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Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera Review

The Agony and the Ecstasy
By Michael Reichmann

Well, here we are, almost two months after the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera's started to trickle out from down-under, and our cameras have finally arrived. While not exactly a tsunami of availability, people are taking delivery around the world, and the fiasco of the original BMPCC shipping delays seems to have been averted.

What then do we have? Has the wait been worth all the fuss, and does the BMPCC offer the price and performance breakthrough that many of us hoped it would?


What it is and What it Isn't

The BMPCC is a very small professional grade cinema camera. It has an "active" Micro Four Thirds lens mount, with both auto and manual aperture control, autofocus and support for lens-based Image Stabilization.

Some of the above is true, some of it isn't. Some of it is "truthish".

Calling this a "Cinema Camera" is in fact more accurate than to call it a camcorder. "Camcorder" implies certain design norms and features which the BMPCC simply lacks. This is by no stretch of the imagination a camcorder in any traditional sense. If you're looking for a normal video camera (camcorder) do not buy the BMPCC.

Instead, It is fair to call it a Cinema Camera, notwithstanding its Lilliputian dimensions, because with its Super 16mm sized sensor, lack of an AA filer, ability to shoot ProRes 422 HQ at 220 Mbps, and raw video (with a future firmware update), this camera is capable of producing stunning image quality. Quality that far exceeds that of any video DSLR, and which in most respects rivals that of cameras costing many thousands, even tens of thousands more.

But this achievement brings with it numerous compromises and in some cases a few serious gotchas! Nothing game ending, but this camera is definitely not going to be for everyone, and for good reasons.


This video was shot over a three day period in Algonquin Park in late September, 2013, .
The BMPCC was used along with a variety of Panasonic and Olympus lenses.
A detailed write-up on its production can be found here.
Please be aware that this video is hosted on Vimeo, which, as always,
has added significant compression, loss of resolution and a small gamma shift. 

The Agony and the Ecstasy

It doesn't take long with the BMPCC to appreciate that this camera is capable of producing some remarkable images, yet it is also a highly flawed product. Firstly, it needs to be said that from a cosmetic perspective the camera feels good in the hand, and for the most part materials and construction quality are good. Certain compromises become apparent quickly. The screen first of all. It's large at 3.5" and of decent quality, but at least two generations behind the mainstream manufacturers in terms of contrast and brightness.

The screen is also physically extremely soft. In fifteen years of using, testing and working with digital cameras on all six continents and in extreme conditions I have never scratched a rear LCD. Yet somehow I managed to scratch a big hole in the BMPCC's LCD screen on the first day of field use. I have no idea how, but I now have a group of about a dozen bright yellow pixels engraved permanently at the top left of my screen.

Speaking of such things, my camera arrived with one visible hot pixel, and also a large dust booger on the sensor. The dust was easily removed with a blower, but the hot pixel is there forever unless Black Magic comes up with a sensor refresh mode, which many camera makers offer. (Hint, hint). I am disappointed in their manufacturing quality control, if my camera is any indication of the norm.

The control buttons are firm to press, but a bit tedious in use, because for various functions, aperture change for one, one must press them in sequence a large number of times. A D ring or thumb wheel, which most cameras have, would make their use much quicker and more pleasant. This is not a touch screen.

The BMPCC is very similar in terms of its menu structure to the other Black Magic cameras. In fact they share the same operating system, with only minor differences apparent. This means that there is no in-camera card formatting, no file erase, no thumbnail review. More importantly, there is no indication of the amount of time left on the card. None of these are deal breakers, and some aren't even common in the cine world, but they are in the camcorder world and it's this that will cause a huge cognitive dissonance among unsuspecting users.

From an in-use perspective, I found it unacceptable that the camera cannot remember the last aperture used when the lens is changed or the camera restarted. The major camera makers mastered this bit of engineering years ago. Come on Black Magic – fix this soon – this is a big deal when shooting, and really slows things down. 

Exposure and Focus

There are two buttons to the top right of the body, one for Iris and one for Focus. If the camera is set to "Video" mode, then pressing Iris will set a typical "average" exposure for the scene. If the camera is set to "Film" mode (in other words log, or raw) then the Iris button will set the lens aperture to the highest exposure that the camera can achieve without overexposure – in other words, ETTR. There may be a few specular highlights zebra-ing, but generally this works as expected, and is ideal for log linear and raw shooting.

The Up and Down buttons are used in shooting mode to change the aperture manually. There is a display of the aperture that's set at the lower left of the screen. Of course if one is using a legacy lens with an aperture ring that is used instead. When the buttons are pressed, one needs to do so in a stabbing motion because holding the button down doesn't make the aperture change continuously (annoying). This stabbing procedure can be slow and becomes tedious when there's a long way to go.

