No Frills Here, But If You're Looking for an Inexpensive Ultra HD Workhorse, It's Hard to Resist

Coming from the world of ENG/EFP, I was excited to finally get my hands on a 4K digital cinema camera that was made for motion pictures — not like still photography DSLRs that shoot beautiful video at the expense of ergonomics. At the outset, I know most of what I produce won't be shown at 4K, but at 1080 HD. I primarily see the benefits of 4K in post-production, where you can put the 4K footage in a 1080 sequence and use your NLE to do virtual camera moves such as zooms, tracking, and crops without losing resolution in the final 1080p export. (It's worth noting that what Blackmagic calls "4K" is 4K UHD, with a resolution of 3840×2160, not the larger 4096×2160 frame of DCI 4K, which is supported by some of Blackmagic's competitors.)

Out of the box, the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K doesn't look much like a motion-picture camera. It has a strong aluminum frame with a rubberized front and back. The front has a mount for canon EF lenses. Just below the mount is a tiny mic that is helpful to have for emergencies. The back has a five-inch LCD screen with the record, transport, and menu buttons below, an iris button on the upper left, and focus on the upper right.

On the left side of the camera, rubber doors hide connections for 1/4-inch left and right balanced audio jacks, headphones, 4K-SDI, Thunderbolt, LANC remote and power. The right side of the camera has a door over the SSD recording media slot and a USB port for firmware updates and slow charging, but not transferring footage. The top of the camera has three 1/4-inch threaded holes for attaching accessories, and the bottom has a threaded hole for attaching a tripod plate. Two vents for the internal fan must remain unblocked so the camera doesn't overheat, which would be a bad situation. The camera has an internal lithium-ion battery that, when recording at 4K, will give you about 60 minutes of stop-start recording. In addition to the included Da Vinci Resolve software (itself a $995 piece of kit), you get a camera strap and a sunshade.

Ready for an indoor shoot with Late Night Health radio show and infomercial host Mark Alyn. Photos: Marc Franklin

Since NAB, I had been trying to get accessories that would help me evaluate the camera, but the only one that showed up in time was the Sachtler Ace matte box and follow focus — the day before this review unit was due to be returned. That said, I had to trick it out with what I had available. Lens-wise, I used the wonderful Canon 24–105mm image-stabilized lens that came with the Canon 6D and a 20-year-old Canon Ultrasonic 75–300mm that is great for nature shots. For audio, I used a 20-year-old Sony ECM-672 short shotgun on a homemade mount that screwed into a top hole. Other than that I had no other rig for shooting; you will probably want some rig if you are used to running and gunning.

Shooting Outdoors
I live in a picturesque area of southern California that was a movie ranch from the 1920s to the late 1960s. Many movies are still made here today, but they are shot among the housing developments rather than on the rolling meadows. On my first shoot, I was walking along the creek and trying to record some of the fish, water foul, dragonflies, and other beautiful wildlife found there. It was a bright day and, while the lighting was excellent, the LCD screen was nearly useless, even with the included sun shade. I honestly wasn't sure I was in focus, since I saw more of my own reflection than what I was trying to shoot.

When I was able to transfer and view the footage, it was in focus and looked very good, but somehow the record mode had been switched to HD. (I'm guessing the firmware update I performed may have reset it without my input.) A few days later I tried again, in a canyon an hour before sunset, and had better luck. Without the the sun overhead, it was easier to see what was on the LCD.

Menus, Adjustments, and White Balance
As menus go, this one isn't too difficult to use, thanks to the touchscreen. The menu has different sections for adjusting video, audio, recording and playback settings. When setting the while balance or shutter angle, you can't see the picture on the screen. You need to make your adjustment, and then exit the menu to look at the picture. If further adjustment is needed, you go back into the menu and repeat.

With most video cameras you white-balance by pointing at something white and hitting the white-balance button, or in DSLRs by taking a still image of the white and letting the camera use that for a reference. On this camera, you go into the menu and choose from a few presets ranging from 3200K to 7000K. That will get you in the ballpark, but if you want it spot-on, Blackmagic prefers you dial it in in post using Resolve.

Controlling iris and focus are pretty simple. If you are using an autofocus lens and the switch is on, you simply aim the camera at what you want to focus on and press the Focus button once. If you double-tap the focus button, peaking should activate, outlining the edges of what's in focus. Similarly, you push the Iris button once when using a lens with auto-iris capabilities to automatically adjust the iris. Using the forward and reverse playback transport buttons, you can open and close the shutter. .

