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High Performance, Even Higher Resolution: Blackmagic’s Production Camera Points the Way to 4K

Blackmagic Design announced the 4K (UHD) Blackmagic Production Camera at an unheard-of price of $3,995, including a full version of Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve software (worth $1,000). The camera shipped in January 2014 but at the reduced price of $2,995, still including DaVinci Resolve.

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

In the almost nine months between the camera’s announcement and its initial shipments, the demand for 4K production and delivery has dramatically increased. The Blackmagic Production Camera (BMPC) is well situated within a growing market segment and represents a high-quality, low-cost entrée into the world of 4K acquisition.

The Production Camera shares the form factor of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera—the only visible difference is the 4K branding on the lower left of the BMPC’s face. As we shall see, the BMPC also uses a menu structure similar to that of the Cinema Camera. Unlike the Cinema Camera, however, which is available in both Micro Four Thirds and EF mount, the Production Camera is available only in EF mount.

The cameras are differentiated by their sensors and by the Production Camera’s 6G-SDI output. The 6G-SDI connection allows the camera to output Ultra HD video over a single BNC cable. Users have a choice of film (log) or video (Rec. 709) dynamic range on the sensor’s 10-bit 4:2:2 HD or 4K output.

Measuring 21.12mm x 11.88mm, the sensor falls into the category we’re now calling “Super 35.” (It is actually just a tad smaller than Super 35mm film dimensions, but the term is used loosely.) The sensor enables shooting 4K UHD (ultra high definition) resolution at 3840 x 2160 pixels. This maintains the 16:9 aspect ratio of 4K (UHD) televisions.

Blackmagic Design wowed the NAB Show audience with the announcement that the Production Camera’s Super 35mm sized CMOS sensor would include a global shutter. (CMOS sensors with a rolling shutter often exhibit skew, flash banding and jello-vision.) Amazingly, the only other cinema cameras to have a global shutter CMOS are the Sony F55, Sony F65 and the high-speed Phantom line from Vision Research, and these cameras all sell for many times the price of the BMPC.

Among my initial tests of the camera was to perform a few quick whip pans as well as following the action of moving vehicles. In both cases the global shutter performed as expected. Vertical objects were not skewed and moving images remained stable and unskewed. The CMOS global shutter alone is worth the price of admission. Another effect of the combination of the camera’s high-resolution sensor and the global shutter is that moiré patterns, so apparent in many CMOS cameras, is minimized. It is virtually nonexistent when shooting 4K and only marginally apparent when shooting HD resolutions.

The camera shoots Full HD 1080p or 4K UHD at frame rates up to 30 fps. With the size of the sensor, the crop factor compared to Super 35 is about 1.2. Interestingly, the field of view does not change when switching between 4K and HD shooting.

At its introduction, Blackmagic promised a camera that would shoot both ProRes 422 HQ and 12-bit raw CinemaDNG. But like the Pocket Cinema Camera, which shipped initially with only ProRes enabled, the initial shipment of the Cinema Camera is ProRes-only. Blackmagic has promised a future free firmware update that will enable raw recording.

The absence of raw makes a full test of all the camera’s capabilities impossible, and in fact places some limitations on the camera. ProRes HQ is a great almost-lossless codec readily used in popular NLEs and compositing applications, but the camera’s full claimed 12-stop dynamic range will not be realized until raw shooting is enabled.

The global shutter reduces sensitivity by a stop or two. Hence, the camera’s ISO tops out at 800. There are presets for ISO 200, 400 and 800. My feeling is that the sensor itself should be rated between ISO 400 and 640, so shooting at 400 is much closer to the native sensitivity of the sensor. That means the Blackmagic Production Camera may not be the best camera in low light. The solution is simple: whenever practical, just add more light.

Probably as a result both of sensor sensitivity and inherent limitations of ProRes, low-light shots at ISO 800 do exhibit a definite noise pattern. Noise reduction applications such as DaVinci Resolve’s own de-noise function or the third-party Neat Video filter (now available both for Adobe After Effects and DaVinci Resolve’s OFX) can clean up some of this noise with minimal image softening.

