Blackmagic Cinema Camera Review Part 1: Initial Thoughts
It exists, and I know this, having actually shot with it thanks to Rule Boston Camera. It’s impossible to truly know a camera until you’ve actually handled it, and that also goes for the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Footage online can only tell you so much, but when it really comes down to it, being able to put the thing in your hands can tell you a lot about usability that you might not get from reading about it online. I was also part of a full presentation that I will be posting soon, but for now, here are some of my initial observations about the camera.
I’ve written thousands of words about this camera, probably more than most who regularly write about cameras. I don’t want to get into too much detail here, because I’m going to be talking much more about it over the coming days, but there is no question this camera is a work in progress that delivers breathtaking imagery. This was a recent video commissioned by Blackmagic, far nicer than anything I was able to come up with in my short time with the camera:
There are a few points that I wanted to get out there before I really go more in-depth:
The current firmware isn’t quite there yet. The latest version did add image stabilization — which I must say can make a huge difference — but other than that, we’ve got a few updates to go before people have all the things they’ve come to expect on their other cameras. To me, in its current form, it’s a bit like shooting with a film camera, except you’ve got playback and you can easily see what you’re doing (not to mention the other advantages of digital). I say this because there is no real way to deal with your footage in the camera. You can play back clips, but there is no clip menu of any kind, and you can’t delete clips or format the card in the camera. This does prevent you from messing up any footage on set, but it’s a huge pain if you’re trying to shoot RAW and you know you don’t need a specific clip and would like to save space.
I have no doubt we’ll see some way to deal with clips or with formatting sometime in the future, but for right now, it’s a bit limiting. You’ll have to make sure that you’ve formatted the cards on a computer before you shoot, and once you’re on set, unless you can offload somewhere, you had better make sure you’ve got enough cards, because you can’t see how much footage you’ve shot. You could theoretically use the timecode to figure that out, but right now, the camera doesn’t give you any way to know whether you’ve got 20 minutes left in RAW or an hour left in ProRes or DNxHD.
Rig or No Rig?
This camera is a lot heavier than you think, not because of the actual weight, but because of the way it is balanced and the ways that you can actually hold it in your hands. You can handhold the camera with just your hands and no rig, but it’s a bit more difficult than a DSLR. The trick that I use with DSLRs and the camera strap doesn’t really work with this camera, mostly because of its shape. Since it is tapered from the top to the bottom, it makes it more difficult to just hold in your hands.
I might not have the biggest hands in the world, but I know that plenty of people are going to have trouble trying to hold the camera because of the awkward shape. Keep in mind though, this is when you’re also trying to focus with the other hand. If your shot is set and focus doesn’t need to be adjusted, it’s not as bad, but again, since there is no handgrip, there is no comfortable way to hold it with one hand and focus with the other, and my fingers weren’t long enough to hold the camera with my thumbs and focus with my ring or middle fingers (which I can do rather easily on a DSLR). Basically this means that some sort of rig will be helpful. Since the camera is heavy it actually doesn’t have to be a complicated rig with all sorts of counterweights, and you can definitely get away with a cheap baseplate and some rods to brace against your body or on your shoulder. At the very least some sort of handle will be helpful, whether that’s the Blackmagic handle or some other third party solution.
It’s a bit difficult to see in bright daylight because it is a reflective touchscreen. There isn’t much you can do about this, but the biggest problem you will have is seeing your own reflection and everything behind you (similar to the Mac computer you might be using right now). The sun hood does help a bit, but it won’t be able to get rid of the reflections, which is the main issue. In practice this wasn’t that big of a deal, and it’s actually something I deal with on my SmallHD monitor which has a protective plastic piece over the LCD. I can still use that LCD in daylight without too much issue, so it’s probably going to come down to personal usage and how much it bothers you.
As far as being able to focus with the monitor, it’s good enough. While you might have some issues when your depth of field is very shallow, I was able to focus just fine. Your monitor will make you think your footage is terrible and full of aliasing and moire. That’s about my only issue with it. When I was shooting without an external monitor, I was never sure what looked good and what didn’t, but when I got back to take a look at it, everything was perfect, without any of the issues I had seen on the back LCD. Do you need another viewing source in addition to the back LCD? Not necessarily, but for narrative work, it’s probably going to make your life and that of your focus puller that much easier and less stressful.
Let’s keep this in mind once more before everyone loses it in the comments section. Take a look at what else is in this price range. Sure, you’re going to have to spend a little more money to get this camera going, but even with that extra money, you’re still going to be well below anything in this price range in terms of overall image fidelity. You’ve got the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800 at the same price, and the Sony FS100, Canon C100, and Canon 1D X are a bit more expensive — and all of those prices are before any other accessories. This camera can’t do everything. It’s a cinema camera by nature, so it’s not intended to be an ‘uncontrolled environment’ documentary camera. You’ve got to plan shots that have some sort of light source, because it can’t see in the dark without a bit of noise.
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera gives you 12-bit RAW and 10-bit log compressed codecs, DaVinci Resolve, UltraScope, and Media Express, in a body not much bigger than a DSLR, with non-proprietary media, all for $3,000. Under $10,000 for large sensors you’re looking at 8-bit 4:2:2 maximum. Many will question why they need all of that. Frankly, if you don’t think you need all of those features or you don’t think those features will benefit your videos in any way, you probably shouldn’t buy one.
This is really designed to be a step up from DSLRs, not a camera for people who already have the money to spend $20,000 on a RED package. It’s a junior cinema camera in that you’re not getting ND filters or some of the other features you might get with Sony’s new F5/F55 or the even more expensive Arri Alexa or Sony F65. You’re getting a box, with a sensor, and some very nice recording formats. If you want cheap, you have to compromise, and personally I’m glad they didn’t compromise on image quality. If you can’t get around the usability issues, that’s perfectly understandable, but anything else that would make this camera better hardware-wise would make it that much more expensive. I don’t think this camera is all that appealing at $6,000-$10,000, but for $3,000, it’s an absolute steal to get footage that has just about as much resolution at 1080 and nearly as much dynamic range as cameras costing 10-20 times as much.
I’ll have a bit more in the coming days, and I will also be posting the full presentation that I was involved with at Rule.