Camera Review: Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini
December 2, 2016
With a new operating system and a high-resolution sensor, Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini delivers a powerful filmmaking machine into the hands of budget filmmakers.
It took a while to hit store shelves, but the URSA Mini delivers a great deal of value for budget shooters.
The URSA Mini was a long time coming. The slimmed down version of the original URSA was announced at NAB 2015 but a series of delays caused by issues with its global shutter pushed back the delivery of the 4.6K sensor model to the spring of 2016. When it arrived, there was no global shutter, a concession to ensuring the camera still delivered the promised 15 stops of dynamic range.
We tested the 4.6K version with the optional EVF and shoulder mount kit in conjunction with New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño.
While many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras don’t even record “true” 4K (4096 x 2160) the URSA supports resolutions from 4.6K (4608 x 2592) down to full HD in CinemaDNG with frame rates varying from 23.98 to 60 fps, depending on resolution. ProRes recording is also available for 3840 x 2160 and full HD recording.
Footage is saved internally to a pair of CFast 2.0 cards and the Mini supports hot-swapping cards during recording. There are SDI outputs to send an uncompressed signal (10-bit, 4:2:2) out to external recorders and monitors. There’s a built-in stereo mic plus a pair of XLR inputs for audio recording.
We tested the Mini with its brand new, though still in late-stage beta, operating system software. The new operating system pares back the number of menus and submenus that you have to scroll through to get at your desired setting. The updated OS adds custom white balance and white balance presets plus tint control settings. Shutter angle selection is also easier to enter thanks to an on-screen keyboard and the addition of prompts to help users find a flicker-free angle. The camera’s metadata entry page has also been updated with predictive entry suggestions and a pre-loaded dictionary of commonly used terms to minimize hunting and pecking. URSA Mini owners will also be able to import and save 3D LUTs and apply them to the LCD, front or main SDI outputs independently. Camera settings can also be saved as presets, and camera function keys can be reprogrammed as shortcuts.
The Mini is sold with either an EF mount or PL mount. A less expensive version with a 4K sensor is also sold in EF and PL mount editions.
The Mini is a concession to those (like us) who found the original URSA just too heavy and unwieldly. While there’s not as much surface area to work with, the Mini still does a nice job making its functions accessible on its exterior. A duplicated set of controls on the exterior of the LCD and on the inside of the camera when the LCD is opened let you start/stop recording, playback footage, confirm focus and more. The one button that isn’t on the outside is the menu on/off—that’s tucked away inconveniently behind the display.
For DSLR/mirrorless filmmakers looking to shift to a more traditional video camera, the Mini, despite its dramatically diminished dimensions, is still a serious block of magnesium alloy. Stripped down, it weighs 5 pounds—much heavier than Sony’s FS5 and twice the weight of Canon’s C300 Mark II. That said, the build quality is “exceptional” Patiño tells us. It’s less expensive than a number of cinema cameras without sacrificing durability. Despite its heft, it was very comfortable on the shoulder mount. The EVF is exquisitely sharp.
There’s a single 5-inch flip-out touch screen display that’s hinged far more securely than the original URSA’s huge 10-inch display. Patiño says he was disappointed the display doesn’t rotate all the way around to face forward. The XLR inputs are covered beneath a rubber flap and if you’ve mounted the handgrip, the spacing gets a bit tight.
Patiño used the Mini for two live music recordings, alongside a pair of Sony a7 R IIs. Both performances were shot in 4K at 24p in ProRes HQ (4:2:2)—one at base ISO, the other with the ISO at 1600. Patiño, who shot with Blackmagic’s Pocket Cinema camera, says the Mini’s image quality was “exceptional.” For documentary, corporate work and independent films, the image quality and dynamic range should easily suffice.
“You can push and pull the exposure in the Mini’s files in a way that I can’t shooting in Sony S-Log,” Patiño says. The ProRes files weighed in at twice the size as the Sony files, so the Mini requires an investment in CFast and external storage for those jumping in from a mirrorless or DSLR.
The camera isn’t the best low-light performer we’ve seen, though colors reproduce wonderfully under studio lighting or outdoors. The Mini does lack ND filters though, so you’ll have to bring them along for your lens when working outdoors.
While the Mini doesn’t spring to life the minute you power it up, it runs very cool and quiet.
The new operating system is a big leap in menu design—it’s significantly easier to navigate than the original URSA/URSA Mini menu. The touch screen is responsive, enabling you to swipe back and forth through the menus with ease. But there were some bugs, including an especially persistent issue during playback where the Mini would awkwardly cram three different playbacks onto the screen at once, each in a section of the display. The only fix was to completely reboot the camera.
Another issue Patiño encountered multiple times was the loss of any aperture reading on Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.2 lens when powering up the camera—he tells us he would have to pop the lens on/off to get the Mini to register aperture. (It wasn’t clear, as of this writing, whether the issues were unique to this unit or more widespread.)
Don’t view the URSA Mini as an alternative to a DSLR or mirrorless camera for video recording, Patiño tells us, “It’s an upgrade.”
At $4,995 for an EF-mount 4.6K sensor, the URSA is an attractive bargain in the world of professional video cameras—half the price of the Red Scarlet W and Sony’s FS7. But the sticker price is a bit deceptive since it’s not really ready to shoot out of the box. Aside from the obvious (a lens) there’s no battery included and the power connector still requires an additional three-prong cable (not included) before it can connect to an AC outlet. Throw in CFast 2.0 cards, the EVF and shoulder mount kit and you’re easily tacking on thousands more.
The Mini is feature rich and produced beautiful images but, given the performance issues he encountered, Patiño says he’d be reluctant to invest in one until those were ironed out.
Blackmagic Design URSA Mini
PROS: Superb image quality and dynamic range; extensive feature set; good value for your money; excellent build quality.
CONS: Occasionally buggy; not ready to shoot out of the box.