Utility and start again. And post production? It’s straight FCP X editing with a little extra effort put into color correction. Here’s one place to get started. Enjoy!

Check out our Photoshop: Optimizing Raw Photos with ACR7 course!

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.

Comments

May 29, 2013
funwithstuff
One brief addition: the "30% or so" advice is for Firmware v1.2. Things changed in Firmware v1.3, and you'll probably need to use a higher input level and some audio post-production.
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