It’s a Lot of Camera for the Money
With a new 4.6K sensor, CinemaDNG raw recording capability, and optional PL mount for around $6,000, it’s hard to imagine a better-value camcorder with more professional features than Blackmagic Design’s Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K. If you’re a previous Ursa owner, you can purchase the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K with standard EF mount for $3,495 and keep your old camera. That’s not too shabby any way you frame it — and the camera offers many ways to frame it, from 4K 16:9 DCP and UHD to 3K anamorphic and 1920×1080 HD. If you buy the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K, you get choices. Lots of choices.
Still, for shooters working on, say, major cable TV and commercial production, there are significant operating and performance compromises to contend with. You get raw recording capability, versatile shooting and framing modes, a PL mount, and 15 stops of latitude. But what exactly are you not getting? We’ll get to this later. But first, let’s look at what $6,000 buys you.
The Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K is well constructed of magnesium alloy, not aluminum. Magnesium alloy, while much more expensive, is also a much more efficient heat dissipater. That means the Mini’s chassis serves as an effective heat sink which, combined with a noiseless fan, helps dissipate heat away from the sensor through the top of the camera.
The heat volume transported through the camera’s upper vents may initially alarm some users. Rest assured, this design contributes substantially to the Mini Pro 4.6K’s relatively low noise floor. Some noise may still be a problem in underexposed scenes or in scenes containing many deep shadows, so proper fill light should be used when shooting with the Ursa Mini.
Unsurprisingly, owing to the new camera’s increased data loads, the Ursa Mini’s Super 35mm 4.6K CMOS sensor produces plenty of heat, recording uncompressed raw 4608×2592 files internally at up to 60fps. Such a task is bound to produce heat, and copious picture noise if the heat is not properly dissipated.
The new camera’s versatility is reflected in the range of lens mounts offered. While the optional PL mount will no doubt find its way into higher-end productions, the B4 mount (in conjunction with the Ursa’s built-in power for zoom servos) will appeal to many EFP and news shooters. The standard EF mount is the conventional still-photo type, not the ruggedized version we’ve been seeing more of lately on some pro-level camcorders.
What Else Is New?
The 2/4/6-stop ND filter wheel is a welcome addition to the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K. The mechanical-optical construction is very precise and expensive to manufacture, so the omission of an ND filter wheel in past models represented significant cost-cutting. In the new Mini Pro the integrated ND filters are IR-compensated to reduce the muddiness in the blacks that often plagues large-format single-sensor camcorders.
The ND filters are referenced in stops of attenuation, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the camera’s targeted demographic range, who may be more likely to think of ND filtration in that way.
While the new camera lacks dedicated buttons for displaying bars and some other basic functions, the new Ursa offers two external user buttons (F1, F2) that can perform the same tasks, eliminating the need for digging through the camera’s internal menus. By default, the camera assigns False Color Display and Display LUT to those two function buttons.
The latest Ursa features non-stop recording to two CFast 2.0 and two UHS-II SD cards. The paired CFast 2.0 cards support full resolution, 12-bit raw recording, while the SD cards are suitable for raw recording at HD resolution and ProRes. With dual slots, when a card is full, recording automatically continues onto the next card, even of a different type — the first time I’ve seen this particular feature in a camcorder, regardless of price.
Operation and Performance
Given the advanced features in the Ursa Mini Pro, one might expect a global shutter. Alas, BMD tried valiantly to integrate a global shutter in the current model but it was not to be. Fact is, the global shutter in an economical camera can be highly problematic, as the technology isn’t yet developed sufficiently to produce artifact-free images with a wide dynamic range. The wide dynamic range evident in the new Ursa is readily apparent on screen; it’s what gives the camera its classy, high-end look. The trade-off for the improved dynamic range in the Ursa Mini Pro seems reasonable, all things considered. So, counter-intuitively, the original Ursa Mini (at $2,995) features a global shutter, while the new Mini Pro 4.6K model with enhanced dynamic range does not.
In the meantime, the rolling shutter in the new Ursa exhibits little apparent skewing. In practice, it should not be much of a concern to most shooters. I particularly liked the automatic flicker-free shutter calculation feature. Again, I have not seen it elsewhere in a camcorder, regardless of price.
