Blackmagic Production Camera 4K (that’s what they call it)

The eagerly anticipated Blackmagic Production Camera 4K  has started shipping and this is apparently the first one in town, wonderfully loaned to me by the good folks at Annex Pro in Vancouver. Here’s a quick review. beautiful

Overview

What is this thing?  It’s a 4K resolution 12bit RAW videocamera yeilding a claimed 12 stops of dynamic range in an interestingly designed container, employing a solid workflow, with a global shutter, and finally with a super 35mm sized sensor.  It makes pretty pictures, for sure. It’s also an incredibly inexpensive RAW shootin’ 4K machine,  so our cinema problems have now been solved ! Right?!   Well, maybe.    

There’s a lot of bang for the buck here, and it carves it’s own rather unique space amongst its camera peers/competition but there’s no such thing as a free lunch and everything in life is a compromise, even this strangely sexy little machine…  Read on. This new 4K version – months late from the initial ship date – causing web forums to be clogged by release date pleadings,  is the successor to the previous Blackmagic Cinema Camera which came out a couple of years ago.  They share the exact same form factor.   The previous camera shot 2.5K resolution at 13 stops dynamic range, but had a small sensor which really made shooting anything more than slightly wide kind of… impossible.  The thing has a 2.5x crop factor (compared to full frame), so even ludicrously wide lenses yield not-that-wide-at-all results.  I didn’t get one for just that reason, but the footage looked great and the camera seemed cool and strange and I always kept my ears and eyes open to those interesting Blackmagic Aussies.   This is their new 4K machine.

Blackmagic makes a lot of interesting hardware, as well as some very fine color grading softwareso it’s clear they certainly know a thing or two about video. Bonus:  You get Davinci Resolve included with the camera.   That’s $1000 worth of delicious color massaging software right there in the box .  Don’t underestimate this.  Although Blackmagic gives out a free version of Davinci, the full version lets you export at 4K resolution, plus it adds noise reduction, 3D support and a few other goodies.  The free version is an incredible program regardless, and if you’re into color grading your work, you should give it a whirl.

Also on the value topic, Blackmagic reduced the price of the camera by $1000.  I don’t mean by adding the software, I mean that it used to list for $3995 and once they started shipping the 4K they dropped the price to $2995, due to manufacturing optimizations or something.   The previous 2.5K camera was just reduced to $1995  and both still come included with the $1000 Davinci Resolve color grading software for ‘free’.   This makes things rather hard to argue with and it puts the price/performance ratio up to the moon with these cameras when you consider that you get a RAW shooting 4K machine plus some really fine grading software for a few grand.  Amazing.

As for the name of this thing, those Australians really are a wonderful lot.  I lived there for a couple of years and would remark on their incredibly pragmatic way of naming things.  There was a tile store down the way from my place named ‘Tile Store’, and why not? Why try to be cute about it?  So here is the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

Cut to the chase: The GOOD:

  • It’s 4K, UHD 3840 x 2160. Comparable resolution cameras cost significantly more, except for the Panasonic GH4 which seems to be a somewhat similar competitor. GH4 pricing has not yet been released as of writing.
  • Super35 size sensor.  Approx PL lens mount /  Canon 7D size.  1.6x crop factor to Full Frame.  Compare your brains out here.
  • It has a global shutter.  This is a big deal and one of the main reasons DSLR’s look like crap when shooting motion / panning fast.
  • 12bit RAW with 12 stops of dynamic range, which is better than any DSLR except a Canon running with the cheeky-but-amazing Magic Lantern firmware crack. Currently only able to export prores, RAW comes with a firmware upgrade ‘soon’
  • Decent inputs / outputs
  • Really straightforward and clean less-is-more design
  • Excellent workflow recording straight to prores 422 so zero transcoding after, or Cinema DNG RAW.  Shoot and cut from the same SSD drive, if you wish.
  • Boots up really quickly
  • Very well built
  • The cooling fan is incredibly quiet

 

What’s the catch?