For outdoor shooting one is certain to be using a variable ND filter, so what I have found best is to set the lens' aperture to the F stop desired, either for depth of field or optimum IQ, and then use the ND Fader to adjust final exposure. There is no shutter speed control per-se, but the usual shutter angle control of a cine camera. The camera can shoot at 24 or 30 FPs.

Autofocus is, to put it politely, a work in progress. It doesn't work with all lenses. Indeed it seems to only work with a few lenses, and when it does work with these lenses it does so in a slow and inconsistent manner. Pressing the Focus button puts a white square on the center of the screen and the lens then starts to s l o w l y autofocus. Maybe.

My suggestion is to give AF a pass until Blackmagic can bring it up to a reliable level and in the meantime simply use manual focus instead, just like on a proper cine camera. Fortunately the camera has Peaking available with a double press of the Focus button.

Audio

I'll be gentle. The audio in the BMPCC sucks. Well, not so gentle, I suppose. No, the problem is not just the tiny in-camera mic, but the audio pre-amps as well. So even with an external mic attached audio is dreadful. Black Magic camera owners have been complaining about this on all models since the beginning. Maybe it's time for Black Magic to pay some attention to audio. The only value to audio on the BMPCC is as a guide track for dual system sound.


Working with "Film" Prores 422 HQ

As of late September raw is not yet available. But this isn't as bad as it seems because the BMPCC can shoot in linear log mode, which Blackmagic calls "Film" mode. If you want the 13 stops of dynamic range that this camera is capable of producing (and it really is remarkable), then this is the way to get it. Setting the camera to "Video" mode will produce a punchy looking REC709 image that, while still very good, is nowhere near as malleable and forgiving when it comes to grading. In fact, after comparing the characteristics of files from the full sized 2.5K BMCC shoting in raw, to those of the BMPCC in Film mode, it would appear that the only serious loss when not shooting raw is the ability to change white balance dramatically after the fact. So, if you're used to shooting raw with Auto White Balance get over it for now. No Black Magic camera has auto white balance, and because the BMPCC  doesn't have raw yet, be careful to always set your WB appropriately.

Dealing with Flat

There are two ways of dealing with the very flat, low contrast files that the "Film / log" setting produces. One is to manually grade each clip. This produces the best results, but is a bit tedious. You'll need to generate quite a strong S curve, so unless your NLE can do this or you have After Effects or similar, you'll be vexed, because ordinary three way sliders won't give you the results you expect and which the files are capable of.

FilmConvert

My strong recommendation if you're going to buy a BMPCC, (and even if you use any other cine camera with log mode) is that you get FilmConvert. This program costs between $200 and $300, depending on whether you buy a plug-in for your NLE, or the stand alone version, or both together. It may seem like a big investment, but FilmConvert not only makes the process of correcting flat log files quick and simple, but is also a great tool for giving your footage a traditional film look, or grade. Highly recommended!

I recommend the stand-alone version over the plug-ins because it is capable of processing files in batch mode. Simply copy your SD card with its flat log linear files to a hard drive, then select all the files and choose BMCC / Film, grain off, and let batch mode run. A new directory with normalized files (preferably ProRes HQ 422) will be created and you can now have great looking files ready to drop onto your timeline. Processing speed on my Macbook Pro Retina is about 10fps, or just under 50% of real-time.

Because ProRes HQ is such a robust codec there is effectively no generational loss in doing this conversion and then grading afterward. You can grade each individual file in Film Convert – and the tools provided are very good – but depending on the quantity of the footage that you have to work with this can be tedious, because at this point in the workflow you don't really know which files you'll end up needing and using.

One word about the plug-ins. The one for Premiere Pro is very full featured in terms of image adjustments. The one for Final Cut X is very sparse. WTF? In any event, get the stand alone and work in batch mode. That's my recommendation. 


Caging and Dealing with the LCD

Even though the BMPCC is very small, and maybe especially so, it requires accessories; handles, mics, viewfinders, rails, etc, etc. Maybe not as much as a full sized camera, assuming that you want to keep a low profile, both literally and figuratively, but some accessories are needed and will need to be attached to the camera.

I bought the Contineo Cage from Viewfactor. It costs $100, and is very nicely designed and made. It's quite reasonably priced, and it allows mounting of just about any accessory that you might require.

There are two ways to deal with the viewfinder issue. One is an EVF, such as the Cineroid, but I choose not to use it, even though I have one for the 2.5K BMCC. It's large (relative to the BMPCC), it's heavy, and it needs its own battery and cable to the camera. A better solution is the new Z-Finder for the BMPCC that's coming soon from Zacuto. It was announced at the IBC show in early September and is expected within a month or so.

