April 16, 2012

$2,995 Blackmagic Cinema Camera

NAB 2012: Blackmagic Design has launched its first camera. It includes a built in SSD recorder, 13 stops of dynamic range, and lots of high-end features for a low-end price: $2,995/£1,925, with shipping in July.

It is claimed to provide “feature film quality in an extremely compact portable design.” It doesn’t use a particularly large sensor, although it’s probably large enough for most people to get reasonably shallow depth of field, and there are a few other compromises (such as the lack of XLR audio input), but for the price it should really make Sony, Canon, Panasonic, and JVC worried, as it does seem to offer many features that more expensive cameras don’t.

It has: a 2.5K sensor; an integrated capacitive touchscreen 5-inch (800 x 480-resolution) LCD for direct metadata entry; standard quarter-inch jack audio connectors, refrigerated sensor; takes EF (Canon EOS) and ZE (Zeiss) mount lenses; and can capture CinemaDNG RAW, ProRes and DNxHD files (so high quality and ease of editing).

The Blackmagic Digital Cinema Camera also includes both HD-SDI and Thunderbolt connectors and it comes with a full copy of both the DaVinci Resolve colour grading software (which has just been updated to version 9.0 with a faster to use interface) and UltraScope – so that you can simply plug it into a laptop for on set grading and scopes.

“We have been thinking hard about cameras and some of the limitations in quality that video cameras run into. Working with DaVinci color grading has only made these limitations more noticeable,” said Blackmagic CEO, Grant Petty.

“Some of the reasons why video cameras look like ‘video’ is because they have limited contrast range, are limited to HD resolutions, use heavy compression for file recording, have poor quality lenses and of course they don't integrate into NLE software with metadata management.”

The 13 stops of dynamic range is one of the most important reasons why this camera should look more like film – typical film stock will deliver about 13 stops, and it is one stop more than Canon’s EOS C300 can deliver (and it is probably the best of the lower cost digital cinema cameras). An Arri Alexa can give up to 14 stops, meaning you can get more detail in both the shadow and highlight areas of the picture and cope more readily with very high-contrast shots.

“Often people focus on more pixels, but that is just a larger video image,” said Petty. “The real way to get film quality is to capture a wide contrast range to retain more detail in the black and white levels of the image. Then once you colour grade the images, it looks amazing. Combined with amazing EF and ZF lenses, the result is a true film look.”

This quality is lost or diminished when you compress the images during recording, which is why the Blackmagic Cinema Camera includes an SSD recorder – as it already makes the Shuttle SSD recorder, this was also an obvious choice. This means it can record the full 2.5K (2432 x 1366-pixels) 12-bit RAW sensor data as uncompressed CinemaDNG files, to capture all the detail and quality of the sensor. Frame rates are: 23.98p, 24p, 25p, 29.97p and 30p.

“No files on this camera are custom in any way and this is the first camera that’s designed to make the whole post production process simple,” he claimed. It records into CinemaDNG format for RAW files (which an increasing amount of post-production software can now cope with - the format is also used by a couple of other cameras, such as the Ikonoscop A-Cam dII). It also records 10-bit DNxHD or ProRes in HD (1920 x 1080), for compatiblity with Avid’s Media Composer and Apple’s Final Cut Pro.

The 2592 x 2192-pixel sensor is smaller than the batch of digital cinema cameras launched recently, at 16.64mm x 14.04mm with an active size of 15.6mm x 8.8mm - about half way between a Micro Four Thirds (as used by Panasonic’s AF100/AF101), which is 18mm x 13.5mm (with an active area of 17.8mm x 10.0mm), and Super 16mm film, which is about 12mm x 7.2mm. So anyone looking for the shallowest depth of field might be disappointed, but unless you have a focus puller very shallow DoF makes it more difficult to shoot, so it should be more than adequate for the vast majority of productions.

The integrated touchscreen LCD includes a "slate" window for adding shot information that is recorded into the file as metadata in the Final Cut Pro X and DaVinci Resolve format. Common data like the shot number can auto increment to save time.

You can also change camera settings on the LCD, including frame rate, shutter angle, colour temperature, dynamic range, and focus assist settings. The SDI output has overlays showing all the camera data when monitoring on set, and when playing back recorded files.

The design is very Blackmagic, compact (166.2mm by 113.51mm x 126.49mm excluding detachable sunshade and turret dust cap), simple and well made. It is machined from a solid block of aluminium and weighs about 1.7kg. “It’s strong, very compact and designed to be easily hand held,” said Petty. “I am still amazed we have fitted all this into such a small design, when normally features like RAW recorders and monitoring can be optional extras on cinema cameras.”

Optional Blackmagic Cinema Camera Handles cost an extra $195

For a few examples of test shots, have a look at: www.vimeopro.com/johnbrawleytests/blackmagic-cinema-camera - the third one, Dusk, is worth looking at to see the dynamic range (and higher ISO behaviour - which looks pretty good, a bit of noise but with a fairly pleasing film grain to it).

Also worth a look is John Brawley's blog post about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera.

By David Fox

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