About two years ago, Blackmagic made enormous waves in the cinema industry with their original cinema camera. A year later, they packed that camera into a preposterously small package, giving filmmakers the ability to take high quality video with them virtually anywhere. With numerous highly desired firmware updates since then, we wanted to see how the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera has handled the test of time.
Most, if not all, of you have seen the footage that comes out of a Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The quality is pristine, especially when shooting in 12 bit lossless raw. But rather than talk about how the footage looks (since I'm sure you all know that everything that comes out of this camera is beautiful), I want to discuss basically everything else. To do this, I put the camera under the most extreme of conditions: a five day studio production where it would act as camera two, as well as a four location shoots where it would be tasked with the same role.
If you want to take a gander at some great footage (since what I shot is still in editing), this is a great video that highlights how good the footage looks:
The camera is, as expected, extremely tiny. I was able to fit it, an adapter, a micro four thirds lens, two lenses, spare batteries (which you will need, but I'll get to that in a second), the charger and memory cards into one small Lowepro hardcase. This was easily my favorite part of the camera. As expected, being tiny fit right into my on-the-go shooting style. So here is what I shot:
- Behind the scenes video footage of a shoot featuring Pagani supercars
- 5-day studio production
- 2 Interviews at two separate locations
- Interview, with a plan to follow that interview with a shoot out of a helicopter over Los Angeles
The last item on that list I was particularly excited for, and the Pocket Cinema Camera seemed perfectly suited to the task. If you haven't shot out of a helicopter before, it is extremely cramped with very little room to manuever. The Pocket Cinema Camera's tiny size seemed like a perfect match. It would keep my shooting rig small and allow me more freedom of movement to get better aerial footage.
After shooting all these events, I was able to walk away with a clear idea of what the camera is capable of, and how you can balance that with your expectations.
The camera is small, light weight, and easy to use. But this comes at a cost: battery life.
The BMPCC, like it's bigger brother, has an absolutely atrocious battery life. I think this is where I struggled the most with the little camera. The lack of battery life is forgiveable on the original Cinema Camera, but on a camera that is designed to be a mobile shooter, it's much harder to look past. On a full charge, the camera was really only able to give me between 15 and 45 minutes of shooting time before the juice simply ran out. Why the variance? Well, it depends on with what you are shooting. If you have a micro four thirds lens, then you'll get the maximum lifespan out of the camera. But if you want to adapt the camera with, say, your Canon lenses, then you are in for some trouble. The new Metabones micro four thirds to EF adapter specifically for the BMPCC works amazingly well, as we covered in a previous review, but the power draw on the BMPCC was very apparent.
I was forced to choose higher quality optics, or battery life. This is not a great decision to have to make. This is not necessarily Blackmagic's fault, as they did not design their camera to handle the additional power draw that is the Metabones adapter, but even if we ignore that and look at how it performed using the native micro four thirds mount, it's extremely difficult to shoot a production when you're sweating about battery life every 30 to 45 minutes. I think an improvement that Blackmagic could have given me to help alleviate my battery problems would be the option to turn off the rear display in a "power save mode" of sorts. Right now you can only turn the whole camera off, and since it doesn't start back up immediately, you might miss your shot.
Second cost: Heat.
I didn't even think about this being an issue, since I have shot with (what I guess would now be considered large cameras I guess) DSLRs and bigger beasts like the Sony FS700. Neither of these options tend to produce much disernable heat. I mean, sure, you will sometimes be able to feel something near the memory card slot, but it's never anything more than a little chuckle. "Oh, feel this! It's warm!"
The BMPCC took that chuckle a bit too far. After shooting with it for no more than an hour (I had it plugged in to a power source like a wall or a battery in order to last that long), the camera got incredibly hot... Almost too hot to hold, actually. I think this is a mix of the camera just sinking heat, combined with the fact I had to have it plugged in for 99% of what I was shooting with it. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it is worth noting.
