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Small Camera, Big Deal: Believe the Hype on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Blackmagic Design was the star of the 2013 NAB Show with the announcement of two cameras: the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera ($995) and the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K ($3,995).

The Pocket Cinema Camera began shipping at the end of July, and I received one of the earliest shipping versions to evaluate. Overall, the Pocket Cinema Camera does not disappoint, and those who pre-ordered should be very pleased once their cameras finally arrive.

Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera is a 1920 x 1080 device based on a Super 16 size sensor with an active Micro Four Thirds mount. It natively records ProRes 422 (HQ) to SDHC or SDXC cards, with the promise of lossless compressed CinemaDNG raw recording in a future free update.

The camera has a sturdy feel and is heavier than its size would indicate. That’s good. It adds just a bit more mass to help stabilize a handheld shot. The handgrip is more than adequate to get a firm grasp on the camera. Everything about the feel is right.

In addition to a Pocket Cinema Camera kit from Wooden Camera, my kit included a Zacuto viewfinder, Zacuto shoulder pad and Shape handles. That’s a Lectrosonics receiver taped to the rig.

Camera operation is similar to those on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera in that both have a rear LCD screen and menu navigation. The record button is on top of the camera where one would expect the shutter release on a still camera. It has 1/4-20 UNC threads on both the top and bottom for accessories.

The left side of the camera hosts connectivity. Audio input and output are both mini jacks. External power can be accepted via a 12V power input jack. I did not have the proper connector to test external power, but when I receive my own purchased camera, I plan to use external batteries. (You will soon learn why.) Video output comes through a Micro HDMI connector, and there is a LANC connector for controlling camera functions via any LANC-compatible device.

Mini plugs are not the most secure connectors; I recommend using right-angle plugs to take some pressure off the connection. The Micro HDMI offers a similarly unsecure connection, and any stress on the connector will interrupt the signal. I did not have a Micro HDMI connector but used an HDMI-to-Micro HDMI adapter to connect this port to the external viewfinder (more about this later). The connector came loose constantly and I needed to wedge the connector into the viewfinder mount to relieve the stress on it.

Camera controls are quite basic and similar to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. When using an automatic lens, pressing iris will auto-expose and pressing focus will auto-focus. Double-pressing focus will toggle peaking, which is green only. It would be nice to have options for other colors, particularly for color-blind shooters. With automatic lenses, pressing iris followed by up or down arrow keys will open or close the lens iris for manual exposure.

Wooden Camera loaned me a kit that included baseplate, cage, top handle, rods and an A-Box XLR audio connector.

The camera shoots in either film (log) or video (Rec. 709) modes. The camera’s LCD allows you to view your video as you are recording, and the dynamic range of the LCD is independent of the dynamic range you are shooting. Thus, shooting in film mode, you can view a Rec. 709 image on the camera’s LCD. But if you’re using an external monitor, only the camera shooting mode will output.

Camera sensitivity ranges from ISO 200 to 1600. Frame rates top off at 30p, with settings for 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 fps.

Audio is captured either through the in-camera microphone or via external audio device. Menus allow choice of line or mic input with level adjustment for input as well as headphones.

Like the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, the Pocket Cinema Camera has no audio meters and no video metrics other than zebras. Zebras cannot be set below 75 percent. Thus, audio and video levels are both very much a shot in the dark. In my tests, I would set zebras at 95 percent for some kind of highlight guidance or 75 percent if reflecting off skin. Exposures were close. This will be less of an issue when shooting raw because of the wide latitude that raw shooting allows.

The Pocket Cinema Camera has the same ingenious slate feature found on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera for metadata entry.

Just for fun I used an MFT-to-PL-to-B4 adapter and threw a Fujinon HD zoom on the camera.

Recording is to SDHC or SDXC cards. Blackmagic maintains a list of approved cards online and I advise following their guidelines. For my testing purposes, Blackmagic provided a 64 GB SanDisk Extreme with a published speed of 45 Mb/s. Requirements for raw will be posted when raw functionality is enabled, but I imagine that a faster card will be required, such as the SanDisk Extreme Pro. SSD cards may be formatted in either the HFS+ or ExFAT file system, and they must be formatted on a computer, not in camera.