Users shoot and control the Blackmagic Production Camera in a manner virtually identical to the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera. As I noted before, I/O options are identical on the cameras, with the exception of the Production Camera’s 6G-SDI output. A Thunderbolt port streams HD to a Thunderbolt-equipped computer. Audio inputs are still RCA rather than BNC, requiring third-party adapters to utilize XLR devices. With the absence of any audio meters whatsoever, internal audio is still a hit and miss affair. But since it’s designed to be a camera for production rather than run and gun, one would shoot dual audio anyway and sync in post. Thus the audio limitations are not a concern for me.

Like the original Cinema Camera, there are no scopes on the BMPC. Zebras can be set in 5 percent increments between 75 and 100 percent, leaving zebras as the only built-in exposure tool. (Blackmagic suggests that the camera’s built-in Thunderbolt connection allows you plug into a laptop and use the included UltraScope software for real-time waveform monitoring.)

The process of setting exposure is assisted by the ability to set the rear viewscreen to video mode, which effectively means applying a LUT to the log footage to bring it to a Rec. 709 color space. Between the visual on the screen and the zebras, it is possible to get a reasonable exposure.

Recording is to SSDs. I strongly recommend using only those SSDs qualified by Blackmagic. (The list is available online, www.blackmagicdesign.com, in the Support Center.) In my testing I used a SanDisk Extreme 480 GB SSD and experienced no dropped frames at 4K 23.98 and 4K 30p. (The 30p was only a quick test. I would really only shoot cinema-style with this camera at 23.98 or true 24 fps.)

Many of the concerns users have expressed about Blackmagic’s Cinema Camera remain concerns in the Production Camera, especially in light of the shared form factor. The shape is awkward and it really feels heavy. The complaint about outputs on the BMCC has been addressed in this newer camera, but audio input is still phono plug—definitely not standard in a pro video and cinema world.

I noted that the film (log) image in the Production Camera is much less “flat” than the film mode on the Cinema Camera. The current Blackmagic Cinema Camera LUT in DaVinci Resolve, for example, is much too strong for the BMPC footage. I was able to produce very viewable log images from BMPC footage with a few simple lift, gamma and gain adjustments, as well as perhaps tinkering with the saturation. It’s like log but with half the work.

This is a camera that will evolve over time through firmware updates. Blackmagic has already demonstrated its commitment to ongoing development through a regular series of firmware updates. With this camera, Blackmagic will be able to not just hold its own against competition but also drive the market.

Be aware that when raw capability finally does arrive, it will come at a price: the price of additional storage. The camera’s 12-bit lossless compressed CinemaDNG raw files will consume some 1.1 TB per hour of video.

There is no finer entry into the world of 4K production than the Blackmagic Production Camera. While other cameras have been announced, they are far from shipping; the BMPC is here now. The image is sharp. Rolling shutter is a thing of the past. The EF mount allows anything from consumer lenses to Canon or Carl Zeiss’ lines of cine lenses. Third-party mounting options help with the ergonomics. The major sacrifice is light sensitivity. For the image it produces and for the price point, I am willing to compromise on sensitivity. The Blackmagic Production Camera has delivered on its promises.   dv

Product:Blackmagic Production Camera 4K
Score:

Pros: 4K UHD and HD ProRes modes. Global shutter. Excellent skin tones. Extremely sharp, more so in 4K. Good price for capabilities.
Cons: Awkward ergonomics. Lack of XLR inputs. Can be noisy in low light in ProRes. No raw at delivery. CinemaDNG raw files are quite large. 4K footage is UHD resolution (3840 x 2160, 16:9) with no true 4K (4096 x 2160, 17:9) mode.
Bottom Line: Nothing is better at its price point and with its global shutter. Challenges cameras costing considerably more. It is a significant tool for filmmakers with lower budgets who want to shoot 4K. Camera will only improve once raw is introduced and new features are implemented.
MSRP: $2,995, including full license of DaVinci Resolve and UltraScope

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K Tech Specs

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