Black Magic Cinema Camera (BMCC) Beautiful & Befuddling

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Just a little over two weeks after this camera (The BMCC "EF") was given to under a dozen reviewers, and a little a little over a week after this review was published,  Black Magic Design has announced an MFT version of this camera.   That camera will sport a Passive Micro Four Thirds mount that can be adapted to use with PL Lenses.  That  BMC "MFT" camera with the new mount will be available in December according to Black Magic.  This new mount means that a much larger series of lenses will now work with this camera and in effect changes my opinion on the lens limitations of this camera.   You should note both mounts are passive, meaning that there will be no iris control, or image stabilization.   You will however be able to use adaptors for PL, M, Nikon, Canon – just make sure each lens will fully cover the uncommon (more square) size of this sensor.  The "MFT" version of this camera will likely make a lot more sense for most users than the "EF" in my opinion.

 We’re in an age of a preponderance of choice.   And while having the privilege of making choices is a luxury – it can also at times be a bit overwhelming. 

The search for the “perfect camera” is a fruitless one.   It always has been and becomes more so with each new offering – especially as each of the new candidates continue to close in on becoming the “perfect” filmmaker’s tool.

The “perfect camera” is the one that will allow you to most effectively translate your vision onto the screen.   And for each of those ideas,  for each of the shooting challenges, for every budget (or lack thereof) exists the (near) perfect camera.

The key for me, is finding a tool that is ready to use now, one that I can use “as is” and that requires the least amount of tinkering and accessorizing before it can be put to use on a project.  This likely has to do in part with the endless tinkering I had to do with the Canon 5D MKII as I worked with a multitude of companies over the past 4 years to make HDSRLs production-worthy with a multitude of (unfortunately) necessary accessories.

Many of us love to innovate, to push the boundaries, and to discover new solutions to make a tool excel beyond its initial potential.   Yet, truth be told,  most of us would benefit from focusing more on how best to tell our stories, or on making the story stronger – that tends to pay off more richly in the long run that spending time on accessorizing our uber camera. 

To that point, I’m not sure that the Black Magic Cinema Camera will fit the bill "out of the box" for a lot of users out there looking for a production ready camera.

  The lack of certain key features and some of the choices Black Magic made – notably the size of the sensor (15.81mm x 8.8mm producing a 13 stop range 2.5K 12-bit RAW,  2432X1366 pixel CinemaDNG filesmake it difficult to put into immediate production use without a bit of accessory love.   And to be very clear: this camera WILL work on productions once properly outfitted (no question.)  If we could do it with HDSLRs we can certainly do it with this camera.   I do however believe this camera could ALSO have been a great handheld camera (with only a lens, and variable ND) were the ergonomics slightly more refined in that direction (without sacrificing anything or standing in the way of this camera being fully rigged up.)  In all fairness – this camera seems to have been designed to be used with a full support rig and standard filmmaking accessories.  A part of me can’t help but see the potential of what a few small changes could have done to make this camera do both well.  CLICK ON IMAGE TO LEFT FOR SENSOR SIZE COMPARISON AND HIGH RESOLUTION EXAMPLE

That being said: this is exactly what I would say about most HDSLRs and even many digital cinema cameras… most seem to need quite a bit of accessories to work on full fledged-productions.  Put my hat in the ring for someone looking for a camera that can be ready to use at all times, AND fully rigable for larger shoots.

The Good: I think that this camera produces one of the most beautiful images in the cinema/video market.   An image (Recorded either in RAW Adobe CinemaDNG format at 2.5K, or Apple’s ProRes 422 & DNXxHD 1080p) with very good detail (relative to other 1080p camera of course – not 4K+ as is to be expected.)    In some ways less is more, for example Arri’s Alexa camera actually incorporates a 1/4 soft filter in front of its sensor to soften detail, and this camera’s sensor also gives a very filmic look and noise structure that many simply won’t be able to resist – and that is especially true at this price point of just under $3,000.  The lack of resolution (Relative to 4K+ cameras) in many ways oddly makes it look more like motion picture film.   The blacks seem to fall apart in a very organic way.

So where does the Black Magic Digital Cinema camera (or BMCC) fit in the marketplace?

Well I have two words that I came to when thinking of the BMCC – “Beautiful, and Befuddling.”

CLICK ON IMAGE TO LEFT FOR  A HIGH RESOLUTION EXAMPLE OF THE DYNAMIC RANGE OF THIS CAMERA

From the moment this camera was announced at NAB this spring, I was befuddled by the form factor, and the choice of sensor size – a slightly smaller than micro 4/3rd size sensor when Super 35mm and greater have been all the rage since the Canon 5D MKII.   Yet I was also quite intrigued to see what this new RAW format looked like.   I was skeptical based on what I saw then – and I have since been very pleasantly surprised.

