Okay, that's it. You've had enough of highly compressed video codecs that crap out on detailed shots and make decent color grading a pipe dream. Now that Blackmagic's $995 Pocket Cinema Camera (BMPCC) is RAW-ready, isn't it time to make the jump to higher bitrate video? Perhaps. The company's latest pint-sized weapon does produce magnificent images using a downsized version of its first Cinema Camera sensor, yes. But it's not quite as simple as laying down the money and raking in the 12-bit video. There are limitations to the camera itself, plus a steep learning curve and the likely need for further investment that could more than double the price of the camera. As you'll see, whether it's worth that depends completely on your needs and, particularly, your expectations.
Like the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera, the Pocket version sports a unique, all-metal design that feels solid -- hugely out of proportion to its low price. It's also hefty, which adds to the feeling of quality and makes handling easier by damping small movements during filming. The all-important sensor is 12.5 x 7mm, making it a touch smaller than the "Super 16" standard, and considerably less than a 17.3 x 13mm Micro Four Thirds chip. The end result is a 2.88x crop factor, meaning you'll need a very wide lens just to get a normal perspective -- and there aren't many out there, even for regular MFT cameras.
There's a 1/8-inch mini microphone input jack, headphone output and micro-HDMI connector, but unlike the BMCC, no Thunderbolt port. You also get playback and recording buttons on top along with a 1/4-inch threaded hardware connector, and another on the bottom for tripods or other rigs. Otherwise, its form factor is similar to Sony's NEX cameras, which you may find handy or awkward, depending on the situation. If you're trying to shoot stealthily, for instance, you'll probably never get hassled in sensitive locations. On the other hand, if you're trying to impress production clients, they may actually wonder if you're joking when you arrive at the shoot with it.
The Pocket Cinema Cam also lacks the larger model's touchscreen, requiring arrow key pushes to navigate the 3.5-inch LCD. I didn't mind that, but given the aforementioned fiddling required to get exposure and focus right, it would have been nice to have some dial controls to set ISO or shutter "angle" or speed more rapidly. The LCD is also on the dim side, which can make critical focus difficult. Cranking up the brightness helps, but it also drains the battery quicker. If I owned the camera and used it a lot, I'd seriously consider an external LCD to plug into the micro-HDMI connector -- another potential expense that could easily match the price of the camera.
If you use the camera to record sound, you'll definitely need to purchase an external microphone like this one, as the internal unit is woefully inadequate for anything but guide sound. If you do, the 1/8-inch external mic jack records at very low levels, meaning you may also need a pre-amp. By contrast, most DSLRs also have pitiful mics on board, but many purpose-built camcorders like Sony's NEX-VG20 are excellent in that regard.
There's a few other things to think about before ordering one. First of all, the BMPCC comes with a single Nikon EN-EL120-compatible battery that lasts an hour at best during shooting. As such, an external charger and a load of extra batteries should likely also be on your list. As for the SD card, you'll need something fast to record RAW. Like, really fast. Only a 95MB/s Sandisk Extreme Pro SDHC card worked for me. 64GB holds about 18 minutes of RAW video, so plan accordingly. You'll also want to consider a fast USB 3.0 SD card reader and a whole bunch of new hard drives for your editing computer -- again, the faster the better.
If you're used to cranking away in "auto" mode on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, you'll have to reboot your brain for the BMPCC. There's an extremely slow autofocus mode that only works with a few MFT lenses, so manual focus is the only real choice -- and doing it well for moving subjects takes a lot of practice. It also has no auto-exposure other than an "iris" button that sets your camera's f/stop, but again, only for select lenses. Instead, for best results you'll be relying on the zebra mode to gauge exposure by adjusting the aperture until the lines disappear. In bright light, you may not be able to stop the lens up high enough thanks to a minimum ISO range of 200, making ND (darkening) filters another accessory you may need. On the other end of the scale, it only hits 1,600 ISO max compared to, say, 102,400 ISO on the Canon 5D Mark III. That means you'll require fast lenses for low-light situations, though there is another solution: the $489 Metabones Speedbooster custom-built for the BMPCC.
Luckily, I also had that device on hand to test, which proved very handy. Because of its small CCD, the Pocket Camera has worse low light performance and a significantly higher crop factor than regular MFT cameras. For instance, a Panasonic GH3 has a 2x crop factor, but the BMPCC magnifies images by 2.88x, making a 16mm ultra-wide angle lens about 45mm, and a 50mm lens a 140mm super telephoto. The Metabones Speedbooster solves both of those problems by adapting Nikon 'F' lenses to fit on the camera, which concentrates more light onto the sensor. As a result, crop factor is reduced by 0.58x to a much more manageable 1.75x -- close to that of a Nikon DX or Canon EF-S camera. In addition, the Speedbooster will give you one and a third more stops of light, meaning an f/2.8 lens will "become" a superlative f/1.8 model with more than double the light sensitivity. Though rather pricey at $489, Metabones products also have excellent optics.
