Blackmagic Design has just announced their Pocket Cinema Camera 4K at the NAB show, and pre-orders to get early in line for planned September delivery are already being taken at this link (and for those in Europe, also here). They did a great job building suspense, with a huge banner outside the convention center. Some leaked photos added little to the launch, as usual, with misleading speculation about a 16mm sensor size, flip-out screen, and even IBIS!
One of the great virtues of the original Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera was its stripped-down nature, offering just the most fundamental settings that any budding (and experienced) cinematographer needs to know. And as one of the first early adopters to shoot something cinematic with it, I really cut my teeth with this test run, shot over a weekend in New York City:
As my associated commentary on the video explained, there were big issues to work around — mainly, battery life and ergonomics/menus — but the payoff far outweighed those hassles. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera delivered compelling 1080p video in log format with excellent highlight roll-off, film-like grain, 10-bit 4:2:2, and a “vintage” look from its 16mm sensor (the same aesthetic accorded by the now-defunct Digital Bolex). After starting the biggest User Group dedicated to Blackmagic Design (combined with Facebook and Twitter) built primarily on user-submitted content, it became clear that the original Pocket was a sort of democratization tool, putting cinematic videomaking into the hands of more creatives than ever. It definitely kickstarted my career.
That makes the arrival of the Pocket’s successor a bit anxious. If one thing has changed since the launch of the original Pocket, it’s that mirrorless cams have gotten even more feature-packed — while even so, what never changed is the split-identity crisis between still cameras and cinema cameras. Aliasing was the biggest Achille’s heel of hybrid cameras, but then, enlarged photosites and optimized pixel binning have minimized what used to seem like an impossible technical compromise. Menus on the Sony Alpha and Panasonic Lumix cameras, for example, continue to be a swirl of endless features that mix still photography with optional video features that aren’t really in a professional cinematographers’ wheel house (e.g., auto-focus). Thus it always felt like the future would bring us an amicable divorce between digital still photography, and cinematography.
So the first concerning feature of the new Pocket 4K is the addition of still photography into the mix. Lots of us would rather not have it; and the sensor size doesn’t accommodate sufficient megapixels for the camera to become a serious candidate for stills.
But that would be nitpicking, if the stills feature doesn’t really compromise the video features. On the early side, I’ll get my hands on this to make sure, but let’s focus only on video. First, it’s useful to consider what everybody else is doing wrong — especially the market leader, Sony.
Yesterday, Sony “re-launched” their PXW-FS5 with a Mark II model that added one of the least relevant features for serious creatives: high frame rates (and even so, that’s only after hooking in a “compatible” external recorder for the marquee feature — nearly mooting it). But worse, it failed to include what I think we should all agree by now is the baseline minimum for acceptable cinematography: 10-bit 4:2:2 capture. Panasonic has laudably packed that into the small GH5 body, and there’s no option anymore to leave it out in this market. Sony didn’t launch the a7S III at NAB, but whenever they do: if it’s mainly just a bump up to 4K/UHD at 60fps, it’s another non-event from Sony. And what all these cameras have in common is a relatively lossy internal recording codec, in every case a derivative of H.264 compression. It’s simply not ideal.
But back to Blackmagic. This is where the new Pocket 4K continues the tradition of its predecessor: 10-bit 4:2:2 at high bitrates into a robust recording codec. ProRes remains a proprietary (and protectionist) industry standard by Apple, that I have always estimated — and still do believe — is on its way out. ProRes RAW had promised to breathe new life, but it’s missing on the new Pocket 4K. (Bitter rival Atomos might have eclipsed that possibility, given secret industry boardroom hijinx, but who knows.) Regardless, for a better alternative, the new Pocket 4K also offers 12-bit true CinemaDNG 4K RAW capture — and to make that feasible, the high-speed USB-C port can connect to an external SSD for longer recording times in RAW.
As to high frame rates, even 60fps at UHD/4K still lacks priority in this overall context (along with the capability to crop in, for lower-resolution 120fps capture). Other, larger cameras can be leveraged for those very rare (please!) occasions when slow-motion can be creatively justified. I hope that the strangely persistent customer demand for high frame rates (wedding videographers?) didn’t cripple other features that could have emerged in the Pocket 4K — and in cameras across the market, generally. Again, to mention the FS5 II: Sony exploited a tiny tweak in high frame rate capability for justifying a whole new product launch (which is an accounting department con to increase profits), which was, in reality, just a firmware update to the original FS5. (Does anyone even look at this kind of behavior from an environmental perspective, as it adds more metal/plastic to Earth’s landfills with no real reason?)
But on to some positive things: the lens mount staying Micro Four Thirds was sort of pre-ordained, but it’s nice to see it again (especially after lens investments for the predecessor, and those of us who dallied with Lumix cameras when they were hot). Mounting those rarer lenses that actually include Power O.I.S. will be all the more critical, since the new Pocket 4K lacks in-body image stabilization. The full HD monitor on the rear will make those days of squinting at the old Pocket, seem comical — I hope the “nits” of lux are loud. How the internal audio pre-amps perform remains to be seen, but the stereo/dual microphones on either side of the lens (assuming the lens motors are quiet!) seem promising, while having a mini-XLR input with phantom power literally shames every other portable camera on the market today. Using the ultra-ubiquitous battery that’s used on Canon DSLRs, too, will open up cheap and longer-lasting power, paired with the further option of external 12V all-day hookup. (Meantime, Sony lawyers bully the third-party market against emulating their overpriced yet much-hyped NP-FZ100 for newest Alpha cameras). And best of all, the sensor: though we’ll lose that forced vintage look, and wide depth of field, from the former 16mm sensor, going to Micro Four Thirds was all but certain — not only for better light-gathering, but also to evade that prior 3x crop factor (and there’s only so much room to cram in pixels for 4K video).
The price at $1,295 retains the democratizing and generous spirit of the original HD camera, and the estimated September 2018 delivery might need to be taken with a grain of salt given Blackmagic’s history — but they’ve improved on manufacturing, and I know they’ll deliver. This is a really exciting new product, exceeding nearly every expectation. I love this company. The Aussies are killing it.
Here’s a gallery of photos from the NAB presentation:
What do you think? Looking forward to your comments here and on Facebook/Twitter. You can see the entire product page at Blackmagic Design’s website, and as mentioned earlier, pre-orders are already being taken at this link (also here in Europe) for planned delivery in September.