Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Working with the Blackmagic URSA Mini
For some people, it’s all about the image. We are some people.
The last few days we were given the chance to test drive the new Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4K (not the 4.6K, mind you, as that isn’t out yet). I’d like to state that I’ve written up our personal experience with the camera from a go-out-and-shoot point of view -- the good and the bad. I won’t comment on the sensor and the image as much, as this is not a new sensor. It’s a V2 of the sensor already found in the BMPC and the big Ursa, and as such, this isn’t really new footage.
[Editor's Note: The following review is based on beta firmware only. Some issues may be addressed upon the release of the URSA Mini's final firmware.]
A little backstory
A year ago, Blackmagic announced the Ursa -- a ridiculous and heavy camera (coming in at 16.32lbs) which boasts the same sensor the BMPC has, but featuring higher frame rates (up to 150fps in windowed mode). Lots has been said about it. People didn’t really seem to like it. It’s big, unpractical, etc.. But it showed us Blackmagic was on the right track. The Ursa featured some things which, at first glance, looked ridiculous, but proved to be very useful (the iPad-sized screen, the extra LCD on the side). It might have been big, but it at least finally was a proper film camera.
Fast forward a bit. When Blackmagic announced the Ursa Mini, the internet exploded. Not only did the company put the original 4K sensor in a much, much smaller body, they also announced that they’d been working on their own sensor: the 4.6K fairchild sensor. Capable of 15 (!) stops of dynamic range -- that’s more than the ARRI Alexa -- along with 4K RAW-capabilities, switchable global or rolling shutter, dual XLR-inputs and dual CFast 2.0 slots. The best thing? This beast was only going to cost $5.000! On paper -- which is important to note, because the actual sensor isn’t out yet -- this is going to be one of the best cameras available at this price point. Heck, it might be one of the best camera’s available period.
Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4K Review
We had a wedding that asked if we could shoot it entirely in 4K. Blackmagic was kind enough to offer us, on loan, two of the first URSA Mini 4Ks available in Europe (operating on beta release firmware). Excitedly, we picked them up from Blackmagic Design as they were prepping for IBC.
As soon as we unpacked the Ursa Mini, two things were clear. First, this thing is light. It isn’t small (especially with a lens and a V-lock battery attached), but it isn’t that big either. With a Lanparte V-lock, top handle, Blackmagic Viewfinder and a Sigma 18-35 in place, it weighs just 12.1 pounds. And second: the Ursa Mini looks badass. Batman black. It is incredibly well designed -- everything is exactly where you expect it to be (with one minor exception -- we’ll get to that later).
This is a video camera, no doubt. Back when we were shooting with DSLR’s, people would often think we were taking pictures. That even happens with our BMCC’s - people would pose for you, even with a microphone on top and a big sticker that reads ‘VIDEO!’. All of that is gone. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you get a lot more respect -- people understand that you are filming and give you space. They don’t bump into you as much as they would when they think you are just taking pictures. The bad thing is that as wedding videographers you lose some of your stealth -- it’s harder to keep a low profile.
When the top handle is screwed in place, sliding the (optional) Blackmagic Viewfinder onto the Ursa Mini is a piece of cake. It literally takes seconds. Adjusting the position is easy too, just loosen a knob and slide it backwards and sidewards. The viewfinder is just amazing. The OLED-screen is really, really crisp, detailed and bright. It has a sensor which turns of the screen when you are not looking through the eyepiece, which works well. On the top are three buttons, which are all customizable (F1, F2, F3). The standard is Zoom, Display and Peaking. The viewfinder can also do B&W, Zebras, False Colour, Overlay, Film to Video and Meters (audio and/or histogram). Peaking is amazing -- way better than the standard fold-out screen. Way more accurate. Blackmagic has really made an impressive piece of gear with the Viewfinder -- it’s definitely the best I’ve ever used. The only thing that comes close is the Zacuto Gratical, but that costs twice the amount the Viewfinder does. A nice feature is the focus chart. Using it, there is never any second guessing about whether or not your diopter is in focus. It either is, or it isn’t. A smart addition.
