DISCLAIMER: The following was written on September 3, 2013 with a production version of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (hereafter known as the BMPCC) and with time many of the below-mentioned issues are sure to be addressed.
This has been an anxiously anticipated camera, which, surprisingly enough, did begin shipping (albeit in very small quantities) somewhere near Blackmagic’s announced release date. I was very keen to have a play with it and my conclusions are thoroughly mixed. If you want to save yourself a good read, here’s the gist:
To meet a deadline, Blackmagic have released an unfinished, but very usable, camera. Several relatively egregious issues still plague the BMPCC, along with the inability to shoot raw as advertised, but for the price and form factor there is also a lot to appreciate. The biggest problems should be remedied by firmware upgrades. Though cleverly christened the ‘pocket’ camera, expect deeper pockets both physically and financially than you might have planned on. Kitting the camera in a way that maintains its small size and maximizes its utility requires a rather specific set of gear which will likely set you back twice the cost of the camera. Utilizing those full frame DSLR lenses you’ve already invested in destroys the pocket-factor and might make other (less quirky but more pricey) options a better fit. If it’s the low cost that drives you to this camera and you have what you need to make it work already, independent of size, then I anticipate, despite some negative first impressions from other users online, that you’ll find a lot to like in this camera. The more I use it the more I enjoy it.
Now if you’re in for the details, here are some important points:
-The BMPCC ships with one 7.4-volt Li-ion battery with less than 1 amp hour capacity. From my experience this battery only lasts about an hour with average use. I found no way to disable the LCD, so to save power between shots it is wise to power down the camera and restart when you’re ready. A good 10 am hour external battery would give some nice running times, but there goes the small form-factor of the camera.
– There is no charger for the battery. I hopped on Amazon quickly and grabbed both an additional, higher capacity, battery and a wall charger. You can order them by clicking the links if you choose. It’s convenient that the camera operates on a widely available and affordable battery, but for a full day of shooting off the grid be prepared to buy several of them. You can charge the battery while shooting if you are ok it taking twice as long.
– Make sure you have SD cards sufficient to the task. Blackmagic originally sanctioned the SanDisk Extreme Pro cards, but after a recent firmware update the high speed Delkin cards have been added to the lineup. Incompatible cards simply don’t show up to the camera.– Read the latest version of the manual from Blackmagic’s website. It’s not very long and will save you a couple minutes guessing at some of the less intuitive buttons. Eg: Double click of the ‘ok’ button zooms in for focus check (single click takes you into a logging menu if you’re good at typing on letter-selection keyboards) and up and down arrows control iris.
-The firmware update can be downloaded via the Blackmagic Camera Utility available online. After installing, it’s as simple as plugging the BMPCC in via USB 2.0, launching the utility and waiting.
– The camera shoots ProRes HQ. This is a delightful, albeit hefty, codec. To shoot and go directly into online editorial on a $1000 camera is a blessing compared to the days of Long GOP transcoding and raw conversion. The log curve ‘film gamma’ mode combined with Apple’s excellent codec gives you a huge amount of flexibility appropriate to more projects than one might assume. And know that this comes from as extreme a raw purist as there ever was.
– It’s small. Grabbing the camera and getting away from the mess of tripod and audio gear is a real joy. You take more liberties with your shots when the camera can be positioned almost anywhere. Stability can be quite reasonable with careful operation and a bit of stabilization love in post. There’s no denying that the barebones camera and a small, light lens are fun to operate and have their uses.
-Focus peaking in conjunction with image magnification are a joy to use in tandem. Not mutually exclusive on this camera.
– Though the camera simply didn’t fit right with any of the gear I had (more on this below) it’s worth mentioning that it really has no need to. You will hear this again and again: buy the camera for the portability and if you can’t maintain that portability for your purposes you might be well served to research the alternatives. The 1/4″ 20 female threads on the top and bottom of the camera are really all you need. I was able to record with a Sennheiser G2 receiver attached to the top of the camera and nothing else but a tripod and, for that situation, I felt the results were nice and the setup still compact (see video below).
– The crop factor is so often cited as a disadvantage, but it also makes for a fantastic zoom! Having a sensor that fits with a specific lens size (unlike the original Black Magic camera) makes the lens selection much easier and though wide shots can be a challenge, the extreme end of telephoto is a lot of fun with a 200mm lens.
It is so fun using mini CCTV lenses with this thing! f1.4 lenses are incredibly inexpensive. The majority of the video posted at the bottom is done with bargain Computar and Pentax lenses. Note, the Computar 12mm does vignette slightly.
– With a well built, fast, wide zoom and a variable ND designed to fit a MFT lens (my 77mm GenusTech FaderND is almost taller than the camera) this is a wonderfully portable camera.
The camera from the side featuring LANC, Headphones, Audio in (line or mic level), micro HDMI, and a 12V tiny barrel connector for external power/charging.
