A year ago, BlackMagic Design announced their very first camera. Not being a camera company, they created a clunky box that was a short on ergonomics and frills, but being a top-flight digital imaging company, they built a sensor and processor package that shot excellent images. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera shoots a rather unorthodox 2.5k image on a standard 16mm sensor, accepts standard EF lenses and records to standard SSD drives. The 12-bit RAW image quality easily rivals that of the RED Scarlet, but the BCC ships ready to shoot for only $3000.
This year at NAB, they announced their second and third cameras. First, they unveiled an upgraded version of the BCC which shoots 4k video on a Super35 sensor through a global shutter. Like its predecessor, it comes with a free copy of daVinci Resolve (normally $945), and is still only $4000. As astounding a camera as this is, I found the announcement of the Pocket Cinema Camera even more interesting.
This camera is a mirrorless point & shoot, with a Super16 sensor shooting native 1920×1080 HD footage. Currently, the prototypes record 10-bit ProRes to SD card, with a slightly compressed 12-bit DNG RAW codec coming soon. The sensor promises extreme dynamic range, and by shooting at a native res, there will be no problems with aliasing or moiré, and it will have larger photosites that should give it very impressive low light capability.
In addition to standard SD cards, it takes standard Nikon batteries, and has a standard active Micro Four Thirds lens mount. This gives it a pretty wide selection of Panasonic and Olympus lenses, and adapters are in the works to support a number of classic 16mm lens mounts. It’s pretty capable video camera for $995… especially when you consider that this is roughly the current price for a used Canon 7D.
Of course, a video-enabled DLSR like the 7D is a dual purpose device, primarily a serious still camera. The Pocket Cinema Camera, despite looking like your average point & shoot, will not have even have the capability to take cellphone-resolution pictures. Its tiny size and cute design aside, this is meant to be a pro camera, with a pro sensor recording to pro codecs. I’m pretty sure that the ungraded RAW footage won’t even look that flashy.
That’s not a downside, though. What might be, however, is the somewhat limited control scheme. It uses the same menu system as the original BCC, which is a very full-featured touchscreen-based setup. The PCC, on the other hand, doesn’t have a touchscreen. In a way, that’s good; since a tiny camera like this will probably need a finger-blocking viewfinder eyepiece, it’s nice to have buttons off to the side.
The problem is that using directional buttons to navigate an interface designed for a touchscreen can be slow. For a cinema camera on a controlled film set shooting planned shots, speed is not essential… but the price and size of this camera make it perfect for run-and-gun documentary shooting, and in that environment speed is much more important. If I’m moving fast, I might need to adjust iris, ISO, shutter, white balance, and audio levels in between shots, and that’s five different settings with only one set of buttons.
To make matters worse, a number of MFT lenses don’t have physical focus rings, so that’s a sixth set of parameters to adjust using five tiny chicklet buttons. I wish the camera had a control wheel in addition to the directional pad, since it will be very hard to rapidly press the clicky buttons on a camera this small and light without jiggling it. Not a great way to do follow focus, so clearly physical focus rings are a must. At the moment, there’s no telling if this camera will have auto-focus or auto-exposure; the original BCC is purely manual control, with only a very basic one-time auto-iris.
Nevertheless, it is nice to see a no-frills camera designed purely for video quality, especially when it has been priced lower than DSLRs that have squeezed video in as an afterthought. The more professional features like focus peaking and the headphone jack (I never thought I’d consider a headphone jack a “professional video feature”) make it easy to overlook a few rough spots, and there’s a lot of room for firmware updates between now and the late July shipping estimate.
I am seriously considering pre-ordering one of these. The native lenses are pretty cheap, older S16 lenses are abundant, and if the dynamic range and low light capabilities of the sensor are similar to the original BCC, it will shoot an amazing image. To some extent though, despite being cheap and tiny, it is more camera than most of us actually need. Canon’s compressed MPEG4 video is sufficient for most video productions, and the full frame sensor of the 5D is still very hard to beat.
I believe that the 4k Cinema Production Camera will do very, very well. It brings all of the RED Scarlet’s capability to the table for a fraction of the cost. It can’t compete quite as well with the Epic or the Sony F65, but the people who buy or rent cameras in that rarified price range tend to be able to decide what they need and could pick it up. In comparison, the Pocket Camera is practically an impulse buy, but it is a more complicated product to predict.
Ultimately, the success of this camera will depend on how many shooters are serious videographers who want to get better at their craft, and how many wannabe filmmakers just want a fancier camera because they think that their tools (or toys) define them. The PCC is capable of shooting a vastly superior image to existing DLSRs, but it will take a lot more work to get that better image. The codec open up a whole new range of grading options, but it also requires a whole new level of grading.
Casual shooters will probably be frustrated by this challenge, and serious pro shooters should probably be considering the more expensive 4k version. A pocket-sized RAW HD camera feels custom-made for guys in between those two groups – like me – but I’m just not sure how big that demographic is. Right now, the original 2.5k BCC is highly sought after, and even after the 4k version hits the market I expect that used bodies will be scarce and expensive.
So the only reason that I’m holding back on the pre-order is that I’m not sure how many used Pocket Cameras will be for sale by the end of the year. Any thoughts?