Saturday, September 01, 2012

Blackmagic's Cinema Camera: Not the volkskamera you were looking for

(Updated, September 9, 2012) After several months of delays, Blackmagic Design is starting to get production versions of its Cinema Camera into reviewers' hands. Over the last two weeks, Vincent LaforetFrank Glencairn and Philip Bloom have tested the BCC "right from the box," and they all have very definite impressions. I strongly suggest that you visit all three cinematographers' blogs to read their complete evaluations and see their footage and stills. Here's a summary of what they found:

Laforet wrote that the dynamic range of the BCC's sensor was almost identical to that of Canon's EOS 1DX, at a much lower price. However, the BCC sensor's size (slightly smaller than Micro Four-Thirds) and EF mount mean that the same lens used on a Canon DSLR will have a magnification factor of around 2.3X on the BCC. That means that you need much wider lenses in order to get the same framing using the BCC, and it puts more emphasis on the quality of the lens. In addition to being small, the BCC's sensor is comparatively slow--its maximum ISO rating is only 800 1600, but its maximum usable ISO is 800. That means that in low light situations, other cameras are likely to provide images with much less noise.

Laforet also noted that the BCC's form-factor makes it useless as a handheld camera--the optional handle offered by Blackmagic is more for show than for utility. To use the BCC, you'll need rails and a tripod or some sort of mounting rig. He wrote that the BCC could have been a great handheld camera with slightly different ergonomics and a built-in ND filter.

Laforet's findings were confirmed by Glencairn's test. He did a side-by-side test of the BCC with a Sony FS100 at ISO 800, and he found that the BCC's image was more "filmic" than the Sony. He much preferred the BCC's image, but wrote that the FS100 wins hands down at faster ISO speeds. Output from the BCC in Cinema DNG RAW mode was superb--sharp, with plenty of contrast. However, Glencairn's tests show that regardless of whether the BCC is used in ProRes 422 or RAW mode, its output HAS to be graded in order to be usable. That in part explains why Blackmagic provides a free copy of DaVinci Resolve with every BCC. Going back to Laforet, he makes the same point, and notes that the BCC's grading pipeline is not for the squeamish. RED users will be very familiar with the process, but BCC users don't have the equivalent of a RED Rocket card to speed up the conversion process.

Update, September 9th, 2012: Yesterday, cinematographer Philip Bloom posted an extensive video review of the BCC. Most of his conclusions echo those of the other two reviewers, but he added some additional points, including the following:
  • After in-house and field tests, he found that the BCC's battery life is less than two hours, even when the camera is on standby. That wouldn't be a problem, except that the BCC's battery is non-removable. Therefore, you have to use an external battery--but there's no easy way to mount an external battery, unless you use a rig.
  • In addition to having phono plugs instead of XLR connectors for its audio inputs, the BCC has no way to provide phantom power, which limits the microphones that can be used with the camera.
  • The LCD screen is much too reflective to be useful as a viewfinder, especially outside.
  • He believes that the new version of the camera with a Micro Four-Thirds mount is a much better choice, even with the limitation that lenses have to be used in fully manual mode. The new version allows a far wider range of lenses to be used (with adaptors), and dramatically decreases the cropping problem caused by the small size of the BCC's sensor.
So, according to these two three cinematographers, the BCC is a great camera for the money, but it requires a couple thousand dollars' worth of add-ons in order to be usable, as well as high-quality (read: expensive) lenses in order to get the best possible images. It's got a wide exposure range but a limited ISO range. It outputs great images in RAW mode, but the output has to be color-corrected in order to be usable.

The BCC is most definitely not a "run & gun" camera--it doesn't have the necessary ergonomics. It's not really a "beginner's" cinema camera, since grading is essential in order to get the best quality output. It's not the camera that you want to use if you don't know what kind of lighting you'll have to work with. It's not even as inexpensive as it first appears, because of the external gear necessary to make it useful (rig, external battery, external viewfinder/monitor and ND filter.)

If you can live with the BCC's limitations, it's still a great camera for the money--but it's not the camera that's going to "democratize" cinema production.
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