A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I were joking to each other that we would receive the Blackmagic Production Cameras we had ordered “any month now.” Imagine my pleasure and surprise when I received my very own BMPK, a scant six weeks after I had placed the order with B&H!
My first impression, after testing it out, is that this is a whole lot of camera for the money. The Blackmagic Production Camera costs about $3,000. That’s $800 less than my most recent camera, the Panasonic AF 100, or $300 less than a Canon 5d Mark 3. With that said comparing the BMPK to anything else in its price range is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Or, maybe a more modern analogy would be like comparing a Swiss Army Knife to a meat cleaver. The BMPK doesn’t do a whole lot of different things, but it does one thing – shoot video – like a mofo. And, like a meat cleaver, the BMPK would be difficult to handle for those who are used to smaller, friendlier tools. This is an extremely powerful piece of equipment that, frankly, does not make it easy for you to get where you’re going. Consider the following:
• No audio meters. You can set the input levels, but you can’t see how strong the signal is.
• No XLR inputs. Instead you get dual 1/4″ phono inputs (like guitar cables).
• No way to delete clips or format media in the camera.
• Only 3 levels of ISO: 200, 400, 800.
• Only 2 Picture Styles: “Film” or “Video” (which is almost exactly the same as film, except with more saturated color).
• No way to transfer media to a computer, without a separate SSD dock (I cannibalized an old harddrive for mine).
• An inexplicable “Black Hole Sun” issue, in which highly overexposed highlights turn into magenta tumors.
• A view finder that is almost impossible to see in bright sunlight.
• No HDMI output, only SDI.
• No indication of how much recording time you have left.
• No handles, or other feasible way to hand hand-hold the unit.
• An internal battery that drains rapidly, and external batteries that cost $300 apiece.
• Footage that needs to be color graded extensively.
• ProRes files that swallow about 5GB per minute. I didn’t even try recording in RAW.
Also, consider that the sensor on the black magic cameras is protected by a thin piece of glass, and that my particular camera (along with others, according to the support forums), arrived from the factory with several pieces of dust on the inside of that piece of glass. This means that I really can’t shoot at any aperture over f/8 without risking sensor spots. Theoretically, I could send the camera back to black magic to have it repaired, but given the back log they are doing with, I am terrified that it would be months before I got my camera back. As it is, the specs are very very tiny. It’s not okay, but it is something I can work around.
The black hole sun issue is also inexcusable. Blackmagic did patch the same problem on their less expensive Pocket Cinema Camera with a firmware update, so obviously it’s possible to fix it. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before they release updates for the BMPK firmware.
With all that said, I’m still glad I sold my AF-100 to get this thing. In fact, most of the general complaints about this camera remind me of a lot of the early complaints against the Canon 5D Mk II: yeah, it offered unbelievable image quality at an unprecedented price, but it didn’t allow 24p recording, it didn’t have audio monitoring, it didn’t allow for manual exposure, and so on. All those issues were solved either by the third-party Magic Lantern hacks, or with official firmware updates. There’s no way that Blackmagic won’t do something similar.
Now, any sane person might wonder why people like me are waiting weeks or months to get their hands on a product that is so challenging. The simple answer is that this camera delivers truly cinematic image quality. The BMPK delivers a step forward in capability that mirrors what the Canon 5D Mark II did in 2008. The 5D2 made it possible for the average photographer/videographer to shoot footage that looked as good as a TV show. The BMPK raises the bar to footage that looks as good as a major motion picture, for the same basic price point. This means that, effectively there is now no major barrier to entry for cinematic storytelling. For the price of a crappy used car, you can get a camera package, a computer, some lights and sound equipment, and you can make your movie. Yes, people will complain that it’s still several thousand dollars. But 10 years ago, you couldn’t even touch a camera like this for under $100,000. 10 years before that, you couldn’t even put together an editing system for less than $100,000, and you would have needed to shoot on 35mm film to approach this kind of image quality.
If you watch the ungraded vs. graded test video at the top of this post, you’ll see that I had trouble exposing my images properly. That’s partly because I wasn’t used to the monitor, and partly because I didn’t realize that I could turn on zebra bars to tell me what parts of the image were at 100% brightness. However, if you look at the graded footage, you’ll notice that it looks fantastic. There’s so much detail captured in the ProRes files that I was able to salvage almost every single shot. Now that I have a vague idea about how to operate the camera, I don’t expect to have as much trouble in future.
Vimeo squashed my file down to 720p, but here are screengrabs at full, 3160×2140 resolution. This is not really 4K, since it does not have a horizontal resolution of 4,000 pixels, but it IS four times the pixel-count of HD, which makes it Ultra HD, and hella big and impressive.
Much has been made of the accessories required to use the Blackmagic products. In my opinion, this has been somewhat overblown. While a camera such as the AF-100 includes everything in the box, meaning audio capability, monitoring its ability, input output and file control, etc., DSLRs fall short in many of these categories. In other words, the Blackmagic cameras are not a good way to get your feet wet in filmmaking or video production. However, for those who have been working with DSLR video for some time, and already have additional equipment, such as Canon lenses, external audio recorders and or field mixers, camera cages or rigs, field monitors, and so on, swapping a black magic camera out for a DSLR will not be that big of a deal.
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t need any gear. For one thing, this camera has an EF mount, which means that it takes Canon EOS lenses. If you don’t have any Canon lenses, you’re looking at spending the price of the camera body, for just a couple of quality pieces of glass. Speaking of lenses, it’s worth noting that the production camera is not full frame it is super 35, which is roughly similar to the APS sensor in the Canon 7D. So, for example, a 20 millimeter lens on the Canon 5D2 will look like a 35 millimeter lens on the BMPK. To get a 20 millimeter equivalent on the Blackmagic, you would need a 12 millimeter lens. So, even if you have glass, you might need some new bits and pieces.
Also, I’m going to come out and say it: the 1/4″ audio inputs are a bizarre choice. Normally, the only time you see a cable with a female XLR plug at one end and a quarter inch plug at the other is when a musician is singing into a microphone that is being plugged directly into a guitar amp. And the fact that there’s no visual audio meter is certainly a cause for concern. I would not undertaken a serious project with this camera without recording the audio on an external device. The camera does have a headphone jack, so unlike most DSLR’s, it is possible to get a general confidence monitor on your sound, you just don’t have any way of telling how close you are to being either excessively loud or excessively quiet on the actual waveform being recorded.
I should mention that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the per-gigabyte cost of SSD drives is much better than SDHC cards or CF cards. A 16GB SDHC card costs about $18 (about $1.12/GB). A 16GB CF card costs about $75 (about $4.68/GB). A 256GB SSD drive cost about $223 (about $.87/GB). This means that the SSD drive actually costs slightly less per gigabyte then SDHC cards and is less than a QUARTER the price of CF media.
As always, there are plenty of people on the internet snobbishly proclaiming that, unless you’re willing to get all the high-dollar accessories, you just shouldn’t bother trying. That, in my opinion, is absolute and utter nonsense. Now, more than ever, it’s possible to do a great project with a tiny budget. The Blackmagic Production Camera definitely has some growing pains to work through, but it fulfills the promise made by the Canon 5D Mark II: that the day has come when the difference between lousy production and great production is no longer the camera, it’s the person using it. The playing field has been leveled, and the production industry will never be the same again.