Color accuracy is impressive for a camcorder in this price range, with smooth flesh tones and excellent shadow integrity. BMD claims a broad 15 stops of dynamic range, and I confirmed this, more or less, on my trusty industry standard DSC Xyla 21 test chart. I say “more or less” because it was difficult to decipher the gradations at the lower end of the chart. For the record, I conducted my practical evaluation on a working soundstage, recording scenes with actors at various ISOs, recording cDNG uncompressed at 23.976fps to an internal CF 2.0 memory card.
The camera offers ISO 200, 400, 800, and 1600 settings. In scenes exhibiting a wide dynamic range, the camera appears to perform best at ISO 400, with some increased noise becoming visible in the weaker shadow areas at ISO 800 and 1600. As in the previous Ursa Mini model, a small amount of fixed pattern noise is apparent at the highest ISO 1600 setting, but most users are not likely to encounter the problem when shooting properly balanced scenes at lower ISO ratings. As in all cases when shooting with the Ursa Mini, users should be sure to add appropriate fill light to reinforce the weaker shadows that are prone to objectionable noise. Again, the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K is not a $25,000 camera, so don’t expect its image processing to be unusually sophisticated.
So What’s Missing?
With advanced features such as uncompressed 4K recording, 12G-SDI output, and PL lens support, many shooters are bound to wonder what they’re not getting.
In my evaluations, the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K exhibited considerably more high frequency artifacts and moiré than might be expected in a latest-generation camcorder. The Canon 5D Mark II, of course, also exhibited considerable aliasing in movie mode, and this was understandable in a DSLR that was never intended to capture high-quality moving pictures. The absence of an optical low pass filter (OLPF) in the Ursa Mini Pro requires users to be cognizant of the camera’s most significant shortcoming — in exchange for the high resolution, advanced features, and relative low price, users must eschew troublesome high-detail scenes and wardrobe patterns like stripes and checks.
It’s a trade-off, and for many shooters it will be worth the price. Stay within the straight and narrow, by filling shadows and employing proper fill light, and you will see excellent, even spectacular results, from the new Ursa. Drift too far off the centerline into underlit or blown-out areas of the frame, or attempt to capture complex wardrobe or patterns with a moving or zooming camera, and you will likely encounter significant artifacts and moiré. This is a critical point, since such defects are notoriously difficult, or impossible, to ameliorate in post.
The standard EF lens mount is convenient and advantageous to many shooters due to the wide availability of lenses. Canon claims it has produced over 100 million EF lenses since the mid 1980s, so there’s a good chance one or two may have landed in a camera bag near you. The Canon EF mount, however, was designed for lightweight still cameras and was never intended to withstand the rigors of professional video applications, where weighty accessories like a follow-focus, iris control, and a matte box may impinge on the lens integrity and compromise performance. Some pro-level camcorders have addressed this issue by employing a more rugged version of the EF mount. Luckily, when mounting external accessories, Ursa shooters can utilize the camera’s built-in 15mm rod support to minimize the stress on the lens, and/or opt for the less fragile PL mount. That may be the best idea if you plan to accessorize your Ursa to a great extent.
Operationally, the lack of a running light on the right AC/DIT side of the camera is maddening, forcing me more than once in my tests to question whether the camera is recording or not. In addition, routine operations like setting timecode are not as simple and straightforward as they should be. A flimsy, easily misplaced 1/8-inch jumper (LANC) cable is required to operate the camera via the external handle, an inconvenient but low-cost arrangement. This cable should be of a heavier gauge, and it should be permanently mounted to the grip with adequate stress relief.
With respect to audio, the Ursa Mini Pro has seen many performance and operational enhancements, but the camera still lacks a proper manual impedance control to accommodate microphones of different types. There is also no built-in safety limiter, which can lead to clipped, unusable audio when shooting in loud, uncontrolled environments.
Are those significant shortcomings? Absolutely. But if you can live with them, or work around them, the value proposition is still exceptional. Keep in mind: the Ursa Mini Pro 4.6K is not a $25,000 camcorder. It isn’t even a $10,000 camcorder. At $6,000, it’s a lot of camera for the money.