Almost a year ago, Blackmagic Design announced their Cinema Camera: a sub-$3,000 machine promising to bring true cinema-quality video to the HDSLR price point. Professional features like 13 stops of dynamic range and raw video recording, combined with a user-friendly touch-screen interface and sleek design, drew a lot of attention from amateurs and pros alike. Demand for the camera grew at an incredible rate following last year’s NAB Show, and the cameras were very hard to get ahold of until recently. Pro Photo Supply has finally begun receiving Blackmagic Cinema Cameras, and we can definitely say this camera is a game changer. However, that doesn’t mean it is the camera for everyone. We’ve had our hands on the camera for a couple of weeks now, and if you have been looking at adding one to your production toolkit, here is what you need to know.
At $2,995, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera may appear like it is targeting the HDSLR video shooter. One wouldn’t be necessarily wrong to assume this, but for the average HDSLR videographer, integrating Blackmagic’s camera into your existing setup and workflow may prove difficult. It is important to recognize that this is a true cinema camera: despite its price, size, and ease-of-use, this is a camera designed to be used in the same situations as its higher-priced RED and ARRI cousins. This means building the camera up to meet your specific needs is a necessity. Even less so than an HDSLR, this camera is all but impossible to use straight out of the box. So unless you are adding it to an already-existing cinema rig, your $3,000 camera just became a $6,000 camera—or more.
Here’s a brief list of some of the items you will need to complete this camera, and why you need them:
- SSD memory. Yes, this camera uses a Solid State Drive (SSD) to record video. No option for CF/SD cards here. A 480GB SanDisk Extreme SSD will cost you about $400 and hold either 1 hour of raw video, or 5 hours of ProRes. Comparatively, this is actually a much lower per-GB cost than high-end CF or SD cards, but it is a higher per-minute cost compared to most HDSLRs, which record video at lower bit rates and smaller file sizes.
- An SSD housing or adapter for your computer. One of the limitations of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is its inability to format an SSD in-camera or transfer footage to a computer directly from the camera. This means you need a way to connect the SSD to your computer. Drive housings such as CRU DataPort’s ToughTech Duo can handle this, or you can find relatively inexpensive USB or Thunderbolt adapters. Again, this is not an optional add-on like a card reader would be with an HDSLR; it’s a requirement.
- An external battery. The battery inside the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is non-removeable. It offers about 90 minutes of recording time, and then must be recharged by plugging the camera into a wall socket. An AntonBauer Dionic 90 battery will power the camera for many hours, at a cost of $415 a piece. A battery/charger kit is $899. This is something that established cinema camera shooters likely already have, but many HDSLR users rely on the manufacturers’ standard batteries and may be taken aback by the price of a professional video battery. AntonBauer batteries can power the camera and other accessories, like a monitor, simultaneously and are a great asset to any production; but now having one is no longer optional.
- A rail system. Now you need a way to attach that AntonBauer battery to your Blackmagic camera. The best way to do this is with some sort of rail rig, even a basic two-rail and baseplate system. Combined with AntonBauer’s cheeseplate and rail mounts, you have a clean solution to keeping your battery and camera together and are ready to build up your rig with additional components as needed, such as a follow focus unit or matte box. Expect to spend at least $500 here, with the sky as the limit.
- An external viewfinder and SDI-HDMI adapter. The screen on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is terrific, until you take it outside. It is highly reflective, which means in bright light you will be staring into your own reflection while trying to frame your shot. Zacuto’s electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a great option here, and for $950, you get the EVF and their Z-Finder loupe. You will also need Blackmagic’s SDI to HDMI converter, though, because the Cinema Camera does not have an HDMI port. That’s another $295. You could also try a high end production monitor that has SDI inputs, although those can be difficult in bright light, as well. Alternately, you can gaff-tape a large black cloth to the back of the camera and hold it over your head while shooting outdoors to block all light from hitting the screen. (I might actually try that; I think I would look awesome.)
I know this is starting to sound complicated and expensive, but you shouldn’t be dissuaded yet. Even after the cost of accessories is thrown in, the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is by far the most affordable cinema camera around, and more capable in ways than some more-expensive offerings from Canon and Sony. With the option to record straight to 10-bit ProRes at full HD, the footage from the Cinema Camera is edit-ready and easily color-graded. This feature alone makes it a compelling option for anyone who has suffered through the process of editing highly-compressed video from HDSLRs or cameras like Canon’s C100 or Sony’s FS100. If you want the best of the best, you can even record raw footage at 2.5K resolution (higher than full HD) — something not possible even on Canon’s $15,000 C300.
It doesn’t mean workflow is a walk in the park, however. If you do want to make the jump to raw video, be ready to manage huge amounts of data. The data rate of raw recording on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is 5MB per frame. That equates to 120MB/sec for 24p video. Yes, that’s megabytes not megabits. Not only does this mean you will need a lot of storage for your editing computer, it also means the storage needs to be really fast. I would recommend a large external USB 3 or Thunderbolt RAID. Or 2 or 3 of those. Of course, you will also need a beefed-up computer just to be able to process the raw footage. Luckily, Blackmagic includes a copy of the full version of DaVinci Resolve software with the Cinema Camera, which can handle playback and editing of raw footage. Resolve is a $1,000 piece of software, and pretty much the de facto standard for professional color grading. That’s a nice thing to include for free.
So our simple, easy-to-operate, $3,000 cinema camera has suddenly become a much more complex, $6,000+ cinema camera; but the value is in the image. Footage from this camera is the closest to actual film that you can get from any video camera short of $20,000 or $30,000. If you are accustomed to shooting on HDSLRs, you will ooh and ahh the first time you shoot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It is not the camera for every job, nor every shooter, but if you are an independent filmmaker who has been yearning for that “film look,” this may just be the camera for you. Or, if you just like shooting ridiculous test videos, as we do, you will certainly appreciate working with Blackmagic.