Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K review

For budding Spielbergs, no tool comes close to Blackmagic’s cinema camera

Blackmagic Design has delivered another revolutionary filmmaking tool.
Blackmagic Design has delivered another revolutionary filmmaking tool.
Blackmagic Design has delivered another revolutionary filmmaking tool.

Highs

  • RAW and ProRes filetypes
  • Beautiful 5-inch Full HD display
  • UHD and DCI 4K up to 60p
  • Intuitive user interface
  • SD, CFast 2.0, and SSD storage

Lows

  • Ineffective autofocus
  • Inconsistent battery performance

MiniDV. Final Cut Pro. Canon EOS 5D Mark II. In their time, each of these products changed the way we create digital video, repainting the canvas of the industry in broad strokes. Time and time again, the bar for entry to professional motion production has been lowered thanks to such revolutionary technologies. Today’s film students have access to tools that yesterday’s professionals only dreamt about, and it’s only getting better.

But where Canon’s success with the 5D Mark II as a video camera was largely a fluke, there’s another manufacturer that has been working on the purposeful democratization of high-end video production: Blackmagic Design. Since its first Cinema Camera in 2012, the Australian company has continued to push costs down while blurring the lines between consumer and professional products. Its newest camera, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (or BMPCC 4K, for those in the know), is the latest example of this, bringing a staggering amount of value to the unbelievably low price of $1,300.

This is the cinema camera for the rest of us, but it remains very much a cinema camera. That is to say, it’s specialized. Its size and price — and use of the Micro Four Thirds mount — will naturally draw comparisons to hybrid mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic GH5S, but these are not direct competitors. Despite the accessibility, the BMPCC 4K is built for professional filmmaking workflows, and thus it may not suit the needs of the more casual user.

Still, Blackmagic Design has blended together excellent hardware, high quality filetypes, and a beautiful user interface that make this an attractive camera for a variety of video shooters, from students to working pros.

More than a camera

Further separating the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K from would-be competitors is that Blackmagic Design isn’t just a camera company. In fact, up until about six years ago, it wasn’t even a camera company. Before then, it was best known for its DaVinci Resolve color grading software — originally sold as a $20,000 suite complete with bespoke hardware interface. The full version of the software now costs just $299 (sans control panels), even as Blackmagic has built it out with editing and compositing capabilities. And DaVinci Resolve Studio is now included with the BMPCC 4K at no additional charge.

There’s a point to bundling everything together and making it all more affordable: Blackmagic Design wants you to get the most out of its products, both software and hardware, and one is required for the other. In fact, one of the key reasons the company originally entered the camera market was to give a wider range of filmmakers access to a camera that could truly take advantage of DaVinci Resolve. The BMPCC 4K, with its CinemaDNG RAW and 10-bit ProRes filetypes, allows you to push the footage to extremes when color grading. The reverse is also true, as DaVinci Resolve has Blackmagic’s color science built in so that your video — particularly when shooting in RAW — looks as good as it possibly can.

This is the cinema camera you have been waiting for.

At the same time, there’s nothing proprietary to Blackmagic going on here. ProRes (a professional compressed format developed by Apple) and CinemaDNG (an open RAW video format spearheaded by Adobe) are industry standards. The ProRes files work flawlessly in Apple Final Cut Pro, while CinemaDNG sequences are natively supported in Adobe Premiere Pro, so you’re not forced to use Blackmagic software if you prefer not to. More exciting, the upcoming Blackmagic RAW format (more on this later) is being developed as an open standard, and Blackmagic Design will offer an SDK to developers and manufacturers so they can incorporate it into their own products.

This is not a perfect camera and has some faults that will keep it out of the hands of certain users, but no other manufacturer can do what Blackmagic Design is doing. If you have even a passing interest in high-level video production, this camera should be on your shortlist — it’s not the best tool for every job, but nothing else brings this much value to the table.

Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Built for video from the ground up

The BMPCC 4K continues Blackmagic Design’s trend of making weird-looking cameras. It is excessively wide from left to right, but oddly short from front to back. It does not look like a movie camera. Pick it up, and it’s surprisingly light thanks to its carbon fiber and plastic composite shell. There’s a good size grip with access to control dials, function buttons, and the record button. On the side of the grip you’ll find memory card slots for both SD and CFast 2.0 cards; the opposite side houses a USB-C port that can be used to connect a solid state drive (SSD), which the camera can record to directly.