Update: As commenter duophonix pointed out, changing the ISO in the BMPCC past its native ISO of 800 doesn't change light sensitivity, but just increases the digital gain. As long as you shoot in RAW, it's possible to shoot in very low-light situations (equivalent to 6400 ISO and higher) and still get usable footage in post as shown here. You may need to add significant amounts of digital noise reduction, however.
Despite some snags with the BMPCC, the footage is what actually counts, isn't it? There are two recording modes, namely ProRes and RAW, both of which produce robust images with superb dynamic range. Data rates are much higher than typical AVCHD or MPEG video, with ProRes clocking in at 22MB/s, and RAW about three times that (a Sony NEX-VG20 records at about 3.1MB/s, max). That's likely why the camera heats up significantly during use and why it burns the battery so quickly -- pumping so much data through a small body isn't a trivial matter. As for which codec you may decide to use in the first place? Since 10-bit ProRes is already an enormous improvement over standard DSLR footage, RAW may be overkill -- it requires much more storage and a skilled color expert to get the most out of it.
Once you've finished gathering footage, there are several ways to process it. A notable difference between the Pocket and full Cinema Cameras is that the latter shoots 2.5K, uncompressed RAW DNG files, while the BMPCC shoots 1080p video for all formats, with RAW compressed losslessly to about half its original size, like a ZIP file. Unfortunately, that format is unreadable (for now) by Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X, unlike the Cinema Camera's uncompressed RAW files. The workflow therefore recommended by Blackmagic Design for RAW is to use DaVinci Resolve Lite (the full version is only free with the bigger camera). That'll let you import your clips, grade them and export them in a format like QuickTime for use with Final Cut Pro or other editors. You can also load its compressed RAW Cinema DNG files directly into Adobe After Effects for processing, but working with clips is much slower. However, such a method might still be more comfortable for those familiar with Adobe's Camera RAW utility. If you've shot with ProRes, of course, you can grade in Resolve, or just edit and grade all at once in your editor of choice.
As mentioned, the BMPCC produces 1080p files from its CMOS sensor. However, like any other CMOS camera including most DSLRs, the effective resolution is actually about 70-80 percent of that after image sensor data is converted to RGB. That means it's probably a shade better than 720p video (though no charts were harmed in the making of this review). The larger Blackmagic camera's sensor records at 2.5K resolution, on the other hand, therefore delivering true 1080p resolution after downscaling, give or take.
Despite that, with 12 bits of color accuracy, the resulting images on the Pocket Camera appear extremely sharp even in detailed areas -- unlike the artifacts and "mosquito noise" seen from, say, a Canon 7D. There's also impressive dynamic range, with Blackmagic claiming 13 stops max in RAW and slightly less with ProRes files -- no exaggeration, in my opinion. On the downside, the pocket camera can also produce a bit of moire and aliasing, particularly on finely spaced line patterns, likely because of its sensor size. It's also very susceptible to rolling shutter, meaning fast pans and shakiness are not recommended. Overall, I achieved the best results at about ISO 800, with dynamic range dropping off below that, and grain increasing above.
Assuming you've got a computer with a fast CPU, graphics and hard disks, working with 12-bit RAW or 10-bit ProRes video is a dream compared to MPEG. If you choose the "film" dynamic range setting and your exposures are good, you can stretch the video in nearly any direction color-wise. Even if you over- or under-exposed, it's often possible to save a shot thanks to the extra latitude. Another plus is that on green screen FX shoots, the high bitrate footage allows more precise keying than, say, the AVCHD files from a DSLR. Conclusion? While the footage isn't as good as that produced by an Arri, Red or Canon C300 camera, it's in the ballpark and the BMPCC is 1/10th to 1/50th the price of those cameras. Compared to most DSLR's, there's no comparison -- thanks to the superior codec, it's worlds better, unless you're willing to do a little hacking.
The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera is a weird little beast. It's hard to tell who it's for exactly, since it costs the same as a mid-range DSLR but seems more suited to pros who could afford to spend a lot more. Also, the larger BMCC camera is now only $1,995 after a recent price drop, making it another tempting option and the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K will hopefully be on the market soon for $3,995. If you are tempted, there are a lot of hidden costs to consider. For a basic package, including a lens, extra batteries, microphone, charger and top-end SDHC cards, you can easily spend the price of the camera again and then some. If you really want to kit it out with a Metabones BMPCC Speedbooster (a must, in my opinion), an LCD monitor or other accessories, you're looking at high-end DSLR money.
All that aside, the BMPCC lets you shoot jaw-dropping video while looking like a tourist. That's ideal for indie filmmakers or, well, tourists who are really into good-quality video. Its small size and price might also suit production companies looking for a way to shoot in tight places, on UAVs or in stunt vehicles as a "crash-cam," for instance. The educational market is another possible niche, since its workflow is similar to pricey digital cameras like the Red Epic or Arri Alexa, making it a good student learning tool. As for you and me? If you're looking to take your video to another level and have the savoir-faire or patience to learn the Pocket camera's ways, why not, for $995? Once you've shot and edited the footage it produces, going back to regular DSLR video is just painful.