Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera review: Powerful, compact

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera
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January 18th 2015 at 11:30AM By:

When Blackmagic Design announced its original Cinema Camera it seemed like a tough act to follow

A few years ago when Blackmagic Design first announced their original Cinema Camera that captured raw 2K imagery for only $2000 it seemed like a tough act to follow, value-wise. True to form, the company has again managed to live up to its “black magical” reputation by jamming a great deal of camera technology into a much smaller package, and at a substantially reduced price. With the Pocket Cinema Camera (PCC), Blackmagic has compressed more than 90 percent of the original Cine Camera’s features into a point-and-shoot camera body at less than half the price. As with previous Blackmagic feats of technological legerdemain, this too seems almost too good to be true—there almost had to be another shoe to drop.

At least that was my perspective when I decided to test and review the Pocket Cine Camera. My questions included “Is this really a compact version of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, and if not, where do they part company? If perchance there’s almost no difference between them, why would Blackmagic offer so much camera for half of the already low price?

Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema Camera is a pocket-sized Super 16 digital cinema model with a Super 16 mm-sized sensor. It’s billed as having 13 stops of dynamic range - a prerequisite for capturing truly cinematic imagery - which closely mimics what we can see with our eyes, after color grading with DaVinci Resolve. (The captured imagery can actually be graded directly from the card with DaVinci Resolve Lite, which is included with the camera.)

The Pocket Cine has an onboard recorder that stores 10-bit files to ultrafast SD cards. There are two dynamic range settings: Video Rec 709 and Film Log. Both feature broad dynamic range to enable the imagery capture for very different applications.

Blackmagic bills the PCC as “the world’s most compact digital film camera”, one that can literally fit into your shirt pocket (at least without a lens). The 5 x 1.25-inch camera body is solid metal and feels heftier than its 12.5 ounce weight. The camera includes a 3.5-inch high-resolution monitor which is ideal for precise focusing and also for playback from the SD memory card. The monitor even provides plenty of room for a full line of status displays at the bottom of the screen: shutter angle, time code, color temp, frame rate, recording format, status, lens aperture, ISO, time lapse interval and more.

In many respects, Blackmagic’s PCC is a condensed version of the original Blackmagic Cine Camera (BMCC), albeit with a slightly smaller sensor than that camera’s 2.5K imager. The user interface around the screen is very similar in both cameras, with just a handful of external switches: power, menu, focus and iris buttons, plus menu navigation arrows. All navigation arrows are recessed to retard accidental triggering. The record button is raised and colored red for easy recognition and operation, with the playback arrows located immediately adjacent to it.

The PCC provides several I/O connections including 1/8-inch headphone and mic/line connectors, mini-HDMI, a Lanc connection and a 12 Volt power tap. The latter works with the provided charger/AC adapter for charging the camera’s 7.4 Volt lithium ion batteries that power the unit for up to an hour.

There are 1/4-inch taps on top and bottom for attaching the camera to a tripod or other support device, or for attaching accessories.

The menu is fairly sparse, with only four pages of settings: camera, audio, recorder and display, but these are fairly well organized.

Rather curiously, “dynamic range” is found on both the recorder and display setting pages of the camera menu. There’s a trap here if they aren’t set identically. If not, you’ll be using the wrong visual reference when adjusting other camera parameters.

While there are only two recording format choices - ProRes 422 or Cine DNG RAW - there are frame rate options for 23.98, 24, 25, 29.97 and 30 fps. The menu item with the greatest number of options is time lapse, with intervals ranging from two to ten frames per second, all the way to two frames per minute and even the extreme of one frame every ten minutes. The ability to make time lapse recordings with such a broad range of options, plus the high-quality imaging options is a key advantage of the Blackmagic PCC.

The camera features a built-in micro-stereo directional mic, as well as a 1/8-inch mini-plug input. While few, if any, pro mics come with 1/8-inch mini-plugs, XLR-terminated mics can be made to work with adapters and cords, even though this is a bit clunky. The unit accepts both line and mic level inputs.

In use

There’s much to like about the Pocket Cine Camera. I used it with the San Disk 64 GB Extreme Pro SD card (one of the few SD cards fast enough to record Cinema DNG Raw with the camera and with enough capacity to record nearly an hour’s worth of RAW footage).

Unlike similar cards from other manufacturers, the Extreme Pro SD consistently records both RAW and Apple Pro Res without any dropped frames or other hiccups. In fact, Blackmagic didn’t recommend any other SD cards for use with the PCC at review time. I did try some comparably fast SD cards, but quickly found that none worked as well as the SD Extreme Pro.

