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Review: Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera

BlackMagic

Basil Al-Rawi got his hands on the new Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera and took it out to put it through its paces and see what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Introduction

Filmbase kindly furnished me with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera to road test in the final throws of our Indian summer. So I set forth into an unseasonably balmy Dublin and put the camera through its paces. I received the camera itself along with the Panasonic Lumix 12-35 (f/2.8) lens, 6 batteries, two 64Gb SD cards, 15mm rails, a pistol grip and an Edelkrone follow focus, all of which easily slipped into my shoulder bag as I explored the city. The results can be seen in the video below:

Form Factor & Stabilisation

The Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera is encumbered with a very long moniker to describe a supposedly compact device. And on first inspection, its proportions are indeed impressively small, to the point that were you to leave it down next to your smartphone, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the two. Without a lens, at 1.5 inches thick, this is a camera that definitely lives up to its name. Once glassed however, shoving it into your pocket is out of the question, unless perhaps you’re using a pancake lens or sporting very baggy pants. Like many other Micro Four Thirds cameras, the body of the unit is relatively neat but the lens protrudes quite a bit and this also has the effect of giving the camera a centre of gravity heavily weighted to the left. That said, the extremely compact nature of this camera means it can utilised in many situations where a larger camera would be impractical.

As it is so light (350grams sans lens), keeping the camera steady when handholding requires some form of a rig, be it a DSLR-style shoulder mount or something less bulky. I used a rather neat combination of 15mm rails with a pistol grip and follow focus which wasn’t too cumbersome and facilitated relatively steady handheld shots. It also fit quite nicely into my shoulder camera bag and thus I could keep the unit assembled and remove it quickly and ready-to-shoot when needed, brilliant for run-and-gun docu-style shooting. The downside of this particular setup was the strain it put on my right hand and wrist; one full day of handheld shooting left me in some discomfort so for long periods of handheld I’d recommend going off the shoulder or else use a grip that rests under the camera as opposed to the side.

The camera is threaded for standard ¼ inch tripod mounting on the bottom of the camera with another mounting point on the top for attaching monitors, lights, mics etc. The record button is located on the top right hand corner, where you’d expect to find the shutter button on a still camera.

Dynamic Range

One of the most impressive aspects of the BMPCC is its 13-stop dynamic range. It offers two menu options for dynamic range: Film Log and Video REC709. The BMPCC delivers a very flat image in Film Log mode, excellently preserving shadow and highlight detail even in quite extreme lighting conditions. The former delivers a much flatter wider gamut image whilst the latter is bit more punchier but still in need of serious grading in post to bring the image to life. Film Log is the only option available when shooting CinemaDNG Raw.

Shutter Speed, ISO & WB

The BMPCC offers a number of shutter angle options as opposed to shutter speeds, which some might be more familiar with. Shutter angle relates to how motion picture cameras traditionally worked in the film world, with the angle of the rotary shutter blade controlling exposure timing. Suffice it to say that a 180 degree shutter is considered the standard angle for rendering typical motion blur and gives an effective ‘shutter speed’ of 1/48 of a second at 24fps. As we utilise a 50 Hertz power frequency in Ireland, the optimal shutter angle is 172.8. Available options are: 360, 270, 180, 172.8, 144, 90, 72 and 45. The shutter angle can be adjusted to reduce motion blur for fast action sequences or slow mo and to assist with eliminating flickering in certain lighting conditions.

As it has a CMOS sensor akin to the DSLRs, it suffers somewhat from rolling shutter and moiré in difficult situations but is certainly better at resolving this than the 5D Mark II.

There are four ISO settings available: 200, 400, 800 and 1600 with the optimal being 800 ASA as it preserves the most dynamic range.  However such a sensitive ISO may not be an option in many situations and a Variable ND filter is a must when shooting with this camera. Over the course of the weekend shooting with this camera, the ND filter only came off once the sun had set.

The camera has 6 white balance presets (3200K, 4500K, 5000K, 5600K, 6500K and 7500K) but annoyingly doesn’t allow you to dial in a colour temperature manually nor take a custom white balance.

Lenses & Focusing

The BMPCC is equipped with a Super-16mm size sensor and an active Micro Four Thirds lens mount, making it capable of taking a wide range of microFT lenses available on the market and offering auto iris and focus controls to compatible lenses. I worked with the Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm f/2.8 lens and for the most part was quite satisfied with the image and functionality of the lens, especially the image stabilisation which is extremely effective on the longer end of the lens.

However things get a lot more interesting with the PL mount adaptor as this opens the range of Super 16mm lenses. Filmbase offer PL mount and Zeiss S16 Superspeeds package for those interested in going down that avenue. Working with lenses minus electronic contacts removes the option of auto iris and focus control but that’s irrelevant considering the vast increase in optical quality and control offered by the Superspeeds. Furthermore, DPs and operators will appreciate lenses geared and marked for accurate focusing.