– NO AUDIO METERS. This is not acceptable. The internal preamps didn’t seem bad from a rather subjective test, but the lack of audio meters is almost laughable when you consider how high the bar is set for the visual capabilities of this camera. This, in my mind, is one of the top issues I hope to see addressed in upcoming firmware. If you have an external monitor or EVF with audio metering you might be well off, or you could consider the options from JuicedLink and Beachtek. Beachtek makes an awesome little passive device that sits right atop the camera and allows for two separate inputs to merge into the single L/R 3.5mm combo input on the camera. Pity this thing doesn’t have meters or it would be a perfect fit (although likely larger since it would need power). Nice that pocket camera allows independent gain for left and right channels.
You can see the ‘active’ versions of such boxes below. These have dedicated preamps to boost the signal so the gain on the camera can be minimal. Beachtek has some other, passive, boxes dedicated to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Shown here is the ‘DSLR’ version with preamps which I assume would do better than those in the pocket camera. A Blackmagic rep at NAB did tell me that the preamps are identical between the pocket and cinema cameras, however, so I would suspect performance of the Beachtek gear to be the same. In my mind, if you’re going to buy the box and deal with the accessory, get dedicated preamps and go for the active version while you’re at it. JuicedLink is rumored to have more gain so if you have some ‘quite’ dynamic mics could be a great option. It’s also smaller in size which seems important with this camera. The basic Riggy Micro is around $249 but has no metering. The Riggy assist gives you headphone out and metering which complement the pocket camera nicely. If you don’t have a way to meter, the ‘Assist’ could be an excellent audio option. In an e-mail from Blackmagic support I was told that Blackmagic was considering raising the ‘audio floor’ of the camera. This is likely for people who want to be able to plug something like a soft dynamic mic directly into camera. I had excellent results with a ‘hot’ shotgun like the ME66 or a lav pack where the receiver does the amplification, but with a quieter dynamic mic, like a SURE I tested, the levels just aren’t loud enough, even at 100% gain. As of the current audio firmware (expect this to change if the camera follows in the footsteps of its older brothers) around 80% gain seems to be the sweet spot if you’re coming in from an external pre amp or have a ‘hot’ enough mic to go directly into camera. I’d say keep an eye on Robert from juicedLink’s site for current details (and more accuracy than you’ll get from my assumptions) but it looks like this camera stops its digital attenuation at around 80% and only applies a digital gain from there.
Some cameras do not include audio in their HDMI stream, but a quick test reveals that, thankfully, the BMPCC does. This solves the metering problem if you’ve got good meters in your EVF/Monitor.
– No ability to record external and internal mic to separate channels (though gain amount can be adjusted per channel)
– No card or clip formatting. Another big one. Be ready to have a laptop in the field to format your cards or delete an accidental clip. Pity we don’t have pocket laptops yet for the other pocket. I also didn’t see an indicator of time remaining on the the card.
– LCD is tough to see in low light and my current loupe doesn’t fit the pocket cam.
– Autofocus sucks (recent firmware may improve this). I never got consistent results with an Olympus 14-42 when attempting autofocus. May not be the biggest issue for most, but worthy of note.
– Blooming orb highlights are a problem. Strange issue where some specular highlights turn into big blobs of white. See in the still below and on the left how the bright areas become blobs? This can reportedly be fixed by sending camera in for “recalibration” and newer BMPCC’s should not have this.
– Black dots in the center of bright objects. To compensate for the aforementioned blobs of white, the camera puts blobs of black in the center of the brightest objects. Easy to remove in Resolve with it’s excellent tracker, but another step in post means more time working on something you shouldn’t have to.
– Panasonic 14-42 no image stabilization. Lens needs a physical switch according to Black Magic. Check compatibility of your current lenses if this is important to you.
– Small size means it’s tough to mount. On my rig, it just didn’t quite fit anywhere correctly. Pointless to use with full-frame lenses or to add much gear on to if you’re buying it for ‘pocket ability’.
– I want physical buttons for ISO and White Balance. Though the simplicity of the camera is admittedly pretty, it’s really a pain to go in and adjust white balance and ISO in the menus when shooting near sunset.
– The camera, though advertised as shooting CinemaDNG, does NOT yet do so. There is also no option for any flavor of Pro Res besides HQ. That means roughly 37 minutes on a 64 GB card. I am very happy in most situations to shoot 10 bit ‘log’ ProRes files, but the announcement by Adobe to support GPU accelerated Cinema DNG files in Premiere on month from now renews my interest in the BMPCC’s CinemaDNG capability.menus when shooting near sunset.
