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Full review of the Blackmagic 4K Production camera. Video & text review

It's early in the game for the Blackmagic design 4K camera, the long overdue camera has ever increasing competition such as the GH4 and the Sony cameras which seem to pop out of every nook and cranny. Despite that, the Blackmagic 4K camera still has what no one else does, namely: Global shutter, prores, RAW(eventually), SSDs, price.

This review will get longer and more detailed as i log more hours with the camera.

Preface for expectations

If there is one thing i would insist people know before even thinking about this camera: It's that Blackmagic Design, is NOT a camera company. If you can process and understand that, and curb your typical camera expectations, then you'll see this camera for what it is. What i've come to calling it, is the most beautiful pain in the ass you can buy. Why is that? Again, because blackmagic is not a camera company. See, camera companies have had years and boatloads of money to research, design, optimize, etc... in all the areas of making a camera. What shape should it be, how will it be held, how is it powered, etc...Blackmagic doesn't have this, what they do have, is an expertise in hardware and software for just about everything but cameras. This is their strong point, because the sensor was the only thing that they needed to have brought in (supposedly). Everything else they could do in house. But simply looking at their average product, you see mostly boxes, very simple designs because those types of products don't typically need anything fancier. But with cameras, things are totally different, because humans will be handling them in many different ways. It's completely understandable that they chose to keep it simple and just make a box, again, because it's not within their repertoire and they had to keep costs down somewhere.

This is why we have to keep in mind what we're looking at, because it's unconventional in a number of ways. If you're used to consumer/prosumer end stuff, this will be very different for you in many ways. If you're used to higher end items such as RED which require bits and pieces, then this will still be a bit different, but not entirely unfamiliar. This camera has a good number of negative sides, but the fact remains that it puts out an image that far exceeds its price tag, and that's what were here for. So let's dive in and see how we can work with it.

Overview of the goods:

-4K - OK you can nitpick that 3840 isn't 4000, regardless, it's very sharp and very detailed
-s35/Aps-C sized sensor -  solves the issue of odd crop factor over the original BMC
-Global Shutter - unheard of! most of even the big boys don't have this yet. No more skew/jello
-Prores & RAW(not yet) - You get every little 'bit' of goodness
-VERY well controlled Moire & Aliasing! 
-Takes SSDs - makes perfect sense over sd/cf cards, just be sure to buy an approved one
-Dead simple interface - a monkey can do it!
-Quick startup and powerdown
-The focus peaking is excellent, one of the best i've tried.
-$2995. Again, $2995. No seriously, you need to let that sink in before you nitpick.
-Takes 11-30volts - More of a consolation prize for the lack of a battery system, but it can take a wide range of 3rd party systems.

And the not so goods:

-ISO - Maxes at 800, but it's better at 400. underexposing is actually quite good...
-Quality control still an issue, people have varying luck
-Highlight issues - Supposedly fixed in prior cameras, so whats the deal?
-Lacks basic camera operations - No time remaining indicator, no shot delete, no audio meters, etc...
-30fps max - if you like slow motion, look elsewhere
-The monitor isn't bad, but it isn't very good - It's reflective, and not very high resolution
-EOS-M mount would have been perfect...
-Internal battery life is short, but stretchable if you really need it. External batteries are widely available but not very small or easily attached.

Quality control/problems 

 I wanted to lead with this because it's the first thing that is a serious concern. At the moment i have mostly praise for the image out of this camera, but in keeping an eye out on the net, i've seen more than just a few people having problems with their cameras, both the older models and this new one. Black magic's cameras have great specs, but the varying issues are far higher in number than the big manufacturers. If you are wary of such things, you should probably steer clear. It's something i may even return mine over, i'm still on the fence in testing. Black sunspot is one issue that's widespread,  It's odd, but since i don't really shoot the sun or very sharp bright light sources very much, i'm not overly horrified. Still, not a pretty issue. I've checked my other shots of things like headlights and whatnot to see if the issue exists there, but seems only the sun triggers it, or perhaps anything very strong and overexposed. The more pressing issue is odd noise patterns. Some users are reporting vertical bands. In one case they noted that the bands were there one hour, nearly gone the next. My camera does exhibit this "Fixed Pattern Noise", but not nearly as strongly as some others have reported. More on this later.

Resolution

I've been one of the voices on the net de-promoting 4k for quite some time. I still maintain it's not as life altering as some people make it out to be. I still challenge anyone to show me an award for "best resolution", or in some way prove that by shooting 4k, their story, acting, writing, set design, etc... were improved. Nonetheless, i see 2014 as the year 4k becomes more usable for the masses, and can now consider it a possible extra tool. This was one of the reasons i was excited about this camera and preordered it day 1. Some users are claiming it's sharper than RED, i can't confirm or deny this, and i don't have a 4k test chart to shoot, but i can say that the image is damn sharp. I've shot a number of landscapes of the city and all those little windows in the distance were detailed. Good start.

