Life, as many of us learn the hard way, is an endless series of tradeoffs. Eat that second piece of pie, spend 15 extra minutes on the treadmill or shamefully slip to the next notch on your belt. Stay up late binge-watching Daredevil, sleepwalk through the next day. But enough about us. Camera designers face their own constraints. Nowhere is this more obvious than with action cameras, where the demands of making a low-cost, ultra-portable, but highly robust camera have meant smaller image sensors with poor dynamic range, highly compressed video codecs and lower quality optics.
Blackmagic Design’s Micro Cinema Camera is a bid to one-up the action camera in the pro video market by making precisely the opposite set of tradeoffs: It’s bigger and less durable than your average action cam, but has a large sensor, wider dynamic range, great lens options and a higher price tag.
We paired up with New Jersey photographer and director David Patiño to test the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera (MCC) in the field and see if these tradeoffs make sense.
The MCC sports a Super 16mm-sized CMOS image sensor and an active Micro Four Thirds lens mount, providing access to a wealth of high-quality glass. It delivers 13 stops of dynamic range but only records full HD video, not 4K. It does, though, record a very high quality 12-bit file in either the CinemaDNG or ProRes (up to 422 HQ) codec internally to SD memory.
What’s also unique about the MCC is its expansion port. This tiny port is essentially a tinkerer’s dream (or as Patiño puts it, some real “DIY shit.”). Plug in the included breakout cable and you can connect the camera to external power sources, output a video signal or use LANC-compatible remote controls. For wireless remote control, you can map the analogue servo connectors to camera functions so you can remotely control shutter speed, ISO, etc. It uses the same S.Bus technology that’s found in model airplanes, so if you have a wireless remote that accepts S.Bus, you can program it to operate almost every setting on the MCC for remote use.
The Micro Cinema Camera has a fairly unique design. Rather than the traditional arrangement of buttons in the back, the MCC’s buttons are front facing—the only thing on the back of the camera is the battery, which pops in and is held sturdily in place. The theory here is that if you’re mounting it inside a car or on a drone, front buttons are easier to access. While that’s true, for other, more conventional uses, Patiño tells us it was less convenient.
All action cams take a bit of hunt-and-peck button pushing to master but most provide you with a tiny LED or LCD display to guide you. With the MCC, unless you hook up an external monitor, there’s no visual readout of camera settings or status outside of a color LED over the lens mount. The learning curve is much steeper than other cameras.
The camera body weighs in at 11 ounces, much heavier than the 3 ounce GoPro, but still svelte enough for drone work. Just remember you’ll have to add a lens, which will bump up the weight. The camera has a rigid if somewhat plastic-y build that Patiño says felt less robust than the Pocket Cinema Camera he used to use regularly for video shoots.
The MCC has a single ¼-inch threaded mount on the top of the camera and three along the bottom. There’s a mic jack and SD card slot on one side and an HDMI output above the expansion port on the other. Patiño appreciated the expansion port for its ability to connect the camera to external power sources to prolong filming, but says he wishes there was Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth connectivity for a more intuitive, app-based control over the camera. That said, the DIY approach delivers controls that app-based interfaces can’t, such as focusing. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs…
Patiño used the MCC as the fourth camera in a music video and as a third camera in a series of educational videos, blending the final footage with a pair of Sony a7R II cameras and a Canon 5DS. He recorded in ProRes LT in camera and externally to the Blackmagic Display Assist 4K. For a lens, he used the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 Contemporary.
“The picture looks awesome,” he says. “It has the same feel as other Blackmagic cameras with a nice, flat image.” Indeed, the picture quality is where the MCC unquestionably shines relative to competitors. “There’s just more to work with,” Patino says.
Compared to drone-based cameras like DJI’s Zenmuse X3, which is built into the Inspire 1, the MCC produces a much flatter image with a much wider dynamic range. As a secondary camera in a production where space is an issue, the MCC is ideal if—and this is increasingly a big if—you can live without 4K.
Patiño tells us the MCC was a mostly reliable performer on his shoots, though he adds that he experienced dropped frames using a Lexar Pro 1000x card—a UHS-II/U3/Class 10 card. While not the absolute fastest you can buy, it is rated for 4K recording and has never hiccupped during 4K recording or high-frame rate HD filming, Patiño says. Caveat emptor.
You’ll enjoy about 90 minutes of recording time using the widely available Canon LP-E6 battery—about a half an hour more than you’d get on a GoPro. Batteries are easily swapped out from the back of the camera. The camera does run hot, though. After about 15 minutes of indoor use, it’s warm to the touch.
“This is a weird camera.” That’s how Patiño neatly summarized his time with the Micro Cinema Camera. He hastened to add that he didn’t mean “weird” in a pejorative sense—it’s just completely unique and quirky.
Its $995 price tag would qualify it as a “disposable” camera on a production with an ample budget but if you don’t relish the idea of needlessly damaging your action cameras, the higher price tag and lack of durability mean it’s not always a good fit to sit in for a truly rugged camera. “I wouldn’t put it into [harm’s way] like I would a GoPro,” Patiño says. For drone work, it’s a huge upgrade to the tiny sensor cameras found on the Phantom 4, though DJI’s new X5 and X5 RAW cameras for the Inspire 1 offer a similarly strong video feature set for serious filmmakers. Of course, those cameras are pretty much bound to the drone or the OSMO stabilizer and they’re much costlier than the Micro. The MCC is far more versatile and can be used anywhere thanks to its industry standard mounts.
As we noted in the intro, the Micro Cinema Camera entails a clear trade off: You’ll give up Wi-Fi, 4K resolution, extreme miniaturization, ease of use and a built-in lens for a camera that captures vastly superior HD-quality video with filmic dynamic range, access to higher quality lenses of varying focal lengths and ample customization.
Blackmagic Design Micro Cinema Camera
PROS: Superb image quality; excellent dynamic range; good feature set; highly customizable; great for DIY tinkerers.
CONS: Tricky to use; not weather-sealed; lacks Wi-Fi; no 4K; absence of display makes adjusting settings tricky.