Testing the Blackmagic Cinema Camera

I've recently had the opportunity to shoot with the elusive Blackmagic Cinema Camera.  I had read all the early reviews and seen all the early footage - but nothing is quite the same as using the camera yourself.

My first test was really simple and really quick and shot on a really gloomy day...



Blackmagic Cinema Camera Test Footage from Blake Calhoun on Vimeo.

In this test I shot ProRes HQ in camera and used the Film mode, which is very similar to Log mode on say an Alexa or a Canon C300.  I shot with a Canon 24-105mm L series lens. The resulting color graded footage looked remarkable good I thought, even with it being so overcast.

My next test was a bit on the brave side, and I say this because it was for a paying gig. I work in the commercial business (as well as the film and TV business), and one of my agency clients needed some Subaru footage... so, I decided to use the BMCC on the job.  In the end I'm glad I did it as it was a very good "real world" test - and it showed some glaring issues with the camera that I'll list at the end of this post.

For this job we shot Avid DNxHD in camera using the Video mode, which has a baked in Rec 709 look. Btw, it's VERY nice that you can shoot ProRes or DNxHD IN CAMERA with the BMCC.  I don't think any other camera on the market does this (besides Alexa?). A huge advantage for quick turnaround post regardless of your NLE of choice. And these files playback on pretty much any computer.


We shot again with the Canon 24-105mm L series lens (pictured above) along with a Rokinon 16mm prime for our wider stuff.  We also used a small 4 ft. jib (also pictured) that really worked well for this size camera adding just enough production value to the footage.  Lastly, we (luckily) had a top of the line Flanders Scientific 17" monitor, this is key too, as the BMCC LCD is okay - but the colors are not true AND it's a mirror outside (especially in the sun) - and if you don't have a large crew and the ability to get a courtesy flag over the monitor it's pretty much unusable.

The other thing I did a bit differently on this was shoot 29.97fps at a 144 degree shutter. I normally would shoot (as I did in the first test) at 23.98fps at a 180 degree shutter.  But, this was for broadcast (and we didn't want to add pulldown to the 24p footage) and more importantly it was going into a preexisting edit with other 29.97 footage.

The final test I did was probably my favorite though, even if it wasn't "real world", because I shot in the camera's highest resolution (and best quality) at 2.5k Raw.  This was shot at 23.98fps in Film mode (the only mode btw you can shoot in raw) and I used the same Canon L series lens for part of it and a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 for the other part (really most of it).

I was hesitant to use the Tamron at first though... it's a pretty good lens, but not as sharp as L glass (although as a side note it's the main lens we used to shoot the entire two seasons of my web series Continuum on a Canon 7D). But in the end I was pleasantly surprised at the results. Would L glass or a prime be sharper?  Yes, almost certainly, but this looks pretty darn good...



Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5k Raw Test from Blake Calhoun on Vimeo.

It's worth noting on this test that I shot all of it either hand-held or on a monopod, so the footage needed some stabilizing, which I did in Davinci Resolve and FCP7.  I also did the color grading in Davinci and I did use Magic Bullet Looks on two shots (can you guess which ones?).

Overall I'm VERY impressed with this camera, as are most people who have reviewed it.  It does however have LOTS of issues that make it hard to use... some of these can/will be fixed with firmware updates and others can't be.

Here's my list of pros and cons (not in any order):

CONS:
  1. Ergonomics are really quirky for hand-held (definitely need 3rd party support gear to really do it right)
  2. The LCD screen doesn't articulate and is a mirror outside
  3. The double tap function on the LCD to zoom in and check focus works fine, but over half the time a menu pops up instead of the focus zoom (the menu comes on with a single tap)
  4. The Iris control is very basic, you hit the button and it "auto" finds the exposure. That's it.  You can't adjust it up or down by a stop or partial stops (UNLESS you're using a manual lens)
  5. The version of the firmware I used did NOT display the aperture - this has since been added I'm told
  6. There is no time remaining indicator for the SSD. It just stops recording and several times I didn't realize this - NOT good!
  7. There are no VU meters for audio - so if you're recording it I guess a mixer is needed?  I'd suggest doing double system sound. I'm not sure if it has an auto function enabled either?
  8. The internal battery doesn't last very long - an external battery is a must have. Oh, and the internal battery can't be replaced - it's built in.
  9. The menu is VERY basic. It's really too basic for professional shooters.  It needs more functionality. For example, color bars would be great. Although that's pretty basic too, isn't it? :)
  10. I found that the LCD is not very color accurate, it's okay, but not great (this doesn't matter as much if you're shooting raw or in Film mode - but ProRes or DNxHD in Video mode it concerns me some)
  11. Quirky thing, but I found you can't playback ProRes or DNxHD off the SSD in camera IF you've recorded Raw on the same SSD.  
  12. BIG ISSUE HERE... You can NOT format the SSD in camera. And you cannot delete clips in camera.  You have to connect it to your computer to delete the clips!!!!!!  Really needs to be fixed.