  • This is not a low light camera.  ISO 800 is the fastest it goes and if you push the gain in post it gets noisy and then it starts banding.  More on this below.
  • Extreme highlights / overexposure clip to a nasty dark purple which will be a pain to fix in post.
  • The battery life sucks.  There’s an internal battery which you can’t replace which basically mandates one to get an external battery solution ($300 ish), unless you plan to shoot near wall outlets the whole time.  I charged it overnight and turned the thing on and the battery said 75%.   You’re lucky to get over an hour of shooting.
  • You can’t delete files from the camera.  You also don’t know how full the card is.  Surprise! Card full!   You better hope to have a free one or a computer nearby.   This is a brutal limitation.
  • There’s no histogram.  Exposures feel shot from the hip, unless you’re using a meter.   You get overexposure zebras (which you can adjust where they kick in) but no indication of underexposure.   I feel uneasy exposing this camera.  I want to SEE what the heck the exposure is, like you know, on every other camera out there   including $150 point and shoots.
  • No audio levels.
  • Some issues with ‘white dots’ on the image, which apparently disappear in time.  I only had the camera for a couple of days and they were on some of the footage.  I hear Blackmagic is addressing the issue.  Perhaps the camera has fixed itself of this problem.  I’ll keep this area up to date with the latest I hear of the situation.
  • It doesn’t shoot faster than 30fps.  I was hoping to get 60fps – at a reduced resolution – so you could at least do some semi-slow mo.   Wishful thinking.
  • The on-board Thunderbolt port can’t be used for downloading footage.  Unfortunate, because that’s a fast connection it  would be a super convenient way to quickly get your footage for those on a budget (only one card, no SSD docking station, etc.)

 

Summarize everything before the end just because

Amazing bang for buck camera under the right conditions, which will provide absolutely beautiful results as long as you’re in decent light.   The size makes you consider run-and-gun shooting with it, but that will only frustrate you.   A good camera which could be excellent, potentially with firmware upgrades.  Ok wait, do I need 4K?  Is anyone projecting 4K?  I don’t have a 4K TV…  Great question.  Only a handful of theaters even have 4K projectors, but of course this is changing.  The vast majority of projects are still output and delivered at 1920×1280.  4K is desired by VFX houses as they get big plates with lots of room which clean up nice when downsized, editors and directors who like to reframe and push in on shots at the editing desk, oh and gearheads on a runaway resolution race.

It’s where things are going for sure, let’s just agree to punch directors and producers who say “Shoot it wide, we’ll crop in post” The RED Dragon can shoot @ 6K, but what the heck will you do with it other than rapidly fill up hard drives and bog down your computers?  I’m not skeptical, we’ve just seen this megapixel race already with DSLR still cameras until people came to their senses and desired less noise and cleaner images over more pixels.

The competition  

There isn’t any competition at this price really, except maybe the Panasonic GH4, but they’re pretty different machines…  I’m not going to list all the pros and cons of each camera, but here’s a quick brief:

Canon 5D3:  Similar price, not 4K only 1920×1280, shoots higher dynamic range with the Magic Lantern firmware hack + proper histogram / audio meters / file management

Panasonic GH4:  Not sure of price, 4K, outputs RAW to an external recorder.

RED Scarlett: Three times the price, 4K, practically a global shutter, quite a bit wider dynamic range, proper histogram / audio meters / file management

Canon EOS 1D-C:  Four times the price, 4K, no RAW, no global shutter

Red Epic:  Mostly the same as a Scarlett but with slow-mo.  Ten times the price.

Design

When you first hold a Blackmagic camera, you’ll be surprised at the weight and solidity of the thing.  It feels good in the hand and comes across as incredibly well made.   The EOS mount seems beefier than on Canon cameras, it holds lenses really snugly and is incredibly solid.   There’s a standard 1/4″ camera mount on the bottom, with a centering pin indent so compatible base plates with the little extra prong can fit in there to prevent rotation.  This is a great thing.  Tell Canon to put them on their EOS bodies so they don’t shift when using a follow focus…   The top of the camera has 3 more for a mic or light or an additional display.    There’s a few aftermarket cages which give protection and provide additional mounting options. The screen is big and clear, but not incredibly bright and it doesn’t have an antireflective coating on it, so shooting outside in the sun can be very difficult. The side of the camera has nice rubberized plugs revealing the decent selection of ins and outs:

  • 2.5mm LANC remote
  • 3.5mm ‘mini’ headphone jack
  • 1/4″ balanced mono audio with mic or line inputs.  No idea about the pre-amp quality
  • audio (1/4″, not XLR..), external power, SDI, Thunderbolt… The design is growing on me
  • 6G SDI slangin’ 10bit 422
  • Thunderbolt !   Which you can’t use to download the footage!  Missed opportunity right there..  It does work great to plug into a laptop or one of their SmartScope displays, currently the only way to view your exposure.  Blackmagic, please put a realtime histogram on this camera.
  • 12v DC jack.   You’ll get used to this as the battery lasts an hour, tops.   It doesn’t have a light when you plug in a charger so you don’t have any idea if the battery is actually charging unless you turn the camera on

