Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera Review

The author sets up a shot with the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera MFT.

The past 10 years have seen a revolution at Blackmagic Design. What once was a small company now manufactures cameras and monitors, as well as all the gear that goes between, with the possible exception of cable and connectors.

Despite its rapid growth and increasing catalog of sophisticated products, nothing has received more interest at Blackmagic Design than the company’s amazingly inexpensive high-end line of Cinema Cameras. I received a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera (BMCC) to review, and it was an eye-opening experience.

FEATURES

At the moment, there are three cameras manufactured by Blackmagic, with one variety having two versions. At the top of the line is the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K, which… well, can shoot in 4K. The bottom of the line consists of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, a surprisingly small camera that can be used for full-blown cinematic HD (1080p) production.

And in the middle is the BMCC, which has a version that uses Canon EF lenses and one that uses micro four-thirds lenses. (Adapters are available for other lens mounts, as well.) I received the micro four-thirds variety, and it has the official designation of Blackmagic Cinema Camera MFT. Other than the lens mount and lens controls, the EF and MFT versions are identical.

All Blackmagic’s cameras are designed for serious electronic cinematography. In the case of the BMCC, its sensor and electronics will support 13 stops of dynamic range, which is much wider than what comparably priced dSLR cameras provide. When used in conjunction with Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve color grading software (provided at no additional cost), files from the BMCC can be tweaked to show contrast and detail that are available only by using film or much more expensive digital cameras.

The BMCC records in only three formats: uncompressed 12-bit RAW, ProRes and DNxHD. RAW files clock in with a media-consuming data rate of about 1.5 Gbps. ProRes and DNxHD are considerably compressed, but still supply data at a fearsome rate—ProRes files I recorded were at the rate of 225 Mbps. To save this data, the BMCC records on a solid-state disk drive that fits into a slot on the camera.

When set up for RAW files, the BMCC shoots what Blackmagic calls 2.5K, which has an image resolution of 2432 x 1366 pixels. Shooting in ProRes and DNxHD formats automatically set the camera to record 1080p files (1920 x 1080 pixels).

Considering it’s a relatively small camera, the BMCC has a nice assortment of connectors to support field recording. There is a LANC remote port, a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, two 1/4-inch balanced mic jacks, a BNC connector for SDI out, a Thunderbolt data port and a power connector. If you look carefully, there’s also a mini-USB port under the flap that covers the SSD slot. There’s a built-in microphone that will give you scratch audio, but you should plan to use an external audio device of some sort for the best quality sound.

The back of the BMCC features a five-inch LCD display, and the camera thoughtfully comes with a hood to make the display more visible in strong light. Underneath the display are control buttons to record, play, stop and so on. These include an on/off button, as well as a “Menu” button to get into the camera’s settings.

Although the camera seems relatively small, it feels solidly built—as though it was carved from a block of steel. It can be handheld, but that’s only for the strong and the brave. You will want to either mount it on some sort of camera support (i.e., a tripod or crane), or use an optional grip assembly, which Blackmagic sells. There is one standard 1/4-inch threaded mounting hole on the bottom of the camera and three identical holes on the top, to accommodate a range of accessories and mounting configurations.

The BMCC has a built-in battery that supports about 45 minutes of shooting. This battery is not user-replaceable, so you will want to either have the camera’s power supply handy, or power the camera from a larger external battery.

The only operational difference between the EF and MFT versions of the BMCC is that the EF version will support electronic lens features, such as focus and iris control. The MFT version requires that the lens be completely manual, including iris, zoom and focus. Otherwise, the EF and MFT versions of the BMCC are identical.

IN USE

If you have a casual interest in the BMCC and you’ve made it this far, the first thing you should know it that this is most definitely not a run-and-gun camera. Blackmagic is absolutely serious that the BMCC is intended for full-blown cinema production, the kind of video where you have plenty of time and the right accessories (such as lenses, lights, camera support products, batteries, etc.) to get exactly the shot you need for your production.