The 5” touchscreen is really, really nice. It’s a bit stiff when folding out. It boasts full-HD resolution (up from the 800x480 from the BMCC), which is really good. Bright as well. It is still hard to see in broad daylight -- there isn’t any anti-glare coating present -- but we’ll get to that a bit later. Touchscreen works as you’d expect it to. It’s rather susceptible to greasy fingers though, so keep a lens cloth with you. It seems like the histogram is a little less sensitive in comparison to the BMCC -- I have often found the histogram to be quite accurate, even though I never rely solely on what it tells me. The peaks of the histogram on the Ursa Mini aren’t as high, making it harder to read. Zebras (set at 95%) works fine, like you expect it to. Kicks in when the lighting brightens, and does so instantly.
On the back of the screen are a lot of buttons, which can be used when the screen is closed (when using the Viewfinder or an external monitor). These buttons are Iris, Focus, F1, F2 and a Rec, Previous, Play and Next button. I thought I was missing something, because I couldn’t find anywhere in the menu to set up the function buttons. When I asked Blackmagic, they told me that being able to assign the function buttons is the only thing that was not yet in the firmware we had -- it’s going to be in the V1 of the firmware. (I hope you will be able to assign ‘power on / off’ to one of the function buttons.)
When the screen is folded out, you’ll be able to reach more buttons (Iris, Focus, Peaking, PGM, Menu, Rec, Previous, Play, Next and Power). It’s important to note that the power button can only be reached when the screen is folded out. That’s less than ideal, and I don’t always want to open the screen -- especially when using the viewfinder. Here, you can also see the dual CFast-slots and knobs for your audio levels. These buttons do not have a hardstop like most cameras do (going from 1 to 10). You’ll have to check the meters on the screen when adjusting levels. Still, it’s nice to have a physical button for levels (on the BMCC, you had to go into the menu to set them). I would have hoped to be able to use these buttons while the screen was closed (when using a viewfinder, for instance), but you can’t. That is about the only design flaw I could find.
The camera has two SDI-outs: one on the right side in the front (along with a 12v out) for the Viewfinder, and one on the back. It also has a SDI in, a REC / TC in, a D-tap out and the obvious 12v in.
On the right side, you’ll find a rosette where you can mount the handle. It comes with a hand strap, which I found useful. It laid comfortable in my hand. The handle has three buttons: REC, Iris and Focus. I wish it had customizable buttons, because I rarely use auto aperture or autofocus -- they just don’t work properly for what we do. I have to say, when I was messing around with the Canon 100mm 2.8L Macro lens (which we like to use for close-ups during the ceremony), I was surprised on how accurate the autofocus was. Not all that fast, but accurate every time. Some people might have a use for it.
On the top-right behind the handle are two XLR inputs. It’s nice to have them pointing up, as I always hate XLR inputs being on the side of the camera -- they tend to make to camera much wider. The Ursa Mini also has a microphone on the top. In reality, I have found the mic to produce excellent scratch audio. As wedding cinematographers, we really missed a microphone on the BMCC for picking up soundbites -- just little things, like laughter, footsteps, etc. These don’t have to be of the best quality (that’s why most DSLR shooters use the Rode Videomic Pro), but it’s nice to have. With the BMCC, we were stuck using external audio like the Zoom H4N to pick up soundbites -- not ideal. The internal mic on the Ursa Mini is therefore a detail that we can very much appreciate. I have not heard any problems with wind when shooting outside yet (you can’t put a dead cat on the mic).
The Ursa Mini is incredibly well balanced. When you attach the shoulder pad (which has a Dovetail) and the handle extension, the camera balances well on the shoulder -- even when hands-off. The same goes for when you attach a plate and put it on a tripod or monopod. The shoulder pad can slide rather far backwards or forwards, so you are always able to find the balance.
On to the menu. It’s the same menu as the other camera’s. Simple, easy and really user friendly. When you press the menu button you get six options: Metadata, Settings, Format Card, Histogram (off / on), Audio Meters (off / on) and SDI Guides (off / on). The settings menu is divided into Camera (where you can set the Camera ID, date and time, ISO, White Balance and Shutter Angle).
