By Dominic DeSantis – Owner/DP Propaganda DC
Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
Way back when the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera was announced, I was most certainly of the mind-set that this camera was a game changer. Pre-ordered it immediately and waited patiently while the camera made its way to market. When I received it not much was known about the camera’s usability so I was fresh to explore its features for myself. Within short time I realized that the promise of the Pocket Cinema Camera being a “game changer” was not to be and sadly it was a camera that would see very little use in my work as a cinematographer.
The “game changer” status that the BMPCC immediately grabbed hold of was for several reasons. Sized small enough to fit in your pocket. The camera was about the size of most point and shoot digital cameras that we have been using to take snaps since the beginning of the digital camera revolution. The size of the camera was certainly remarkable for a digital video camera, but that was not necessarily anything to get terribly excited about. It was the fact that this imp(GOT fanboy alert) of a camera had the one codec that we all dreamt that all cameras would and should have ProRes HQ. Add to that if you wanted to, the BMPCC could shoot RAW using Cinema DNG. Granted this was one feature that never excited me because RAW workflows are not terribly important to me-much pain-very little gain. Principally it was size and quality codecs that thrust the BMPCC onto the world stage as a “game changer”. These features were not the only ones that many of us were excited by. Interchangeable lens mount would be next on my list of awesome features not seen in super small cameras and not just any lens mount. The m4/3 lens mount. Having the ability to interchange lenses meant that this camera could be deployed in just about any imaging way that you could imagine. The m4/3 mount is not a proprietary mount(not connected to any particular manufacturer) like the Canon EF or Nikon F, but it is a mount that a consortium of manufacturers over see. One of its best design features is a very shallow depth so adapting lenses to cameras with this mount is easily done. There are many manufacturers making lenses for this mount, but there is also a world of adaptors both simple and reasonably priced that you can get not only your legacy lenses onto this camera, but pretty much any lens ever made. These are perhaps the big features but there are many others worth mentioning. A very wide dynamic range, especially for a camera this size. Internal batteries: Black Magic Design went with the EN-EL20 a battery that has powered many Nikon Point and Shoots and is available quite readily at very reasonable prices. Buying a half-dozen of these batteries is most certainly not going to break the bank. A Large LCD screen(3.5”) on the camera pretty much uses the entire real estate on the back of the camera. Also lets not forget-Price. The BMPCC could be had for $995.00.
Reality Sets In
So with all these amazing features, Why did I have such a hard start with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera? First off: The big one, Usability. All these state of the art features maybe in hindsight were a bit too much for such a small package and in many ways limited its use. All of these earth-shaking features sounded great on paper, but now that the camera was in my hands could I actually use them. The short answer for the impatient among you is a simple no. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty for me. The LCD screen turns out to be unusable in real world situations. Yes you can point and shoot with this camera and most likely get more than useful results, but as a DP that likes to guarantee my work the LCD screen comes up short in most situations. Simply it is extremely difficult to work with. Why? Very milky contrast. The image on the LCD is very flat and so makes it difficult to judge exposure and lighting and nearly impossible to judge focus with out the focus peaking turned on. This is compounded when using DSLR glass since many if not all zooms do not hold focus within their zoom range. So zooming in to set focus as a way of offsetting not being able to judge focus on the LCD is not an option. You are left leaving the focus peaking on making it possible to focus but making it more difficult to see anything but the color of your focus peaking overtaking the LCD viewfinder. Also the LCD is nearly impossible to use outside. The image on the LCD being mushy and not nearly bright enough for any reasonable expectation of use outside. Lastly regarding the LCD, it is stuck to the back of the camera. If it articulated even a bit up or down so that you could orientate the LCD you could use the camera to easily get the high and low angles the small size of the camera makes so easy.
The BMPCC also suffers greatly from its lightweight. I have a particularly hard time holding it steady because of its low mass and the camera is susceptible to jitter when using it handheld. It’s the bad kind of jitter that to me makes hand holding this camera impossible in any dynamic way. Some of these use issues can be overcome with Viewfinders and addition support. Which can and does solve these issues, but you no longer have the advantage of a pocket-sized camera.