When put side by side with the Canon EOS 1DX (shooting still frames in the RAW CR2) the camera performs almost identically in terms of dynamic range, which is incredibly impressive   This cannot be said for the high ISO performance though (few if any can match Canon there.)  

I have included a comparison of the two cameras with the same Zeiss ZE 18mm 3.5 lens above – and that should demonstrate the relative crop factor between the two cameras on the same lens.   It’s significant of course and likely my single biggest reservation about this camera.

CLICK ON IMAGE TO LEFT FOR COMPARISON BETWEEN THE TWO CAMERAS IN A HIGH RESOLUTION EXAMPLE

You will also notice several examples that show what I would call “difficult” lighting situations in terms of dynamic range.   I haven’t had a chance to play too much with mixed available light yet.

With each example, I have included  what the RAW DNG file looks like in Adobe Photoshop CS6’s Adobe Camera RAW, a “Toned” version, a detail of the highlight detail, and shadow detail – to show just how much information is hiding in those DNG files.   

 I haven’t had a chance as of yet to output video file, nor to process these files in Black Magic Resolve (mostly because my software USB dongle is in checked luggage!  I am working on this article on a flight back from Australia.)  I will put some video up at some point,  both off of the RAW BMCC format, as well as the internal ProRes Codec it can record in, as well as examples of grading in DaVinci Resolve.  I should say the workflow is a bit of a bear – but that is to be expected with almost any RAW format these days to be honest.   Many will quickly default to the Apple ProRes codec in my opinion – as any Arri Alexa user will tell you.

 Nonetheless you should notice how well the files retain highlight detail and how you can dig into deep shadows.  The trick with this camera is never to blow out your highlights which is easy to avoid doing with the built-in Zebra function in the camera (even if you can’t see the image on the reflective touch LCD on the BMCC.)

When evaluating any camera, I think it’s always a good idea to see what a camera’s manufacturer was aiming to do with said camera, and to that point, Black Magic’s CEO Grant Petty lays it out pretty clearly in the opening section of the camera’s user manual:

 Thank you for purchasing Blackmagic Cinema Camera!

We have worked hard to produce a camera that’s designed from the ground up to have a very wide dynamic range and to produce files that are "flat" which means they preserve this wide dynamic range.

To this I say:  mission accomplished.    This is likely one of the top 5-6 sensors in the market today in terms of color rendition, dymamic range, and noise structure, and it creates an incredible sharp image.  

This will allow you make your creative decisions by using the included DaVinci Resolve 9 color correction tools!

Resolve rocks.   Black Magic knows not only how to create some of the best grading software in the world – but here they have shown that they know and understand that the perfect solution for obtaining a great image is the perfect marriage of a sensor designed to be fully taken advantage of with the post production tool in mind.   This one-two punch is a lethal combination and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more software being bundled with cameras in the years to come.  Many have been quick to point out that the bundling of Ultra Scope and DaVinci Resolve effectively “reduce” the effective price of this camera to under $2K if you were to purchase the software separately.  (To be clear the BMCC comes with copies of both pieces of software gratis.)

We think this means you get a cinema style shooting experience where you capture and preserve more of the image so you have as many creative options as possible. An added benefit of the 2.5K sensor is you capture more pixels than you need for HD so your HD images get a wonderful anti aliased look, similar to shooting film!

The additional pixels are welcome – but don’t come close to giving us the creative post options (in terms of cropping after the fact, or pan and scanning) and as far as stabilizing an image (such as Adobe’s Warp Stabilizer function) as you would with say a 4K or 5K image.   The single most “befuddling” decision with this camera is the choice of such a small sensor size.   My guess is that it was one based on economics and how a larger sensor would not only be more expensive to produce, but also the fact that having to process RAW images from a larger sensor at 30fps would also lead to much more expensive internal hardware within the camera.   A larger sensor  = more pixels to process, a bigger processor, more memory etc etc – ergo a more expensive camera that would quickly reach the price of a RED Epic or Canon C300/C500. 

But I regret to say that I find the sensor size to be the main limitation with this camera and my use of it.   I’ve become quite used to the Super 35mm sensors many of us havel become used to working with (and bought lenses for,) and the shallow depth of field and access to lenses it affords us as filmmakers.   While I’m not a big fan of ultra-wide angle uses in a lot of narrative scenes myself, those lenses can be very important for use in creating establishing shots, full body shots of actors in an interior scene, or for creative purposes.   For such an example one need only look at the masterful use of ultra-wide angle lenses in "Tree of Life" by Director Terrence Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki.