Next is Audio, where you can choose the input and the levels. Options are Internal Mic -10db Pad, a Low Cut Filter for the internal mic and phantom power.
Third is Recording. You can select ProRes (up to 444 XQ) or RAW (both 4:1 and standard). It will only do 4K RAW, no ProRes. ProRes is selectable: 3840 x 2160 UHD or 1920 x 1080 Full HD. The HD window mode was noisy, and the peaking did pick up that noise, however, according to Blackmagic, that is due to the fact we were shooting on unfinished beta release firmware and that the peaking was not fully implemented in window mode at that time. You can also select Dual Card Mode and Time Lapse Interval.
The last menu is Display, where you can set the dynamic range of the screen, Brightness, Zebras. SDI Mode (up to 4K) and all the overlays (selectable per SDI-port). Pretty straight forward.
Real World Tests
After a few tests in the afternoon, we were excited to try the Ursa Mini 4K in a real life situation. And doing what we do, we brought it to a wedding the next day. And to another, the day after. We decided not to shoot from the shoulder, as we didn’t have any time to practice and get used to it.
Weighing in at 13lb (the Ursa Mini, Viewfinder, battery and Sigma 18-35), the camera is easily carried around all day. We decided to only bring one Ursa Mini, and have Yael (my colleague) shoot with the BMCC. This would give us a good opportunity to compare them. I always had my BMCC right next to me on standby, ready to go, during the day in case something unexpected happened with the Ursa Mini and I needed to switch. I also had a Genustech Eclipse ND filter and a Hoya UV-cut on our lenses.
The camera is a bit slower than the BMCC, both when starting up and when switching from recording to playback. It can last up to 10 seconds. I’ve missed a shot here and there waiting this way. I hope this can be addressed in later firmware, as the rest of the camera doesn’t seem slow at all. Switching from 60fps to 25fps happens instantly, for example.
Being the same sensor as the Ursa and the BMPC (a V2, but still), I knew the base ISO was 400. For us, that is really difficult to work with. I was very curious to try 60fps, and shooting at 60fps you lose an additional stop of light. On Friday, during the first wedding, it was really, really sunny. Not a cloud to be seen. Hard conditions for the sensor. The BMCC (and every other camera) struggles in these bright conditions, let alone the Ursa Mini, which has one less stop of dynamic range. I feel like it’s really important to expose to the right. The blacks get easily crushed and (when not shooting RAW), they are impossible to retrieve. ETTR is hard when your base ISO is 400.
I had some problems with this. During the ceremony the first day, there were windows behind the couple. The sensor couldn’t cope with it, so I switched to my BMCC. In the morning, when the groom was getting ready, the room was quite dark. I managed with the light, but only at an aperture of 2.0. Again, not ideal. This wouldn’t have been the case with a base ISO of 800.
No, this isn’t a low light camera. I did try to shoot 60fps at the party on both weddings. With a lot of stage light and a LED panel as fill, it worked. But only just. I hate being intrusive at a wedding, and when blasting a big LED panel at the dance floor, you are being very intrusive. But the footage came out okay. No noise, but also not much detail in the blacks either. I tried ISO 800 for some shots (both at the party and during the day). It seems like there is still a little bit of fixed pattern noise -- a know issue with the 4K sensor. The shot that stands out most is a shot of the singer -- because of the crushed blacks in the background, FPN is clearly visible. Again, that is due to the 4K sensor and is said to be fixed entirely with the new 4.6K sensor. The BMCC didn’t have any FPN at all, and I hope the same will be true for the 4.6K.
Now something positive about the sensor. Both the 4K and the Full HD are absolutely beautiful -- when exposed and lit correctly. Outside, for instance. The Full HD seems to have a lot more detail than footage from the BMCC does. The colours are nice too. A bit more contrasty (and bit bit less film-like). Also, I absolutely adore 60fps -- it’s something we always wanted to do with the BMCC. 60fps Blackmagic footage might just be the best thing ever. I haven’t shot RAW yet, but will soon. I imagine it being just as good as RAW coming from the big Ursa, as they have the same sensor. I did not think I would like the image coming out of the 4K sensor this much -- but only when we had enough light to work with.