Moire/Aliasing

The BMC 4k despite lacking an Optical Low Pass filter(confirmation?), handles fine details really well. The realworld(ish) test video shows no significant signs of either. That doesn't mean it's immune to it, just that it'll likely take extremely fine details and/or particular situations to show noticeable signs of Moire or Aliasing. Remember that that video has it compared to 1080 cameras, and the extra resolution helps it to define that smaller detail. Also note that the video is rendered to 1080, and therefore the 4k footage has gone through scaling. The original file does show some artifacting on the finest of details such as on the owl's mesh hat, but that thing is any camera's nightmare, and you can see how the 5d2 is just terrible, and even the C100 isn't immune to it. In fact, the more i look at it, the more i'd give the edge to the BMC4k over the C100 in the Moire/Aliasing department. It's damn good.

Rolling shutter

There is none! Some people seem confused by this and are asking to see a rolling shutter test... It's a global shutter and hence cannot and will not give you any skew/jello/etc... no testing needed. It's funny but i think some people think rolling shutter was always there in cameras, but it wasn't. We took a technical step back with CMOS sensors which by the nature of their design were rolling shutter. Now the technology has progressed to allow a global shutter design in CMOS, and we'll start to see rolling shutter become a thing of history.

Colors

Each manufacturer has their own color science, or rather, how the interpret the rainbow. Panasonic has typically been warmer, Sony cooler, RED more muted, etc... People take preferences in this department, one isn't definitively better than the other, but people's opinions on which looks better to their eye will certainly differ. I've personally liked the different makers colors for what they are and consider them different film stock looks. Then you have to keep in mind the sheer flexibility you have to alter those looks when dealing with high end recording formats such as RAW and Prores

All that preface out of the way, i am really liking the colors out of this camera, they have a pleasant naturalness to them with just a hint of it's own character. But again, you can do plenty of tweaking in color correction to your hearts content. 

ISO/Noise

Here's a tricky area. In an age where cameras shoot iso in the tens of thousands and manage to keep relatively clean, here we have a camera which not only tops out at iso800, it's pretty darn noisy at that level. What's happening here is that blackmagic chooses to give us exactly what the sensor is capable of. Many other cameras which shoot high iso and look good doing it are relying not just on the sensor, but tons of de-noise processing. If you have a noisy image, but the noise is very finely grained, it can be de-noised quite well with in some cases minimal softening of the image. Blackmagic doesn't do this, or rather, they may not have the ability to. If you try to denoise this footage in your NLE, it'll take a good amount of processing time. Canon, Sony, Panasonic, etc... they have the resources to make specialized processing chips to perform these tasks in camera on the fly. Blackmagic does have lots of equipment that it makes which do similar things, but never from inside a camera with limited power and heat dissipation. So what we're left with is zero in camera noise reduction. Is it a bad thing? If you want to shoot dark scenes and don't have lights, yes. 

But that's how they're marketing this camera, as a production camera. Productions involve crew, lights, planning, etc... And any productions that use this camera are likely to light for iso200 or 400. 800 isn't by any means unusable, but it does bring out something nasty other than your typical noise: Fixed Pattern Noise.

FPN is just any type of noise that remains constant in its shape. In the case of this camera, it exhibits vertical bands of noise which are sometimes noticeable in underexposed parts of the image. ISO200 doesn't show it much at all, iso400 which is the claimed native iso of the camera, can exhibit it some. At iso800, i can find plenty of ways to see it. Is it a dealbreaker? Really depends on your preferences, but i don't, that is unless you got one of the 'worse' cameras. My camera appears to exhibit less FPN, but other people have shown examples of their camera showing a lot more of it. One thought is that instead of BMD calibrating each camera/sensor, they instead took a base calibration of 1 camera/sensor and applied that to all of the cameras. It's certainly possible, the camera is many months past its promised shipping date and other manufacturers are announcing 4k cameras left and right. It's not far fetched to think that they rushed it out the door so as not to be left behind.

If FPN is a serious concern for you, expose for iso200, it's least prominent at that iso. Also, expose as well as you can, get more exposure in the dark areas so that you can crush them back down in post to hide the noise. I've tested the opposite; bringing back up unexposed areas and in some cases FPN pops out, and in some cases it doesn't. Even with the cap on tests, it's actually not that visible, which is rather peculiar. The sensor seems to be exhibiting FPN by reacting to differing exposures within the frame. How/why, i cannot say. 

