Is the New Blackmagic Cinema Camera the HDSLR Killer?
COW Library : DSLR Video : Marco Solorio : Is the New Blackmagic Cinema Camera the HDSLR Killer?
I've been shooting video with the Canon 5D Mark II since late 2008 when the camera was initially released. I can't believe that was nearly four years ago. For many productions, I still choose it over our other HD camera options. Aside from its drawbacks, the images you can pull from that camera can still be breathtaking.
I'll be the first to admit that I was a little heartbroken after waiting three years for the 5D Mark III successor, only to find that the HD video feature-set wasn't anything to write home about. Don't get me wrong, the improvements are definitely there, but in many cases, Canon lost out on "Revolution Part 2" with the Mark III, that they captured so well with the Mark II.
Marco Solorio hiding behind his 5D Mk II "Cine Rig" used on a TV commercial spot.
Nikon always seems to miss the HD video boat when opportunity arises as well. For three years now, they could have stolen the spotlight up from Canon in a heartbeat, but never seized the moment. Granted, they too have stepped up the feature-set in their latest HDSLR offerings, in some aspects, better than Canon. But alas, they just don't get it.
And what ever happened to RED's 3K for $3k? Such a shame they never tapped into that market space. Entry into RED is their Scarlet X, which nears the $20k point for a functionally ready-to-shoot camera. It's a nice camera indeed, but realistically out of the range for the general HDSLR shooter spectrum.
There's also the Digital Bolex, but it's an upstart company without a tangible device to see in person with little to no footage samples. To get some of the features that the Cinema Camera has, you'd need Digital Bolex add-ons (SDI output apparently adds another $3k to the camera). It seems this camera is just a bit too late into market.
Rear view of the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera
Then along comes the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera. This took EVERYONE, myself included, by complete surprise during last Sunday's announcements at NAB (National Association of Broadcasters). As a post-production-centered company, who ever would have guessed BMD would get into making a camera and for only $2995 to boot? But you know, it makes complete sense if you really think about it. They've always produced (or bought out) quality-made, cost-effective solutions for post-production and broadcast, so why not build a camera that starts the end-to-end pipeline of high quality media acquisition?
So is the Cinema Camera the anticipated "HDSLR killer" we've all been waiting for? In many instances, yes, I think it very well may be. But in some regards, possibly not. Let's compare.
BENEFITS OF THE CINEMA CAMERA OVER DSLR CAMERAS
The core strength of the Cinema Camera (aside from it's low price of $2995) is its 13-stop, 2.5K sensor resolution (2592x2192), which can be recorded internally and externally at full 12-bit RAW, at a maximum of 2432x1366 in CinemaDNG format. You can also record directly to 10-bit ProRes (Apple) or DNxHD (AVID) formats at full 1080 HD size. All of this (combined with the price) is the heart of what makes the Cinema Camera buzzing with electric fire right now.
Additionally, the Cinema Camera can output clean 2.5K RAW 12-bit resolution via Thunderbolt, and clean 1080 HD 10-bit HD-SDI to any recorder you'd like. Not that it's necessarily needed with the Cinema Camera's internal SSD media recorder, but the Thunderbolt and HD-SDI outputs really give much needed secondary output options for both recording and clean monitoring. For the most part, this is something current DSLRs cannot do, save the $15K Canon 1D C with HDMI output (limited to 8-bit 1080 HD), or the new Nikon DSLR lineup, also limited to HDMI output at 8-bit 1080 HD. So the camera that comes closest to outputting a live, clean, uncompressed, RAW output higher than 1080 HD, and higher than 8-bit is the Canon C500 at about $30K (no word on street price yet).
Let's talk about traditional 2K for just a second. I remember when working in 2K was the cat's meow. Man, if you worked in 2K, you were the bomb, even if it was barely more than 1080 HD. Now if you work in 4K, you're the bomb. Let's be real. 4K is cool and fun, but the total convergence to 4K isn't here yet. It will be, but not yet. A lot of theatrical digital output formats are still in 2K. Shooting in 2.5K with the Cinema Camera lets you have an edge up for that 2K deployment, should you need it. Bottom line is, there isn't a DSLR out there that can shoot above 1080 HD, save the $15K Canon 1D C.
The Cinema Camera's 2.5K format sits well in the traditional 2K zone, while giving some headroom above the full 1080 HD format.