In the meantime I have jury-rigged my ZF_Finder intended for the Nikon D800. It mounts nicely to the Contineo cage and provides a great view in any light. The only problem is that if you mount it underneath the cage you end up blocking the card and battery door, and if you mount it on top of the cage you block access to the Play and Rewind buttons. This is the lesser of the evils and so I'll live with that till the custom Z-Finder becomes available. Frankly, you need something on the BMCC, because trying to compose and focus in bright sunlight just isn't happening without one.


Batteries

Here's the deal. The BMPCC eats batteries the way that an eight year old eats CoCoa Puffs for breakfast when Mom's not looking. About 30 minutes is what one can expect. The reason is, simply, that the camera uses a huge amount of juice to run the processors necessary to record the extremely high frame rates of ProRes 422 HQ at 220 Mbps. You can tell, because on a cool morning the camera makes a very nice hand warmer.

The solution is to buy more batteries. Lots of them. I'd judge a half dozen as the minimum needed for a typical day's shooting. The battery used is a Nikon El EN20, but you can get third party alternatives for about $10 each. Don't get upset about the battery situation, just buy as many as you need, and get one of the nifty chargers that can handle two batteries at once.

Oh yes, and remember to turn off the camera when not shooting for more than a few minutes. Enough said.


 

An Update on Power Consumption; by John Brawley

The morning after this review first appeared, I received an email from John Brawley, an Australian based cinematographer and some-time camera beta tester for Black Magic. He pointed out that the camera uses a Peltier cooler, the type used in Astrophotography cameras, and this is why battery life is short and the camera feels so warm. This is not something that I knew, or have seen mentioned anywhere else. John's comments are reproduced below, with permission.

"The sensor is actively cooled.  Like with some supercharged processors in computers, it uses a Peltier effect or thermoelectric cooling system to maintain consistent sensor temperature.  This is really important in maintaining and minimising fixed pattern noise (noise in the blacks) as well as dead pixels showing up and also to prevent what you would have experienced on dSLRs...overheating of the sensor causing the camera to have to stop to cool down.

The thing with thermoelectric cooling is that it uses power to cool.  The more it needs to cool, the more power it will suck.  So on a hot day when the camera is struggling to dissipate heat through the chasis it will use more power to maintain the sensor temperature.This is also the case with the larger BMCC, and why some users experience the chassis getting quite warm to touch.  It's also why you see such wildly differing reports of battery duration.  It just depends on how hot the camera is.

So if you've had the camera on for a while then it's warm.  Once it's warm, it uses more power to stay cool.  

The advantages of thermoelectric cooling is absolutely consistent sensor performance and no requirement for a cooling fan.  The downside is that is sucks a lot of power and it's variable.  The only other cinema camera to do this cooling approach is the 60K Arri Alexa. ;-) "

John Brawley, Cinematographer


Cards

The BMPCC wants the fastest SD cards available. Below is the official list.

  • Delkin Devices 16GB Elite SDHC UHS-I
  • Delkin Devices 32GB Elite SDHC UHS-I
  • Sandisk 64GB Extreme SDXC UHS-I
  • Sandisk 128GB Extreme SDXC UHS-I
  • Sandisk 16GB Extreme Pro SDHC UHS-I
  • Sandisk 64GB Extreme Pro SDHC UHS-I

They have not yet specified what cards will be needed for shooting raw, though since the ones above are among the fastest available they should be OK for this.


Focal Length Factor

The BMPCC has a so-called Super 16mm format sized sensor. This was a very popular format in the film days, especially among budget film makers, because the cost of film stock was much less than 35mm, which was usually only used in Feature Film productions or for big budget TV shows.

The focal length factor over full frame 35mm is just under 3X, and against Micro Four Thirds is 2X. This means that if your brain is hard-wired, the way mine is, to 35mm format focal lengths 3X is the number to keep in mind. This becomes an issue in two areas. One is depth of field. Your Nikon D800 or Canon 5D MKIII will give much shallower DOF, if that's what you're looking for. But the real issue with the BMPCC is finding a wide angle lens that is wide enough.

The widest MFT lens is the Panasonic Lumix 7-14mm f/4. This is equivalent on the BMPCC at the wide end to a 21mm, which is great, except that because of its bulbous front element it can't be used with screw-in filters. You'd have to use a matte box for NDs, which means rails and bulk. The widest MFT lens of which I'm aware that accepts front mount filters is the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6. This yields about a 28mm focal length equivalent at the wide end, not bad, but for many people not wide enough. By comparison, 12mm, which is a common wide angle in the MFT world is only 35mm equivalent on the BMPCC, nowhere near wide enough for many situations.


Stabilization

I know that shaky camerawork is the norm on many productions these days, giving that "reality" look. Bah humbug. Camera moves are an important part of the language of film, but not those caused by hand shake.