This might be the one issue i return the camera over. Like i said, i think iso200 and 400 are in most cases perfectly fine and the FPN is really not noticeable much at all (with my particular camera). But the fact remains that it shouldn't be there to begin with, and is something that should have been dealt with before leaving the factory. BMD is aware of the issue, but to date no firmware fixes or otherwise have been offered/announced/suggested/etc...

Handling/Ergonomics/Build quality

Terrible, horrible, life threatening, etc... OK it's not THAT bad, but this is by far the strongest downside for me. The overall thing to keep in mind, is that this camera wants to be rigged, it doesn't HAVE to be, but it really wants to be.

The C100 is my primary camera, and despite its ergonomic quirks, it's fantastically laid out and handles like a dream compared to the BMC4k. It's a compromise that makes all the sense in the world for them, they're brand new at cameras, and to keep costs down, and not delay the products any longer than they did, they kept some things dead simple. It's almost like the worlds most over-sized, overweight smartphone. 

The build quality is very nice, it feels solid, tight, well built, then again, it's basically an single chunk of smooth metal. It feels heavy for its size, much like a ripe melon. Holding it in your hand is as awkward as you'd expect, since it has zero handle design. It isn't a disaster to hand hold, but you would have to be silly in the head to not want proper handles or some other means of holding it. The wooden camera cage is actually pretty neat in that it's flush against the camera, but contours to give you some rather decent handles. Not as good as full fledged handles, but certainly an improvement.

Monitoring

The 5" screen sounds great, until you try and use it when there's any sort of light hitting it. It's little details like this which make you wonder what's going on over there, but you have to keep reminding yourself that all of their cameras have been many many months behind schedule, and changing even the smallest thing probably would tack on more time. I plan to try a matte screen protector, but keep in mind those do blur the screen just a bit. Add to that, the rarity of a 5" screen loupe (there are a few, and i consider them overpriced for what they are), and it's clear that the only solid solution is an external monitor or EVF. Again, this thing wants to be rigged. I went and prototyped my own loupe out of some cardboard and optics from an old loupe i had, and i'm actually rather pleased with it. Hoodman makes a sunshade with a way to get your finger in there for the touch screen, but lacks the full light blocking of a loupe.

Focus peaking is very nice, and it's a savior for this monitor. Nailing focus is pretty easy when using it. At first i was second guessing every pull, but turning it off to verify revealed i was spot on or just a hair off in almost every circumstance. There is no way to adjust the strength, but at least it's set to a very useful level. Other poor peaking implementations give tons of false dots because of high contrast confusion, but this one is pretty darn good at spotting up more of the in focus parts to judge correct focus. 

You also get a 2x zoom in to help judge focus, and that's great, with two big annoyances. First, you can't move it around, it's just the center, so if you're recording and want to double check, you can't check anything but the center frame without changing your shot. The other annoyance is how you activate the zoom: double tap. Firstly, the double tap doesn't work correctly 100% of the time, sometimes it registers just one tap and brings up the metadata panel. Secondly, by tapping the screen, you can introduce noise and shake to the camera. If you have a proper sturdy tripod, this shouldn't be an issue. But if you're handheld or otherwise not secured, you might either sit there softly tapping, hoping it registers the taps, or you might end up tapping hard enough to see a shake. It's silly because it's a capacitve touchscreen, meaning it's not the strength of the tap that's supposed to register, but i guess the capacitive resistance is just really low on it.

Your best bet is to get any sort of external monitoring. BMD has been pretty clear about the rear monitor not being for general production use. But even that isn't a good justification, because all the menu controls are through the touch screen. Say you're using it shoulder mounted and it's mounted fairly close to or even over your shoulder(where it's nice to have the center of gravity), You've got to somehow get your finger on that screen to control it, or have an AC to do it for you. Other cameras just have it better thought out. RED uses a movable touchscreen, canon has a handle control which can be relocated, and other manufacturers have buttons and other ways to make their cameras more usable. Not here, because again, Blackmagic design is not a camera company.

Inputs/Outputs

What an unusual array they have... There's some odd contradictions in the way they market this camera and its actual abilities. For one: audio. They market it as having industry standard connections, but it doesn't. It has two 1/4" jacks, which is industry standard if you're talking about guitars, but not production sound. Yes many mixers/boards/etc... use 1/4", but the undisputed standard on microphones in production audio is the XLR jack. I understand the choice, it saves space and the 1/4" can be easily adapted to XLR, but it's still an added annoyance and makes me wonder just who at the marketing team is writing up such misleading info. 

