So what’s it like to shoot in 12K video? This was just one of the many questions I had which inspired me to take the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 12K out for a spin and see how it would perform in the real world.
Despite the fact that I use Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio to do the bulk of my post-production work, I had, prior to this point, not gotten an opportunity to use any of the Blackmagic Design cameras in my cinematography work. Just one of the many product lines in the photo and video world that I was aware of, but hadn’t yet gotten a chance to get my hands on. A number of my colleagues use the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro or one of its predecessors, so I've always been curious. And when Blackmagic Design recently slashed the price on the URSA Mini Pro 12K to $5995, my curiosity got the better of me and I reached out for a review unit so that I could put it through its paces.
Now while I will briefly touch on some of the jaw-dropping technical specs of the camera, this is not going to be an overly tech-laden review. One, there are people in the world with far cleaner lab coats than my own that are better suited to comb through a camera pixel-by-pixel to produce mathematical conclusions. Instead, as a working photographer and cinematographer, what interests me far more is how a camera performs within the confines of a real-life workflow. My article a couple of weeks ago detailed how, when shopping for a camera, I am far less interested in the statistics on the spec sheet, and far more interested in whether the camera can provide me with dependability, ease of use, and versatility. In short, I want to know that I can trust a piece of gear and that it will provide added value to my workflow. I only had the URSA Mini Pro 12K for three weeks, so I can’t give a definitive answer on long-term dependability. But I put it through more than enough trauma over the course of those weeks to answer most of the other questions I had going in as well as get a clearer vision of where the camera could potentially fit in a professional workflow.
The Tech Specs
As I said, I won’t bog you down with too much detail about the tech specs as you can easily read those elsewhere online. But here’s a brief recap. The Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 12K comes with a Super 35mm CMOS sensor with an effective resolution of 12,288 x 6,480, or roughly 79.6 megapixels. It advertises 14 stops of dynamic range and a native ISO of 800. It records in 12-bit Blackmagic RAW (more on the recording formats later). It can record 12K Anamorphic up to 75fps and windowed DCI 4K up to 240fps. It has two 3-pin XLR jacks and a touchscreen interface built-in. The camera body weighs 5.62 pounds or 2.55 kg and currently retails for $5995. It’s a lot of camera at a very reasonable price.
So with all the numbers out of the way, let’s get on to the larger questions which prompted me to want to try out the 12K in the first place.
What Are The Benefits Of 12K?
Now, no matter how hard I try, I have still yet to find the perfect camera. And despite it being a proven fact that no such camera exists, it doesn’t stop me from hoping that one day I will find one system that can do all, and do it while weighing no more than an oversized paperweight. This dream will never come true. But a man can dream.
Because no camera is perfect, I tend to shoot my motion projects on a large variety of cameras. Whichever is right for the project. Some require a run and gun approach with a small build and excellent autofocus. Others require maximum image quality and require a small army of technicians to operate. Each job is different, so it’s hard to set out a one size fits all list of demands for a camera to achieve.
But there are a few specific requirements that I have that I wanted to see if the URSA Mini Pro 12K could solve. For one, I am both a photographer and a cinematographer. And while 95% of the time, I am going to be capturing still and video with separate devices at separate times, I do, on occasion, like to be able to do both concurrently by shooting video then pulling still frames from the video to act as additional still content. This need is why the prospect of 12K was of interest to me. While it’s possible to pull frames from 4K, or even 1080, the more megapixels the better for most of my still photography. So having 12K video to pull from could be a tangible advantage.
The URSA Mini Pro 12K also has the ability to grab a single still frame. Its smaller brother, the Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2, records still frames as DNG files to a separate folder. However, the URSA Mini Pro 12K, it should be noted, records stills as a Blackmagic RAW frame. This is a proprietary format so you will need to check to see if your chosen stills editor can work with the files or whether you might need to use third-party software to process. I, for example, use Capture One which I don’t believe is currently capable of processing Blackmagic RAW still frames. So I would need to adjust my approach.
From a pure photography standpoint, I would personally be far more likely to shoot stills with a dedicated still camera simply for ergonomic and workflow reasons if my objective was to focus on still photography. But, from a motion standpoint, being able to snatch a single still with the same camera you're going to use to capture video has other strategic advantages. Specifically, imagine you are doing a scene requiring extended visual effects. You can lock off your frame and capture a still frame in 12K to use as a plate for later compositing. Then, use the same camera to shoot the video portion for easy combining in post. Being able to use the same tool for dual purposes can make for a smoother post process.
But, stills aside, of course, this is a 12K video camera. This means that even if you have no interest in stills at all, you are working with an astronomical amount of detail in your video files. But with the distribution market still moving from 1080 to 4K at a snail's pace, is 12K even necessary? And, as a fellow cinematographer asked me, can you even tell the difference?