Do not under any circumstance underestimate the challenges this size sensor will give many of you and your existing lens collection.  Remember this is an EF lens mount – not a PL… and there is a limited amount of ultra-wide angle glass available that is suitable for pulling focus on a narrative scene, and that is optically sharp enough to survive this crop.   They do of course exist – but you will need to purchase/rent this glass which should be a factor in your decision to work with this camera.  The Tokina 11~16mm lenses are good – but it’s not easy pulling critical focus with these wide open. 

I would be remiss in failing to mention the fact that many of the best films and documentaries in history have been shot on 16mm and Super 16mm sized cameras (which are roughly the equivalent size of the BMCC sensor.)  One key point here is that if the lenses meant for those cameras could easily work with this camera then we’d be in good shape.  Unfortunately the size of this sensor means that many of those top lenses won’t be compatible with the BMCC (they either won’t cover the full frame area or simply aren’t available with EF lens mounts.)   Therefore users will have to revert to using lenses meant for HDSLRs  - and therefore have a limited choice in the wide angle range.

We have also included a large screen for easy focus and metadata entry as well as standard file formats that work with all video software. We hope you connect to this camera in a creative way and produce some amazing looking images! We will be extremely excited to see what creative work you produce!

Seeing the back of the reflective screen on a sunny day can be close to impossible at times to be honest.   And holding the camera?  Well let’s just say I’m glad they included a camera strap with the kit!  

As far as image and formats, Black Magic has definitely done that by incorporating Apple’s ProRes codec as an option with this camera.   The RAW Adobe CinemaDNG format can easily be read in almost all, if not all, Adobe software.   Playing the CinemaDNG format is quite a bit more intensive than many of you may be used to.   RED users will find themselves in familiar territory with this challenge – but at least they have access to RED Rocket cards to help them get better than real time conversions.   I have a brand new top of the line MacBook Pro Retina – and it goes through quite a workout to churn out these DNGs into a movie file.   This isn’t drag and drop video – unless you go to ProRes (in which case you get a great image – but not the full benefits of a RAW image which can be significant in your dynamic range and grading latitude.)

I also remember reading something else that Grant Petty said online or in a press release, something to the effect that he wanted to make a camera that did not require a bunch of accessories to put into production.

That is another significant miss (other than the sensor size, and lack of an interchangeable battery) of this camera.

While you can easily shoot indoors with this camera, forget being able to  pull focus on while looking at the touch-screen LCD on a bright day.   Pulling focus, setting exposure – let alone HOLDING the camera can be a challenge.   I’m a little stunned by the choice in ergonomics of this camera to be honest.  I hate to say it: but style won over function with this initial design. 

Oddly enough (and this is a bit counter-intuitive) I am strangely  drawn to the design of this camera.   It fits nicely alongside many other Apple products and could easily find a place in the Museum of Modern Art someday given its minimalist design. 

Every button, menu, and curve is quite elegant to say the least.  I have to say that I’ve rarely, if ever, been stopped by as many people who were incredibly curious to know what I was shooting with.   From random strangers, to airline personnel, to fellow visual artists – people are drawn to the design and shape of this camera.  It does look very futuristic!   The camera has led to several interesting discussion with random strangers.

That being said, the original iPhone  had a specific reason you couldn’t have an interchangeable battery according to my discussion with people on their team:  the electronics were so delicately stuffed into the frame of the phone that moving ANYTHING was simply too delicate of an operation.   Given the fact that the BMCC has a nice big door to access the SSD card, I believe they should have allowed access to a removable battery.  Black Magic claims 90 minutes of shooting time, and 2 hours of standby – not quite enough for most of us.

Of course I understand we can get an external battery unit… but that’s besides the point and yet another accessory we have to lug around.   I am sad to report I missed several gorgeous shots in Australia and New Zealand  this past week because either a. the battery died or b. I was too busy constantly turning the camera off to preserve battery and therefore missing key moments.   I tried in vain to charge the camera off of USB power.

Most HDSLR  users who are used to working with one battery for a few hours will have a rude awakening when it comes to using this camera without an external power source.  If you kit this camera up – no problem.  But for those of us who may have wanted to travel with a relatively small camera – well we’re not quite there yet.

I do wish a hot shoe had been included with this camera – with a little EVF adaptor that (similar to the Panasonic Lumix hot-shoe mountable EVF which is pretty fantastic (and a pretty nice little camera too to say the least!!!!) allows for easy composition in a bright environment.

I really wish there was a nice way to grip this camera as well, and a better way to stop/start it.   The start/stop button is in an awkward position when you hold the camera for me, and the lack of a tally light means I lost a lot of good clips as well.  It’s hard to see the shiny back LCD screen, let alone the small “RECORD” text on the bottom of the screen…

All in all – I think this is a fantastic first entry (notably in the image quality/sensor/dynamic range performance) that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of ergonomics. 

I do however think that should Black Magic decide to release a Super 35mm version of this camera, with a bit of a redesign to the ergonomics of the body – it will be a company to keep a very keen eye on over the next few years.