You also get a usb port for updating firmware, OK. An lanc port for various lanc controllable things, Great. DC jack which accepts 11-30 volts, nice range, but i'd rather just have a removable battery system... Headphone port, obviously... and then a SDI port for external monitoring/recording. You also get thunderbolt but it's limited to things such as ultrascopes. And that's it. See anything missing? To me there's one glaring omission: HDMI. 

HDMI is a consumer connection which is now commonly found in professional systems, it's by no means as robust of a connection as SDI, but its supreme advantage is in the sheer number of monitors that you can connect it to. Let's come back to the 'Production' part of this camera's name. The lack of HDMI makes sense then, because this is meant for real 'productions', right? Well reading the advertisements, they're showing how much better it is than DSLRS. Granted that's just a simple advertising point, but combined with its low price point and how they push these cameras, they're targeting the lower budget market. That very same lower budget market more than likely has more use for HDMI than SDI.(hypothesis, not fact). It's not like there isn't extra space on the camera, but i can see how they wanted to keep it clean. There are numerous adapters that range from dirt cheap to somewhat pricey that will convert SDI to HDMI for you, but they require power, and it would have been nice to just have the plug. 

Even odder, is there there's the thunderbolt port, and thunderbolt among other things is a display connection which happens to be adaptable to hdmi with a simple dongle that requires no power! But for one reason or another, the thunderbolt port on this camera does not have the ability to be used for monitoring.

Data/Workflow

Don't make the mistake of underestimating the sheer amount of data you will get yourself into with this camera. You best think of gigabytes as the new megabytes. Even in Prores, that's 880mbits/second. Rounding down that's 5 gigabytes per minute If you plan on shooting 3 hours of footage per day, that's nearly a terabyte. This does not look to me like a documentary or event camera..... Thankfully SSD prices have lowered to around 50 cents per gigabyte. More food for thought: That equates to about $2.50 per minute you shoot, but yes of course you can re-use the drives.

This camera is labeled "production" for good reason, it's intended for shoots with proper personnel and setup, a DIT to offload footage for you, a gaffer to give you ample and pretty lighting, etc... Can this be used for run and gun? skeleton crew? lone ranger? Yes of course, but it becomes that much more of a pain in the a$$ and increases the likeliness something will go wrong.

Once you get to your edit bay, and you've backed up the mountain of data, how do you go about editing the footage? If you have a high end, up to date computer, sure you can go native and just start editing. If your computer isn't quite up to date, then i recommend you make proxies and offline edit. Try out your system, see if it hangs. Remember, the larger the project, the more demand it puts on the system, and adding effects of any kind does the same. Far cheaper than getting a new system is to offline edit. If you're not familiar, you simply transcode your original files to something much smaller and easier for the computer to work with, there are a number of smaller prores versions you can put to use. Once you're finished editing then you will need to disconnect the proxies, typically by setting them to offline in your NLE, and then re-linking them to the original 4k files. 

Conclusion

This camera aims to have a no compromise image. Does it succeed? Yes but with considerations such as FPN. You also compromise in just about every other aspect of usability. It has probably the longest list of atypical compromises of any camera other than the rest of the blackmagic cameras. And by that i mean the compromises are in areas of the camera which are usually expected to be good or at least reasonable on any modern camera. 

That being said, it's in a world of its own, and in a good way. The image is undeniable good. People are already trying to compare it to the alexa, red, jesus, etc...(disclaimer, no camera is called jesus, because when cameras die, they stay dead)...(unless you pay to resurrect them)...(but even then the repair center can botch the job).... ok enough of that. Comparisons will be out the wazoo with this camera, and in many ways i think it will excel. Even if BMD doesn't improve/fix any of the issues, the image quality is there and the issues can be worked with if you have the ability/resources. So far no other camera company has tried to steal this particular thunder, but that of course can change at any time. I've made numerous references to BMD not being a camera company, which i say as both a good and a bad thing. The good is that they appear to want to do the best they can with what they have. In a world where it's no secret that cameras you buy are purposely crippled in features and ability, it's nice to see a company that isn't holding anything back in their hardware. The bad is that they have limited resources which translates into poor quality control, missing/delayed common features, and everything else already mentioned in this very long writeup.

For smaller productions that can handle the workflow, it'll be a great asset. On larger productions it will likely first get in as the B camera, and as it proves itself, it will have the chance to become the A camera on such productions. So you can feel good about using the same camera the big boys use. But if you wonder why your images still don't look 'hollywood', you'll have to be reminded that the camera is increasingly becoming one of the least critical pieces of the film puzzle. If you don't get my meaning, then i've got many a tutorial for you to look into on this site.

Added on 2014-02-21 by
Darren Levine

Darren Levine

Stimulus LLC

DP/Videographer, Video/Film Editor
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