Review: Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera

‘Correctly exposed, the results from the refrigerated sensor and the uncompressed recording are outstanding’.

‘Correctly exposed, the results from the refrigerated sensor and the uncompressed recording are outstanding’.

The production world couldn’t quite believe it when Blackmagic Design launched their first camera last year at the NAB Trade Show. It looked like it had been transported from the future and promised features that could re-define what a low-cost camera could offer in the future. But does it deserve all the hype?  By ADAM GARSTONE

It’s probably something that Canon and Panasonic and Sony know very well, but it seems it’s very hard to make cameras. RED certainly found that out when they launched the RED One, and Blackmagic – whose hardware and software skills have been well honed in the post-production market – have struggled to get their Cinema Camera into full production.

Actually, the comparison to RED holds up even further. Both cameras have been keenly anticipated, promising amazing image quality. Both cameras set new price points in their markets. Both cameras had a long backlog of patient pre-orderers.

Now that the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC) is starting to get into full production, it’s time to see if it was worth the wait.

Certainly, no-one would be disappointed with the external build quality (for a £2000 camera). Somehow, It reminds me of an MPP Mk VIII 5x4 camera – a curve of silvered alloy with a black, rubberised front and rear. On the front, an active, Canon EF lens mount (passive Micro Four Thirds is to follow soon), a tiny hole for the built-in microphone, and a big, red, record button. On the rear, a 5in, 800x600, touch enabled LCD, rubberised transport controls, menu, iris and focus buttons. Connectors on one side and, on the other, behind a solidly built door, a cavity for the SSD recording medium.

It’s the choice of SSD that is the clue to the basic design premise of the Cinema Camera. Blackmagic needed a high capacity, very high speed recording medium, because they wanted to be able to record uncompressed, raw data from the imaging sensor. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is simply designed to provide the best image quality possible in the price bracket.

That starts, of course, with the sensor, which produces raw files at 2400x1350 pixels. The sensor is actively cooled to increase dynamic range – Blackmagic claim 13 stops – logarithmically encoded in the raw file using 12 bits per colour. You can also record Apple’s ProRes 422 (HQ) or Avid’s DNxHD (wrapped as a .mov) – both at 1920x1080, 10 bit log. They are both fantastic CODECs – you would be hard-pressed to find any compression artefacts at all – and it’s really useful to have a faster post-production route than RAW, but as quality is what this camera is about, we did most of our tests with the uncompressed format.

The raw files are encoded used Adobe’s DNG (Digital Negative) file format. Each five MByte frame is a separate file (a folder is created each time you press record) which means that you can open a frame in Photoshop, but Blackmagic bundle a full version of DaVinci Resolve with each camera. This fantastic colour correction application understands the format natively and can be used to generate dailies as well as the grade for final finishing. The workflow is beyond the scope of this review, and Resolve is quite complex, being a full featured grading application, but it’s worth taking a bit of time to learn the basics to get the best from the camera.

The BMCC records progressive frames at 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 fps. It’s a shame not to see any higher frame rates, though I suspect that they would have to be limited to the ProRes/DNxHD CODECs to get the data onto the SSD – even at 30 fps, the SSD is recording 150 MBytes per second, so you fill up a 240 GByte SSD in 26 minutes (32 minutes for 25 fps).

On the other side of the camera from the SSD are the connectors, each behind a rubber dust cover. There’s LANC for remote control, 3.5mm headphone jack, two audio inputs (mic or line) on ¼in jacks, HD-SDI out, Thunderbolt and a coaxial power inlet that accepts 12-30v DC.

One startling omission is timecode. It should be possible to implement this over the LANC connector, and Ambient make a unit to translate between LANC and SMPTE timecode – let’s hope for it in a future firmware update. At the moment, the recorded files are stamped with the time of day from the internal real-time clock.

