Cinema quality from a pocket sized camera.
Review: David Whitehead
If you are a video camera enthusiast or pro, no doubt you have heard of Blackmagic Design. Contrary to popular belief, it is originally an Australian outfit although they have a strong presence worldwide. Famous for designing and building broadcast and professional switching gear, Blackmagic is also responsible for what is arguably the industry standard colour grading system Da Vinci Resolve after acquiring Da Vinci Systems in 2009.
In the last year or so Blackmagic has made waves in the compact digital cinema market with its Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The release of the Pocket version has been eagerly awaited; it uses a compact camera body made of up a magnesium alloy chassis and polished metal and rubber outer casing. The weight of the camera is quite surprising when you first pick it up. It is a solid and beautifully built beastie.
On the rear is an 800 x 480 pixel 3.5-inch colour LCD which is used for framing the imagery – but as the Pocket Cinema Camera’s party trick is its ability to record a range of a massive 13 dynamic stops then you would probably be wise to also use a full resolution external monitor with a good dynamic brightness range.
A new upgrade to the Pocket Cinema Camera also supports recording in Adobe’s losslessly compressed 12-bit CinemaDMG raw image format while continuing to offer high quality ProRes 422 (HQ) in video or film (s-log) modes at 220Mbps.
The Super 16mm-sized CMOS sensor is 12.48mm x 7.02mm with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 with available frame rates of 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 frames per second. The raw format has no colour specific temperature as you can select whatever colour balance you want in post-production, in the same way that you can adjust your exposure, contrast and gamma. Blackmagic states the optimum ISO setting for the Pocket Camera is 800, but for varying conditions you have the options of 200, 400 and 1600 as well.
Cinematographers can simply remove the SD card from the camera, insert it into a laptop or computer, open the file and immediately start editing or colour correcting media in any location. Working directly from the SD card eliminates the time wasted copying files and dramatically speeds up post-production workflows.
Direct output from the Pocket Camera is available via HDMI. Additionally, a LANC port allows remote control of the camera. The mini USB 2.0 port is for software updates and configurations only.*
Users can also download the free DaVinci Resolve Lite and transcode to popular editing formats such as ProRes and DNxHD for compatibility and round tripping with editing software such as Final Cut Pro 7, Final Cut Pro X, Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premier Pro.
The only downside is humungous file sizes so you’ll need the very latest generation SDXC cards as big as you can get, and these aren’t exactly cheap at the moment (a quick check shows suitably fast SanDisk 128GB cards are $400 a pop right now).
Offsetting this is that the Pocket Cinema Camera has been specifically designed to accommodate the latest breed of Micro Four Thirds (MFT) lenses and with the addition of suitable mounts, this gives access to an even larger range of lenses such as M, EF and OM mount lenses from a variety of manufacturers. Another advantage of the MFT lens format is the combination of smaller sizes and lower prices than those used on DSLR cameras.
The engine room of the Pocket Cinema Camera is via a menu driven system on the LCD. This is the same system used in its sibling Cinema Camera, and for those that decide to have both cameras in their toolbox, this saves time in the learning curve (and from Blackmagic’s point of view, developmental costs).
If you use the Pocket Cinema Camera with a genuine MFT lens with an active MFT mount, then both lens and camera can share aperture and focus and these can be controlled by the Iris and Focus buttons on the rear of the camera.
Focus peaking is supported by a double press of the focus button. Iris is nominally automatic; to switch to manual, the up and down direction buttons are used, which are also on the rear of the camera.
With a non-MFT lens everything has to be manual, and it’s worth remembering that the focal length will also change according to the different sensor sizes. I got the impression that Blackmagic would rather you stick with genuine MFT lenses.
AUDIO ON BOARD
Unlike most standard compact cameras or even DSLRs where on-board audio is either non-existent or somewhat of an afterthought, the Pocket Cinema Camera comes with an inbuilt mic along with provision for an external mic. Controls for the audio are via the onscreen menu system; audio levels can be set for the on-board mic as well as line in levels for any external mic. Sadly there are no audio meter displays, so setting audio levels may be a bit hit and miss until you get used to the nuances of the camera compared to different background audio levels.
You may want to stick with using an external mic for most situations, as a number of reports are suggesting that the frequency response of the built-in mic is not that wide and it tends to record at low levels; also it’s mono only. A Rode Stereo Video Mic 2 from Rode – another Australian success story – might just be the duck’s guts in this area.
One thing that I don’t like is that the battery has to be charged while on-board the camera. This obviously means you can’t use one battery while charging a spare. The good news is that Blackmagic has decided to run with standard Nikon batteries, so any Nikon compatible third party charger will do the trick (and also gives you a path to extra batteries).
For the uninitiated, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and one of the MFT cameras from Panasonic, Sony or Olympus. That difference is under the skin of the camera, with the dynamic range made available by the Super 16 sensor. Digital cinema cameras have a much wider dynamic range and this is why you can see a visible difference in the quality of high-end TV commercials and feature films.
True, you’ll need a combination of those 13 stops and the raw format availability to get the absolute best, and I’d suggest a better than working knowledge of Da Vinci Resolve should be thrown into that mix as well.
But by golly, when all those ducks are lined up… This is a digital film camera that actually fits in your pocket.
*This article has been amended on the 05/02/2014 to correct the functionality of the mini USB 2.0 port.