Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Blackmagic Design rocks the cinema camera world--again

I just returned from the 2013 NAB Show in Las Vegas. My first stop (as it apparently was for a lot of other attendees) was the Blackmagic Design booth. NAB attendees have gotten used to playing the game "What the heck is Blackmagic announcing this year?". Two years ago, they announced radically lower prices for the ATEM production switchers that the company acquired from Echolab and a $995 model for schools, churches and even individuals. Last year, they announced the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. This year, while there were several new and updated products, two new cameras drove crowds to the Blackmagic booth. Let's take the somewhat less-radical model first:

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K

The Blackmagic Production Camera is a 4K camera with a Super 35mm sensor, 12 stops of dynamic range and active EF mount for $3,995. It's in the same physical package as last year's Cinema Camera, except that it has a bigger sensor that's a much better fit for EF mount and cinema lenses, and a global shutter to deal with rolling shutter issues. It's also got exactly the same combination of connections as the Cinema Camera, except that the SDI connections are 6G-SDI to support 4K output. The Production Camera stores and outputs video in Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) and CinemaDNG RAW. The company claims that CinemaDNG RAW gives an output comparable to RAW while producing much smaller files.

Blackmagic claims that the Production Camera is the smallest 4K camera on the market. However, it's got many of the downsides of the original Cinema Camera: An internal battery that can barely run the camera for an hour, RCA-style audio inputs instead of XLRs, a reflective viewfinder/touchscreen that's almost impossible to use in sunlight and pretty much requires the use of an external monitor, and a trapezoidal body that looks like it can be handled like a DSLR but really can't.

However, just as with the original Cinema Camera, plenty of buyers will accept the tradeoffs. For $1,000 more, you get a Super 35mm sensor with 4K resolution that can take full advantage of EF and cinema-style lenses. The Production Camera doesn't feel like quite as much of a bargain as the Cinema Camera did last year, but it's still a very good deal. However, the second new camera is what really drew attention:

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

If you did a double-take when you read the word "pocket," so did I when I saw it on the sign in Blackmagic's booth. But this really is a cinema camera, with a Super 16mm-sized sensor with 13 stops of dynamic range, exactly the same user interface as the larger Cinema Camera, and an active Micro Four-Thirds lens mount, all in a body that's the size of a typical digital mirrorless still camera. Yes, it can fit into a shirt pocket (although not once most lenses are attached.) Like the other models, it outputs in both Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) and Adobe CinemaDNG RAW. And did I mention the price? $995 (U.S.).

A $995 pocket-sized cinema camera suggests that there had to be some compromises--and there are. The Pocket Cinema Camera has 2K resolution vs. the 2.5K resolution of the bigger Cinema Camera. It's missing the 3G SDI and Thunderbolt connections of the bigger Cinema Camera; the only video output is HDMI. Instead of a touchscreen, the menus are navigated with directional buttons, and the display's usefulness as a viewfinder remains to be seen (although its matte display is much less reflective than that of the original Cinema Camera.) The microphone and headphone jacks are both stereo mini-jacks.

On the other hand, it has several features that the Cinema Camera doesn't have:

* The Pocket Cinema Camera has an active Micro Four-Thirds lens mount, which means that it can use all of Panasonic's and Olympus's lenses, third-party lenses and adapters that require power from the camera. By comparison, the bigger Cinema Camera's MFT lens mount is passive, which means that it only works with manual lenses.

* Unlike the built-in rechargeable battery in the Cinema Camera that's really only usable as an emergency backup, the Pocket Cinema Camera's battery is both rechargeable and removable, and Blackmagic says that it uses a standard, widely-available digital camera battery.

* The Pocket Cinema Camera comes with a wired remote control.

As with the Production Camera, the Pocket Cinema Camera's functional tradeoffs are going to be offset by the value of its incredibly small price and size, plus the flexibility of its active MFT mount. Blackmagic suggests that the Pocket Cinema Camera will be the perfect "sacrificial" camera for use in war zones, riots, or countries where the camera might be confiscated by officials. If it's lost or destroyed, it can be inexpensively replaced. The small size also has another big benefit: No one who sees it will believe that it's a professional camera, so it should be easier to get wild footage in situations where permits are ordinarily required.

Which brings us to the original Cinema Camera. It's identical to the models that Blackmagic introduced at NAB and IBC last year. The Micro Four-Thirds mount is still passive, and the EF mount version still has the problems inherent with using a big lens with a small sensor. With these new cameras, I'm not sure that there's much of a market for the Cinema Camera: For $1,000 more, you can get the much-more-capable Production Camera; for $2,000 less, you can get the slightly-less-capable Pocket Cinema Camera. I suspect that Blackmagic is keeping the Cinema Camera in the line in order to fulfill its order backlog, but I expect a lot of customers will cancel their orders and replace them with either the Pocket Cinema Camera or Production Camera.

So, when do these new cameras ship? Blackmagic says that both the Production and Pocket model will ship in July. Blackmagic CEO Grant Perry says that his company has resolved the problems that led to the long delays in shipping the original Cinema Camera, but I'd take those dates with a grain of salt--and even if they start shipping on time, the order backlog is likely to be enormous.

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