What It Is, What It Isn't, and What to Know Before You Use It
Randall P. Dark
The Past, Present and Future
Blackmagic Cinema Camera EF
Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 and Canon EF 24-105mm
Throughout the last 27 years, I've enjoyed the privilege of shooting with most of the latest digital and HD cameras—often in their first-generation version. This includes everything from the three-tube, RGB-based Sony HDC-100 high-definition camera in 1986 to, more recently, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC).
These shoots were never for testing or reviewing. Each time I received a new camera, I used it in a production. Whether it was for a documentary, product launch, feature film or for a broadcast television program, the final destination of the footage captured was a real-world client-based use.
Many of these cameras were sent to me directly from the manufacturer with little or no documentation. I needed to constantly remind myself that technology was a moving target and in a constant state of flux. The difference between the HDC-100 and the HDC-500 was night and day, and it happened in a very short period of time. I always looked at what each camera did best, not what I hated or what I wanted changed. I embraced each for its strongest assets, and used it with appropriate expectations of usability and performance. You don't enter a Jeep in the Indianapolis 500, just as you don't need 4K for a webisode.
I was able to get my hands on a BMCC during production of my recent feature documentary Redemption on the River. This particular project has been shot over two years and has included 20 different types of camera technology — everything from the BMCC to JVC's Addixxion action cameras.
I decided I wanted two different scenarios for the Blackmagic shoots. The first was a traditional indoor interview environment, offering controlled lighting that would be a close match to other interviews I shot with different high-end cameras. The images felt like I expected them to, and I was pleased with the look. The second use was more extreme. I contacted Neil Angeles, a local Austin cinematographer who owns a Blackmagic camera. As I directed, Neil captured footage from the banks of Ladybird Lake, under a bridge at noontime when the light was at its harshest. The scene was a training run for paddlers in a canoe, and the action I needed to capture went in and out of the light under the bridge. He, and his camera, rocked.
As with all emerging technology, the test of time tells everything. Thanks to manufacturers building on the strengths of early-generation high-definition cameras, we are where we are now. I'm intrigued by the Blackmagic camera. Is it right for everything? Of course not. But I believe its future is bright. — Randall P. Dark
Neil F. Angeles
Falling in Love with Digital
For me, it all started when I purchased my first DSLR in 2007: the Canon Rebel XTi. Sure, it was an entry-level body coupled with a plastic lens (the “Nifty Fifty”), but the shots I was able to take greatly outweighed those of my point-and-shoot. It immediately sparked my imagination. Coming from a technology background, I couldn’t help but think about the inner workings of this thing, and how it could be driven to be better.
I’ve always had an affinity for film, and the specs of my camera (10 megapixels raw) outpaced anything in the video realm at the time. I knew the potential was there, and I also understood that there were several bottlenecks in the way of harnessing that potential. Fortunately, Canon recognized these very same things and released the Canon 5D Mark II, and flipped the world on its ear. The 5D MkII greatly lowered the buy-in for HD capabilities and opened the doors to allow creativity to be expressed to its greatest potential for a fraction of the budget.
And now Blackmagic has come along and taken the reins as innovators in the mid-range field. The name Blackmagic Cinema Camera tells you everything you need to know: It’s a camera, it’s meant for a cinematic space, and it’s powered by some kind of sorcery. How else would you explain all the features they were able to pack into this thing at such an affordable price point?
First, the camera. It’s as weird as it is beautiful. It elicits that same undeniable ambivalence as Zooey Deschanel: it’s quirky and it’s awkward and yet you can’t help but be drawn to it. Fresh out of the box, I was astonished at how robust the camera is. It’s heavier than I imagined it would be, due to the aluminum body that adds to a sturdy and sleek look and feel. The ergonomics of it keep you asking, “How and where can I possibly use this?” Hand-holding the unit is cumbersome and quickly becomes a burden due to its weight and awkward construction. It runs best with a measure of rigging: shoulder mount, handles, rails, tripod. Anything but handheld.