The global shutter is lovely. I’ve always hated the jello and the ugly way a rolling shutter shows camera flashes -- that’s completely gone now. The 4.6K will let you choose between a global and a rolling shutter (great!). The only downside to using a global shutter is you’ll lose a bit of dynamic range, but depending on the shooting situating you can decide for yourselves what you need.
Blackmagic has always had excellent colour science. The 4K sensor isn’t an exception. Skin tones look lovely and the image is easily gradable. I actually did not have to do much to get the footage to look like this -- I used a LUT as a starting point (the footage was shot in film mode, something you should always do), corrected some white balance issues and matched contrast between shots and that’s it. Once you get the hang of it, Resolve is really easy to use and quite a powerful tool.
When shooting HD, you might see some strange moire. I say strange, because it pops up every once in awhile, pretty randomly. Moire tends to be seen on pieces of clothes, buildings, etc. I saw some moire on the groom’s jacket the other day, but only in two or three shots. The rest was okay. When shooting 4K, I have yet to notice any moire at all. This leads me to believe that the moire is actually induced by the downsampling of the sensor.
Black Sun Spot Issue
I pointed the camera towards the sun a couple of times (also during golden hour), but have not seen the black sun spot -- a known issue in Blackmagic cameras. I couldn’t tell if this issue was fixed or if I was just lucky. I could tell that in those lighting conditions you are really missing that extra stop of dynamic range in comparison with the BMCC, but that was to be expected. (Here's an example of the dreaded "black hole".)
We own a couple of Lanparte V-lock batteries (150wh). A single battery lasts a little under three hours, which actually surprised me. I figured it was going to be less. Just for reference: the BMCC (and the BMPC) draws way less power -- one V-lock battery lasts about 12 hours. It’s a bother that the Lanpare batteries don’t communicate with the Ursa Mini. Supposedly the remaining battery life should show on the screen, but it doesn’t. I’m sure that the issue is just with the Lanparte’s though.
The CFast media is expensive, yes, but I have never had a problem with it over the course of the two days. They handle big files and high frame rates really well. We’ve used a Transcend 256GB card (CFX650 256GB) which we bought for around $600. We also had a couple of Lexar cards as backup. These prices will drop in the future no doubt, but for now they are really, really expensive.
I have not tried the Ursa Mini on a gimbal. We own a MōVI M5 (which we use with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera), but the Ursa Mini is too heavy for it. With the Micro Cinema Camera coming out (global shutter and 60fps) we have no need to upgrade to a gimbal that can support more weight -- a MōVI M10 or a DJI Ronin -- so I can’t comment on how well those gimbals will work with the Ursa Mini.
To sum it all up: the form factor of the Ursa Mini is everything we ever wanted the original Cinema Camera to be. It literally solves every issue we’ve ever had with the 2.5K. The Mini isn’t small, but it isn’t big either. It is quite light, even with a V-lock battery attached to it. It has actual industry standard connections in the form of two XLR inputs. It balances extremely well, both on your shoulder and on a monopod. When paired with the Viewfinder, you have an amazing combination.
The only thing I don’t quite like from the Ursa Mini 4K is the 4K sensor. For what we want to do with it (run-and-gun), it is just not light sensitive enough. I’m sure that for many others, this doesn’t apply. Bring in some good lighting and the camera sings. But there is good news: the 4.6K sensor, which is expected to have a base ISO of 800, will solve that issue. It has been said the image of the 4.6K will come closest to the image of the original Cinema Camera, which we think looks best (and most film-like).
I have to say, after receiving the 4K version, my excitement for the Ursa Mini 4.6K has grown even more.. Just imagine: this amazing form factor -- one of the best I’ve ever worked with -- but with a sensor that produces 15 stops of dynamic range. If the difference between 12 (in the 4K) and the 13 (in the BMCC and BMPCC) is this big, how big will the difference between 12 and 15 stops be? It is bound to be nothing short of amazing. The Ursa Mini 4K has it’s use, especially at it’s amazing price point, but I would expect the 4.6K to be, in my opinion, worth the upgrade from the 4K.
Blackmagic has definitely done it again.