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First Look at the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

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I was lucky enough to be one of the early people on the waiting list for Blackmagic Design’s new 4K “Production Camera” body, which I received last week. It boasts a global shutter, Ultra 4K resolution, ProRes/RAW recording at 1080p/4K resolutions, a super 35mm sensor, EF mount, and around 12 stops of dynamic range – among other features. I took it out for a test spin with a fellow cinematographer, just to see how far I could push the image.

After a test run of “horror” shots with both a Canon EF IS lens and a manual Rokinon Cine lens, I’ve been learning about the benefits and caveats of the BMPC body. I’m going to enumerate some of those here.

Benefits

Dynamic Range. This cooks the hell out of the H.264 image that I’ve been getting out of the 5D mark III. I can see a full gamut of sky color without losing my subjects – and that’s without additional or reflected light.

Cinematic Quality. This might have something to do with the depth of the image, or the amazing amount of data that the body is storing for each frame, but it is definitely capable of breathtaking quality. I haven’t seen any artifacts from the footage I’ve taken so far, at either HD or 4K resolution.

Metadata. The touch screen allows some metadata to be stored for each clip, including the name of the project, scene number, etc, and allows it to be edited on the camera body afterwards. It also has a numeric unique numbering system, with customizable body IDs, which beats the MVI_xxxx.MOV or MM1Axxxx.MOV scheme from Canon.

Resolve. The body comes with a full copy of DaVinci Resolve 10. The only way to truly appreciate it is to actually use it. It essentially puts Fast Color Corrector and Colorista to shame. The only downside is that it does take quite a bit longer to run than most of the plugin-based correction and grading tools, unless you’re willing to invest in either a Red Rocket card or a bunch of fairly powerful GPU units for your machine. Either way, it is well worth the time and effort to learn how to use it.

Baked in Zebras and Focus Peaking. This is less of a revelation for me, coming from using Magic Lantern, but users of stock Canon bodies don’t know what they’re missing. You can also acquire these via EVF features – but it can’t be a bad thing to have those features in the body, as well.

Crop Factor. It’s about the same crop factor as an APS-C crop, for you 7D and Rebel users, so it’s only a big deal to acclimate if you’re coming from a full-frame body, like the 5D or 6D. The upshot is that you’re not going to have to blow a lot of money on extremely wide glass, as would be required by the BMPCC.

Global Shutter. If you have a lot of fast motion or quick pans, the lack of the “jello” effect from rolling shutter is very, very noticeable. This is one of the prime reasons I purchased this body – and it works as well as promised.

RAW and ProRes. (Yes, I know “RAW” isn’t an acronym – I just like it enough to shout it…) No firmware hacks, no playing around, you get ProRes and RAW footage out of this camera body. As of the time of writing, RAW has been disabled in the firmware, but I’m expecting an update “any day now” which will re-enable it. This makes me think twice about having usde H.264 as a codec for so long. And the logarithmic data collection means that all of that nice dynamic range is intact through the coloring process, so you’re not losing out there.

EF Mount. This is a big deal for me, as it keeps me from having to rebuy all of my glass. All of my M42, EF, and Nikon mount glass will be fine with this. And as an added bonus, the FD mount glass I have (using the Lens Doctor EF-FD mount adapter) works fine, and without the vignette I have on the full-frame sensor.

Caveats

Mounting. The standard 1/4” mount on the bottom of the camera is more or less useless; the mount plates either shift or scratch the bottom of the camera – so I ended up using the aluminum handles for my tests. They’re not particularly useful, considering the weighting of the camera, so I’m waiting for a cage to arrive. I only considered cages with upper and lower 15mm rod mounts (for options, of course). These are the ones I found to be the best choices:

  • CAME-06 BMCC Cage - $198 - The cheapest of the non-ePhoto bunch. It’s just a cage with two 30cm 15mm rods included, so you have to kit the rest of it out, but it’s potentially the best deal, considering the price jump to the Wooden Camera or Tilta rigs.
  • Gini Box Cage for BMPC - $269 - This is a slightly more well-known version of the CAME-06. I don’t know the difference in build quality, but you’re getting similar type kitting.
  • Wooden Camera Base Kit - $939 - A well designed, modular kit. Expensive, but potentially worth it.
  • Tilta TT-BMC-05 - $1570 - Not necessarily the most affordable, but very well designed. Expect to pay a hefty markup for their branded accessories. Note that this is an entire rig, rather than just a base kit, so the extra money is probably worth it, if you have it.