The great irony at the end of the day is that this is probably a camera I would rent. This is not at all the conclusion I expected to come to for a $1000 camera. The upfront investment required to both fully utilize the camera and maintain its diminutive size does not make sense for me personally. I don’t have issues spending money on gear, but the problem here is that the investment is in niche gear I don’t anticipate fully utilizing in the future. Full frame sensors are creeping their way into other, ‘pocketable’ cameras. 4k video is finding its way into cellphones. Quality and price are not so mutually exclusive as they once were. Investing much in Micro4/3 glass and filters right now simply doesn’t seem like the wisest option. See the details on what I feel like the camera needs to shine below. If it hadn’t been for Magic Lantern and the 5D mk 3 I would be considerably more excited about this camera. Relatively speaking, the 5dmk3 is also a ‘small’ camera, and, while not at pocket standards, its full frame sensor open the door to framing and low-light possibilities the BMPCC simply can’t compete with. By the time you’ve added nearly anything to the pocket camera, you’re not much different in size and price than a 5D, and for me the difference might not be worth it. So often a project benefits from both stills and video that the 5D would make it in the bag before the pocket cam.
Every person has different needs, however, and this camera could well suit a large segment of them. Many people will have specific applications for which this camera performs marvelously. If you need a small form factor and weight (though the camera is heavier than it appears) for aerials, this pocket camera could be great with a wide lens and active stabilization. If keeping gear down to a minimum is your ultimate goal and high, pro-level image quality is a must, then this camera could hit the spot. Particularly for those who aren’t concerned with audio, the camera can be quite usable hand held if the operator is careful and stabilized lenses are used. If you want a camera that puts black dots in white ones and bigger white dots on small ones then I know of no other camera that currently offers this 🙂
At the end of the day the camera is only $1000 and takes just about any lens with the appropriate adapter. If you already have a set of full frame cine lenses, don’t want the bulk or hassle of a hacked Canon workflow or need a stills camera as well, and don’t need to maintain pocketability, then this makes an affordable and awesome solution. Shooting to ProResHQ with external audio recorded internally is a dream in post production, and the camera is built to a high enough standard that I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. In fact, I even graded a couple stills to check out the difference between the 5dmkIII and the BMPCC. With just a little bit of grading the quality is VERY close. And workflow on the pocket cam trumps the Canon 10 times over.
I would recommend a base package of the following:
– The camera body (if you can get one)
– Extra batteries (Nikon EN-EL20) and another high-capacity, solid 12-volt brick for when you don’t want to keep turning the camera on and off in the field.
– A fast, cinematic prime like the Voigtlander 17.5mm f.95 for low light and shallow depth of field
– An all-purpose, active MFT zoom lens with image stabilization like the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8
– A step up ring to for the thread of the smaller lens
– A variable ND to allow for open apertures on the “small” sensor. Possibly a polarizer or whatever else makes up your preferred filter kit.
– Some sort of stabilization. Tripod, cage, gyro, glidecam, handle thingy–whatever floats your boat here.
– The multitude of multi-axis gyro stabilizers borrowed from the aerial world could be an absolute blast with this camera (just do a search on kick starter). Definitely worth watching as this would maintain the small size and give you very professional results.
The BMPCC accepts a 12 volt input or 7.4 volts via internal battery. Consider a Lithium Polymer battery soldered into a EN-EL20 shell for a quick charging, long lasting solution, or a 12 volt Lithium Ion soldered to a 2.35mmx9.5mm barrel plug.
When all is said and done, the cost of this ‘basic’ kit is really not unapproachable. Considering what raw 1080p video would have cost you just a couple years back makes the whole idea quite palatable. My opinion is, however, that if you’re not willing to put the money into a couple specific, dedicated Micro 4/3 lenses, forego the pocket cam or at least wait to see what happens with upcoming software updates. It’s the fact that the camera costs only $1000 that makes the lenses seem so expensive. The aforementioned Voigtlander and Panasonic pair will set you back a couple grand. Now you’ve spent $3000 on a camera with some debilitating quirks in it’s current build. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just go for the 5d3? If you can answer a solid and justifiable ‘yes’ to that question then you have a valid need suited to the camera’s feature set and this is the camera for you. If you’re wanting to upgrade from the GH2/3 and have the lenses already, this camera makes a lot of sense.
Our current plague is that we frequently envision ourselves shooting on tomorrow’s camera. Making gear decisions is more difficult than ever and it’s hard to buy today what you know will be one-upped at some relatively uncertain date. Do you purchase a pocket cinema camera for $1000 and dedicated MFT lenses and filters to go with it? With Sony having access to Olympus technology and the possibility of a full frame,5-axis sensor stabilized system, with the potential for a positionable sensor which auto-focuses all your manual lenses and comes in a compact camera size, how could you not hold out for the future? At the time of this writing the pocket camera is not widely available, but I can’t see it taking too much longer and the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera is an attractive solution for those able to get one and willing to live with a few oddities. For what we have to play with now, this is a great solution and if your key aims are high image quality, low price, and compatible to at least some degree with your existing lenses–then what else compares at $1000?