Camera Review: Blackmagic Design Ursa

April 13, 2015

By Greg Scoblete

The Ursa has a multi-purpose design, enabling multiple operators to access vital camera functions and solo shooters to shoot on their own.

Baseball legend Willie Keeler had a succinct formula for success as a hitter: “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Blackmagic Design plays a different game, but it’s clearly reading from the Keeler playbook; its video-camera lineup is designed to exploit gaps left in the market from the likes of RED, Arri, Canon and others.
The Ursa is the company’s most ambitious camera to date, with a multi-purpose design and a suite of recording features that positions it against vastly more expensive cinema cameras at a price that DSLR filmmakers and owners of the company’s Production and Pocket Cinema cameras will find mighty tempting. We tested an EF-mount Ursa with our frequent co-tester, photographer and director David Patiño to see how it fared. 
The Ursa sports a 21.12 x 11.88mm Super 35mm-sized sensor with 12 stops of dynamic range, a global shutter and up to 4K (3840×2160 or 4000×2160 pixels in RAW) recording at up to 80 fps. You can shoot in either Cinema DNG or ProRes 422. New firmware—announced just as this was going to press—boosts ProRes recording to 444 for both 4K and HD resolutions. 
The Ursa has a built-in mic for recording reference audio, plus a pair of XLR inputs with phantom power. 
Files are recorded internally to a pair of still super-expensive CFast 2.0 cards, or externally through a 12G SDI output. While you’re smarting over the cost of those CFast cards, you can console yourself with one of the Ursa’s great perks—a free copy of the company’s $995 DaVinci Resolve color grading software.
The design of the Ursa is one of its major selling points. Whereas RED sells a modular camera system that needs to be configured piece-by-expensive-piece, the Ursa arrives in a form that just requires a few standard accessories. It’s sold in EF, PL and B4 mounts, as well as an HDMI mount. The HDMI version does not include an image sensor, and is instead designed for use with a DSLR, essentially turning the Ursa into a massive external recorder with ProRes, timecode and audio/video monitoring. 
Among the highlights is the ability to upgrade the camera’s sensor by removing the front module (behind just four bolts), which contains the sensor and lens mount. While the current sensor is hardly antiquated, Blackmagic told us they eventually plan to offer newer sensors through their network of resellers, and that installing them would be simple enough for end users to accomplish themselves. Just pop off the front module, and screw in a new one.  
The Ursa—latin for “bear”—is a big, heavy beast, weighing 16 pounds even before we added a lens, matte box and battery—about the same weight as an Arri Alexa. Anyone considering stepping up from a Pocket Cinema or Production 4K camera to the Ursa should hit the gym. That said, this tank is also impressively sturdy, even down to the flip-out LCD, which is so strongly hinged to the Ursa you won’t worry about people banging into it. Not that they could miss it. The 10-inch, 1920×1200-pixel display is another major selling point of this camera. It’s extremely sharp, and Patiño appreciated the focus peaking and zebra patterns that were so clearly visible on the Ursa without having to resort to an external monitor. That said, the screen could have been more useful still if it had more articulation. 
The 10-inch display is complimented by a pair of 5-inch touchscreens on either side of the camera. They’re on hand to enable other operators to monitor audio and pull focus—although you can only zoom to confirm your focus on the 10-inch display.
Video Quality
Patiño used the Ursa to shoot 4K in ProRes 422 at several frame rates—up to 80 fps—both indoors and outdoors, and had only good things to say about the quality of the footage. Color reproduction was consistent and accurate, while the 12 stops of dynamic range preserved plenty of detail in his scene. Users of the Production Camera should be familiar with the Ursa’s output, as it’s using the same sensor. It has a very cinematic feel.
Low-light performance was also good, though it trails other cameras in this category—particularly Canon’s C-series. The camera’s native sensitivity is ISO 400, and we stayed in this sweet spot for best results.
Physically, the Ursa is an entirely new look for Blackmagic, but the menu system was instantly familiar to Patiño, who owns the Pocket Cinema camera. It’s extremely straightforward and well-executed, giving you quick and intuitive access to the Ursa’s settings. The Ursa starts quickly, taking about five to six seconds to spring to life after a battery swap. 
Bottom Line
In the Ursa, Blackmagic has built a formidable video camera, one that can effectively compete with cameras that are double (or more) its price. Its versatile design gives those stepping up from the company’s Pocket and Production cameras almost all the tools they’ll need to shoot quality productions. But it’s not for everyone. The size and weight alone may put off single operators. Nonetheless, it’s a tremendous value, delivering a combination of features and quality for a price that’s hard to beat. 
PROS: Versatile design; fantastic value; gorgeous display; solid video quality; simple menu system.
CONS: Weight makes single-operator use difficult; large display could rotate more; low-light performance trails some competitors.