The audio inputs don’t provide any phantom power, but there are a variety of mic-preamps and transformer boxes that could be used. A bigger issue is that there is no metering for the audio inputs – something else on the wish-list for a future firmware. If you are recording audio on a separate recorder, the built in mic is surprisingly helpful for syncing sound with software like PluralEyes or FCP X.

Many of Blackmagic’s products seem to be gaining Thunderbolt interfaces. The one on the Cinema Camera allows you to capture footage directly from the camera, but can’t be used (yet?) to access files on the SSD – you need to remove the card and use an external reader. The current firmware version (v1.2 at the time of writing) doesn’t allow formatting of the SSD, or even deleting of clips – again, that’s pretty much bound to come. Interestingly, the cards can be formatted with the Mac OS X standard (HFS+) or with Microsoft’s exFAT, which can be read and written by Mac and Windows from XP (with update KB955704) onwards. There is, hidden under the SSD door, a USB socket for firmware updates etc. Again, there is no access to the SSD’s file system through this interface.

The HD-SDI output can be clean (for an external recorder) or with on-screen displays (for an external monitor or electronic viewfinder).

The Cinema Camera has an internal Li-Ion Polymer which will power the camera for about 90 minutes – a little under when recording, a little over in stand-by. The battery isn’t removable or replaceable, so I’ve just come to think of it as a bonus. If you just want to grab a quick shot, then it’s there if you need it, but, more importantly, it means that your external battery solution becomes hot-swappable – the internal battery will take over whilst you change the external battery. There are several major battery suppliers who provide solutions for the camera. For our tests, we used an Anton Bauer Gold mount, either on Anton Bauer’s MATRIX cheese plate or Arri’s. Both mount on 15mm rails (more on that later). The Anton Bauer Dionic HC batteries we used will easily power the camera for four hours – and our batteries were a couple of years old. I’ve always been a big fan of the very solid Gold mount so it’s good to see serious accessory manufacturers supporting the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with professional add-ons.

If you are using the internal battery, the on-screen charge indicator is a little crude. You get 100% (which disappears terrifyingly quickly), 75%, 50%, 25% and 10% (red) indicators, and then the camera dies. Having said that, with careful turning on and off, some topping up and a full lunch-time charge, I managed to coax the internal battery into providing nearly a whole day’s shooting on-location with a feature film crew.

The User Interface is pretty simple. Pressing the Menu button brings up a screen with four tabs – Camera, Audio, Recording format and Display – all driven from the (too shiny) touch-screen. A single tap of the screen brings up a metadata entry page – though in the kind of budget conscious production that the camera is likely to find itself, tying up the camera to enter metadata doe sn’t seem to make much sense, especially using an on-screen, iPhone style keyboard. A double tap of the screen increases it’s magnification to aid focussing. There is also a simple form of peaking, enabled with the Focus button, but it’s difficult to see on light subjects. One interesting menu feature is the ability to control the dynamic range of the display – Video for a more ‘post-processed’ look, and Film to show the low-contrast nature of the footage you are recording – assuming, that is, that you are recording using Film dynamic range.

And record in Film dynamic range you should.

Correctly exposed, the results from the refrigerated sensor and the uncompressed recording are outstanding. Exposure is pretty straightforward, but unusual. The important thing to remember is to maximise the dynamic range without clipping the highlights. The simplest way to do this is to set the zebra for 100% and then to set the exposure so that the highlights are just below this 100% point (if the camera has control of the lens you are using, the Iris button does this for you). This, generally, means that mid-tones will look very over-exposed on the viewfinder – if fact, judging what the final output of the footage will look like is very difficult on any monitor without a custom LUT. The dynamic range is high enough that, under all but the most extreme lighting conditions, there will be plenty of shadow detail with this exposure method. Interestingly, as the native ISO is 800, sensitivities below this (i.e. 400 and 200) have the same 100% highlight saturation point. The reduction in gain at these lower sensitivities reduces noise but raises the minimum black level that the camera records – effectively reducing the dynamic range; confirmed in our tests. We look at highlights and shadows where rich detail can be extracted from the image (which is useful for the cinematographer and colour grader, but always gives a slightly lower figure than the maximum available from the camera). In our test, the BMCC exceeded 11 stops at ISO 800, so Blackmagic’s claim of 13 stops of absolute dynamic range is undoubtedly true. At ISO 1600, gain is applied to the sensor, reducing the 100% highlight EV and raising noise in the blacks, again reducing dynamic range. There is no in-camera noise reduction, so the raw footage does look a little noisy in dark areas, but Resolve has very controllable noise reduction facilities. Although Blackmagic recommend that the camera be used at ISO 800, in a low-contrast shooting scenario it may be worthwhile using a lower ISO setting to reduce noise.