The Pocket Cinema Camera takes removable EN20 batteries. If you’re running on battery power, plan to buy a ton of them. I found I was getting about 30 minutes, certainly never more than 45, to a battery. External power is a must unless frequent battery changes aren’t a problem on your shoot.

The Micro Four Thirds mount is an excellent choice for this camera and sensor. The mount is active, meaning it can work with electronically coupled MFT lenses such as those from Panasonic and Olympus.

Thanks to AbelCine New York, I was able to test a few lenses with the Pocket Cinema Camera. We mounted an MFT-to-PL adapter and used two classic Optex Super 16mm lenses: a 4mm super-wide and a 5.5mm wide. And then for kicks we used an MFT-to-PL-to-B4 adapter and threw on a Fujinon HD zoom. Wow. You couldn’t even see the camera for the lens. For shallow depth of field, I tested a Voigtlander 25mm f/.095.

The Camera in Action

The Pocket Cinema Camera can be anything you want it to be. I shot it handheld and on a monopod in the New York City Subway. And for a production shoot, I totally kitted it out.

Thanks to AbelCine New York, I was able to test a few very unusual lenses with the Pocket Cinema Camera, including a 4mm super-wide Optex Super 16mm lens via MFT-to-PL adapter.

Wooden Camera loaned me a baseplate, cage, top handle, rods and an A-Box XLR audio connector. The kit, which sells for $688, is a very sturdy means of protecting the camera, mounting to a tripod, supporting heavy lenses and adding handles and a shoulder plate. I completed the kit with a Zacuto viewfinder, Zacuto shoulder pad and Shape handles. That’s a Lectrosonics receiver taped to the rig.

Thanks to Jem Schofield of TheC47.com, I was also able to test a Kessler jib for some great nature shots.

My Zacuto EVF viewfinder has both flexible zebras and false color, so when I used the EVF, my exposures were pretty much dead on. I definitely advise using some sort of viewfinder with metrics—especially when shooting outdoors, since the LCD ranges from difficult to impossible to view in sunlight. Or do the old view camera thing and throw a cover over the camera to see the screen.

The Pocket Cinema Camera has a CMOS rolling shutter but was remarkably free of jello-vision and moiré. Moiré was apparent in difficult situations (a brick wall or checkered jacket, for example), but the effect was no worse than with any other DSLR, and maybe even a little better. There was very little skew on moving objects.

Some units display a blooming issue where white orbs appear in specular highlights. Blackmagic is offering to recalibrate sensors of affected cameras for free.

Some early adopters are finding that overexposed areas of footage have a tendency to bloom or resolve simply as white blobs. After numerous examples and comments were posted on its forum, Blackmagic engineers concluded that a sensor recalibration was necessary on affected cameras in order to remedy the blown-out specular highlights. The company announced a program whereby affected cameras could be sent to Blackmagic for recalibration and returned via second-day air.

This camera deserves all the hype it’s been getting, and it’s well worth the wait as Blackmagic ramps up production. The Pocket Cinema Camera allows DSLR users to step up to a higher codec in 10-bit ProRes (HQ) with its 4:2:2 color depth. It can be used simply or rigged. With readily available MFT adapters, it can take virtually any piece of glass you can find. And it’s $995.

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera represents a significant product for a broad market. It will fit well into the mix of cameras I own, and I believe that even with its limitations, it can find a place in the arsenal of a wide range of shooters. I recommend the Pocket Cinema Camera highly but must withhold our highest rating pending success in the sensor recalibration program.

Product: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
Score:
Pros: Small form factor. Super 16 sensor, active MFT mount. Shoots ProRes HQ and eventually raw to SD cards. Infinitely customizable. Images and skin tones are stunning.
Cons: No video scopes other than zebras and no audio meters. Limited ISO of 1600 and limited to 30 fps. No real bells and whistles. Weak consumer level connectors. No external monitoring of film (log) material. Blown out highlight blooming or blobs in some early units, though BMD is offering to recalibrate sensors of affected cameras for free.
Bottom Line: It has its faults, but it has even more strengths. It’s only $995 and you can dress it up or dress it down. The image speaks for itself. It deserves a place in the kit of just about any shooter.
MSRP: $995

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