But where it really gets interesting is with the massive, 5-inch, 1080p display. This is simply the nicest built-in monitor we’ve ever seen on a camera, at least anywhere near this price point. It makes nailing focus (which, as we’ll get into later, you’ll almost always have to do manually) incredibly easy, even without magnifying the image. Whereas DSLRs and hybrid mirrorless cameras often use a 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratio for their monitors that is then cropped in video mode, this one is 16:9 so that you get a full-screen picture. That also explains why the camera body is so wide.

Other camera companies would greatly benefit by studying Blackmagic Design’s user interface.

The screen is touch sensitive, and while that in and of itself is nothing to flaunt — most cameras have touchscreens these days — Blackmagic Design is the only company that has built its interface from the ground up to play well on a touchscreen. Navigating menus and changing settings has never been easier. Everything is exactly where you’d expect to find it, labeled in plain English, and the tap targets are large so you won’t accidentally hit the wrong button.

You will, however, benefit from a basic understanding of cinema camera terminology, such as knowing the difference between shutter angle and shutter speed. Really, though, there’s nothing overly complex going on here — Blackmagic Design has taken what seems to confound other manufacturers and turned it into something elegant and approachable. Yes, this is a professional tool, but it would also be incredibly easy for a beginner to learn on — other camera companies would greatly benefit by studying this interface.

Some users will lament the lack of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the fact that the screen doesn’t articulate, but it’s hard to fault Blackmagic Design here given how much other tech they’ve pumped into this camera at such a low price. You do get a full-size HDMI-out port, so connecting an external EVF or monitor is easy.

There’s also no shoe mount on top, replaced instead with a screw thread for connecting a camera cage or mounting plate. Oddly, the bottom tripod mount is a sole 1/4-inch socket, missing the extra pin often found on video cameras. This is, then, a camera you will certainly want to accessorize to get the most out of it.

Professional-grade file types

In speaking with Digital Trends, a point that Blackmagic Design emphasized was that the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K offers no consumer video formats. Everything is at least 10 bit with 4:2:2 color, bypassing the 8-bit 4:2:0 codecs of most other cameras in this price bracket. That means smoother gradients without banding, better color resolution, and more flexibility for compositing and grading.

For this review, we shot entirely in ProRes 422, which on the BMPCC 4K is merely a midrange quality option, but it easily outclasses what’s available on most mirrorless cameras. Cameras like the Panasonic GH5-series and the Fujifilm X-T3 offer high-bitrate codecs with comparable quality to ProRes, but they aren’t edit-ready and will run much slower on a computer unless transcoded first. ProRes footage, on the other hand, can be dropped straight onto a timeline in most popular editing programs and manipulated with ease.

If you can stomach the storage and processing requirements (and the cost of a high-speed CFast card), you can get even better quality by jumping up to CinemaDNG, a RAW filetype that is offered in both uncompressed and compressed varieties. Based on Adobe’s DNG (digital negative) format for still photography, CinemaDNG is kind of a hack job — essentially, it stores every video frame as an individual image file and doesn’t support video-specific metadata. It also is quite demanding on your computer.

Aware of these drawbacks, Blackmagic Design developed its own RAW format. While not yet available for the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K, Ursa Mini Pro users have had access to it for a few months now, and the reports we’ve seen are incredibly positive. Blackmagic RAW’s goal is to deliver the quality and flexibility of a RAW file with the smaller storage requirements of ProRes, all while making it much less taxing on your computer compared to CinemaDNG.

Blackmagic RAW will be offered in both “constant quality” and “constant bitrate” modes, with the latter offering up to 12:1 compression. That sounds like a lot of compression, but Ursa Mini Pro users report virtually no effective quality loss. That level of compression will allow you to record RAW video straight to an SD card on the BMPCC 4K, which simply blows other mirrorless cameras out of the water. Blackmagic RAW is coming “very soon,” according to Blackmagic Design, and will be available via free firmware update.

Image quality and audio

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K uses a full-size Four Thirds sensor (compared to the smaller Super16 sensor in the original Pocket Cinema Camera). This is still smaller than the Super35 standard used in the Ursa Mini Pro, Canon’s Cinema EOS line, and most other high-end cinema cameras, but it punches above its weight. It can shoot UltraHD (3,840 x 2,160) and DCI (4,096 x 2,160) resolutions at 24, 30, and 60 frames per second.

Like other Blackmagic Design cameras, you have a choice of either “film” or “video” dynamic range, with the former being a logarithmic tone curve that preserves more highlight and shadow detail but outputs a very flat looking image that needs to be color graded to look normal again. The 10-bit ProRes files grade beautifully, so even if you need to underexpose to preserve highlights, you will have little trouble lifting the shadows and midtones in post. The colors, in everything from highly saturated elements to delicate skin tones, respond very well to adjustments. There is simply much more information in the files than what you get on other $1,300 cameras.

