Technology Inspiring Creativity: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K Review [PART 1]
First, some history…
It’s no secret that I love collecting cameras almost as much as I love using them. Much like a car collector might obsess over engine specs and trim options, I obsess over imaging pipelines, compression algorithms, and color science. These technical details are the magic under the hood that gives a camera its specific look and allows it to operate a certain way. In turn, they allow me to create the images I want.
No camera company puts more magic under the hood than Blackmagic Design. They disrupted the video camera industry with their first entry, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera [BMCC] in 2012. You’ll soon learn to hate their naming convention. The camera was truly groundbreaking. It recorded ProRes and Raw video in 2.5K to internal, inexpensive solid state drives for less than $3,000. It sent tidal waves through an industry where the closest competition was the RED Scarlet priced at a cool $12,000 (plus expensive proprietary media and other accessories).
The next year, Blackmagic stunned the industry once again with the release of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera [BMPCC]. The camera featured a Super16 sized sensor capable of recording ProRes and Raw video in Full HD at up to 30 frames per second to secure disk (SD) cards. The camera was aimed squarely at enthusiasts and low budget filmmakers with its price of merely $995.
The Pocket is the camera that first caught my attention. Don’t get me wrong the original BMCC was an amazing value, but even its modest price tag was too much for me at the time. The Pocket’s ridiculous sub-$1000 price meant that even an enthusiast like me could afford to have a cinema quality camera in my arsenal for quirky, unpaid projects.
The image from the Pocket is spectacular. It has a nearly intangible quality that is difficult to describe, but impossible to not notice. Its colors are rich and deep without being oversaturated. Blues get pushed towards cyan, greens are deep and dark, and skintones are soft and blended. Its highlights roll off into buttery smoothness without clipping and its shadows are full of detail without looking manipulated. Textures are incredibly detailed but not oversharpened like you would see in most DSLR cameras at the time and even today. The image has lots of grain, but it’s pleasing and film-like. The best way to describe the Pocket’s image is organic.
I loved the Pocket so much that I owned it three separate times… and therein lies the problem. As much as I adored the images the camera produced, I couldn’t get over just how much of a pain in the ass it was to shoot with. As with any piece of tech, the value of a camera is not just in its headline feature, but in how it balances things like reliability, battery life, ergonomics, usability, menu setup, and other features. For me, the Pocket came up short in too many ways:
Inability to format the SD card in-camera
Inability to gauge remaining record time on SD card
Inability to gauge remaining battery life
Lack of audio meters
Blown out highlights like the sun were rendered as complete blackness
Clunky user interface borrowed from the BMCC
Horrible battery life
Under 20 minutes charge per battery meant that I would either need to constantly change the battery mid-shoot or rig up a larger power solution.
Limited ISO range
The camera is optimized for ISO 800 meaning that its best video quality was there. Stepping down to 400 or 200 meant a loss in dynamic range and stepping up meant adding ugly digital noise to the image as well as loss in DR.
Terrible audio preamps
It was not a good idea to record audio to the Pocket internally using its own 3.5mm mic jack. You can hear the audio crumble a bit in the Alpine Sunrise video above. The need to use an external audio recorder meant building up a bigger camera rig.
The LCD screen on the Pocket was low resolution and dim. It was pretty low contrast, too. It was nearly impossible to see outdoors or under certain lighting. When conditions were right though I actually liked the look of the screen. Its unique characteristics sort of matched the feeling of the Pocket’s footage.
The Super16 sensor is glorious, however it adds substantial crop to my native m43 and Canon EF lenses. To address this, I bought a Metabones Speedbooster XL which effectively brings the sensor size closer to s35.
Some of the issues above are easily solved by rigging the camera up a bit with external batteries and recorders, which is something many people were going to do anyways. The Pocket really stumbled in its first few firmware iterations where basic camera features were either faulty or nonexistent entirely. Eventually firmware updates did fix many of the software issues above, but it was too late. I tried to love the camera, but its faults were too great.
But, the image was just to good to ignore. Despite all its shortcomings I kept coming back to the Pocket because it delivered an image that I just couldn’t replicate with any other camera in my arsenal. During this time I had access to several cameras including the Panasonic GH4 and Canon C100, but there was still something very special about the Pocket.
Time marched on and in the fall of 2016 I wrote a short horror film called Terror Pool. The film was the largest self-produced project I had taken on at that point and I wanted to make something that tested my skills in every aspect of production. The Pocket was my immediate choice of A Camera. Some shots were done with the GH4 on a gimbal simply for ease of setup. I’m super thrilled with how the final product turned out, but this project revealed a sad truth to me…
The Pocket would never be my A Camera again.
The minor inconveniences of working with the Pocket were drastically multiplied when shooting for hours on end. I rigged the camera up with a bunch of accessories to get it up to the level I needed: an Atomos recorder for longer record times and a better screen, an external battery for longer run time, a VideoMic for scratch audio, dual system audio to sync later, and a 15mm rod system to mount it all. In the end I was able to build the system up sufficiently to make it entirely usable… albeit completely unwieldy for the pace of shoot I had scheduled.
It was clunky and cumbersome, but man that image was nice, right? Right??
The B Cam for Terror Pool was the Panasonic GH4. This was my main camera for almost all my paid work from 2014-2017. I knew that camera inside and out. It was used for all the gimbal shots on this picture. Each time I turned the camera on I was reminded just how easy it made video production: long lasting battery life, great LCD and EVF, multiple useable ISO settings, good audio proamps and internal mics, and no huge crop for native m43 lenses. Oh, and did I mention that it shoots 4K internally?? The GH4 just gets out of the way and lets you shoot great video whether it is stripped down or rigged up. This is in stark contrast to the Pocket, which I’d argue is nearly useless to me without rigging.
So, after completing Terror Pool I made the tough choice of selling off the Pocket one final time. The film gave me one important piece of insight:
Image quality doesn’t always trump usability.
What I wanted was a camera to get out of my way and let me make art on my terms. I wanted it to be flexible with my needs and perform well under a variety of conditions. I wanted a camera that strikes the balance of absolute image quality and usability. Beyond that, 4K had become critical to my workflow. I relied on it for zooming and cropping in post to create additional angles.
In early 2017 I received the Panasonic GH5 on day one of release. It has near-perfect ergonomics, a superb menu system, and great image quality. Internal 4K30 in 10 bit, 4K60 in 8bit, 180fps overcrank, dual card slots, Vlog-L and HLG. Its IBIS has changed the way I shoot by opening many creative possibilities.
In early 2018 I received the Panasonic GH5s on day one of release. It has the same fantastic features, ergonomics, and menu with an even better image made possible by dual native ISO. It lacks IBIS, but has 240fps overcrank.
These were nearly perfect cameras for me, but then came the Blackmagic itch. That itch for internal ProRes and Raw video recording. That itch for Blackmagic colors. Then, this got announced…
Continued in Part 2 soon.