THE BLACKMAGIC DESIGN PRODUCTION CAMERA 4K
It’s under $3,000, it has a super 35mm sensor, it has a global shutter, it shoots ProResHQ 4K or RAW directly to SSD disks, it comes with Resolve software, it has 12 stops of dynamic range – sounds too good to be true, right? The surprising answer is that it actually delivers very well on its promises, with only a few issues. Depending on who and what you’re shooting for, these issues may be only minor inconveniences or could be deal breakers. Let’s look at the “off-the-spec sheet” pros and cons of the camera and then we’ll look at the true test of the camera – the actual footage we shot on it.
• Compact and lightweight design is perfect for gimbals – pretty straightforward rigging and setup, with a few exceptions I’ll discuss in the next section.
• The camera sensor truly captures a film-like quality image. DSLR cameras like the Canon 5DMKIII do a great job of shooting video that looks like moving photographs, but it has a particular look that is very easily distinguishable as “the DSLR look”. The BM4K does not suffer from this – it really looks like cinema film stock if you use quality glass and expose the shot correctly, with very little color grading needed. The only other sensors that I have seen with this quality look with little post corrections are the Canon C300 / C500 and the Alexa. Yes RED users, you can get your footage to look amazing as well – with some LUT’s and / or a decent amount of post grading – assuming you have a powerful computer to process it. But the BM4K looks pretty darn good right off the card – just like the Alexa.
• Color and detail is captured very rich and accurately within the properly exposed range.
• Workflow from camera to edit is very streamlined when shooting in ProRes.
• The non-removable battery is a pain. I snipped the AC power cable and soldered on a JST connector so I could power it off my gimbal batteries. If you aren’t comfortable doing that sort of thing, you would be forced to stop shooting every 30 minutes or so to find a power outlet and plug the camera in for an hour+ to recharge. There are probably other powering options out there at this point as well, such as rechargeable packs with multi-tip plugs, but the LiPO battery solution has worked great for me, so I haven’t looked any further.
• The AC power plug and SDI output comes out of the side of the camera, making it a very tight squeeze in your gimbal. This is especially true if you’re using a MōVI M5. You may have to use counter-weights / ballast to balance your gimbal correctly, if the cables obstruct your ability to slide the camera front-to-back / left-to-right when attempting to balance it.
• Highlights blow into a strange unnatural yellow and eventually a very unnatural purple instead of rolling off to white. Most of the time, simply exposing your shot properly eliminates this issue. But if for example, you’re shooting car footage at nighttime and the camera looks at the headlights, you will immediately see these purple “black holes” in your footage that are a real pain to get rid of in post.
• There is fixed pattern noise (FPN) in all of my shots – sometimes it’s noticeable, especially in low light shooting environments, sometimes you can’t see it at all unless you really look for it – but it’s always there. There was a firmware update for the camera not too long ago that was supposed to address the issue, but believe me – the FPN is still there. It gets much worse if you do any post sharpening and using a noise reduction program only seems to improve the issue slightly. However, I have found that if you shoot at 4k and then bring the footage down to 1080p in your edit, the FPN seems to be greatly reduced. Therefore, if your final deliverable is for the web and you don’t have to deliver in 4k, this issue isn’t so bad. But if you were planning on projecting your footage on the big screen, I would have some reservations and certainly do some projector tests before committing to this camera. A good way to consider this issue would be to really critically look at the footage I’ve posted in this article and see for yourself how severe it really is and if it’s something you can live with on your project.
• Sort of a continuation from the last point, the camera does not do well in low light. We did an entire shoot in low light to test this very point and it caused me a great deal of pain in post. The native ASA (ISO) is 400 on this camera, don’t even bother pushing it to 800ASA – you will regret it. You can pull maybe 1 stop of exposure from the shadows before seeing too much noise, but beyond that, it gets very messy. A noise reduction program may help a bit, but the trade-off is a decrease in sharpness which is in my opinion a terrible compromise. In our low light shoot, I eventually just accepted the noise after trying tirelessly to minimize it with color grading and noise reduction software.
• The RAW post workflow requires some serious computer power. It is also very difficult to match the look of the RAW footage to the ProRes footage shot on the very same camera. Even using the LUT’s built into Resolve, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get the footage to match exactly right. So it’s sort of an all or nothing thing to shoot in RAW. I personally stuck with shooting in ProRes(HQ) on the FILM setting which is essentially the BM4K version of shooting in LOG and that had plenty of latitude for my post color grading.
• One small issue we had with my particular camera was that after shooting for about an hour straight, if I turned the camera off and then back on, the camera would not recognize my SSD disk. If I switched the camera mode to shoot in RAW, it would then recognize the SSD and allow me to record, but only in RAW. And this is how I discovered that RAW footage is very difficult if not impossible to match to ProRes footage. As a result I scrapped about half of our footage from one of our shoots because it did not look seamless. Thank goodness this was a test shoot and not for a high paying client! The workaround – do not turn the camera off for your entire shoot, which means hot swapping batteries for the duration. Or if the camera does get turned off, it seems like after about an hour, it will start to recognize your SSD’s again.
Did I mention this camera costs under $3,000??? For all the downsides of this camera, I think it is very important to remember that with some thoughtful shooting and adequate lighting, you are able to capture images on this camera that are simply amazing – leaps and bounds better than any DSLR footage that I’ve ever seen and at 4K. If you want to shoot 4K and you have a lot of money to spend, by all means go for the Canon C500 with an off board recorder, a RED Dragon, or a Sony F55. But at the $3,000 price range, nothing comes close to the image quality and performance of this camera.
Disclaimer: These camera tests were shot for the most part on the fly, with little pre-production, with no budget, for the sole purpose of testing the camera. While we’ve attempted to edit them into something “watchable”, they are by no means intended to be fully produced stand-alone pieces.