The camera comes with a built in lithium-ion battery that will give you 60 to 90 minutes of shooting before you need to either plug in to AC or take a recharge break. The battery level indicator leaves a bit to be desired. It isn't very accurate. It shows charge increments of 100%, 75%, 50%, 25%, 10% (in red), and then dies. BMD recommends using an external battery set-up for serious shooting; I would probably end up adapting an Anton Bauer system from one of my older cameras.

Updates Make It a Better Camera
I was very happy to see that VU meters were added in the most recent (v1.9) update of the camera's software. That was a huge improvement for me. The update also included a number of new codec choices. In addition to 4K raw, the available formats for both 4K and HD include ProRes HQ, ProRes 422, ProRes LT, and ProRes Proxy. Recording 4K to ProRes 422 works out to require about 15 GB per minute. Just make sure you double-check the format before you start recording, as it is easy to misread the two ProRes settings—take it from me, it's very disappointing to get back from a shoot and find out you inadvertently recorded 1080 rather than 4K.

Image Quality
Last but not least, I was really happy with the picture I got out of the 4K Production Camera. While I didn't have access to a 4K monitor, I did what most purchasers will probably do — I used the footage in a 1080p sequence, which gave me extra latitude to adjust the shot by creating tracking and zooms in post. My first few experiments were noisy, but once I got the hang of the settings and adjustments, I got a crisp, clean, and vibrant picture. I didn't notice any artifacts. While I love my Sony HVR-S270 for its ability to run-and-gun and its great overall picture, detail can suffer due to the MPEG-2 based 25 Mbps HDV codec. The only way around that is to get something like BMD's Hyperdeck Shuttle 2 and record HD using the same ProRes 422 HQ codec. ProRes 422 HQ footage recorded by the Production 4K camera is super-clean. Some shots of the moon and landscapes I took with the 75–300mm lens showed incredible detail in the moon's surface that may have gotten lost in the artifacts introduced by a lesser codec. I highly recommend playing with the camera for a few days, testing the different settings and results, before jumping into a real shoot.

Design Philosophy
At a recent Blackmagic Design event here in Los Angeles, I got a chance to ask Blackmagic President Dan May why the company's cinema cameras don't seem so camera-like. He said the company wanted to do something for the DSLR market that offered improved performance and flexibility in an easy-to-use package. If you want more familiar ergonomics, the 4K Ursa is to be released in the coming weeks. You'll still need an optional viewfinder for outdoor work, and a mic, but otherwise it's ready for action. But don't try and fit it in the front seat of a Honda—you'll want the Production Camera 4K for that.

The Price is Definitely Right
So what are my overall thoughts on the camera? When you can have a 4K camera in your arsenal for $2995, it is difficult to say no. Do I like shooting with it as much as with my trusty Sony HVR-S270 ENG camera? Not really. It will never replace my ENG camera for ENG/EFP shoots. If you hope to use the Production Camera 4K as a run-and-gun documentary camera, you should plan to spend another $3000 to $5000 in accessories. You'll need a shoulder mount, an HD-SDI viewfinder with an eye cup, a mic and mic mount, an external battery system, etc. I really enjoyed shooting with the Production Camera 4K indoors, on a tripod. However, without those expensive add-ons, it is difficult to use outdoors. That said, 90% of my shoots are indoors, so I was sad to send it back.

I look at the Production Camera 4K as the Chevy WT (Work Truck) of the 4K world. The Chevy WT is a stripped-down-to-the-bare-essentials truck. No power windows or door locks. A vinyl bench seat. A V6 is the only engine, and it only comes with an AM radio. No frills, but it will haul what you need from here to there and hold up to abuse reliably. The Production Camera 4K is much the same. It is rugged and will get the job done, even if it isn't the most elegant package. This camera is an excellent choice for anyone wanting to wade into 4K production. While I don't see myself delivering 4K any time soon, I can absolutely see the advantages of using 4K footage in a 1080 project, where the enahnced ability to crop and zoom opens all sorts of creative options. This camera has a few quirks you will need to get used to, but they are surmountable. And at $2995, including DaVinci Resolve, it is difficult to go wrong. I highly recommend the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K.