CAMERA REVIEW – DIRK BOSHOFF
VOODOO CHILD: THE BLACKMAGIC POCKET CINEMA CAMERA
At the end of last month Blackmagic Design released their long-awaited Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the 4K Blackmagic Production Camera. For those of you that are unfamiliar with who they are and what they do, they are an Australian company that specializes in video production hardware and colour grading software. Through a bunch of acquisitions over the last few years they have broadened out into the camera market with the introduction of the 2.5K resolution camera in 2012 and their two new cameras now in 2013.
If you want to know in detail about the cameras, there is little I can share, as I don’t own one. This I aim to remedy as soon as possible. Besides, if you want specs, look on their website. I have no desire to repeat what has already been said.
What I would like to share is why some of it’s key features are important. Many of the write-ups online (trust me there are hundreds) seem to discuss the features in the manner that assumes the reader has a clue what they are talking about. So I would rather talk about why some of the features are cool and why this little guy has been predicted to be a game changer in video work.
Lets start with some real basics before we get lost in the details:
Size (128 x 38 x 66 mm), Weight (355 g) & Price ($999. With the R/$ as it is, that could be almost anything on a given day):
Lets not kid ourselves, only those with less self-esteem/brains than money feel the need to spend more on something than what its worth. This is not a camera for a Hip Hop artist. It’s not flashy, expensive, over-branded and doesn’t try to distract from its performance by wowing you with other pointless features.
This is bare-bones efficiency that is light, low-key & uncomplicated. These Australians might be required to speak in German accents when at the office. If you have ever held a Leica S2 after using a Japanese built SLR, it’s the equivalent of walking from an Asian gaming convention into a Buddhist retreat. The Pocket Camera seems the same to me. Pragmatism and functionality, not an array of buttons and menu that gives you the feeling that it was designed by a Home Affairs official, requiring every step to be confirmed and completed in triplicate.
Give me Aperture, Shutter, ISO, manual focus and a half descent light meter. Like guns, cameras don’t shoot people. People shoot people.
When it comes to size and weight, I have always felt that this may be one of the biggest factors in Indie film-making. With added size and weight you need far more robust jibs, tripods, steadicam rigs, sliders, dollies etc. With that comes crew. It makes certain jobs just impossible as they blow the budget. At 355 grams this camera could be bolted to anything and placed anywhere. If you are armed with an equally efficient device, the Swiss Army Knife, you can MacGyver a mini-jib out of anything. For those who are keen on the MikroKopter and their knock-offs, this is the ideal camera for remote controlled aerials. As weight in the air costs money, this will dramatically reduce the cost of low-level aerials.
Dynamic Range (13 contrast crushing stops)
There are three parts to this; there is the sensor, the Cinema DNG format and DaVinci Resolve Grading software. They work as a team to help you mange high-contrast scenes that are unevenly lit, which is most scenes out of the studio. Again, this is the cost/time saver. To manage contrast you need lights, generators, polys, scrims more crew, equaling more money. That’s just to mange it, not get pretty light. That costs even more. Obviously this doesn’t mean you can be sloppy when it comes to lighting, but it does mean that you can work with less, keeping yourself light and portable. Capturing a greater degree of detail in both highlights and shadows allows you to do so much more with the footage later. You can always make shadows darker and highlights brighter, going the other way is the problem. Added to a wider dynamic range is of obviously better colour and a better gradation of tones, all the stuff that makes up pretty pictures.
Video Encoding: ProRes 422 & Cinema DNG
We all know RAW when it comes to stills and have probably messed around quite a bit when it comes to managing contrast or colour. When it comes to video we have two issues, space (resolution) and time (how each frame and how a sequence of frames compressed), also known as temporal and spatial to the highbrow user. HD is a very poor indicator of quality; unfortunately it is used commonly as a standard. My phone shoots HD, but it’s terrible. A better yardstick to understand quality is data rate as this indicates how much information is captured per second.
A Canon 5D MKII compresses and saves data at around 38 megabits per second. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is running around 220 megabits per second when saving to Apple ProRes 422. A bit of a jump there…
Canon’s very well priced ($14 000) C300 runs at 50 mb/second. I know this is not an absolute measurement, but lets face it, its bringing in lots of data, whether that is good data is a question that I cannot tell you till I haven’t tested one yet.
In essence what the video encoding should allow is a greater depth in colour, smoother gradations and better contrast, all the things that highly compressed video doesn’t quite offer. This will allow for far cooler colour grading and probably the possibility of some better composited video too.
As with all gear, don’t try to be the first to get the newest model. Let all the wealthy spend their cash, then sit back and watch the blogs to see if the camera is all it was hoped to be.
When it comes to lenses, here is the only possible down side. As a photographer I don’t own any micro four thirds lenses. Yes there will be adaptors but the issue will be depth of field on that little sensor and I am a little unsure of the glass in some of those lenses. There is one option that makes me very interested, but for price, and that is the Cosina built Voigtländer Nokton F0.95 available in 17.5mm, 25mm and 42.5mm focal lengths. Before you get horrified that Cosina manufactures on behalf of Voigtländer, find reassurance in the fact that they also make the Nikon F-Mount, Canon EOS mount and Leica ZM lenses under license for Zeiss in Planars and Distagons. These are all terrific lenses; sharp, contrasty with great colour and generally low distortion.
The 17.5mm has an angle of view 64.6 degrees; a good standard wide, the 25mm is 47.3 degrees, a perfect standard and the 42.5mm has a 30.5 degree, the perfect portrait. With a max aperture of f0.95 it should deliver enough shallow depth of field to make things pretty, even for the small sensor size. One of the great challenges for getting nice looking shallow depth of field shots will be trying to work in even medium intensity light. There is little online reference in the way of what the Pocket Cinema Camera ISO range is, other than its highest at 1600 but I am guessing that it will be starting around 200 or 400 ISO. If it is, it may be that you would have to stack a full set of ND filters on the front to get anywhere close to using f0.95. Even fairly good NDs often start giving colour shifts when multiples are used.
Added to this is shutter speed or in this case, shutter angle. In this case the 180 degree would equate to 50th when shooting 25fps, but it seems very odd that Blackmagic has left out both ISO and available shutter angle of their website as tech specs. I really hope this is not indicative of some issue.
Voigtländer claims that the 10 blade aperture delivers beautiful bokeh, but again it stands to be tested before confirmed. Once again the problem is price. These bad boys have a price range averaging $1000. But realistically that isn’t bad for a lens that you can use in the dark.
Well. All in all this is a little piece of magic conjured by antipodean wizards. Can’t wait to get one, I won’t lie.