Well, whether or not the 12K is necessary is completely subject to the details of your own workflow. I think, in practical terms, the best usage for 12K is for projects requiring extensive visual effects work where detail and the ability to resize assets are critical. At this point, I don’t know that most people are going to turn to 12K to shoot an extended talking heads dialogue scene. But let’s say you were doing a detailed shot of a beer bottle or something else tangible and you really wanted to show off every feature of the product. This is where the added resolution might be a good option for you.
Additionally, starting with more resolution allows you to crop in further in post without losing detail. Similar to stills where I use more megapixels for shots requiring added detail or heavy adjustments in post, the added video resolution of the URSA Mini Pro 12K provides you with additional options. At 12K resolution, if your deliverable is only 4K or 1080, you can literally crop into only a small fraction of the frame and still maintain a sharp image.
This added room for cropping also comes into added play with the URSA Mini Pro 12K because it does not have in-body image stabilization. So, if you are one who likes to shoot wider then stabilize in post, starting with maximum resolution gives you the most flexibility.
Or, of course, you can just shoot everything in 12K with the lowest compression and luxuriate in the phenomenal image quality.
Shooting In Other Formats Beside 12K
I decided to use the URSA Mini Pro 12K on a commercial project to see how it would perform. Prior to shooting my project, I did extensive tests with all of the various formats to see for myself what the difference was in quality. The camera can record in 12K, 8K, 6K (cropped), or 4K. Within each of those, you can further control quality, and more importantly file size, by choosing a level of compression that best works for you. 12K 5:1 compression was the highest setting. 4K 18:1 compression was the lowest. Curious to see if I could tell the difference with my naked eyes, I did a quick and decidedly non-scientific test to shoot the identical subject with every possible format combination and judge the drop-off in quality.
As you might expect, the 12K 5:1 is clearly the best. The images were crazy sharp and detailed. Very beautiful. But, what I was pleasantly surprised to find was that, even when I reduced the resolution and upped the compression, I was still left with very usable video options. None of the formats produced what I would subjectively consider unacceptable results. And there were only minimal dropoffs from one compression setting to the next in most cases. And that’s assuming the drop-off was visible at all.
So, for that reason, and to conserve space, I opted to shoot the body of my project in 8K with 8:1 (the second best) compression. I was going to finish the project in 4K, so 8K gave me a bit of wiggle room for cropping. I ended up not really needing to do a great deal of cropping, but was still left with the benefits of capturing in the higher-resolution format then downsampling for output.
To test out the camera as well as my earlier stated interest in pulling still frames, I shot a second complimentary spot in 12K 5:1. These would be much shorter clips rather than extended takes. The objective would be to capture moving portraits of each actress that would highlight the clothing and provide me with both video and still frames simultaneously. The 12K worked a charm for this purpose without any significant issues with data rates or dropped frames. I’ll get more into storage demands in a moment, but as odd as it is to say in a review of a 12K camera, one of the best features is that you don’t always have to be shooting in 12K. This versatility means you can do a lot of different kinds of jobs with the same camera and only bring out the big guns when you need the extra resolution.
It might be the smallest, literally the smallest, feature on the URSA Mini Pro 12K, but one thing that I really appreciated about the design of the camera was that it allows you to record directly to external SSDs. Between my cinema cameras and my mirrorless DSLRs, I have a rather healthy collection of CFast, CFast Express, and SD cards of various speeds and sizes. They work great and I have no real complaints other than that the CFast cards in particular are, shall we say, not exactly inexpensive. My usual workflow is to capture to a card, then transfer the data to a Samsung T5 SSD for editing. Well, the URSA Mini Pro 12K lets me skip that step as it allows you to plug an external SSD directly into the camera and record straight to it. Since I have a gazillion of these T5 drives lying around on my desk, this means that I already had all the storage necessary to capture video at the highest quality. The camera does have dual-slot SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II) recording options. But, I shot my entire project straight to the SSD which allowed me to just unplug it from the camera and plug it into my computer at the end of the shoot, and immediately get to editing.
In addition to the time savings, this could potentially be huge cost savings. I have a Canon R5, for example, which shoots beautiful 8K video. But while my CF Express card is voluminous enough to shoot stills all day without needing to be offloaded, it can only shoot roughly 6 minutes of 8K Canon Raw before filling up. Sure, I could just buy a bigger card or opt to record to the Atomos Ninja V Plus with its SSD instead. But this is both an added expense and potentially an added headache as the Atomos records from the R5 in ProRes Raw which doesn’t play so nice in DaVinci Resolve Studio. I wish all cameras had this external SSD recording option as it provides another real tangible benefit.
