FS Review: Could DSLR Video Shooters Easily Move to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera?
The Blackmagic Cinema Camera isn’t new, but when it was first introduced it created such a buzz that actually getting one’s hands on the new video camera proved difficult. Though Blackmagic has since pumped out the Pocket Cinema Camera and the 4K Cinema Camera, the original 2.5K camera is still quite the looker. I wanted to know, would it be possible to transition from my beloved DSLRs and over to the Blackmagic, which boasts some rather impressive specs, without much trouble?
Warning, this review is a bit long since there was a lot to cover (ok it’s really long), so for you TL;DR folks, just watch the video above or skip down to my summary at the bottom.
I don’t want to spend an excessive amount of time talking about the nitty gritty of what this camera can do. If you want to know what the footage from the camera looks like or what it is capable of, there are plenty of other sources you can get that information. What I want to focus this review on is if it is possible (and how easy is it) for a seasoned DSLR video shooter to move from a Canon 5D Mark III, 60D and 70D over to a Blackmagic. Can it be done easily and, perhaps more importantly, would it be worth it?
Let’s start with the way the camera feels and handles. If you shoot video with DSLRs, you’ll notice the build is pretty similar to the Nikon or Canon bodies you are used to. It doesn’t have a grip, but it does sport the same boxy design. Unlike cameras such as the Sony FS7000, visually the design makes me immediately more comfortable with the camera since it mimics the look of what I know and love so closely. Not only that, it easily fits into nearly the same arrangement in bags and backpacks that my DSLRs do. It’s as if the Blackmagic is holding my hand and assuring me that everything will be ok, and making the move away from my beloved Canons surprisingly less difficult.
What isn’t similar to my DSLRs, however, is the weight and terrible ergonomics of the Blackmagic. It’s heavy. Much heavier than a 5D with a battery pack. That weight is made more noticeable with the aforementioned lack of the grip. What this means is that this camera is impossible to hand hold with any effectiveness, even with a Tamron VR lens attached which has allowed me to get away with hand holding in the past on both a 60D, 70D and even occasionally on a 5D Mark III. But that’s ok, I shouldn’t be hand holding anyway. The bag ergonomics means if you plan to put this anywhere other than a tripod, you will require a rig. If you want to use a Steadicam or Glidecam, I would probably recommend the vest-kind, unless you have forearms of steel. Otherwise, tripod it.
The build quality is, as expected, solid and reliable. A steel frame surrounds the camera, making it feel solid and dependable. Would it break if I dropped it? Probably, however it would likely reliably continue to record video even if the buttons were damaged and the screen was broken. It just strikes me as the kind of body that would maintain functionality of the guts even when the outsides were dinged, battered or dented.
What is absolutely necessary is the removable visor that comes included with the camera. Even indoors, the massive screen on the back of the Blackmagic is pretty reflective and can be hard to see unless this is affixed. Even with the reflection issues, with the visor I found that I could easily see the screen even in some pretty harsh light. I only ran into one situation where I was impeded by bad reflections.
Speaking of the screen, let’s talk about the touch interface. Though it has the focus, iris, record and standard playback buttons on the back of the camera, much of the functionality is can only be controlled via the touch interface or the Ultrascope software Blackmagic also makes. On a level of responsiveness and reliability out of 10 (10 being the latest generation iPads or iPhones), the Blackmagic would score about a 7. The screen is not glass, but a very taut plastic that you only barely tell is pressure sensitive, not heat or moisture sensitive. Because of that, it can sometimes miss your taps or commands, requiring multiple attempts to get the white balance to shift or to adjust the ISO. Not enough to be annoying, just enough to notice it’s happening. In terms of brightness, color reliability and playback functionality, the Blackmagic knocks it out of the park. I will sorely miss that beautiful enormous screen.
The left side of the camera is home to a set of different cable options, from power and audio to a Thunderbolt connector. It doesn’t have XLR or 3/4 audio inputs though, which was a bummer. Speaking of that…
The Blackmagic lacks good audio control directly from the camera. It doesn’t show audio levels and the on-camera microphone isn’t the best, but if you are using this camera odds are you aren’t going to be using on camera audio anyhow. As for the lack of visual levels, for the past several months I have been recording audio separately on a Tascam 60D PCM Linear Recorder, therefore not having great audio options built into the Blackmagic was, for me, a non-issue. Even if they existed in camera, I probably would not have used them.
Let’s talk for a minute about the video footage from the Blackmagic: it’s spectacular. But you probably already knew this. Though not a full frame sensor, the Blackmagic captures beautiful footage in a style that is jaw droppingly sensational. I am overselling it? No, I’m not. When you see what you can produce with a Blackmagic, you’ll be just as impressed. There is something to be said about the way it captures video. It’s unique to what you would see in major motion pictures and it’s really something you have to experience for yourself.
One of the major features many of you are likely excited about is the ability to shoot natively in 2.5K raw. This is, of course, an amazing option to have, but when we look at it in the context of producing video for corporate clients for use on the web, it’s not something I personally feel like was worth the monumental effort. Monumental how? Firstly, raw video consumes a preposterous amount of storage space. 30-35 minutes of straight raw video capture translates to about 250 gigs of footage. I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes my shoots take all day. Attempting to process four terabytes of footage for a single day of shooting is daunting, time consuming, and almost completely impractical. And that’s only out of one camera! Most of my days are spent with at least two cameras, sometimes three or four running at the same time. If you plan to produce a landscape scene, short set piece, or short indie film it might be different, but when shooting for corporate clients who want me to shoot on a Monday and have something to show them by Thursday, dealing with 100% raw footage is cumbersome. Luckily, the Blackmagic doesn’t only shoot raw, and I found myself plenty happy shooting in Apple ProRes for much of the time I spent with the Cinema Camera.