Some are already calling this the “baby Alexa” and touting how easily the image will intercut with that Arri product.  I don’t doubt them – although I assume that the BMCC “B” camera will hopefully be shooting the tighter of the two shots…  Until I do side by side tests with the two cameras I’m going to refrain judgment on whether or not that claim holds water. 

I also can very easily see that people will build out some pretty darn nice cages with great accessories to make this camera very production worthy.   I think there’s no question this can happen – and more easily than with many HDSLRs and with an image that quite frankly destroys almost all (if not all) HDSLRs.  This camera was definitely intended to be accessorized and not necessarily to be 100% production worthy out of the box.  I just think a different molding of the shape on the right side would have allowed for the easy handholding of this camera. I guess I’m a little disappointed because I was hoping to be able to work with this camera "as is."

In the end, even with every possible accessory – the size of this sensor will remain a challenge for many.   Don’t underestimate how much of a 1.6X crop factor (when compared to Super 35mm) or a 2.4 X crop factor (when compared to a full frame 35mm sensor)  can be in your lens selection.    Your 18mm is roughly the equivalent of 44mm lens… getting those nice wide cinematic shots we all love will prove a challenge for most on this size sensor.

Other small notes:  the camera is quite a bit heavier, and bigger than it looks.   The lens port extends out quite a bit further than you might expect.

The lack of HDMI out (in favor of HD-SDI) is welcomed by me – but will create problems for all those wishing to use many of their current HDMI EVFs and LCDs.   Also: SSDs aren’t cheap… keep that in mind as the amount of data you shoot with this camera can feel quite “Epic” pun intended.  Expect to invest $500-$1,000 in SSDs to start with if you are going to be shooting this in RAW mode.

You must also purchase a reader (or USB/ Thunderbold cord) to ingest the SSD.  There is no way to download footage straight from the camera.  

Setting a specific aperture is not currently possible.   You can hit the IRIS button and then open the aperture up or down one step at a time – but there is no read out of what T-Stop you are using whatsoever – you never “quite” know where you are on that front.  

You cannot shoot anything faster than 30fps at this time nor can you set any specific custom “looks” on your image.

I think that Zeiss will be a very happy beneficiary of this camera’s existence – with the crop factor of this camera you truly need to use the best wide angle glass you can find.   Zeiss ZE and CP.2 lenses will be the perfect solution for most.  I know that I have my Zeiss ZE 18mm 3.5 and Zeiss ZE 35mm 1.4 glued to this camera.   I also used a number of step up and step down ring with the best Variable ND filter I could find – the Schneider 77mm Variable ND filter.   I don’t think you can justify using a Fader Variable ND with this camera given the inferior glass quality relative to the pricier Schneider.  Remember you are cropping in 2.2X into your lens… and softness in a lens, or filter will be magnified by that amount.  That being said you’ll be able to get away with many wideangle lenses that perform well in the center (as you crop out the inferior optic performance of cheaper lenses on the outside edges – especially pronounced on wide-angle lenses!)

I should also mention that the IS function on my Canon 100mm Macro II did not function when I tested this camera – I love that lens as it’s my "secret" weapon given its 3 Axis stabilization that allows you to pull off incredibly stable shots (that look like they were shot on a slider/dolly but are actually shot handheld.)

And lastly – there is no way to format an SSD disk –  there is actually no “format” menu item in the camera which is odd.  You need to trash the contents of your SSD on your computer before inserting it back into the camera – which is odd.

All this being said, I know a lot will LOVE this camera simply for its brain ;)  By that I mean its sensor and color science.

Personally I’ll be waiting for the Super 35mm version of this camera before I can consider it as my “A” body.   That’s my personal view on things of course – as I mentioned at the start of this post:  I’m sure (and welcome) others seeing things differently.    Having access to a RAW image for under $3K is definitely something that will be impossible to ignore by many …  oh and to that point, did I mention that Black Magic absolutely NAILED the pricing on this camera?  

The price alone will prove simply irresistible to many and more than justify buying a few thousand dollars worth of accessories to make this camera production worthy.  

Don’t’ forget though:  at the end of the day there is one key factor you’ll never be able to improve: the small sensor size combined with an EF lens mount – and the lack of wide-angle lens choices you will (at least temporarily) be faced with.

I look forward to seeing a Super 35mm version of this camera with some ergonomic improvements and a few extra production-friendly bells and whistles and a greater selection of frame rates.

One thing should be noted:  when asked for an alternative to this camera anywhere near this price point…. I don’t have any easy answers.   And I’m not even looking to cameras that can shoot RAW – I’m looking for cameras that can produce an image that will come close to this quality for under $6,500 … and I’m having a hard time coming up with one at this time.