All this does mean, of course, that this is a camera whose output must be graded. You’re not going to shoot something with the BMCC and put it straight on-air. It’s not that kind of tool. This is obviously Blackmagic’s intention – after all, they are giving you some of the finest grading software available when you buy the camera.

There is another example of the lack of in-camera image processing. During our resolution test, we noticed that we got a much higher MTF50 result with files post-processed through Photoshop than if the same file was processed through Resolve. It seems that the de-Bayer algorithm used (both in Resolve’s raw processing and ProRes/DNxHD) does not implement any form of image sharpening (which is unusual – Photoshop does, by default, hence the difference). Once again, Blackmagic are giving you control here, but you will probably need to add a little sharpening to everything you shoot to get the best result (we got the closest to the ‘theoretically perfect’ de-Bayer filter by using a radius of 0.48. It’s a shame that Resolve’s raw clip processing tool doesn’t have a sharpening tool, as you can apply its results to all clips, rather than having to use a grading node on each clip individually.

With this small amount of sharpening (remember, this is only implement a slightly more ‘correct’ de-Bayer, not to add artificial sharpness) the resolution of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is outstanding – though, of course, the lenses you use make a big difference. The sensor doesn’t have an optical low-pass filter in front of it, maximising resolution at the cost of some possible aliasing artefacts. If you really pixel-peep, you could see these in thin tree twigs against an overcast sky (and, of course, with a test chart), but it’s a small quibble put against outstanding overall image quality. Tests aside, real-world, raw images (correctly processed through Resolve) are of a quality and gradability better than cameras that cost 10 times as much as the BMCC.

Focus-Position---BMCC.jpg
Focus marks for the BMCC above - for the Canon below: All my Canon lenses, when attached to my Canon camera, focus on distant objects as the infinity mark on the barrel – not unsurprisingly. When put onto the BMCC, the same lens, on the same tripod, in the same place and focussing on the same, distant object, focus past the infinity mark. There now seems to be a fix from Blackmagic which means a 'back to the factory' repair.

Focus marks for the BMCC above - for the Canon below: All my Canon lenses, when attached to my Canon camera, focus on distant objects as the infinity mark on the barrel – not unsurprisingly. When put onto the BMCC, the same lens, on the same tripod, in the same place and focussing on the same, distant object, focus past the infinity mark. There now seems to be a fix from Blackmagic which means a 'back to the factory' repair.

Lenses are, however, an issue. The Canon EF mount was designed for 35mm stills cameras, though it’s used on Canon’s APS-C cameras as well, The comparatively small sensor size of the BMCC gives a reduction of field of view of these lenses equivalent to a 2.3 times increase in the focal length of the lens. So, your 50mm lens, which is a ‘standard’ FoV lens on 35mm full-frame, has a FoV equivalent to a 115mm lens on the BMCC. That’s great for wildlife photography, my 70-200 zoom is now a 160-460, but the widest EF-S lens available is 8mm, which is 18mm on the BMCC – hardly super-wide. I’m guessing that this is the motivation for Blackmagic producing a Micro Four Thirds version of the camera, as that format has a much richer range of wide-angle lenses.