As for audio input, some people are under the impression that the Cinema Camera uses the same audio input type as DSLRs, namely, a line-level stereo input jack, since it doesn't have XLR inputs. This couldn't be further from the truth. The Cinema Camera uses ¼-inch balanced TRS connectors (and is switchable between consumer -10dB line level and professional +4dB mic level). You will get the same exact audio quality with this, had they implemented XLR connectors. To add, the audio input can be switched (via internal menu) from balanced analog audio to AES/EBU digital format. Show me a DSLR that not only has two balanced analog audio inputs, but two digital audio inputs.
One currently lacking audio feature seems to be audio meters, but as a trade-off, Ultrascope is packaged with this camera (the camera itself acts as an UltraScope to a tethered Thunderbolt-capable computer) which can display multiple channel meters, as well as stereo phase metering. But metering aside, the actual audio quality of the Cinema Camera trumps any DSLR audio, including the Canon 1D C ($15K) by leaps and bounds. In reality, I do not foresee the need to implement double-system sound when using the Cinema Camera, unlike traditional DSLR cameras that almost require double-system sound to be implemented.
At first I was skeptical of the Cinema Camera body design, but as I dug deeper, I think you actually might have better mounting options with this camera than a DSLR. At the bottom of the camera is a standard ¼-20 tap and locator pin (already better than DSLR cameras as they don't have a much needed secondary locator point). Personally, I'd rather have two ¼-20 taps, but the ¼-20 + pin combo will work and has been around for decades. At the top of the camera are three ¼-20 taps, which will really make it cool to mount secured rigs and cages to. I absolutely guarantee the market will be FLOODED with rigging options for this camera, and they'll be very securely mounted to boot with all these ¼-20 taps. I foresee a very slick cage(s) for this camera in due time, which will allow even more mounting options.
Comparing the body sizes of the Canon 5D Mk III and the Cinema Camera
Let's be real, H.264 encoding on DSLR cameras sucks. They're highly compressed, both temporally and spatially. Part of the problem is the data rate of the CF/SD cards that DSLR cameras have succumbed to, so the video files have to be small. Eight-bit compression with lossy image compression and high chroma sub-sampling compression (4:2:0) is feeling a little like 1998 again. There's a ton of lost color-data I'd sure love to have back again. And as we all know, H.264 files are CPU hogs that sometimes require transcoding to work efficiently with many applications. With the Cinema Camera, all this torture is a thing of the past. Your choices are glorious 12-bit RAW CinemaDNG, or 10-bit ProRes/DNxHD in 4:2:2. DSLR cameras can't even come close to that kind of data structure, not by millions of miles. Now you can finally color grade your footage without it falling apart after pushing a levels slider only three values away (sarcastic, but you know how I feel).
From the little test footage I've seen to date, the rolling shutter is much less noticeable than most HDSLR cameras out there. The Canon 5D Mk III made good improvements in this regard though, and from what I've seen, it looks like the Cinema Camera is as good or better than the 5D Mk III. Time will tell as more test footage is released.
Like rolling shutter, aliasing has been a menacing problem plagued with HDSLR cameras. To combat this, I purchased a Mosaic Engineering VAF-5D2 anti-aliasing filter for my 5D Mk II. It works wonders and completely eliminates moiré and aliasing... at a cost of almost $400. The 5D Mk III seems to do away with the problem, at the cost of a slightly softer image, as compared to the 5D Mk II. At first glance, it looks like there is no aliasing with the Cinema Camera, and without a loss of image softening. But like rolling shutter results, time will tell as more test footage is released.
It hasn't happened very often to me personally, but the limited clip length of DSLR cameras ranges from less than 10 minutes up to just under 30 minutes, depending on your DSLR flavor. In the times I've ran out of shooting time on the 5D Mk II, I had to quickly hit the record button again, knowing that the gap in time will have to be filled by either B-roll, a multi-cam shot, or a cut-away shot. The Cinema Camera can record for hours on end without stopping for a drink.
Metadata entry directly onto each clip with a touchscreen keyboard is pretty damn cool. I don't know of a single DSLR camera that can do manual metadata entry, not to mention doing it with a keyboard. There are plugins, apps, and tools out there to add metadata to DSLR clips after the fact. Sometimes however, you just want to do it right then and there, in camera, before you forget what you wanted to enter after the shoot is done for the day.
Entering in metadata for each clip is handy with the touchscreen keyboard.
