NAB 2012 was an important year for the camera market. That year saw a slew of new camera tech announcements and products flood the market, like Canon’s C300 and Sony’s F5 just to name a couple. But one announcement seemingly trumped them all, Blackmagic announcing the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. That put the production and post-production community on edge as the fabled 3K for $3K concept that RED failed to deliver on was finally in sight. Blackmagic had a heck of a time launching the camera as manufacturing setback after manufacturing setback pushed the actual release into 2013.
However, those setbacks didn’t stop Blackmagic from showing up at NAB 2013 and promising even more new camera tech. Last year the BMD Pocket Cinema Camea and the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K were announced. While the Pocket Camera shipped about a month after it’s promised release date, the Production Camera under went many of the same struggles as it’s Cinema counterpart. Manufacturing delays pushed the actual release of the Production camera into early 2014.
Having just received mine this past week, I was eager to test it out to see what it’s capable of. While I haven’t yet brought it on set in a “live production” environment, I have a decent feel for what seems to be the capability of this little 4K for $3K brain.
If I could sum up the entire camera in one word it’s the word production. It’s the most important word in the name of the camera. Why? Because this camera is meant to (1) be on rails or in a rig (like it’s counterpart), and (2) be in a well lit, completely controlled environment like you’d find in a studio setting. It’s no surprise that Blackmagic then also updated it’s line of ATEM switchers to handle 4K cameras. The expectation being that if you purchase 2 or more BMPC4K cameras you’ll need a switcher capable of digesting UltraHD (3840x2160) signals, and who better to supply you that hardware than Blackmagic.
What I would immediately caution people towards is thinking that this camera in any way, matches up with the BMCC. It doesn’t. I believe they are intended, built, and specced for entirely different markets, though BM’s advertising ( http://www.blackmagicdesign.com/products/blackmagicproductioncamera4k/uses ) does claim the camera to be suited to areas I think it would struggle. Does that mean you can’t use the BMPC as a cinema camera? No. But it does mean there are several serious limitations that will make it extremely difficult to use in a cinema/documentary/indie film sort of way. So let me get right to the main negative then!
BMD equipped the 4K camera with a Super 35mm sensor (21.12mm x 11.88mm). Many were clamoring for a larger sensor after the BMCC’s paltry 15.81mm x 8.88mm sensor was deemed “too small.” The BMPC’s sensor provides plenty of surface area for the cinematic bokeh that so many enjoy shooting. The size of the sensor isn’t the problem. The sensitivity is. The camera has 3 ISO settings - 200ASA, 400ASA, and 800ASA. Just 3. That’s it. 200 and 400 appear to be perfectly suitable for anything shot under well lit, well controlled conditions (i.e. studio setting or daylight outdoors). In my limited tests the 800ASA struggles. One can see vertical smearing of the image even on the less than desirable 5”, 800 x 480 LCD of the camera (and really...no HD LCD screen?). However, the 10-bit ProRes(HQ) recording does give you quite a bit of room in grading to pull the shot up, but still doesn't deal with the vertical streaks created at 800ASA. Coupled with that the noise pattern at 800ASA looks more like digital noise than cinematic film grain.
While the BMPC4K is no low light king, I don’t even think it’s worthy to call it a low light contender. It barely functions in low light environments. When shooting the camera at 800ASA I feel like I’m looking at an image from a low-end video camera circa 2002. The image appears muddy, streaky, and generally poor (download sample footage here). I can’t understand how this sensor made it into the camera in 2014. With cameras like the Arri Alexa, Canon C300/C500, 5D Mark III, Sony F5, Nikon D5300, and Panasonic GH3 (and soon to be released GH4) on the market which all have incredible ISO range, performance, and usable noise patterns (also see the newly announced Nikon D4S with a native ISO of 25600 and an extended ISO of 409600!). The BMPC's sensor seems like a strange design choice unless it’s primarily meant for highly controlled production environments.
After all the delays with the sensor manufacturing process (here and here) I expected a sensor that was more capable than the one delivered. It's possible I have faulty expectations. However, I argue that the BMPC4K does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a landscape dominated by other competent performing low light cameras. While the argument can be made that given the BMPC4K's price expectations should be adjusted downward (though I don't think Grant Petty would ever argue that), I don't think that's a highly credible argument given that this is BMD's third camera to market. BMD is competing with RED, Alexa, Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and a host of other manufactures. I think BMD needs to provide a stronger product in light of the competition. And I don't expect the competition to take a nap either. With NAB 2014 right around the corner a slew of new announcements are sure to follow.
There are also reports about white specs appearing in the shadows, see here and here. I haven’t seen this yet on my camera, but there seems to be substantial evidence of it’s existence. It may have something to do with the sensor calibrations problems BMD was having as recently as December.
Similar to the BMCC the extreme overexposed portions of an image are prone to showing digital noise. Below is an example of the digital noise created in an overexposed area. This could be a problem for night time shooting when exposure is even more challenging. You can download the original 4K clip from my Vimeo page.