The EF mount seems to have another issue as well. All my Canon lenses, when attached to my Canon camera, focus on distant objects as the infinity mark on the barrel – not unsurprisingly. When put onto the BMCC, the same lens, on the same tripod, in the same place and focussing on the same, distant object, focus past the infinity mark (see the photos). The image is in focus, but if a lens is used which (unlike Canon’s) doesn’t focus past infinity, it would be impossible to correctly focus the camera. This is likely something to do with the flange to focal plane (i.e. sensor) distance of the camera but, at the time of writing, Blackmagic need to look into it.

Another, much more minor quibble, is that the fan runs all the time, though it is pretty quiet. A silent mode, for close-up, close miked work, would be useful. On the plus side, the fan is user replaceable, as it’s just about the only moving part in the whole camera.

There is some rolling shutter effect – expected, as it’s a CMOS sensor with no physical shutter. We measured it at just over 0.001 degrees per pixel per second at 25fps with a 180 degree shutter set – worse than some but better than most.

With its rectangular form factor, holding the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is tricky. Blackmagic sell a surprisingly comfortable and useful pair of handles which simply attach to the tripod bush (though the screw supplied isn’t captive and will get lost), but you are really going to need something better. For the review, Blackmagic shipped the Red Rock Micro ultraCage: Blue. This fits snugly around the camera, locating at the tripod bush and a plate screwed into the top of the camera and is very solid and beautifully engineered. With its snug fit, it doesn’t increase the camera’s width, but provides plenty of mounting bushes, 15mm rail attachments at bottom and top and a good carrying handle. The supplied kit included short, carbon fibre rails and a well engineered follow-focus in shiny black and anodised blue aluminium. The supplied rails were just about long enough for the Canon 70-200mm, f/2.8 L lens, though they flexed a bit too much for my liking – I would prefer steel, particularly as the load increases by adding a hand-held rig, matte box etc. The accessory range is good, with shoulder pads, cable management plates and so on available.

Another solution (of the many available) comes from Arri who have a ‘ready to shoot’ kit for the BMCC. This has an adapter plate to mount the camera to a standard baseplate, raising it to the correct height for all their accessory range. They supplied us a kit with plate, steel main rails (aluminium top rails), shoulder pad, cage supports, top handle, matte box (with hand-held handles) and follow focus. The BMCC adapter plate mounts to the tripod bush and has a spigot (lovely word) which locates into the hole in the camera. The spigot is much smaller than the hole, allowing the camera to twist slightly on the plate. If you buy one of these, make sure you get the optional top mount as well, which solves the problem. This kit is fantastic quality – it’s not as sleek as the Red Rock Micro solution, but you would never worry about its fragility. With that very long 70-200mm zoom on the camera, my arms ached after a while of hand-holding – I actually wished that the Anton Bauer battery pack mounted at the back of the shoulder pad weighed a bit more, just to counterbalance the front. Alternatively, handles separate to the matte box would have helped, bringing my arms closer to my body. With a more sensibly sized bit of glass, however, the kit was very comfortable. I also really liked their cable system, which clamped the power cable close to the camera body – that coaxial power plug doesn’t lock in and could easily be pulled out without this feature.

At NAB 2012, when the Blackmagic Cinema Camera was launched, someone on the BM stand asked me if I thought it would sell. Then, as now, I believed that it would sell very well, though I’m not sure to whom. It’s cheaper than a high-end DSLR, but a very different beast. It isn’t easy to use for fast paced documentary shooting, or events, or anything else you would expect in that £2000 bracket. It’s a cinema camera. Like the Canon 5D MkII, and the RED One, I suspect it will be a game changer. With it, film-makers will do those wonderful things that film-makers do – at a higher quality and lower cost than has been available before. I’m looking forward to see what they come up with.

Posted on March 22, 2013 and filed under cameras, cinematography, lenses, reviews.