The 12-30 volt power tap on the Cinema Camera is very welcomed. I typically shoot with V-mount batteries to my 5D Mk II rig. But getting external DC power (at exactly 7.2 volts) to the 5D from ENG-style batteries is kind of cumbersome (I literally built my own V-mount regulated/variable battery tap for this very reason). With the Cinema Camera, you simply go straight from any 12-30 volt source (like 14-volt V-mount, Anton Bauer, etc.) and you don't have to worry about voltage conversions or regulators. Easy.
I have an array of external controls to handle my DSLR cameras remotely, from Okii USB devices, to wireless follow focuses, you name it. But the cheap and easy way to really control a camera is with LANC (first developed by Sony and has been around forever). With it the Cinema Camera can control recording start/stop modes, lens aperture (so long as the lend has pin-out to it, like all Canon EF and EF-S lenses), and lens focus (again, if you have an auto-focus style lens with pin-outs). This is great for ENG style shooting, or when you need to place the camera on a jib or crane; no need for fancy/expensive wireless follow focus units, just an extension cord from your LANC remote and to the Cinema Camera. Although the 3rd party hardware work-arounds are okay for remote DSLR shooting, LANC really is really the ideal method with an abundance of remote devices in the market to choose from.
A plethora of LANC remotes are available in the market. Shown here are some from Manfrotto, VariZoom, and Canon.
When you buy the Cinema Camera, you get quite a booty of software with it. To start with you get a full license of DaVinci Resolve grading software (includes USB dongle). The second item you receive on the list is UltraScope (the camera itself acts as an UltraScope device) via Thunderbolt. Finally, you get Blackmagic Design's Media Express software to perform live capture (via Thunderbolt) of the 12-bit RAW footage. Last I checked, DSLRs don't come with any of this software, nor, I suspect, will it ever happen.
I'm extremely pleased to see Blackmagic Design implemented an HD-SDI output on their Cinema Camera as opposed to an HDMI output. Don't get me wrong, HDMI is great for home theater use, but in production use, it's just not as robust as HD-SDI. For one, HDMI has a fairly short run of about 10 meters before you have to start worrying about signal degradation (I've lost signal at about the 35-foot mark in the past). With HD-SDI, you can connect to a plethora of industry standard devices that already have HD-SDI, as well as extending those cable runs by hundreds of feet, rather than hundreds of centimeters. The first thing my Canon 5D Mk II does is output its HDMI signal to a Blackmagic Design HDMI-to-SDI Mini Converter where it can go to anything else on set, whether it's the camera rig's LCD monitor, or out to the video village that may need a 100-foot cable run... the Cinema Camera needs no such converter for a superior HD-SDI workflow.
The Cinema Camera has zebra stripes now, and according to Blackmagic Design, they are adding histogram and waveform monitoring (at time of shipping, or in a firmware update after shipped units is not known at this time). There was mention of focus peaking (with the assist of the physical "Focus" button on the camera) on the NAB floor, but nothing more directly specific from Blackmagic Design on the topic just yet. And don't forget, you can use the UltraScope Thunderbolt output to really get detailed metering of your image. The only way to get zebra stripes on a 5D Mk II is through a firmware hack by the likes of the Magic Lantern Firmware, which I've used with success in the past, but sometimes its quicker and easier to NOT load up the firmware hack and go native (without said stripes). The very newest crop of DSLR cameras from Canon, like the 5D Mk III, do have a live histogram function (during recording) but no zebra stripes or focus peaking.
BENEFITS OF DSLR CAMERAS OVER THE CINEMA CAMERA
I'm the first to admit that I was a little disappointed when I heard the Cinema Camera's sensor was around the size of a 4/3rd sensor. Having been spoiled with the Vistavision sensor size of the 5D Mk II, it's almost, key word here is "almost" hard to go back down to anything smaller. With the larger sensor you gain two big things; for one, you have better light sensitivity IF the pixel receptors on the sensor themselves are also big enough to gather the light individually. This obviously equates to lower noise at higher ISO values. The 5D Mk II shined in this area and the 5D Mk III is even better. Much better. It's unclear at this time what the maximum ISO value of the Cinema Camera is, but regardless, it wont be as high or as clean as something like the 5D Mk III, that's guaranteed. You'll just have to be a little more light conscious with the Cinema Camera.
The second benefit to a large sensor size is the narrower depth of field (DOF), which in many cases can help give it that cinema look. But for those of you that have used ENG cameras or DV cameras of old, we know all too well how to obtain narrow DOF, even with a little 1/3" sensor size. Sure it's not as easy (and in some cases, as clean) as a large sensor camera with fast glass, but in the end, there are ways around this. And let's not forget, the sensor size of the Cinema Camera is still bigger than most ENG-style cameras. It's "smaller" but it's not "small".