I think this horse has already been beaten to death, buried, resurrected and beaten again. So I won’t spend much time on it. Suffice it to say the camera's form factor means you need handles, or rails, or a tripod - something to set it on. It is not designed in any way with “hand held” in mind. So factor in the added cost for cage, rails, adapters, etc.
This topic has also gotten it’s fair share of coverage with the BMCC. Same problems here with the BMPC4K. The battery is sealed in the camera, non-removable. The battery powers the camera for between 60-90 minutes depending on if you’re recording or merely sitting idle. There are plenty of third party adapters now on the market that allow you to power the camera from either a gold mount or V-mount battery. But again, that negates any type of handheld use, especially ones that documentary and indie filmmakers often rely on.
At times, the menus feel like a cruel joke. For instance, the audio volume meter is a touch screen slider based from 0% to 100%. What does that mean to an audio engineer? Where’s -12dB? Where’s -18dB? How come there are no meters whatsoever on the camera? For that matter, there are no meters on the camera at all - Waveform, Histrogram, etc. Those are only available via a Thunderbolt cable connected to an applicable computer running Blackmagic UltraScope (included software from BMD). So you’ll need to bring a laptop everywhere you plan to shoot in order to nail exposure and audio settings.
Common complaints about the BMCC apply just as equally to the BMPC4K. There’s no way to format the SSD within the camera. There’s no indication of how much space/time is left on the SSD for recording. You’re essentially flying blind while you shoot. For any production that has multiple SSD’s to throw at the situation, with an on-set assistant to copy data off, this presents no problem. However, for many who want to purchase this camera those are unfordable luxuries. There should be a way to display that type of essential user data on screen or in a menu. (Click the pictures below to cycle through the gallery of images. Each screen is documented here.)
The scopes and meters notwithstanding, the menus are very simple and easy to navigate. A welcomed change from virtually any other camera. Coming from Sony, Panasonic, and Canon cameras I’ve grown accustomed to setting up a favorites page for fast access to most commonly used settings. With the BMPC4K there are 4 simple menus: Camera Settings, Audio Settings, Recorder Settings, and Display Settings. These 4 menus encompass all that the camera currently has to offer (firmware updates are coming which can add or enable more features). The menus are easy to navigate and the touch screen is responsive and accurate.
There is no shortage of “professional” connections on the BMPC4K. Much like it’s counterpart you have Left and Right 1/4” audio jacks, a Thunderbolt cable, and headphone jack for monitoring, and a power connection. The BMPC4K features a 6G-SDI port for pushing UltraHD content or traditional 1080p HD to a recorder, monitor, or switcher. Only things I could object to are no HDMI port (which I frankly hate HDMI in production settings, but can be good for a cheap monitor feed) and an additional SDI port so I’m not constrained to only 1 SDI port on set. But honestly, at $3K I can’t really complain about these things with any degree of righteous indignation.
So Why’d You Buy It?
So if I hate it so much then why'd I buy it. Simple: it’s 4K resolution and it’s only $3K! Plus it ships with a full license of Davinci Resolve (worth $1K). And frankly, I paid more for my 5D Mark III than this camera. The price point is absolutely incredible and makes up for many of it’s shortcomings…though not all of them. I intend to use the BMPC as an A-camera on interview shoots, which is most of my work, allowing me ample resolution to reframe the shot as needed in post (since 4K is 4 times the size of 1080 I have plenty of room to move the frame around or in without loosing sharpness). Having one camera with such a massive frame allows for easy reframing while maintaining the same eye line between cuts. Philip Bloom has an excellent example of this on his tumblr.
Though I still worry about the sensor’s sensitivity, I think the camera has many benefits that will materialize over time and as I get more used to what the camera can do. The sensors lack of sensitivity may be partially overcome when RAW recording is delivered to the camera via a firmware update providing a bit more dynamic range potential. Currently the camera is "constrained" to recording in Apple ProRes422 (HQ). And if you've never gotten to grade with 10-bit footage before, you're in for a real treat. There's so much more color information contained in a 10-bit file compared to an 8-bit file. You can download original sample footage from my Vimeo account (you must be a Vimeo Plus or Pro member).
Additionally, the global shutter is a huge improvement in capture quality. Gone are the skewed images of the rolling shutter DSLR world that we’ve grown accustomed to over the last 5 years. That is a huge improvement for panning or fast action sequences. I could make the case that the global shutter alone is worth the price of admission.
I still have hope that Blackmagic will squeeze more performance out of the camera over the coming months through firmware updates. There’s definitely room for improvement. But I would caution anybody considering purchasing the BMPC that this camera is more about well-lit, well-controlled, studio environments than its smaller and cheaper counterpart the BMCC. The shortcomings of that camera are well documented and as a film community you should be going in with your eyes wide open about either camera's limitations. While I have no doubt that the BMPC4K will be used outside of the studio, and in fact, I intend to use it outside the studio, I think its current strength lies in a heavily controlled, well-lit environment.