Fortunately the BMPCC makes use of lenses that have built-in stabilization, but only with those lenses where the IS activation is physically on the lens. If lens IS activation is controlled by the camera, no dice. The BMPCC isn't capable of turning it on and off.


Resolution, Moire and Rolling Shuttert

I did not shoot chart tests, but when filming with good lenses at optimum aperture, resolution is truly excellent. There is occasional moire, but it doesn't appear often.

Rolling shutter is there, but not better or worse than any other CMOS camera. One learns to work around it.


Conclusion

I sub-titled this review The Agony and the Ecstasy. And, for good reason. The BMPCC is capable of producing some of the highest quality cine images that I have ever seen, and I'm including cameras in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. That is not to say that it operates like one of those. Far from it. But in terms of image quality, even in its current mode without raw, the output is stunning, and capable of broadcast level IQ.

The same of course goes for its bigger brother, the Black Magic Cinema Camera, but the trade-off for 2.5K vs HD, is a camera that can fit in a shirt pocket. That means that for "stealth" shooting, where anything that looks like a cine or pro camera will be forbidden, if you're shooting with a BMPCC you appear to be just another tourist. For micro-budget productions it makes a perfect "B" cam, and for situations where small camera size is a must, and you might consider using a GoPro, the BMPCC may now fit the bill (though it is not as robust by half).

I've shot video with just about all of the available video-capable DSLRs, the Canon 5D MKII and III, the Nikon D800 and D7000, the Panasonic GH3 and a wide variety of other compact system cameras. None of them can hold a candle to the image quality available from the BMPCC, or come within 3-5 stops of its dynamic range and gradeability. And that's without raw yet!

A Note on "Grain"

The BMPCC's image files are not absolutely noise free. Even at low ISOs, on smooth areas there is a hint of grain. As others have noted, this is a very film-like cinematic grain and not at all objectionable. But anyone coming from the contemporary DSLR world where at anything below ISO 1600 image files are as smooth as a baby's bum, shouldn't be surprised when your footage shows a bit of "character".

I did see visible and not terribly pleasant grain at ISO1600, but the application of Neat Video made short work of it. 

In the end, the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera frustrates, but delivers. The value proposition is amazing, and it puts cameras costing 10X to 15X more to shame in terms of image quality. That none of the major camera makers has provided us with anything close in terms of IQ is a telling indictment.


The Test Production

The only way to properly take the measure of any new camera is to go out and shoot with it in a real-world environment. Only so much can be gleaned from playing around in the lab, the studio or the back yard.

As it turned out we received our BMPCCs just a few days before a planned fall colour shoot in Algonquin Park, in north central Ontario. The weather was warm and sunny, and we were in the park for three days, just slightly ahead of peak colour. The mornings all were full of fog and mist off the lakes, and the afternoons had brilliant hard sunlight.

This turned out to be ideal for my purposes, because with its 13 stops of dynamic range there are few cine cameras that could have handled the deep forest light that we encountered. Frankly, only another Black Magic camera, the Canon C300, Sony FS700, or Red Scarlet can even come close. 

I have produced a short (5 minute) film shot in the park that weekend. It can be found above, and with details about its making at The Making of Algonquin Autumn. The purpose of this film, besides the simple enjoyment of making it, was to illustrate the amazing dynamic range of the camera. But, when I graded the footage I never let showing the technical qualities of the file outweigh the aesthetics I was after. You can assume that in almost every case there is much more shadow detail available than is displayed. Also, Vimeo compression tends to crush blacks a bit.

The Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera can be purchased at BH Photo by CLICKING HERE

October, 2013

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Concepts: Photography, Photographic lens, Focal length, Wide-angle lens, Camera, Aperture, Depth of field, F-number

Entities: Nikon, Blackmagic, Able Cine, Panasonic, Olympus, Red Giant, Auto White Balance, depth of field, focal length, touch screen, shutter speed, operating system, white balance, the deal, Contineo cage, BMPCC, BMCC, IBC, Michael Reichmann, Iris, Captain Hook, D800, NDs

Tags: camera, BMPCC, cinema camera, cine camera, film, widest MFT lens, mode, aperture, grade cinema camera, Pocket Cinema Camera, proper cine camera, Black Magic, LUT Buddy, NLE, Micro Four Thirds, Focus button, Nikon D800, contineo cage, original BMPCC shipping, Blackmagic camera, wide end, white balance, wide angle, focal length, sized camera, wide angle lens, manual aperure control, lens-based Image Stabilization, stunning image quality, camcorder, certain design norms, future firmware update, in-camera card formatting, shutter speed control, shutter angle control, Black Magic cameras, way, screen, Feature Film productions, video