Noise is also kept impressively low, at least through ISO 1600, the highest sensitivity we needed during our review. ISO maxes out at 25,600 which is actually several stops higher than the Ursa Mini Pro. We did run into some shadow noise in some situations, particularly after brightening the image in post, but this is to be expected and certainly wasn’t worse than what we’ve seen from other cameras.

4k frame grabs (click thumbnail to enlarge)

For recording audio, the camera has both a 3.5mm and mini XLR audio inputs in addition to stereo microphones on the front of the camera. Audio quality from an external microphone is very good, evidence of professional quality preamps. This is one area where consumer mirrorless cameras often skimp.

As for the onboard microphones, they sound as decent as on-camera mics can. They are useful for scratch audio or for syncing if you record primary audio into another device, but you probably shouldn’t rely on them for much beyond that.

What we really like, however, is the sheer number of options you have for the audio settings. You can have both an external mic and onboard mic be active at the same time, and you can choose which channel which microphone goes to and independently control levels for each. Want both onboard mics to record to a mono channel while an external mic records to another? You can do that. Want just the left or right on-camera mic to be active? You can do that. And you can do it all very easily thanks again to the fantastic user interface.

Autofocus and battery woes

You have to fall before you can fly, and Blackmagic Design is still stumbling in some areas. The non-continuous autofocus on the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is useful as little more than a spec sheet bullet point. Does the camera have autofocus? Technically, yes. Will you want to use it? Probably not.

In our experience, the autofocus was often slower than simply focusing manually (which, again, is quite easy to do thanks to the great monitor). Worse, it only focussed correctly about 50 percent of the time, often missing focus even in well-lit situations with plenty of contrast.

It’s not the best tool for every job, but nothing else brings this much value to the table.

More concerning is the power management. That large screen consumes a lot of juice, and we went through four batteries in just under 2.5 hours. That isn’t so bad by itself — the camera uses widely available Canon LP-E6 batteries — but the camera will also shut down without warning if the battery gets too low.

How low is too low? It might be 10 percent, or it might be 20. Every battery seems to be different. If you’re in the middle of an interview, particularly if you’re a single operator and can’t constantly watch the monitor, this could be a potentially disastrous issue.

Of course, many users in the true target demographic for this camera (that is, people who actually use cinema cameras) will get around these limitations by putting the camera in a cage, attaching a follow focus system, hooking it up to external power, and working with a dedicated cinematographer or camera assistant. That would be ideal, but not everyone in the market for a $1,300 camera is thinking that way.

Some potential customers will also point to the lack of in-body image stabilization as a negative, but Blackmagic Design’s hands were probably tied. Most cinema camera users don’t want sensor-shift stabilization, as it could cause unwanted movement if you mount the camera to a vehicle or other fast-moving object.

But, again, videographers looking at $1,300 cameras often do want stabilization, so it’s a conundrum. At any rate, we achieved decent handheld results using stabilized Panasonic lenses, but an external gimbal would definitely be preferred.

Our Take

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is a revolutionary product, one that has again lowered the bar for entry into professional video production. It will find a warm welcome in independent productions, student films, and documentaries. Indie filmmakers can actually afford to buy it, rather than having to rent a camera; students will benefit from its professional workflow, simple to learn interface, and low cost; documentarians will appreciate its small size and ease of use, which makes getting set up on location a breeze.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for one-person crews like YouTubers and vloggers (and Digital Trends camera reviewers) who depend on reliable continuous autofocus and can’t monitor battery life like a hawk. However, it is otherwise such a refreshing camera to use and produces such great results that it may well be worth the minor headaches.

Is there a better alternative?

Nothing else does what this camera does anywhere near this price point, so no. Blackmagic Design has essentially no direct competition here. That said, many people will find a hybrid mirrorless camera to be easier to work with. The Panasonic GH5, with internal stabilization and face-detection autofocus, is a good alternative in that case — but it is also more expensive.

How long will it last?

This is a very well-built machine and there is little to worry about mechanically as there are so few moving parts. Blackmagic Design has already demonstrated a willingness to keep the camera fresh with firmware updates, as well, as we have seen with the announcement of the upcoming Blackmagic RAW format. We expect you could easily get several years of use out of it.

Should you buy it?

If you are an independent, documentary, or student filmmaker, yes; this is the cinema camera you have been waiting for. If you are a one-person crew, you may want to hold off — but even then, it’s not a solid no. You may yet be able to make this camera work for you, just know you’ll have to clear some small hurdles first.

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