Points of Contention: The LCD and lack of buttons
Maybe I'm spoiled by the original Cinema Camera, but the screen on the BMPCC was, next to the battery life, my least favorite aspect of the camera. The way that Blackmagic has designed their system is very touch-friendly, which works great on the original camera and the Production Camera 4K. However, when you take touch away and force me to use a directional pad to navigate the menu, the lack of easy-access buttons to make changes like ISO and white balance was glaring.
The real problem with the screen is the lack of brightness, however. The BMPCC's size makes it ideal for shooting outside and on the go, but unfortunately any level of bright sunlight makes shooting outdoors difficult, as the screen has no hood and is impossible to see when outside. This, coupled with the small size of that screen, seeing what you are doing can be troublesome.
This was weird...
On a couple of occassions, the camera refused to aknowledge aperture values on lenses. This was, oddly, most notable when I was using micro four thirds lenses, and it rarely happened when I employed the Metabones speed booster. Turning the camera on and off a few times fixed it, but it was bizarre (and annoying). I think it was made more annoying by the fact something like this has never happened for the hundreds of hours I have shot on the original Cinema camera, which in my opinion is a nearly flawless camera.
Firmware Updates: Making the camera special
It took a while, but Blackmagic's two recent firmware updates have changed this camera's viability for many filmmakers like myself. We are very, very used to having some very specific options when it comes to our cameras: we want some audio meters, we want to see how much space is left on our memory cards and we want to be able to format our cards in camera. These requests seem very "well duh" when you look at them, but when the BMPCC first hit the market, it didn't give us any of those seemingly simple requests. What resulted was a disjointed, frustrating and generally unpleasant shooting experience. Sure, the footage looked spectacular, but it was just a pain to get.
With the last two firmware updates, Blackmagic put a bandaid on those bad feelings. The camera now has everything I have come to expect, and maybe more. You see, unless you plan to hack your camera with Magic Lantern, DSLRs (what i would consider the biggest competitor to the BMPCC) don't tend to have focus peaking or proper audio meters. They also tend to limit your shooting time (especially if you're shooting Nikon) before auto shutting off, and they won't shoot in formats like Apple ProRes or raw. The BMPCC does all these things in a smaller package. With the exception of the Panasonic GH4 or the Sony a7S, it's one of the best small camera options on the market now and it still can do things neither of those cameras can.
Yes, it's still a great camera
I think I am the most critical of products that I like, and that has never been the case more than here with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera. Right now is an interesting time for cinema. The products on the market are great, but there is not one camera option that can really "do it all." There is no compact camera that can shoot well in low light, slow motion, 4K, and raw. That's why I don't mind owning different bodies and adapting with Metabones. So where does the BMPCC fit in?
- GH4 for easy 4K and slow motion
- Sony a7S for low light
- BMPCC for raw video
There is nothing wrong with owning all three bodies, and I think each of them has their place. I think that if Blackmagic addresses three things, they can have a real monster in the BMPCC version 2: more frame rate options, brighter screen/make it touch, and battery life. There is not much else holding this camera back.
What I liked:
- Truly spectacular footage- the sensor is amazing
- Small body, compact frame, easy to use, feels good in hand
- Multiple recording options: ProRes and raw to name a few
- Built-in timelapse
- Focus Peaking
- Good ISO performance
- Takes SD cards
- Great support, as evidenced by two great firmware updates
What could use improvement:
- Battery life is terrible
- Gets really hot
- Screen is dim in bright environments
- Can be somewhat buggy
- Lack of physical buttons for quick access to ISO and white balance
Earlier this year Blackmagic put the BMPCC on a fire-sale price of $495 before it jumped back up to regular price. If you ever see that low of a price on it again, get it. Do not hesitate. It is currently worth what they're asking, but if given the opportunity to get it even cheaper, buy two. I may not love the BMPCC, but I sure as hell respect it. To answer the question posed in the title of this article... yes. They have, and dramatically. This went from a novelty camera to one I would seriously recommend for specific circumstances. Blackmagic had done well to not give up on the camera, and their continued support of the system over the last year has resulted in a camera that has a place in my kit.