It’s an incredibly unique design, well thought out, and entirely unconventional.  I applaud the designers for throwing away the notions of what cameras have looked like and built something so minimally pure it seems to be slightly alien.   It feels like Dieter Rams was involved somehow, or perhaps Apple – which is really just to say Dieter as they just copied all his stuff but that’s another discussion. I suspect the battery issue is perhaps do to form dictating function, not following it.  Maybe BM got married to the enclosure design and it just didn’t have the room or ability to put in a removable battery. Here’s the rub:  It’s easy to get carried away and think that you can run and gun with this thing as is, but you really can’t.  You need an external battery.  The design suggests minimalism but you can’t really monitor off that screen in many conditions and the battery dies so you’re back to building a rig with stuff hanging off it.  There’s no audio levels or histograms on it, so you’re kind of flying blind.

A 5D3 with the Magic Lantern firmware takes care of all of these issues and more, but it’s not 4K… Maybe they were just going for a studio shooting machine.  Plug it in, bright lights, pipe the video out by SDI, lives inside – and it will work superbly in that role – but with just a few tweaks it could be a killer independent / low budget cinema machine.  I have no idea if a firmware update could add a histogram, audio levels, or file deletion, but it sure seems possible as that’s exactly what Magic Lantern did for Canon.  Those changes would really make this camera something special.

Interface

Strangely minimal with incredibly few options.  There’s 4 screens and that’s it. Camera, audio, record, and display.  Completely intuitive and somewhat unsettlingly free from choices. There’s a neat feature which adds metadata to your clips for shot/scene/take, descriptions, etc.   Again, a type of feature which suggests this camera being a great run-and-gun, or limited crew kind of machine, which it almost is.

Image quality

This video was shot at various ISOs, output to prores 422, edited and some gain applied on a few shots in Resolve.   I didn’t have the time to do loads of A/B comparisons like prores VS cinema DNG RAW, all the ISO’s compared to say a 5D3 or RED.    This isn’t a technical video, it’s a quick look to see what the camera can do in a couple of settings.  It’s no Reverie…   I had a day, it was snowing, we shot inside, I edited it super fast.   Since it can’t shoot RAW yet,  these are all prores 422.  A more complete test will follow when RAW is enabled in firmware, and I’ll dive further into it. Note:  The Vimeo video is noticeably different from the 4K output.

https://vimeo.com/87615576

It might not play on your phone. It’s exported at the maximum size Vimeo supports with a plus account.  I can’t host 4K clips on my site because I’ll exceed my bandwidth limit in less time than it takes to eat a taco.   This video goes straight to the jugular at ISO 800 with a little gain.

  • ISO 200 and 400 look great.  ISO 800 starts to get noisy.  That said, we’re talking noise at 4K, and who the heck is projecting 4K yet?  So you’ll downsample it to 1920×1080 like everyone else and that will reduce some of the noise.  However, if you’re at ISO 800 and push the gain past 2.00 in post, it starts to band heavily.
  • See the camera flash at the start?  Zero flash banding.  Not even an ARRI Alexa can do that.  That’s the global shutter in action.
  • Noticeable vertical banding at ISO 800 when a little gain is applied in post.  After a gain of 2.00 at ISO 800, you’re done.
  • I have the dreaded white dots which look like dead pixels. Apparently they disappear with time.  I spent a day shooting, perhaps that’s not long enough for them to magically vanish. Only visible at ISO 800 with a little gain
  • Wonderful skintones, smooth gradients, no sign of banding or moiré
  • Heavily overexposed things clip to dark purple, which will be a pain to fix.  Maybe when the RAW format option comes it will handle this better.  Watch out for the sun and reflections of it when shooting prores 422 output.

 If you’re interested, the lenses I used were the Olympus OM 18mm 3.5, Minolta MD Rokkor 58mm 1.2, Leica Summicron 90mm 2.0

Summary

It’s an exciting time to be a cinematographer.  Cameras like this appear with incredible price/performance ratios, offering unthinkable results from only a few years back.  The 4K Blackmagic has essentially zero competition at this price.  It also comes with world class color grading software which has a decent editing mode too.  You could theoretically shoot, edit and grade a feature with just what’s in that box  (well plus a lens and memory card, but you get the idea).    In good light, this camera makes absolutely beautiful images.   I would go out and buy one right now if:

  • The white dot issue was addressed (or they disappear like they have for some)
  • The RAW firmware upgrade is delivered
  • The extreme overexposure purple hightlight issue is fixed
  • It had a realtime histogram in camera
  • I could delete files in camera

I’ll deal with the external battery, the borderline ISO 800 performance, use an additional monitor in bright light and the lack of visual audio monitoring etc.,  just fix those things and you have a winner.

Thanks: