Product Review: Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

May 5, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera looks like a basic snapshooter but it can capture RAW video with impressive dynamic range.

Digital cameras have offered RAW-format image capture for quite some time now but RAW video recording has, so far, been “a most elusive fish,” to borrow a phrase from Monty Python. Sure, there are third-party firmware hacks like Magic Lantern that provide ways to pry RAW video out of some Canon digital SLRs—most notably the EOS 5D Mark II and III—but those homebrew tweaks are a bit on the sketchy side.

As with RAW image formats, RAW video capture offers videographers more control over exposure, dynamic range, white balance and color, along with extensive detail, since the uncompressed footage is a virtual digital negative you can adjust to your heart’s content in post-production. It’s cool stuff indeed but, until recently, RAW video capture has largely been the domain of higher end cinema cameras from Sony, ARRI, RED and others.

That’s starting to change and it’s because of companies like the Australia-based Blackmagic Design, which took the video world by surprise in 2012 when it introduced the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, a sleek and compact model that could record uncompressed 2.5K RAW video while retailing for just $2,995. The company followed up that camera with the even smaller Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (BPCC), which can also shoot RAW video but with a bit less resolution, at 1080p HD. The camera, which as its name suggests is small enough to fit in your pocket, sells for only $995.

I recently had a chance to shoot with the BPCC and got to see, firsthand, if its RAW capture mode was really all it was cracked up to be. It also gave me a window into what will likely be coming to photography-based digital cameras in the near future: If a relatively small company like Blackmagic Design can offer RAW footage capture in a camera about the size of today’s mirrorless models for less than $1,000, this high-end video feature will surely be appearing in the next generation of Nikon, Canon, and other DSLRs and compact cameras, right? Let’s see if this is something photographers should be getting excited about.

The BPCC bears such a striking resemblance to Sony’s latest, consumer-level mirrorless cameras it’s almost hard to take it seriously. Yes, it’s attractive in a minimalist way but you might have to make a leap of faith to consider this black-and-silver sliver of a camera to be a true “cinema” model.

The BPCC doesn’t shoot still photos: You’ll spot the familiar red dot video button on top of the camera (where the shutter would be), signifying that this compact model is all about recording moving images. Next to the video record button are buttons to play, rewind and fast-forward footage during playback. There’s also a screw mount on top to add accessories such as video lights and other peripherals.

A big, 3.5-inch LCD screen takes up most of the rear of the BPCC, and while it’s an OK display for previewing and reviewing footage, the resolution (800 x 480 pixels) is lower than what you get on a consumer digital camera. The video feed is also slightly dim with flat contrast, muddy colors and hard-to-discern sharpness. It’s important to note that Blackmagic Design had to cut a few corners with the BPCC to achieve its small size and low price point. While there’s a no-frills feel to its design, there’s a budgetary reason for that.
The buttons on the back of the camera for Iris and Focus control, the menu, directionals and power, are small but solid, registering commands with a definitive click.

The comfortable handgrip is wrapped on the front with a grippy, rubberized material that also covers the faceplate of the camera. On the bottom of the camera below the handgrip, a sliding door opens a compartment for the Li-ion EN-EL20 rechargeable battery—the same one used in many Nikon cameras—and a slot for SD cards. There’s also a micro-USB port in the compartment.

During use, the BPCC gets exceedingly hot and the rubber grip helps to dissipate the heat. The body of the camera is made from magnesium alloy, which is sturdy but prone to scratches on the silver sections.
The left side of the camera has small ports for a LANC remote control, headphones, a microphone, Micro HDMI and 12V power. Aside from the tripod mount on bottom of the camera, that pretty much covers the external layout of the five-inch long BPCC, which weighs just over 12.5 ounces, body only.

Sensor Features
The BPCC uses what Blackmagic calls a “Super 16 sized sensor” with an effective resolution of 1920 x 1080. For photographers used to shooting video with full-frame CMOS sensors in their HD-DSLRs, the BPCC’s chip is significantly smaller: 12.48 x 7.02mm in size. That’s even tinier than Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensors, which are 17.3 x 13mm in size.

The tradeoffs with such a small chip might be jarring to full-frame users. For one, while the BPCC has a MFT lens mount, focal lengths are significantly magnified by the smaller chip’s 2.88x crop factor. So, for instance, the Panasonic 14-45mm f/3.5-4.5 MEGA O.I.S. MFT lens I used to test the BPCC with (the camera does not ship with a lens) became an approximately 40-130mm lens. You certainly lose wide-angle coverage, which can be a challenge.

And unlike full-frame DSLRs that can capture a shallow depth of field with a blurred background for a professional look, the small sensor in the BPCC has a wider depth of field, limiting creative focus options even with fast lenses. There’s also more noise when shooting at high ISOs compared to 35mm sensors in full-frame cameras. In general, I tried not to shoot above ISO 800 because of the increased digital grain, which limits the BPCC’s capabilities as a low-light camera.

On the plus side, unlike your favorite full-frame DSLR, the BPCC can shoot RAW video, specifically Adobe’s CinemaDNG 12-bit format, which offers the promise of amazing dynamic range and incredible detail. If you want to spend a little less time tweaking and color grading footage in post-production, the camera can also shoot in Apple’s 10-bit ProRes 422, which is a video compression format that produces superb image quality in its own right.

The BPCC’s menu structure is about as simple as its external button layout. Getting this camera up and running and recording video is a snap. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to use.

There are lots of quirks to the BPCC that take some getting used to. For one, the camera drains battery power like crazy: I got about 30 minutes of use per fully charged battery while shooting outdoors in cold weather. Blackmagic included three EN-EL20 rechargeables with the test unit loaned to me, which is not standard when you buy the camera but definitely recommended. You’ll also want to splurge on an external charger, since there’s only in-camera battery charging available with the BPCC. When charging the battery in-camera, there’s no way to tell how far along the charge is unless you turn the BPCC on. That’s kind of annoying.

I mentioned that the menu structure is simple but it’s also lacking. There’s no function for formatting the SD card in-camera, there’s no way to erase clips and you can’t tell how much space is left on the card. In other words, get yourself a large and fast SDXC card—the test unit came with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB (95MB/s) card—and a fast card reader so you can offload footage often.

The BPCC’s autofocus button is also very slow and not terribly accurate, which is disappointing. Since the BPCC features an active MFT mount, I used the Panasonic lens’s built-in optical image stabilizer to help steady my footage. If you really want professional-looking video though, I’d recommend using some kind of camera rig to keep the BPCC steady. I tested it with the small and portable but highly effective Zacuto Marauder rig and I didn’t find the setup too obtrusive.

I’d also recommend adding some kind of external microphone to the BPCC because sound from the built-in stereo mic is mediocre at best. I got lots of distracting wind noise while trying to shoot outdoors in New York City on a winter day because there is no “wind cut” feature, which is fairly standard for even consumer-level cameras these days.

Of course, adding all these extras not only jacks up the price of the BPCC, it takes away from its unique pocket-friendly design. The inconspicuous profile of the camera allows you to record cinema-grade video in situations where you wouldn’t likely be able to bring a bigger system. But with all these add-ons, you won’t be nearly as stealthy as you might have hoped.

Video Quality
Any discussion of the video quality you can achieve with the BPCC must be tied to the workflow needed to get it. As with RAW still images, RAW video footage straight out of the BPCC will look flat and need post-processing. Fortunately, you can get a free download of a “Lite” version of DaVinci Resolve software from Blackmagic’s website and it’s a surprisingly robust program for a giveaway. But if you haven’t done a lot of video editing and color grading, there’s a steep learning curve.

And this, again, is the conundrum of the BPCC. It looks simple, it’s small and portable, and not a huge investment, but it’s still a high-end cinema camera that requires time, patience and knowledge to get the most out of.

In my testing, I found the ProRes movie files to be almost on par with the RAW footage I shot, but they took less work in DaVinci Resolve. Let’s face it though: If you buy this camera, you’ll probably want to shoot the 12-bit RAW video and while it takes some time to process these huge files to get the right color, it’s worth it. (As a side note, while there are decent video tutorials on DaVinci Resolve from professional video editors and colorists on YouTube, I wish Blackmagic offered more of its own educational support on its website.)

As mentioned earlier, while you won’t be able to get the same dramatic, shallow depth-of-field from the BPCC that you can get with an HD-DSLR and a fast lens, you also won’t lose quality because of video compression. It’s like comparing a JPEG file to a RAW still image.

Similarly, dynamic range in my footage was exceptional. Blackmagic claims 13 stops of dynamic range are possible with the BPCC, which helps it achieve a “feature film look.” While it’s difficult to fully judge that, there was significantly more detail in shadow areas and highlights in my processed and color-graded BPCC video than from 1080p HD footage I shot with the full-frame Canon EOS 6D, which records MPEG-4 clips with compressed AVC/H.264 encoding. In short, BPCC RAW footage will blow your DSLR movies away when it comes to detail. The BPCC’s files are truly cinema quality and from a camera this small, that’s pretty amazing.

The Bottom Line
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is a curious device. On the one hand, it fully delivers on its promise of being able to record cinema-grade HD footage full of detail with eye-popping dynamic range in a RAW video format. And it does it for a price and in a format that should make it accessible to a wide range of budding cinematographers. But there are a lot of trade-offs to this remarkable little camera, including a few operational quirks that make it harder to use than you’d expect. There’s also a steep learning curve for the DaVinci Resolve software, which you’ll need to process and color grade your RAW video footage to get it up to snuff. But if you’re an “early adopter” photographer, and you just can’t wait to get your hands on the next big thing—which will surely be coming to DSLRs soon—the BPCC is a great way to get your feet wet with shooting and processing RAW video.

Pros: Captures cinema-worthy RAW video with impressive detail and wide dynamic range; ProRes format video files offer excellent image quality with less post-processing needed; portable, pocket-size camera build; affordably priced

Cons: Small image sensor magnifies lens focal lengths by 2.88x crop factor; small sensor size prevents capturing dramatic, shallow depth-of-field; noisy at high ISOs; short battery life; many operational quirks take some getting used to; steep learning curve for processing and color-grading RAW footage

Price: $995 (body only)