With the aid of an EF-MFT adaptor you can also utilise the range of Canon EF lenses out there but with a crop factor of roughly x3, your 50mm EF lens becomes an effective 144mm lens on the BMPCC. If you’ve a bag of lenses at home and want to see how they’ll line up on this camera, there’s a very useful Field of View calculator on this site: http://bmpcc.rubenkremer.nl

The BMPCC has a focus assist peaking option on the LCD screen which is quite useful although in daylight conditions this can be extremely difficult to see and judge properly. Unlike the DLSRs, which offer 5x and 10x expanded focusing to gauge accuracy, this camera only offers 1x expanded focus.

Functionality – Menus, Buttons, Screen, Cards, Batteries and Connections

Camera menus are accessed from a button at the rear of camera and are straightforward to navigate, although the directional buttons are quite small and a little bit fiddly making quick changes somewhat frustrating at times. ISO and white balance settings are only accessible through this menu.

The 3.5 inch LCD screen is unfortunately almost impossible to see in daylight conditions. Some form of a lens hood/viewfinder is highly recommended (or external monitor) as the screen glare makes it extremely difficult to judge composition, let alone exposure. On the plus side, the display does boast Zebra and peaking options. The dynamic range of the LCD is independent from the recording settings so you can view in Video REC709 while recording in Film Log. Other display info is very neatly located in a black band running across the bottom of the screen leaving the image free of overlays.

Another irritation of working with the BMPCC is the fact that you cannot delete files off the SD card in camera. Not only can you not delete files, but you can’t even format the SD card; all this must be done from a computer. Another oversight in this department is the lack of a ‘time-remaining’ indicator; a mere warning appears to tell you the card’s almost full. Filmbase provide two 64GB SD cards which give you about 37 mins recording time in Pro Res 422 and about 18 mins for CinemaDNG Raw so off-loading options on-set are essential.

The camera takes Nikon EN-EL20 style batteries but it goes through them at an alarming rate; they say you get about 60 mins of continuous recording time per battery but I would err on the side of 45 mins. Filmbase provide 6 batteries with the kit, which, depending on your workload, should be enough to get you through a location shoot, providing that you have some access to a charge point during the day, be in a mains outlet or a 12V charger for back-up. Charge time on the batteries is about 1 hour 20 minutes.

Micro HDMI output sends a HD image to an external monitor with or without overlays. There are 3.5mm stereo inputs and outputs for connecting a microphone and headphones plus a 2.5mm LANC connection for remote control. Finally there’s a 12V DC jack for mains operation and for charging the battery.

Format and Workflow

At the time of testing, the BMPCC only had Apple ProRes 10-Bit 4:2:2 (HQ) as a recording format but a recent firmware upgrade in November has bestowed it with 12bit-Log CinemaDNG Raw*, an amazing option to have in this modest unit. This lossless compression ZIPs the 1080p footage during recording, preserving the quality of the image and allowing greater flexibility for colour grading in post. I can’t comment on this particular workflow, but shooting in native ProRes 422 (HQ) was a dream when it came to post-production workflow, unlike working with highly compressed H.264 footage from Canon’s DSLRs.

Having shot in Film Log, once picture lock was achieved, I sent the sequence from Final Cut Pro 7 to Color, where I applied a basic auto-tone to each clip to achieve the results seen in the above footage. The wide dynamic range allows a huge level of control for grading in post but I was impressed with the results from a basic auto-tone.

Unfortunately there are no slow motion frame rates but the camera does offer 1080p recording in the following frame rates: 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 fps.

*It’s worth noting that shooting in CinemaDNG Raw requires a 95/mbps SD card (or faster) such as Sandisk Extreme 95/mbps 64gb cards which Filmbase provide with their kit.

Sound

No point in spending much time discussing this as the in-camera mic consists of a couple of miniature holes on the front of the unit making the audio unusable. You can plug in an external mic and monitor with headphones through ¼ inch jacks on the side of the camera but I’d strongly recommend shooting audio on an external recorder, such as the Zoom H4N or H6.

Conclusion

Despite some of the flaws and irritations I have pointed out, with 13-stops of dynamic range and 12-bit Log Cinema DNG Raw, the Pocket Camera punches well above its weight and delivers a beautiful image once graded. Due to its form factor and compactness, it takes some rigging to make it a viable production camera, but that is no different to working with DSLRs. Pack a lot of batteries, a Vari ND filter, a viewfinder for the LCD screen and let fly.

In summation, the pros and cons:

Pros

10-bit ProRes 422 & 12-bit Log Cinema DNG Raw (with upgraded firmware)

13 stops of Dynamic Range

Peaking (Focus Assist) & Zebras

Compactness

Cons

LCD Screen – unviewable in daylight without a lens hood

Can’t delete files or format SD cards in-camera

Battery life

No ‘remaining time’ warning

www.basilalrawi.com

 

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