Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K experience Part 1

There has been a huge amount of debate over what the Blackmagic Production Camera (BMPC) would be like to use, and as I finally have one, here are my initial experiences of using it in the real world.


In previous blogs I got excited then bored by the long running saga of the BMPC 4K that was announced in April 2013 and eventually started shipping to real users in February 2014. I recently discovered that I was about 20th on the list of my supplier (CVP in London) even though I think I ordered it and put a deposit down within two days of the launch at NAB - this is a popular camera. On 10th March CVP let me know that my camera was in and asked whether I wanted to carry on with the purchase... less than 2 hours later I had it in my hand.

I admit that I did have last minute indecisions about buying the camera, especially as the Panasonic DMC-GH4 had just been launched and the price of the Canon C500 was falling faster than Felix Baumgartner, but the price of the BMPC 4K had also dropped and I felt it was the best solution for me to shoot good quality 4K material.

I had done the same research that many others had performed without actually having the camera and I decided that I would try to get the minimum amount of gear to make the camera work, remembering that I was not hiring the camera out or using it with a client. I already have a decent collection of suitable Canon EF-mount lenses so the only thing I had to get in theory was an SSD card.

SSD Card

There is a notorious list on the Blackmagic Design support pages which gives SSD cards that are "certified" to work with the BMPC but most of them are not available any more. The BM forum is also full of people having problems with SSDs on the Cinema Camera, dropping frames and so on and so I entered the first minefield of decision making with trepidation. 

Cutting to the chase I settled on a pair of SanDisk Extreme II 240GB [SDSSDXP-240G] drives which are not actually on the certified list. These are 7mm thick drives and I had read that even with the shim attached (which comes with the drive) it did not fit the slot in the BMPC too well. Also BM advise that the larger SSDs are faster, although the specs don't agree with this. Well I can report that I have encountered none of the issues above - the drives fit snuggly, don't rattle, but are not too tight to remove with fingers. I have cycled the two drives and after five shoots I have not seen any problems. Shooting 4K ProRes HQ (no RAW available yet) I was getting about 12 secs per GB which is about 48 minutes of footage on a disk. I quick formatted the cards to Ex-Fat each time and I feel these cards should be "certified" soon.

Battery Life

Probably the the biggest concern of many before the launch was how long the fixed battery would last and the answer is NOT BLOODY LONG! I have not timed it but it is nothing like the 2 hours stated in the specifications in real life use. I looked at and rapidly dropped the idea of professional battery packs that added about £600 to the price and looked again at the spec of the camera. 

It is very unfussy about the power source, any DC source from 11-30V is OK. I had a couple of 12V 7Ah batteries that used to power a burglar alarm (they get replaced every 2 years) that I felt would work. I cut the cable off a power supply that used to power an external hard drive and put terminals on the other end. I plugged it into the camera and up came the symbol that the camera was charging - perfect. 

If you can't recycle burglar alarm batteries, you can get the same battery on Amazon for £15.39. The centre pin of the cameras power socket is quite wide so not every plug will fit it. If the camera is on a tripod you can plug it in while using it but I tend to plug it in to the battery when it is in my bag so the camera is normally fully charged when I am ready to shoot. So far I have not run out of power.

Monitor v EVF

I predicted that the screen on the back of the BMPC was going to be more help to my wife putting lipstick on than checking the picture was in focus and so it proved. My first shoot was at sunset so there wasn't much backlight to trouble the screen, but despite using the green focus assist not one shot was in focus. I had to get an external monitor. 

I contacted James Miller, camera guru and infamous lens whacker for his opinion. He had recently been running tests on a BMPC side-by-side with a Canon 1 DC and he told me that an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was essential and preferred over a field monitor mainly because you can close off all the light with your eye.

The output on the BMPC is SDI not HDMI so the EVF had to connect to that and the main options (available in the UK) were by Zacuto, Alphatron (TVLogic) and Cineroid. CVP in London let me look at the first two on my camera and I was impressed by the sharpness of the Zacuto Z-finder EVF Pro and unimpressed by the softness of the Alphatron EVF-035W-3G (so much so that I checked out two in case one was faulty). The focus check on the Zacuto was also significantly better. However the weakness of the cheaper Zacuto was the HDMI connection (which kept cutting out) and that I needed a SDI to HDMI converter. The battery powered BM converter costs over £200 and apparently lasts 2 hours before recharging, so I was not keen on this option. 

CVP didn't have a Cineroid demo unit but the importers Octica let me try out the EVF-4RVW with the "retina" screen and the much cheaper EVF-4CSS. There was a surprising lack of difference between the two and the EVF-4CSS was almost as sharp as the Zacuto. Crucially the EVF-4CSS has SDI connections and was almost half the price of all the others. It's made of fairly cheap plastic and wouldn't survive misuse but that makes it light which is good for me and takes LP-E6 batteries from the Canon 5D's. If you are looking for a reasonable priced EVF for the BMPC I can recommend the Cineroid EVF-4CSS which appears to have been created for the BM cameras.

With the SSDs, my home-brew battery solution and an EVF, the BMPC is a nw a pretty usable camera, and I believe that this is the minimum a sole user would need to get it there. However you do need somewhere to attach the EVF and probably an external mic. You also need to do something with the material you shoot, so in part 2 I will look at an alternative to a cage and some of the issues of post production and post some examples from the shoots.

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