The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera Review

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera Review

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It’s a surprisingly small $1000 video camera with a super-16 size sensor (a bit smaller than micro four-thirds). It takes micro four-thirds lenses and shoots ProRes or CinemaDNG RAW footage to SD cards. The basic innards are the same as the original Cinema Camera, just outfitted to squeeze into the 5-inch wide, 12.5 oz magnesium alloy body.

As with original Cinema Camera in 2012, it’s unprecedented to have access to RAW (or even ProRes) recording at this price. It opens the doors for those on a budget to sink their teeth into professional-grade image quality and post-production. For the unfamiliar, RAW is an uncompressed format that is meant to be color-graded. It provides wide dynamic range, and can be manipulated heavily with very little loss in quality. Usually professional film productions use RAW, and it has been limited to cameras well over $10,000 until recently.

Hardware

Like the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera, the Pocket version sports a unique, all-metal design that feels solid — hugely out of proportion to its low price. It’s also hefty, which adds to the feeling of quality and makes handling easier by damping small movements during filming. The all-important sensor is 12.5 x 7mm, making it a touch smaller than the “Super 16” standard, and considerably less than a 17.3 x 13mm Micro Four Thirds chip. The end result is a 2.88x crop factor, meaning you’ll need a very wide lens just to get a normal perspective — and there aren’t many out there, even for regular MFT cameras.

There’s a 1/8-inch mini microphone input jack, headphone output and micro-HDMI connector, but unlike the BMCC, no Thunderbolt port. You also get playback and recording buttons on top along with a 1/4-inch threaded hardware connector, and another on the bottom for tripods or other rigs. Otherwise, its form factor is similar to Sony’s NEX cameras, which you may find handy or awkward, depending on the situation. If you’re trying to shoot stealthily, for instance, you’ll probably never get hassled in sensitive locations. On the other hand, if you’re trying to impress production clients, they may actually wonder if you’re joking when you arrive at the shoot with it.

Design

The Pocket Cinema Camera looks and feels much like a Sony NEX camera body. It’s slim and light, with a hearty rubberized grip to sink your claws into. It’s a stark contrast to the original, much larger, Cinema Camera, which provided absolutely nothing as far as grip. The back of the Pocket features a 3.5-inch LCD and buttons for auto-iris, auto-focus, menu, power, and a directional pad, in addition to a few on top, including the record button and playback controls. On the left side you will find inputs/outputs for audio, power, and external display.

Everything about the look and layout of the camera is utterly simple. Blackmagic had to make it that way in order to keep costs down. The effect is that you feel like you are holding a sturdy product with very few breakable parts, but also that it might be lacking in essential physical controls, which it is.

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Post-Production

Despite some snags with the BMPCC, the footage is what actually counts, isn’t it? There are two recording modes, namely ProRes and RAW, both of which produce robust images with superb dynamic range. Data rates are much higher than typical AVCHD or MPEG video, with ProRes clocking in at 22MB/s, and RAW about three times that (a Sony NEX-VG20 records at about 3.1MB/s, max). That’s likely why the camera heats up significantly during use and why it burns the battery so quickly — pumping so much data through a small body isn’t a trivial matter. As for which codec you may decide to use in the first place? Since 10-bit ProRes is already an enormous improvement over standard DSLR footage, RAW may be overkill — it requires much more storage and a skilled color expert to get the most out of it.

Once you’ve finished gathering footage, there are several ways to process it. A notable difference between the Pocket and full Cinema Cameras is that the latter shoots 2.5K, uncompressed RAW DNG files, while the BMPCC shoots 1080p video for all formats, with RAW compressed losslessly to about half its original size, like a ZIP file. Unfortunately, that format is unreadable (for now) by Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X, unlike the Cinema Camera’s uncompressed RAW files. The workflow therefore recommended by Blackmagic Design for RAW is to use DaVinci Resolve Lite (the full version is only free with the bigger camera). That’ll let you import your clips, grade them and export them in a format like QuickTime for use with Final Cut Pro or other editors. You can also load its compressed RAW Cinema DNG files directly into Adobe After Effects for processing, but working with clips is much slower. However, such a method might still be more comfortable for those familiar with Adobe’s Camera RAW utility. If you’ve shot with ProRes, of course, you can grade in Resolve, or just edit and grade all at once in your editor of choice.

Image Quality

As mentioned, the BMPCC produces 1080p files from its CMOS sensor. However, like any other CMOS camera including most DSLRs, the effective resolution is actually about 70-80 percent of that after image sensor data is converted to RGB. That means it’s probably a shade better than 720p video (though no charts were harmed in the making of this review). The larger Blackmagic camera‘s sensor records at 2.5K resolution, on the other hand, therefore delivering true 1080p resolution after downscaling, give or take.

Despite that, with 12 bits of color accuracy, the resulting images on the Pocket Camera appear extremely sharp even in detailed areas — unlike the artifacts and “mosquito noise” seen from, say, a Canon 7D. There’s also impressive dynamic range, with Blackmagic claiming 13 stops max in RAW and slightly less with ProRes files — no exaggeration, in my opinion. On the downside, the pocket camera can also produce a bit of moire and aliasing, particularly on finely spaced line patterns, likely because of its sensor size. It’s also very susceptible to rolling shutter, meaning fast pans and shakiness are not recommended. Overall, I achieved the best results at about ISO 800, with dynamic range dropping off below that, and grain increasing above.

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Wrap-up
                             
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is a weird little beast. It’s hard to tell who it’s for exactly, since it costs the same as a mid-range DSLR but seems more suited to pros who could afford to spend a lot more. Also, the larger BMCC camera is now only $1,995 after a recent price drop, making it another tempting option and the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K will hopefully be on the market soon for $3,995. If you are tempted, there are a lot of hidden costs to consider. For a basic package, including a lens, extra batteries, microphone, charger and top-end SDHC cards, you can easily spend the price of the camera again and then some. If you really want to kit it out with a Metabones BMPCC Speedbooster (a must, in my opinion), an LCD monitor or other accessories, you’re looking at high-end DSLR money.

Summary

Blackmagic Design has improved the camera a lot since it was released in 2013. It can now shoot raw CinemaDNG files and offers different bitrates when recording ProRes compared to only being able to shoot ProRes at first. A useful update is also the aspect ratio feature. The camera still doesn’t offer a higher frame rate than 30p which makes it unusable for slow motion shots. The audio levels are visible during recording and can also be adjusted.

One of the bigger downsides is the general control. To change settings you need to go into the menu first. There are no real short cuts or quick menu options. You can change most settings while recording but you only see a full screen menu and can’t see what you are filming anymore. The aperture can be changed during filming without the need to open the menu as well as the auto iris option and focus peaking. The remaining recording time can be seen at the bottom of the screen.

The Pocket Camera is ideal for all filmmakers that need a real filmic look and an image with a high dynamic range at a high bitrate. The Pocket Camera is called “Cinema Camera” for a reason. For everybody who needs to be fast and flexible and is doing documentary work we recommend taking a look at the Panasonic GH4, Sony A7s, Sony RX10 or the Canon C100.

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