The Cinema Camera's 2.5K imager isn't huge like a 5D Mk III, but it's still larger than traditional Super 16mm film, as well as many ENG style cameras.
There are, however, at least three distinctively alternate benefits to the smaller sensor size of the Cinema Camera. First, it opens up a huge amount of lens options, from the exotics, to cheap off-the-shelf lenses you can pick up anywhere. Likewise, with lens adapters so commonplace now, you could just about put any lens mount type on this camera. The options are endless. Secondly, the smaller sensor will get the sweet spot of all lenses without having to deal with soft edges or vignetting. Thirdly, the smaller sensor means you don't need as much resolving power from the lens itself, which in turn means that in most cases, the difference between using a lower quality lens, and a higher quality lens will be small on the Cinema Camera (at 3.3 MP) as compared to something like still photography shooting on a 5D Mk III (at 22.3 MP).
Enter the Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L fisheye zoom lens. This lens is very interesting because at 8mm wide, you get a pinhole effect on a full-frame 35mm camera. However, if my calculations are correct, the pinhole effect should completely go away on the Cinema Camera. What's more (and unique to this lens), at 8mm wide, this lens is a circular fisheye, and zoomed to 15mm it transitions to a diagonal fisheye (no vignetting on a full-frame 35mm sensor camera with much less distortion).
What does all this mean? Well, this lens kind of acts like a variable crop factor lens for the Cinema Camera, in that, at 8mm wide, the crop factor lessens from around 2.5X to maybe around 1.2-ish. That means the lens' 8mm width is actually somewhere in the ballpark of about a 10mm lens (instead of 20mm) at a 35mm base equivalent. At the lens' 15mm width, you're back to around a 37mm lens with a 2.5X crop factor. So in essence (again, if my calculations are correct), the lens acts more like a 10-37mm zoom at a 35mm base equivalent. This lens could be the hot ticket when the Cinema Camera is finally released, but until I physically test the two together, don't go bustin' out your wallet just yet.
Two focal lengths from my Canon 8-15mm f/4L fisheye zoom lens. The blue line is full-frame 35mm base. The green line depicts an APS-C sized sensor, with a crop factor of 1.6X. The red line depicts the 15.6mm x 8.8mm sensor of the Cinema Camera, with a crop factor of around 2.5X. The yellow line with arrows shows the change in crop factor, which as shown in image "A" fits inside the fisheye pinhole at a reduced crop factor of roughly 1.2X. The bottom two images (with red outlines) show the crop factor by itself. As you can see in the bottom-left image, even with a crop factor for 2.5X, the lens shows a huge amount of width in this room (shot from the doorway of our edit suite), a bit wider than my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens can go when mounted to my 5D Mk II. If a 10mm lens (at a 35mm base equivalent) isn't enough for the Cinema Camera, I don't know what is. Click image to enlarge.
On the other end of the scale are telephoto lenses, and with the Cinema Camera's (roughly) 2.5X crop factor, your telephoto lenses just got more powerful. If I use my Canon 135mm f/2L telephoto prime lens, it becomes a very fast 338mm f/2 lens (comparatively, shooting the fastest lens on a 5D Mk III at 300mm would require Canon's fastest 300mm f/2.8L prime lens, costing around $8k. Likewise their 400mm f/2.8L II will cost you a paltry $11k). My Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L telephoto zoom lens will now really push out and basically become a 250-1000mm lens. Throw on my Canon 2X extender on the same lens and now we're talking 500-2000mm telephoto power to the reaches of neighboring galaxies!
DSLR have an array of physical buttons on the body for specific functions. For the most part, the Cinema Camera is menu driven (via its 800x480 touch screen), although it does have several physical buttons for specific tasks. This may be a moot point for some, but for others, especially in an ENG-style situation, this may be a problem. However in a studio-style situation, I don't see it as being a big problem. Luckily though, the LANC connector mentioned earlier can solve some of this, so basic camera functions (record start/stop, aperture, focus) can be controlled without having to touch the camera itself.
The Cinema Camera has a few physical buttons alongside the 5-inch touchscreen. Click image to zoom.
I was (and still am) sad to see the Cinema Camera doesn't overcrank beyond 30 FPS. With all that this camera is capable of, it would seem 1080p60 would be possible. But if anything, it would definitely seem like 720p60 should be possible, and yet, it's not there in the menu options. There is the chance (hoping) that at the very least, 720p60 could be implemented with a firmware upgrade in the future. Until then, you'll need another camera for overcranking; even a cheap used Canon T2i will do.