Oh, and one quick note on file size since, understandably, the first thing you are likely to say after “wow 12K” is “whoa how much storage will that take up?” Without a doubt, I wouldn’t say the files from the URSA Mini Pro 12K were small. But I would say they are comparable to other cinema cameras I’ve shot with. Especially if you take the time to consider your compression rate when shooting, the file sizes themselves are surprisingly manageable. Sure, if you shoot everything in 12K 5:1, you might run out of storage fairly quickly. But shooting my project in 8K 8:1, I found very little drop-off in image quality while maintaining a storage footprint similar to what I’m used to with other systems. Even going to 18:1 compression produced usable results. I didn’t do this for my project, but in the basic tests I ran, I would say that it is a realistic option if storage demands are of primary concern.
Now one thing that may be a limitation or may not, depending on your workflow, is that the URSA Mini Pro 12K only records in Blackmagic RAW as opposed to including ProRes recording like some its smaller siblings. So if you prefer a different recording format, this might pose a limitation. Personally, I knew I was already going to be working in DaVinci Resolve Studio, so that wasn’t a problem. Also, I was specifically interested in working in Blackmagic RAW to see if it would solve a practical issue that pertains to my specific workflow.
I work with a number of different camera systems in a number of different resolutions and codecs. Some play nice with my computer. Some, not so nice. Not meaning to pick on my R5, it’s not even a cinema camera after all, but since I just mentioned it in the previous section and it's top of my mind, I’ll use it as an example. The files it creates are gorgeous. But my computer really seems to dislike the codec on a personal level. Like the level of animosity is palpable. Not just in 8K either. Even some of the 4K formats have their hiccups. Some of the files playback with ease, others playback with a stutter step worthy of an NFL halfback. This can make editing very difficult without taking the time to create proxies or make other adjustments to my workflow.
Because Blackmagic Design is the same company behind both DaVinci Resolve Studio and the URSA Mini Pro 12K (and, by extension, the creator of Blackmagic RAW), I was hoping that, by keeping it all in the family, that it would lead to a far smoother editing workflow. Surely, if one company owns the entire pipeline, it should be able to optimize the experience?
I am very happy to say that this theory proved to be true. I have a respectable computer system, but not a fully decked out one by any means, yet even the 12K footage from the camera played back in DaVinci Resolve Studio without any struggle. The Blackmagic RAW files also proved to be quite malleable in post. Making raw adjustments was a breeze and these workflow improvements did not go overlooked.
As I said, your experience might differ, especially if you don’t use DaVinci Resolve Studio. But, if you are already connected to the Blackmagic Design ecosystem, recording in Blackmagic RAW is probably going to be a benefit rather than a drawback.
One more thing that could be a benefit or a drawback, depending on your shooting style, is the body format. This is not a camera built to be a run and gun vlog-style camera. This is a system meant for full professional production. Ideally, you’d be working with a team, but, if not, you will at least be working in a scenario where you can take the time to set up your shots and light and compose them properly. It’s not that you can’t run and gun with it. Its button layout and length make it comfortable to shoot within an ENG shoulder-mounted fashion. It's just that the weight means you might have to consider just how much you really want to handhold it versus setting it up on sticks.
The 12K unit that I reviewed came with the Blackmagic Design Shoulder-Mount Kit and spent a fair amount of my production perched atop my right shoulder as I kept my eye pressed to the Blackmagic Design URSA Viewfinder. I really like a shoulder mount setup. Especially with larger cinema cameras. Trying to hold the camera out in front of you, mirrorless SLR style, for extended periods of time might do wonders for your bicep definition, but not much for the stability of your footage. This is also important because again there is no in-body image stabilization in the camera. If you opt for the EF mount as opposed to the PL mount of the base model, you can fit it with Canon EF lenses that have in-lens stabilization. But otherwise, you are going to want to factor in how you plan to keep yourself stable when shooting.
There is, of course, a certain benefit that comes with a heavier body. While a heavier body might be more challenging to handhold for extended periods, the added weight does help to reduce some of the micro jitters you so often see when holding a super lightweight camera. As remaining production time became sparse, I increasingly turned to handholding several of the shots for my projects and, despite testing my grip strength, I was happy with the results.
Buttons And Knobs
Blackmagic Design departs from the usual push and hold button layout of most other cameras I’ve worked with in favor of a switch system for many of their controls. You turn the camera off and on as well as adjust things like ISO with these silver switches. It’s a very logical layout as it makes it easy to figure out what changes you are making while giving you access to your most frequent adjustments without having to open the menus.
My first impression was that the switch system might pose a liability as it might be easy to accidentally bump the switches and make unintended changes while shooting. This shouldn’t happen. But I am clumsy. So I like to idiot-proof my cameras to protect myself from, well, me. I did actually accidentally hit the on-off switch once while I was working with the URSA Mini Pro 12K. But thankfully this only happened one time and didn’t prove to be nearly the issue I thought it could be over the course of my weeks with the unit. The convenience of having access to all my settings without going into the menu far outweighed the odds that I would accidentally flip a switch.