The captured Quicktime movie clips can be played back from the camera’s SD card by simply hitting the Play button, or by inserting the SD card into a card slot on a computer. Unfortunately clips cannot be deleted from the card when it’s in the camera.

Another technical challenge is dealing with a lens crop factor of nearly 3X. This obviously constrains wide angle framing ,but enhances telephoto, including portraiture and interviews. It also enhances the bokeh effect which cine devotees relish and expect in films, commercials, and increasingly on TV.

As much of my shooting occurs in telephoto range, for me, the PCC’s heavy crop factor was really more of an asset than a challenge. However, a wide angle adapter is advisable for anyone for whom wider-angle shots are paramount. With the 3X crop, the wide end of the 14-45 mm lens is equivalent to a 42 mm lens on a 35 mm film camera, which is still wider than a “normal” 1X or 52 mm lens.

By default and design I managed to avoid add-ons, thus keeping the PCC very compact, portable and unobtrusive, even in crowded spaces - much as with a 'point-and-shoot’ camera. Despite the camera’s weighing barely a pound (including lens), most of the footage was remarkably stable, partly thanks to the lens’ internal optical stabilization and also to the PCC’s solid, ergonomic design.

The camera’s manually triggered auto-iris helped keep all of the exposures well within the correctable range even with the use of only existing lighting. This was the case even in dimly lit interiors where the PCC’s max ISO of 1600 proved invaluable. With 13 stops of latitude there was always enough 'wiggle room' for tweaking exposure and contrast, and for colour correction using the DaVinci Lite tool. One unexpected problem encountered was focusing in bright light - even in moderate sunlight - due to ambient light washing out the monitor image. Hoodman has created a perfect shading solution for the PCC, but unfortunately I didn’t have one for this review and had to improvise with my hand or a baseball cap. However, as these improvised solutions sometimes impacted camera handling and operation, I sometimes came away with slightly soft focus. Fortunately this was not a frequent problem and I was generally able to find a workaround, sometimes by simply changing the angle of view.

I found that taking just a bit of extra time and effort to focus, correctly expose and stabilise the PCC paid off in remarkably crisp, cinema-quality imagery with great latitude for tweaking in post. It easily exceeded broadcast quality and typically had the image integrity needed for large screen displays. Even footage shot in contrasty and dim lighting color-corrected nicely.

While audio is not the PCC’s strongest feature, it’s not necessarily a lost cause either, even without an external microphone. The input levels for both channels can be adjusted individually in five percent increments when using the onboard, directional stereo microphone. However, adjustment of audio input and output levels is a bit problematic as adjustments can only be made via the menu, since the PCC lacks conventional dials and an audio level display. Instead, audio is adjusted via the menu and monitoring is performed with headphones. Also, there’s an apparent absence of a 0 dB reference level on which to base all of these incremental adjustments.

Despite these deficiencies, I did manage to get some fairly clean audio recordings without handling noise by using default settings and with input levels in the 60 to 70 per cent range. This even included live music recorded in a crowded dance-hall. As long as inputs weren’t overmodulated and were closely aligned on both channels, the recordings were quite clean and usable as 'natural sound', as well as for reference audio. Nevertheless, the absence of an audio level display that’s visible on the PCC’s LCD screen is baffling and is a distinct liability. It also seems that this could be remedied with a firmware update. At least I hope so.

Verdict

Blackmagic Design’s Pocket Cine Camera - at slightly less than $1,000 - may well be the most powerful compact digital cinema camera now on the market capable of capturing RAW or lightly compressed cine files using an open file format on non-proprietary media. It features a built-in high-resolution monitor and basic professional I/Os and firmware. The low-contrast imagery captured can be professionally color graded in post. A high lens crop factor of 2.9X does require that wide-angle adapters be used with most lenses, except in telephoto applications. The camera’s inability to take stills or to capture footage at higher compression rates, or to delete files in camera does limit its maximum field capture capability to about an hour (with Pro Res 422 HQ and ultra-fast 64 GB SD cards).

The PCC would make an excellent 'B' or 'C' camera for both big- and low-budget productions, especially when capturing special effects and other risky shots. However, it also has the imaging quality and a feature set sufficient to serve as an 'A' camera for an indie box office or Internet surprise hit.

Carl Mrozek operates Eagle Eye Media, and specialises in wildlife and outdoor subjects. His work regularly appears on the Discovery Channel, The Weather Channel, CBS, PBS and other networks. He may be contacted at eagleye11@gmail.com.

FAST FACTS

APPLICATION
ENG, TV and film studios and location shooting

KEY FEATURES
High–quality imagery at a reasonable price, on-board recording to SD cards, compact size, lightweight

PRICE
$995 street price

CONTACT
Blackmagic Design
www.blackmagicdesign.com