I'm a bit surprised the internal battery on the Cinema Camera isn't removable. I'm not really sure what the design idea was for this. On shoots, I typically use a battery, and then swap it with a fresh one, while the dead batteries charge back up in the charging village. If you plan on shooting more than 90 minutes for a day's shoot (who doesn't?), then you absolutely need to either tether the Cinema Camera to its supplied 12-volt power adapter, or you'll need to tap into the 12-volt connector from an external battery source. Lucky the latter (as mentioned earlier) is very easy to do if you don't have an AC source, or can't be tethered to one. But nonetheless, non-swappable batteries seems like a design flaw to me, especially since the internal battery needs two hours to recharge.
From what I can tell, the Cinema Camera does not shoot still photos at this time. It is after all, a camera built from the ground up as a video camera. However, if you shoot at full 2.5K RAW resolution, you might be able to get away with pulling a frame from it for print use. The resolution equates to about a 3.3 megapixel image. For print, that 3.3 megapixel resolution will give you a 16.21" x 9.1" output at 150 DPI, 12.16" x 6.83" output at 200 DPI, and 8.10" x 4.55" output at 300 DPI. Obviously not anywhere close to the resolution of something like the Canon 5D Mk III, but in a pinch, the resolution is workable. And at the very least, you have a lossless 12-bit RAW image to work with when color correcting.
This is a bit of a moot point, but I read complaints from time to time that the Cinema Camera doesn't have a viewfinder. Quite frankly, if the Cinema Camera did have a viewfinder, it would destroy the functionality of the body design in terms of future mounting/cage options, and would increase the body size even more. DSLR cameras don't have functional viewfinders, unless of course you add a loupe to the body's LCD screen, or add a secondary EVF (Electronic View Finder), which can just as easily be added to the Cinema Camera as well. Okay, so a 5-inch loupe might be quite large and fun to laugh at, but an EFV solves the problem. So again, moot point in my opinion.
AND THE VERDICT IS...
Personally, I think I'm going to shoot the hell out of the Cinema Camera. For weeks, I've been on the fence whether or not to buy a 5D Mk III solely for its video features. The 5D Mk III just hasn't excited me to jump up and get one; nothing like the original 5D Mk II was at least. But with the release of the Cinema Camera, I have to say that I honestly don't think I'll be making the 5D Mk III purchase. Granted, I still have a 5D Mk II and a 7D to shoot with if I need that huge sensor. But everything else is really going for the Cinema Camera: 13 stops of dynamic range, 12-bit RAW data, 2.5K resolution, internal/external recording and monitoring, professional audio inputs, and so much more.
Yes, the smaller sensor of the Cinema Camera is the death note for some, but realistically, I think it may be a little bit blind-sided for some to immediately come to that conclusion without deeper thought into the grand scheme of things. If you've worked with ENG cameras with even smaller sensors than this, you know how to adapt, cheat, and in some cases get the same look as big sensor counterparts. Will it have the same light sensitivity as a Canon 5D Mk III? Nope. Will it have razor-thin DOF like a 5D Mk III? Nope. Will it ultimately give you a much higher quality image with regard to resolution, bit-depth, dynamic range, latitude, spatial compression, and temporal compression? I'd bet the farm on it.
As soon as I get my hands on the Cinema Camera, I have a bunch of charts and real-world material I'll be testing it on. Quite frankly, I think I'll be more than surprised and pleased with the results.
Remember that many people buy DSLRs strictly for the camera's "after-thought" video features. The Cinema Camera however is built from the ground up as a 2.5K 12-bit RAW video camera. With features on the Cinema Camera that trump traditional DSLR cameras (and in some cases, cameras costing ten times as much), it would seem safe to say that many would-be DSLR purchases will be lost in favor of the Cinema Camera, especially those DSLRs costing more, even two to five times as much as the Cinema Camera.
So is the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera the DSLR-killer?
In NAB Vegas style, I'd push the full stack on lucky number 7 and say yes. But let's see what happens when the camera is officially released and go from there.
$2995 USD for the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera available July 2012
Marco Solorio is a multi-award-winning creative media developer. He owns OneRiver Media (www.onerivermedia.com), a production and post-production facility located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Marco has been a longtime Creative Cow leader and contributing editor since 2002. You can also find him online at Twitter, Facebook and through his blog.
Walnut Creek, CA, USA
April 18, 2012
©2012, Marco Solorio, OneRiver Media, Creative COW