Is it possible to start a movement to pressure all camera manufacturers to just make built-in NDs standard practice on all cameras going forward? While I have both a matte box and my fair share of both glass and screw in NDs, absolutely nothing beats the efficiency of being able to just dial in the NDs right from the camera body. For a video shooter, if you are going to shoot day exteriors at all, ND’s are a necessary part of your kit. So why not build them into the camera so you have them with you at all times? It's one less thing to worry about. Applying the NDs in the URSA Mini Pro 12K is as simple as turning a knob on the left side of the camera which gives you from 0 to 6 stops of filtration. A small but valued feature of the camera.
The unit I shot with was powered via the Blackmagic Design V-Mount Battery Plate. The plate is an add-on accessory, but a must-have if you are considering purchasing the camera. It also comes in a gold mount version. The camera definitely knows how to consume power, requiring a lot to maintain 12K and 8K processing. But I didn’t find the power demands prohibitive. I have three 90 watt hour V mounts batteries and only went through two during the course of a shoot day. The camera also has the ability to be plugged directly into the wall via the power adapter. So, were you to use the camera for an extended interview or a circumstance where it needs to run all day, this would be a potential option as well.
Despite being a filmmaker for over 20 years now, this is the first Blackmagic Design camera I have ever used. Yet it took me no more than five minutes to figure out how to get the camera operational. Having used so many different cameras throughout my career, I really value it when I am able to pick up a new camera system and have it figured out relatively quickly without needing a deep dive into the product manual. The layout of the menu in the URSA Mini Pro 12K is incredibly easy to navigate. No digging into submenu after submenu just to do the basics. Everything you really need is right there on the touchscreen in an easy-to-understand format. Switching between resolutions and compressions, popping on false color, or a preview LUT, it’s all right there in the menu system without you having to waste a lot of time looking for it.
I’m a big fan of simplicity in camera systems. It’s not that I don’t know how to do the more complicated deep dives into camera systems. But that doesn't mean I should have to. I like to keep photography simple. So I personally really appreciate it when a manufacturer lets you do the basic stuff as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Blackmagic Design menu layout is one of my favorites so far.
This is the most subjective category. Like I said earlier, I am not the one to do extensive lab tests to try and compare one camera’s image quality to another. I simply go by whether or not the camera is returning the image that I want or not. Is it up to my standard as that is the only standard that really matters to me in the end? The images from the URSA Mini Pro 12K were terrific straight out of camera. Since this is my first experience shooting with Blackmagic Design, I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect. But I definitely was not disappointed. The native ISO is listed at 800. After speaking with the Blackmagic Design reps, I opted to shoot at ISO 400 and straight out of camera I got the image I wanted with minimal fuss and minimal noise. The colors, especially the skin tones, were exactly where I wanted them. I only did minor color grading after the fact for my own aesthetic reasons, but could have easily gone with the straight out of camera footage without skipping a beat.
I think the best feature of the camera is the price point. With the recent price drop, getting all these features and capabilities in a camera for less than $6,000 is great value for the money. There are, of course, several other options for cinema cameras. Some of those options have definite advantages over the URSA Mini Pro 12K. But those advantages come at a cost. I think for a budget-conscious filmmaker looking to get the most bang for his or her buck, the URSA Mini Pro 12K is a terrific value. Nowhere else will you get this much camera for that low of a price. The image quality easily competes with competing cameras that come at ten times the cost. And for the dedicated videographer/cinematographer, the image is going to be far superior to anything you will get out of a mirrorless SLR hybrid.
Pros Versus Cons
I like to provide as much detail and context as possible when discussing the merits of a piece of equipment, but as I realize many people just want the bullet points, here they go.
- Image quality
- Versatility to go from 12K to 4K
- Variable frame rates
- Manageable file sizes despite resolution
- Blackmagic RAW
- Recording to external SSDs
- Easy playback of even 12K files in Davinci Resolve Studio
- Built-in NDs
- Color rendition. Especially skin tones.
- Accurate exposure monitoring
- Menu layout
- No ProRes Recording
- Flip switches have the potential to be a problem, although I didn’t experience it much in my testing
- No IBIS
In summary, I was very impressed with my maiden voyage shooting with Blackmagic Design and the URSA Mini Pro 12K. It has the feature set I’ve come to expect from far more expensive cameras for a fraction of the price. It provides a great deal of versatility, whether you want uber resolution or a 4K workhorse with perks. It offers an accelerated workflow by being able to record directly to SSD at manageable file sizes in a raw format that plays very nicely in DaVinci Resolve Studio. This is probably not the camera for you if you are looking for a run and gun autofocus beast that you can vlog with. But if you can take your time and are producing assets in a more controlled environment, you would be hard-pressed to get better image quality, even at ten times the price. Definitely worth the investment.