This old-school industry vet tests a new-world camera
By John F.K. Parenteau
I am what you would call a purist. While I enjoy new technology, I’m not completely sold on the modern methodology. I’m not going to try to convince you that film is the way to go, or that carbon arc lamps are better than HMIs, but I will say that there are certain things that have been lost with the new technology that’s out there today.
What does bother me is the new DSLR-style of cameras out there. Yes, the image quality is great, the features are outstanding and the age of actual film is clearly in the past, but I don’t see the advantage of changing how we shoot films with this new digital revolution.
Let me preface all this by saying that as an independent filmmaker, there are times when I can rent a lot of gear, and times when I just need to shoot with what I have. One skill set they taught us at USC Film School was to shoot with whatever you have on hand. It’s definitely a skill, and one that I’ve had to rely on many times in the past.
I own a solid Lowell DP kit, a small set of c-stands, etc. It’s just enough gear for those smaller shoots — I rent gear for bigger shoots — but the one thing I love to own is a camera. Over the years, I’ve managed to own a good enough camera for smaller films, such as projects that didn’t require high dynamic range or a wide range of professional lenses, but with today’s technology, it’s fairly easy to have both — a 4K camera that can use a wide range of professional accessories and costs less than a few thousand dollars. So for the past year or so I’ve been on the lookout for the perfect option.
Recently I was asked to review the Cinema Camera from Blackmagic Design. The company now offers a lineup of cameras — on one end they have the Ursa Pro that will most certainly give Red and Arri a run for their money, while at the other end they have smaller offerings like the Cinema Camera and the Pocket Cinema Camera, both of which provide amazing image quality at a lower price point.
The Cinema Camera itself is beautifully designed. A sleek body that brings to mind a large DSLR, it feels (and is) durable and solid. At 3.74 pounds for the body only, it’s a little heavy compared to a DSLR or some of it’s closest 4K competitors, such as the Canon EOS C100 (its body is only 2.2 pounds), but it does feel good to hold, even without any add-ons like handgrips. The drive slot (it uses removable 2.5-inch SSD drives) is protected behind a metal door, while the more common connections, including SDI out, dual XLR audio in, headphone and Thunderbolt, are covered by individual rubber covers so you aren’t exposing what you don’t need, nor are you in danger of bending a more rigid door. The camera connections are professional (a relief!), rather than the too-often-seen prosumer versions most companies include in an effort to appeal to a more consumer market. Blackmagic Design is definitely trying to appeal to a more prosumer user, but only in their pricing and functionality, not in their connectivity.
The image quality is outstanding. Recording at 12-bit RAW, and with the included DaVinci Resolve Studio, you have all the range and tools for a truly professional color correction. With a 13-stop dynamic range and 2400×1350 max resolution (with the standard 2K model), there is very little holding you back from competing with much more expensive systems out there.
Just a quick price recap: The model I tested, the Cinema Camera MFT runs $1,995 and provides up to a 2.5K image. For $1,000 more ($2,995) you can get an image resolution of 3840 x 2160 (Ultra HD) plus a Super 35 sized sensor and a professional PL lens mount.
While I found many things I liked about the camera, most of what I didn’t like was driven by the fact that the Blackmagic Cinema Camera falls right in the middle of their lineup. While it boasts features that are only available on the top cameras (able to use professional lenses, 2.5K resolution, etc), it also suffers from that middle-of-the-road position in trying to appeal to a less professional user as well. Let me go over a few of those weaknesses.
I don’t like shooting with an integrated LCD, which is seemingly a standard viewing solution on all DSLR-style cameras. Like I said at the start, I’m pretty old school, and pressing my eye against a viewfinder while I operate is a must. Now, as I get older, I have trouble focusing on the screen, and am often frustrated by having to pull my glasses off and on while operating. With a viewfinder you have the benefit of a diopter, allowing traditionalists like me to adjust for my bad eyesight.
I also prefer a style of camera that allows you to use your shoulder, making handheld a function of your entire body. With the Blackmagic Cinema Camera you are forced to rely on your arms as you hold the camera out, away from your body — a much less stable option. Combine that with having to hold the LCD far enough away to focus and I find it a struggle to operate the handheld Cinema Camera comfortably.
Another frustrating component, revolving around the LCD as well, is the menu system. While a touch screen is probably the best option for such a simple, elegant design, it can be problematic. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally touched the screen and produced the metadata option, then had to stop to get rid of it. Sure, it’s just a couple clicks, but it’s not something I care to be distracted by as I shoot. I also can’t imagine an assistant spending the time to fill out the metadata unless on a larger shoot, when time between shots is often ample. While I like that it is there, I don’t know that it needs to be first on the list on the menu screen.
One more complaint about the LCD: it is not always feasible for me to be exactly level with the screen when operating. When I operate with a traditional side-mounted viewfinder camera, I stand beside the camera, my right arm behind and somewhat over it, holding the pan handle, while my other hand is either on the rails, lens or on the body. This gives me the ability (sort of like handheld) to stabilize with my body, making for better pans and tilts. With the Blackmagic Cinema Camera I am forced to reach out with my arms to operate so that my face is behind the camera, preventing me from stabilizing at all. And, put my camera position in a tight place, such as mounted high or set low on the ground, and I am destined for some body contortions to get my eyes to the same level as the LCD. Needless to say, this makes operating under anything less than optimal conditions very difficult.
Let’s be clear here: These complaints are purely from the standpoint of operational preference, not quality of construction. I face these challenges with any DSLR solution, and while the Blackmagic camera does suffer some similarities here, it definitely excels in its cinematic quality. I realize that many young camera people have grown up with that rear screen style and find no problem making it work for them. For those people, this camera probably has little or no flaws. But, as I said, I’m old school.
Like any DSLR-style camera, anything to make the Cinema Camera more like a traditional production camera costs extra. A simple set of handgrips run about $195, and a shoulder mount kit costs about $800. My ideal setup would have handheld capability as well as a base plate, a set of rails, follow focus, matte box and a viewfinder. Doesn’t sound like I’m asking too much, does it? Unfortunately, all of that costs extra, to the tune of doubling the cost of the camera itself.
If you think I’ve brought up some pretty petty complaints, you’re mostly right. I do feel strongly about the LCD and accessory issue, but the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is actually a very cool camera. There are a lot of cameras out on the market today, but this one seems to have the best combination of good price point, quality of image and functionality.
If you’re an independent filmmaker looking for a camera to rent for your next film, I highly recommend you look into purchasing the Cinema Camera. You might find it is a solution that not only works for you now, but will carry you for many projects to come.
Emmy Award-winner John Parenteau is an 30-year industry vet who has shot, produced, written, edited, visual effects supervised and developed for feature, TV, special venue and indie projects. He currently runs Bigfoot Robot, a marketing, creative design and production company in Portland, Oregon.