To underscore this point, the $1,995 cost of the BMCC is just the tip of the cost iceberg. To make the camera work, you will need a lens and an SSD, as well as a means to read the SSD into your computer. None of these things come with the BMCC. (You will also need at least a tripod, but you probably have one of those.)

One thing that tripped me up was the fact that the BMCC requires that the SSD be properly formatted, and the camera cannot do the formatting. You must format the SSD on a computer, which took me some time to get the right mix of working components.

Also, despite the fact that the BMCC has a mini-USB port on it, the only way to read the camera’s video data is to remove the SSD and plug it into a docking station on a computer. (The Thunderbolt port may allow you to get data directly out of the camera, but I didn’t have a Thunderbolt port on my computer to check that.) The camera’s USB port is only used to charge its internal battery.

And that’s just the absolute minimum to turn the BMCC on, shoot some video and get the files loaded into your computer.

The reality is that you will need a couple of SSDs, because of high data rates that fill drives rapidly. And you will want an external battery to run the camera for longer than 45 minutes in the field, plus a charger for that battery. Any serious shooter will need an external monitor to check focus, and remember that the BMCC has only an SDI out—there’s no HDMI port for simple connection to inexpensive consumer displays.

A critical part of the BMCC’s technology and production process is the included DaVinci Resolve color grading software, which is now up to version 10.1. Not only will you have to take your time to set up shots cinema-style, you will need to learn Resolve to take advantage of the BMCC’s 13-stops of contrast.

However, when you do all those things, the results are exquisite.

Getting into the camera’s menu and making adjustments is the easiest of any camera I’ve used. You can select ISO, recording format, white balance, frame rate and all the other typical settings that you’re used to, and it’s logically laid out and fast to do. Since the BMCC does not have auto white balance, you will need to adjust that often—unless you plan to do all your white balancing in post-production using DaVinci Resolve. (That’s actually a fairly reasonable thing to do with the BMCC, since Resolve has more than enough power to adjust white balance, and then some.)

Optional handle makes it much easier to hand hold the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

I had the BMCC for a fairly short time and was quite busy during that period, so I couldn’t set up a wide variety of situations. I did some initial experimentation around the house, both inside and out. Then, since I’m active on a Subaru enthusiast forum, I received an invitation to provide a video clip to a filmmaker working on a promotional video for Subaru.

I jumped at the chance to do this and set the BMCC up in full cinema production mode. I used a stand-in to get the focus and check the lighting, did a couple of in-car rehearsals, and recorded the sound using a lav mic into an external recorder.

That’s when the video looked exquisite. Everything about the resulting shot looked cinematic, with deceptively sharp focus on the subject (me, actually) and creamy soft focus on the background. The overall contrast has the look of film (or a much more expensive digital camera) without giving anything away in terms of clarity, and this was at 29.97 fps. Syncing the audio was easy in post-production, matching the external recorder’s audio to the scratch audio track recorded by the BMCC.

I could never get that cinematic quality on my usual Panasonic micro four-thirds camera. Not that the Panasonic is bad, it’s just not designed to supply video of that caliber.

SUMMARY

Is the BMCC the right camera for you? Ultimately, despite the lovely quality of the video it makes and the astonishing post-production power of DaVinci Resolve, the camera represents a value that’s hard for me to appreciate.

I’m the guy who once shot 13 office skits in two days, with a couple of the skits requiring more than 20 different setups and angles. I’ve trained myself to work fast, do a couple takes and move on. The BMCC insists on a slower pace and greater attention to… well, everything.

If you understand the care and preparation that goes into cinema-style shooting, and you have the necessary accessories (or the budget to buy them), then the BMCC is an amazing value.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera has a place in government video operations, as long as you understand its function and operation.

Bob Kovacs’ personal YouTube channel is nearing six million views. He is the editor of Government Video magazine.

MORE INFO

MODEL: Blackmagic Cinema Camera

LIST PRICE: $1,995

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