As an aside, please note that the Blackmagic does not use SD or CF cards, the mainstays for us DSLR video shooters. The Blackmagic shoots to a solid state harddrive accessible from the right hand side of the camera. If you plan to shoot raw for any reason and for any length of time, you’ll understand why this is such great design. Solid state drives come in a plethora of sizes, and if you have deep enough pockets you can buy some huge ones to help store those terabytes of footage you will be shooting. For me on Apple ProRes, 250 gigabytes was plenty. On this note, transitioning from DSLRs to the Blackmagic will require you to acquire these hard drives, but if you have the business to accommodate the Blackmagic, you likely will have no problem grabbing the necessary storage devices as well.
One of the only features (or lack of features, depending on how you look at it) that really actually bothered me about the Blackmagic was the camera’s extremely limited white balancing settings: it only has 5. If the light you are shooting isn’t exactly, say, 3200 or 5600 Kelvin, you are going to have to adjust color in post. If you are like me, you do your best to nail focus, color, and light balance in camera to limit the amount of time you have to adjust settings afterwards. It can take a lot of time to properly get everything perfectly dialed in if you didn’t manage to do it on set. When you don’t, you do have to use either Photoshop or Premiere to get things looking right. For Blackmagic, that is where DaVinci Resolve comes in.
DaVinci Resolve is Blackmagic’s footage management, color corrector, and video editing software that is available in the full and lite versions. It’s incredibly powerful and designed for the highest level of professional. They recently added limited editing functionality that is supposed to work side-by-side with either Premiere or Final Cut. When I used Resolve, I was only able to do really get a solid grasp on a few of the functions, like color correction. Why? Because the program is daunting. It was just a slightly less frightening interface than Adobe After Effects, a program that I opened once and closed moments later in a cold sweat. Yes, I was able to use some of Resolve’s features after a few weeks of watching videos and testing it myself, but I feel like a real lesson or class on the software is in order to consider myself adept at it. It’s powerful and the best thing you can use to edit any raw footage you get from the Blackmagic, it’s just not easy or user-friendly. It’s straight hard. But the camera does come with Resolve included, so that’s a nice bonus. Plenty of time for you to figure out how to use it.
Random: Resolve requires the computer using the program to have a USB dongle attached. That means if you buy the software online, you have to wait for Blackmagic to send you a dongle to have access to the software. The Lite version is powerful and free though, so you would have that in the meantime. I only mention this because it is unusual and unexpected, and it does make pirating the software incredibly difficult.
Back to discussing the functionality of the camera, much like the color balance limitations, the Blackmagic only has four ISO settings to choose from: 200, 400, 800 and 1600 ASA. Take a look at these stills (click any for the full resolution file) from each of those settings, lit only with that candle off to the left and in order from lowest ISO to highest:
If you plan to shoot in very dark environments, your best bet would be to select a very fast lens and also shoot in raw. Let’s look again at that 200 ASA shot, and I will show you what you can expect from the 13 stops of dynamic range:
Not bad right? I personally would avoid shooting in that dark of an environment, but if you are ever forced to, the camera doesn’t leave you up a creek entirely. But you will notice some areas where I couldn’t get any details, which is disappointing. So in this category, the performance in low light is good, but not fantastic.
I want to briefly discuss the battery life on the Blackmagic, and it’s not good news. The built-in battery doesn’t last long at all. After shooting for only 10 minutes I was already at 75%. 10 more minutes? 50%. The battery drained at a coronary-inducing rate. I did have an Anton Bauer battery pack that promised an additional 4 hours of charge time, but it wasn’t small or light (and it’s almost as expensive as the camera). The charging apparatus that would attach to the Blackmagic is a bit cumbersome and took up more room in my bag. Most definitely not ideal. But if you have the space in your kit or plan to expand, this should only be a minor inconvenience.
One of the biggest selling points of the Blackmagic is, well, its selling point: it’s not absurdly priced. The Blackmagic 2.5K can be yours for just under $2000, right between a high-end DSLR and the prosumer models. Not cost prohibitive at all, and makes taking the “risk” and jumping ship to a standalone video camera a lot easier to swallow.
What I liked:
Gorgeous “cine look” to video
Accepts all Canon EF Lenses
Though reflective in bright light, it has a fantastic video screen
Brilliant and easy-to-use focus assist
What could be improved:
Atrocious battery life
Few white balance options
Only four ISO options
Touch screen less responsive than I’m used to
Bad ergonomics means it requires a rig
So back to my original question: could I easily introduce the Blackmagic into my workflow? Could it just slip into my camera bag without trouble? Would it be worth it? Absolutely on all accounts. It not only accepts the same lenses that I already work with, it’s about the same size and form as my current cameras. It feels like that next step up and it doesn’t even cost me much (in money or in physical capacity). That said, the pitiful battery life did force me to lug along an exterior battery and the camera itself does weigh more than most DSLRs, so your bag will feel that much heavier. But when you see the footage this camera captures, how easy the camera is to use, and the well-implemented focus assist, those cons that at first seemed like a big deal suddenly shrink in size.
Do I wish it was full frame so that I got the most out of my Canon lenses? Yes. Did I really end up missing it all that much? No. You can adjust; I did. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is an excellent piece of hardware that does a heck of a lot right, despite a few shortcomings. It could be that logical next step for DSLR video shooters looking for a camera that looks and feels familiar while offering video footage that has that “cine look” many of us crave.