PROS:
  1. The image quality is unmatched in this class of camera - although LOTS of competition is on the horizon from the Digital Bolex to the KineRAW Mini (all in the $3000 range).
  2. Did I mention the image quality?  It really does look like a "Baby Alexa" as some folks have called it... It's very cinematic right out of the camera!
  3. The cost - the camera is under $3000 - although to really make it work in a pro setting I'd recommend buying a cage, rails and mattebox system, along with an external monitor, and you'll also need an external battery (like a V-mount, etc.).... so you're looking at another $2k-$5k depending on what you get - but that's STILL AMAZING. Anyone remember the $90k DigitBetacams???
  4. SSDs are great, affordable and hold lots of footage... and you'll need the space if shooting raw. The drives we had were only 120GB and they held about 90 mins of ProRes or DNxHD and only 15 minutes of Cinema DNG Raw files!  But the drives are so nice - and not proprietary like RED's.
  5. HD-SDI output is really nice and unseen at a price point like this!  You can connect a variety of very high-end monitors and/or external recorders (for ProRes or DNxHD, not Raw).  Some might find this a Con as they have HDMI monitors, but they would be wrong. :)
  6. Built in microphone - very basic and simple, but great for doing double system sound. The RED cameras do not have this and it makes it more challenging hooking up an external mic.  Understand, I'm talking about using this mic for reference only to sync sound recorded on another device (using Pluraleyes or similar).
  7. Simplicity - it's very easy to use. I grabbed it and shot something literally 2 minutes later without reading a manual. They have definitely taken the Apple approach to minimalistic design. This could also be a Con though (see #9 above), but overall it does make it great for novices and even pros to jump in and start shooting.
  8. Editing workflow is great - super easy and obvious if you're using ProRes or DNxHD, but even with Cinema DNG files it's really easy IF you use Davinci Resolve.  A LOT of folks are going the Lightroom to After Effects route and it's taking hours and hours to do this. The results do look great, but man, what a lot of work. In Davinci they have Blackmagic Camera LUTs already in the program!  And the Raw files come right in instantly even with the audio, this is a big deal.  Now, you do need a really powerful machine to play the files in realtime (not sure if this is completely possible or not?), but my iMac (just over a year old) plays them back at about 12fps and scrubs through them great, so it's really not a huge issue.  Grading is relatively easy (coming from Apple Color for me) and the exporting to a useable codec like ProRes HQ or ProRes4444 is a breeze.
  9. EF mount - there's lots of people who'll disagree with this, but for me it's great. I already own lots of Canon glass and it's also very cheap to rent.  Zeiss even makes the CP.2 primes that fit EF. Oh, btw, I did NOT have any issue with the crop factor, none whatsoever!  I just used wider lenses and it all worked out fine. This was a big "fear" when the camera specs were announced and has really become a non-issue.
  10. It doesn't look like a pro video camera - this is in the same vein as with HDSLRs... it's great to be more incognito when shooting, especially in public. People think you're just shooting stills. A lot of my test footage was shot at the Dallas Arboretum and no one blinked an eye as to what I was doing.
  11. Btw, did I mention the image quality? :)

So as you can see, there are lots of pros and cons... I could have gone on with more on both.

Luckily a lot of the Cons can be fixed with firmware updates.  Some can't though like the LCD screen and the audio jacks (I didn't mention these, but they are 1/4" which is a bit odd, but useable).

And a lot of the Pros are subjective and probably actually Cons to some people...

So should you buy one?  I'd simply say, YES. (if you can find one that is!)

Not only do you get a remarkable image from this quirky camera, but it comes with Davinci Resolve and UltraScope (which is a really interesting way to tether your camera to a computer and get a Live View, along with Waveform and Vectorscopes and a VU meter for your audio monitoring).

But, I wouldn't make this my only camera.  Especially if you're a filmmaker like me who works in a variety of genres.

I own a 7D too and never made that my sole camera.  I also have a traditional Sony NXCAM rig for corporate and some commercial work... I own two GoPros... I still have a Canon XH-A1... And I often rent other cameras depending on the gig (lots of RED Scarlet or Epic recently), etc.

You need to use the right camera for each job. And while the BMCC will work in a lot of situations, it wouldn't be ideal in others. I personally feel it's a great fit for medium to low budget commercial work and narrative indie films.  It'll also probably get a lot of work as a B Camera to Alexas on bigger shoots. Documentary or run and gun stuff? Not ideal.

In the end, this is a truly amazing camera for an unheard of price. And just think, this is a Version 1 model... where will this be in just a few short years?  And some people will wait for that, and that's fine (maybe it will have a Super 35mm chip next round?). But I want to make films today.

So right now, even with all of its quirks, you can't get a better bang for your buck.

-Blake


2 comments to "Testing the Blackmagic Cinema Camera"

  • I thought the internal battery was pretty much there so you could hot swap your bricks without power cycling the camera rather than something to use as your day to day power source.

  • I think it's really both. The battery will last about 90 mins if used properly. It probably would average a little over an hour though on average with constant shooting. So depends on how long your shoot is. :) It's far better than the Red Volts that last about 20 mins.

    But as I mentioned, you definitely need an external battery source and there are now lots of affordable options to choose from.

Who Am I?

I'm a filmmaker who's produced & directed five feature films including the comedy SPILT MILK (available on iTunes), the new horror/thriller PHOBIA (on iTunes) and the action/thiller KILLING DOWN (which you can buy or rent at pretty much all the usual places).

I also created the Streamy and Webby award-winning web series PINK, which to date has been viewed online around 10 MILLION times at places like YouTube, Hulu, Koldcast and TheWB.com. And speaking of TheWB.com, I also produced and directed an online thriller for them called EXPOSED. It was released summer 2010. And most recently I created a new online sci-fi series called CONTINUUM, which is part of the online indie TV network JTS.tv - Just The Story and NOW available via VOD through indie platform Distrify.

Oh, and I don't shoot weddings. Thanks for asking though.

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