in reviews, videography, videos

Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera – Initial Impressions and Footage

After two months of waiting, IT HAS FINALLY ARRIVED
— David Chen (@davechensky) October 15, 2013

In early August, I placed an order for the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera at B&H. For months, I waited to receive word that my camera had shipped, and for months, all I received from B&H was the occasional note that they still had not received any stock. Finally, just a week or two ago, a miracle happened: Adorama suddenly and unexpectedly listed the camera as “in stock.” Not believing my eyes, I quickly placed an order and hoped for the best. A week later, I was unboxing my very first Black Magic Pocket Camera!

This camera takes any lens with a micro 4/3rds mount, which includes Panasonic’s wide range of Lumix glass. Never having used any MFT lenses before, I agonized over which one to buy and studiously perused a bunch of reviews (thanks to The Phoblographer for a lot of useful lens reviews). To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much work I was going to end up doing on the Pocket Camera, so I didn’t want to invest too much in glass quite yet. If I wanted to go all out, I probably would have ended up with the legendary Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm. Maybe one day I still will.

Instead, I opted for the new Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 II. It’s a relatively new lens but I’d heard great things about it and more importantly, it was relatively cheap. I also recently ordered a Rokinon 7.5mm fisheye, which actually functions more like a wide-angle lens with the Pocket Camera’s nearly 3x crop factor.

Before I even bought the camera, here are a few things I’d already learned from watching/reading reviews about the Pocket Camera from the likes of CheesycamPhilip Bloom and Dave Dugdale:

  • The battery life is crap – I was able to get about 30-40 minutes of standby and recording time on a single battery. Buy extra batteries! Fortunately they are relatively cheap and easy to carry around.
  • The camera is very selective about SD cardsHere’s a list of compatible cards. I picked up a Sandisk Extreme 128GB on sale a few weeks back, and that worked just fine after the most recent Pocket firmware update. You must format cards on your computer, as the camera firmware is incapable of formatting cards in the camera. Furthermore, you can’t delete media off the card in camera either, nor does the camera tell you how many hours/minutes of space you have left. Kind of a pain, but okay if you know how to deal with it. 
  • The microphone is terrible – Any sound recorded onto the camera, even when using an external microphone, was likely to be unusable. I actually went out and bought a Tascam DR-05 off of Craigslist for the express purpose of using it to capture sound for Pocket projects.

Taking all this into account, I shot the following video at Pike Place Market in Downtown Seattle. The audio was recorded using the Tascam DR-05, and the video was graded using Filmconvert. Everything was shot handheld.

Here are some further thoughts I had while shooting with this camera:

  • Wow, these images are incredible! – Despite the smaller Super16 sensor size, this footage looks almost as good as the footage from the full-size cinema camera. The ProRes (and it is ProRes HQ only as of this writing – no CinemaDNG Raw yet) truly gives you a ton of flexibility in post and I look forward to experimenting more with the capabilities of the camera in the future.
  • The screen is far worse than I could have imagined – I’m spoiled from using camera like the Canon 5D Mark III, with its gorgeous, crisp, glossy screen. But yeah, the matte screen on the Pocket Camera is really difficult to use and quite challenging to focus with. That being said, a double tap of the focus button reveals in-focus areas in bright green on the screen (Thanks to Andrew Gormley for pointing this out to me).
  • Lack of meters makes life difficult – While recording, the screen has no meters of any kind except for a timer noting how long your current clip has recorded for. I did not realize how much I would miss the light meter until it was gone. When you’re using a crappy screen (with variable user-set brightness) and no light meter, you’re basically flying blind when it comes to shooting an image that will be properly exposed. Shooting in ProRes does allow you to correct a multitude of mistakes in post but that’s no substitute for a properly exposed image in-camera. Update: I should point out that zebras are available as overlays on the screen (which is okay, but in my opinion, no substitute for a proper light meter). In the heat of the moment, I neglected to use zebras for the above video, which may explain why many of the highlights are totally blown out. That, and also it was exceptionally bright inside the market. In retrospect, I should have exposed for highlights and tried to pull out shadow detail in post. Instead, I exposed for the subject.
  • It is exceptionally difficult to manually focus using an auto-focus-only lens! – This is a basic observation but it’s new to me with this MFT glass. The lens gear just doesn’t feel very good turning in my fingers, and I always felt like I was damaging the lens in some way. I really missed having a manual/auto switch on the lens, as I do with all my EF glass. Also, my camera iris would sometimes spaz out, meaning that the aperture of my lens would occasionally change all of a sudden and unexpectedly. In addition, sometimes the iris button would not function (I’d press it and nothing would happen). Pretty sure these latter two phenomena are connected in some way – perhaps my camera was getting a delayed reaction from the iris button presses? Either way, I would strongly recommend you adjust aperture manually on this camera, whether through the up/down buttons on the back of the camera, or, if you have a fully manual lens, on the lens itself.
  • ND filters are essential – Unlike a DSLR, the Pocket Camera doesn’t allow you to jack up the shutter speed in broad daylight until the image is properly exposed. That wouldn’t be advisable anyway, as high shutter speeds can affect the quality of the footage, but at least it was a possibility. The Pocket Camera only lets you control shutter angle, which I left at 180 degrees. Thus, ND filters are a must for any outdoor work. 

I’m planning on doing more shooting with the camera this weekend, and hoping to combine it with a very simple Polaroid rig. I’ll post the results when I’m done.