Batteries. It turns out moving large amounts of data quickly is very power-hungry and small batteries are not really up to the task. The fact that an internal battery did not last much more than 20 minutes(your mileage may vary) did not surprise me nor really disappoint me. It was something that I can work with. To me batteries have always known the best time to die when shooting. Why should the BMPCC batteries be any different. Sound, the lack of audio meters. Since there are no meters there is no way of readily monitoring levels. So thinking of feeding audio from an external mic or a feed from the sound person. If you do not have the time to do a test which would include transferring the footage and making sure you got it right by playing it back. You’re just not going to do it. Even if you did you would still have to cross your fingers in hopes that all is proceeding as set up.
What makes you strongest also makes you weakest
The King Kong of features of the BMPCC for me is its ProRes recording. Little Camera, Big Codec. In reality though this is the BMPCC greatest weakness. It seems that only one SD card could reliably keep up with the cameras data push(Sandisk ExtremePro) and at 220mbps second you better have many cards ready to go. It turns out that almost every card that could spec out as being compatible with the BMPCC frame skips. So giving the camera to an assistant to get some great alternate angles and cut his teeth a bit as a camera op, well guess what, thats not your laptop struggling to keep up with playing back the file, those frame drops are baked in. All those high data rate Sony SD cards you bought for the camera, well find another camera to use them in. It turns out that ProRes HQ in reality is just too much for this camera. A complete mismatch if you will. To me reliability and getting the shot trumps high Quality Codecs. The camera really needs a codec less punishing to SD cards, but also data management in the field becomes an issue. What it really needs to be “game changing” camera is ProRes codec thats not the largest knife in the drawer. It needs ProRes 422. A codec thats more reality than fantasy.
The Dark Storm Passes
This summer just as I was thinking of selling my BMPCC something happened. Black Magic announced a price drop. Not an end of cycle price drop, a price drop of epic proportions. A 50% or $500 price drop. So that $995.00 camera on my shelf which seemed to get $650-$750 used was now really not worth much on the used market. In my mind would you pay $350 for a used camera that you could by new for $500. Probably not. Oh well, but Black Magic did something to make it up to us previous owners at the original price. The release of new firmware that to my mind now opened the door to not only keeping the BMPCC, but more importantly using the BMPCC. The new firmware that was released this summer includes four flavors of ProRes including the flavor of choice for me ProRes 422. Something else also happened I realized that my “State of the Art” HD 2/3” lenses worked extremely well on the BMPCC. There by giving them new life. So how did I react to all of this? Well naturally I bought another BMPCC at the new reduced price of 499.00(Note it now seems that the $995 price has been reinstated on new BMPCCs). With the curse of extreme data use greatly diminished, a Zacuto Viewfinder to make judging focus and getting rid of extraneous light possible. The BMPCC camera is now back with a vengeance. I use it on a regular basis and am almost always impressed with its imaging capabilities. Using it with 2/3” zooms makes it possible to shoot handheld with enough mass so that jittery footage is greatly diminished. Since these lenses have wide ends the Super16 sensor’s lens factor becomes less of an issue. Having two matching cameras is a great asset when shooting requires it. Now I can use the BMPCC comfortably on productions that require its unique profile and I can guarantee the results. In short these improvements made it possible for the BMPCC to have a place in my production kit.
It Gets Even Better
On August 21, 2014. BlackMagic Design released firmware version 1.9.3. This version includes the much asked for audio meters as well as a histogram for monitoring exposure. This firmware also improves the choices available with the shutter angle. It now goes down to 11. Which is as we all know better.
It may have taken a year or so after its release, but BlackMagic has definitely delivered a very capable camera in the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Perhaps a bit late, but if you were fortunate enough to buy it at $495 a great deal under budget.