Glossy Screen. The screen is very reflective. I completely understand the virtual need for an EVF, otherwise you’re in daguerreotype shade cloth territory. Because it has SDI outputs, rather than HDMI, it’s probably a good idea to go with one of the SDI EVFs. Unfortunately, they’re not cheap. You more or less have the pick of these:

  • Cineroid EVF4MSS - $699 - The least expensive of the set.
  • Cineroid EVF4CSS - $599 - I realized that you can’t really use the EVF4MSS, despite its metal materials, because it only supports up to 1080i, whereas the BMPC4k requires 1080p.
  • Cineroid EVF4RVW - $995 - Retina display version of the EVF4CSS. Higher resolution, higher price.
  • Alphatron EVF-035W-3G - $1395 - The most expensive, but also most highly reviewed SDI EVF. Shane Hurlbut, A.S.C., endorsed this particular EVF for use with the BMPC body.

Otherwise, you’re in the market for both an EVF and an HDMI-to-SDI converter, which will tack on an addition few hundred dollars. The temporary budget solution, in my case, is to use a cloth until the EVF arrives …

Battery Life. The internal battery isn’t supposed to provide much shoot time ; virtually everyone using the camera has pointed out that it’s meant to be a sort of “buffer” between battery changes with an external battery. I bought a Switronix PB-70 for the body, which sports a RED-style V-mount, as well as a traditional 1/4”-20 mount. It can power the camera alone for at least four hours, and can additionally power other devices, like EVFs, HDMI-SDI converters, monitors, follow focus devices, et cetera, by the extensible power connectors. I have to buy an extra one, so I can have one charging and one plugged in, but it seems to be a decent solution.

Additionally, it helps to have the battery mounted on the camera assembly, otherwise it is moderately unweildy. The cheapest mounting solution for 15mm rods I found was the Ikan BMC-PBK-1-S mount, which has a small distribution center built into it. It’s slightly redundant, as the adapter that came with the PB-70 isn’t used, but for the money, it’s a good buy. It may make sense to buy the slightly more expensive Lanparte plate, which has a number of additional power outputs.

The Sun. Besides the glossy screen, the sun tends to blow out the fairly sensitive BMPC4k sensor. The solution is to use ND filters to reduce the amount of light coming into the sensor. You might be tempted to increase the f-stop, but you’ll also be increasing the depth of field to be more un-cinematic, so the ND filter is a must-have if you find yourself shooting in the direct sun, and don’t want to start using high shutter speeds. The downside is going to come in the “price” category; if you buy cheap ND filters, it will destroy the quality of the image, so you’re best off sticking with Tiffen or other brand-name high quality filters. They don’t come particularly cheap, however.

My recommendation to get started would be the Tiffen 77VND 77mm variable neutral density filter. It handles most of the reduction you’ll need, and at about $150, it’s far less expensive than a set of 4x4 filter glass.

Overall

I’m glad I didn’t wait for the Panasonic GH4. I know that’s going to come off as a little odd, but for the smaller sensor, M4/3 mount and its relatively insane crop factor, expensive add-on cinema kit, even odder form factor, H.264 codec, limited dynamic range, and rolling shutter – I feel that the BMPC4k body is going to do just fine. After all, no camera body makes you film better, or makes you a better cinematographer. All it can do is allow you the ability to increase your output quality – if you work for it.

NOTE: I haven’t posted any video clips yet due to the stabilization issues I had encountered using the handles alone. I may update the post to include some stills and short clips with the IS lens.

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