The battery is built into the body and not swappable, so you’ll need an external power source if you plan on extended shoots. A V-mount battery coupled with a D-Tap-to-2.5mm converter works well for me as I found my usual 12V taps didn’t fit the larger-sized DC power port. There are relatively few buttons available on the body and most camera operation must be handled via the five-inch touch screen. The screen itself is nice and bright, with relatively good viewing angles even in some direct sunlight. But the fact that you have to navigate settings makes changing exposure and shutter angle a slower process.
There is no automatic setting to this camera. The menus are simple and easy to read but seem limited. You are given zero access to the SSD. That means no information about how much space you have left, no formatting cards, and very little playback control. You can review the clips on disk, but you cannot delete them. Playback on the camera has to be set to the same format that the clips were recorded in. That means if I captured a clip encoded in ProRes and then switched to shooting RAW, I’d have to switch back to ProRes to access the previous clip. And not just ProRes, but ProRes with the same exact frame rate as the aforementioned clip. Quirky.
It’s a Cinema Camera
The lack of onboard SSD configuration, the power constraints, and absence of automatic settings lend the camera to assume that you’re in a more cinematic environment. The camera really shines when you can maximize things such as lighting, staging, and timing. Low light is a problem for this camera. It provides a limited sensitivity range (ASA 200 – ASA 1600) and sensor noise is quite present at the higher end. Like most cameras, the more light you can feed it, the better results you’ll be able to achieve. On extended shoots, you’ll need to control your data acquisition, as space gets quickly consumed when shooting RAW. A 256 GB SSD will get you roughly 30 minutes of shooting time. Couple that with the fact that you cannot delete clips in camera, and having the ability to format your cards becomes paramount.
That’s not to say that you can’t use this camera in the field. I’ve had some great success with it. The ability to use Canon’s image-stabilization technology to smooth out the shakes is a great help, and the EF'S 17–55mm f/2.8 couples quite nicely with the Blackmagic. The expanded dynamic range, even while recording in ProRes, puts my 5D MkIII to shame. This is mainly due to the encoding process. You’re given 10 bits of latitude in a 4:2:2 color space and 220 Mbps of data in ProRes or DNxHD, and 12 bits uncompressed in raw. This is going to help preserve your shadow details and keep those highlights in check. Color-grading the footage acquired from the Blackmagic is a treat, especially given the fact that a full version of DaVinci Resolve is bundled with every camera.
You’ll need more space to work — not just disk drive space but physical space as well. The 2.3x crop sensor brings you much, much closer to the action than you might at first expect, even closer than a Canon APS-C vs full-frame sensor. The Blackmagic turns your wide-angle lenses into medium and those mediums into long. For example, a 50mm on a Blackmagic would have the same coverage as a 115mm lens on a full-frame sensor. Along with loss of coverage on the wide end, you lose some of depth of field. This can be a good thing. Focusing is difficult at the larger f-stops, and broadening that depth gives you a more room to work, especially in event coverage, where you might not have access to a full-time focus puller.
What It’s Not
It doesn’t do slow-mo and it doesn’t have onboard XLR inputs. It doesn’t offer a lot of control over acquired images, and it doesn’t have easy access to settings. But despite all its faults, it excels where it matters most: image quality. Ultimately, if you’re looking at the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, you’re enamored by the specs. The ability to shoot RAW and use lenses that you might already have lying around is hard to pass up. On top of that, a sub-$3000 price tag makes it almost impossible to ignore.
Once you’ve had time to familiarize yourself with the camera, you’ll find that it delivers in spades. The image is much sharper than my DSLRs, but it doesn’t suffer from moiré or aliasing artifacts because the image is a direct one-to-one translation from the sensor. Rolling shutter is, unfortunately, still present but that’s the CMOS technology without a global shutter at play. The depth of color is lovely and keeps you in control even in hard-to-deal-with lighting situations. It’s not an excellent low-light camera but given enough available light, it really, really shines.
We’re all in this space because we love telling stories. We don’t slave hours upon hours in front of a computer or out in the field because it’s the easy thing to do, or because it’s a fast track to big bucks. It’s the passion and ability to execute our creative vision that drives us. Although it’s quirky and weird, and although it can be difficult at times, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is a wonderful tool that can allow you to transform that vision into something tangible. — Neil F. Angeles