How many blog entries, videos, tutorials, and comments are out there on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMCC)? Well, a lot and that is because this camera is unusual.
Some call it a game changer while others scoff at the very mention of the word. I know it immediately sparked my interest when I first saw it, and soon after – I bought one. There are 10 things I wish I had known beforehand. Let me share them with you!
1. View the material out there
I know, I know, I know. I did it too. I yanked the camera from it’s box and started using it without waiting to read or view much of anything. I felt no need to. The menus are short and simple, the design includes very few physical buttons, and I’ve used cameras like this before. It’s an intuitive camera to use, right? At first glance, yes. Once you start using it, questions quickly start to arise. There are great videos on the BMCC with helpful comments/answers, a user guide, organized forums, and detailed tutorials. While there is nothing like hands-on experience, viewing the material before getting started will save you time and dramatically improve your filming experience.
2. Relearn exposure
I feel this is the most important thing to note before going out to shoot, seriously. My wife kept asking why I was not using the BMCC. Bah! Because I do not how to use this thing! How are people getting such beautiful images while I can’t seem to even expose a shot properly?
I had more questions about exposure – a lot of questions.
Do I NEED to record in Raw? What if I don’t use it? Do you lose dynamic range with ProRes and even more with ProRes Video? Is 800 ASA really the best ISO setting? What if I use 400 ASA? Where do I set my Zebras? Why would I ever use 75% Zebras? Does the Iris button set exposure correctly for all of the recording settings?
I feel to really answers these questions there should be a balance of research and self testing.
Let’s begin in more general terms. There is actually less to exposing with the BMCC that I thought and It is different, not difficult. The following technique seems to deliver the best image for any recording settings except maybe video, which will “bake in” a REC 709 colorspace. To start, set your zebras around 95% to 100%. The zebras will be critical to avoid highlight clipping in areas you are trying to retain detail. As I understand it, any zebras that appear on the screen indicate that one or more color channels are clipping and that data cannot be recovered (for the most part). An extremely bright light source clipping, like a street light or the sun, is not problematic since those areas do not retain detail anyways. Simple so far? Your next step is to ETTR.
What is ETTR? It is an abbreviation for exposing to the right. If you are new to the concept, like I was, visit Tom Majerski’s video for a quick but thorough explanation. In short, the idea is to gather as much light into the sensor as possible without clipping (that’s where those zebras come in). The BMCC sensor is fantastic for retaining detail in highlights unlike a lot of cameras, especially DSRLs, which tend to clip easily and harshly.
The next thing to consider is the ISO setting. The BMCC manual says to stick to 800 ASA whenever possible for optimum performance. If you are shooting Raw, there will be so much flexibility in post that it will not really matter as much as shooting in ProRes or DNxHD. Shane Hurlbut explores finding the ISO “sweet spot.”
At this point, a lot of the questions have been answered but there are a few specifics left. The most concerning to me was the Iris button and how it relates to Zebras. Basically it boils down to this. Firstly, in Video mode, the Iris button acts as a traditional exposure button where exposure is centralized – some areas may clip due to this. Secondly, in Film mode, the Iris button will prevent clipping. Confusing? There is a great forum on this topic. What about the rest of the exposure questions? I think talking about the codecs first would be beneficial.
3. ProRes, DNxHD and Raw
In case you did not know, there are two compressed recording formats, ProRes HQ & DNxHD, and one uncompressed, Raw 2.5k. All three are fantastic recording formats and offer great flexibility in post. It is a beautiful thing to escape 8-bit recording and be able to choose between 10-bit ProRes and 12-bit Raw recording. So what is so great about a few more bits? Take a look at this video from OneRiver Media to find out.
I could spend a lot of time just talking about these recording formats. I’d rather keep this section short and mention the importance of each format.
CinemaDNG Raw 2.5k is great for its awesome-ness in post. Say you recorded an interview with just one camera, your beloved BMCC, and your final output is 1080p. If you were smart and used the Raw format, you now have the option of cropping your shots to get a tighter shot to draw viewers in when the interview heats up. This also makes shortening an interview a whole lot easier and it makes it look you had two cameras, which is good for perceived production value. Here’s another example. You are recording a great independent short and you have a shot that has a lot of dynamic range and keeping as much detail as possible is key. If you shoot Raw, when you get to your edit bay, you have a lot of room to raise your shadows and even “recover” some of your highlights to see all of the beautiful detail that would have otherwise been lost. With Raw, recovering near-clipped highlights is actually very feasible. Juan Melara, who I have a lot of respect for as a fantastic colorist willing to share his knowledge, goes into detail about recovering highlights.
Lastly, ProRes and DNxHD. These codecs do not provide quite as much dynamic range, color retention, and flexibility in post. However, they are a great trade-off to Raw. The compression to image quality ratio is simply fantastic. Save your hard drive space if you do not absolutely need Raw.
As promised, here’s my answers to the remaining exposure questions. Do you need to use Raw? Well, no. There might be a bit of a hit with dynamic range and color. I would use the film mode to retain as much dynamic range and data as possible. It seems like the ProRes/Video option lends the least dynamic range. How many stops? I do not know exactly but it is said to be in the 1 or 2 stop range. The ProRes/Video option is also the reason behind a lower Zebra setting. Since clipping will not occur at 100%, the ability to lower the Zebra to when the image is actually clipping is a nice option to have. The exact setting is going to be based on your experience.
4. Learn color grading
Do NOT be turned away by color grading. It can actually be quite fun. It does not have to be a complicated and difficult process – unless you want it to be. You get to choose.
Spending some time on grading, whatever the method, is a crucial part of the BMCC workflow; after all, DaVinci Resolve ( the color grading software powerhouse) is part of the bundle. Resolve is an immensely powerful program that has grown leaps in bounds in terms of performance, capabilities, and easy of use. It takes time to learn the basics but once you have, you’ll begin to realize the awesome possibilities that await. I have found many BMCC users do not use DaVinci Resolve since they have experience using other programs like Adobe After Effects, Lightroom, Premiere, Raw or FilmConvert, Final Cut Pro, Sony Vegas and so forth. At first, I was taken back by this. Why not use Resolve? Because you have the choice and that’s the beauty of it. You are not limited to one program, one workflow, and definitely not one way of color grading. I was particularly impressed with the imagery Andrew Julian was able to achieve in Adobe Lightroom.
If you are looking for the quickest turn around, recording in ProRes with the “video” dynamic range present might be your best bet. But for the greatest flexibility and to take full advantage of BMCC, use Raw 2.5k. Unlike the H.264 codec, the recording formats that the BMCC is capable of, allow for a much better color grading experience – especially Raw. I wish I could think of some clever analogy here but I think this is something you have to see or try for yourself to fully understand. Realize that the BMCC was designed with color grading in mind and that is why I say – learn to color grade – at least a little.
5. Record audio externally.
To put this simply, DO NOT rely on the audio from this camera as your main audio. Why?
Aside from some of the anomalies with the audio quality, one of the biggest problems is that you have no visual indication of where your audio levels are. You can monitor the audio levels through audio out and a pair of headphones but this is by no means a safe solution. The BMCC lacks phantom power for any attached microphones and you’ll need a 1/4 adaptor since there are no XLR inputs. I would not consider BMCC audio as “professional”. Use an external audio recorder.
6. Wide angle is extremely limited
The crop factor, 2.3x, (when compared to the Canon 5D) is something to contend with when trying to achieve a wide angle field of view. In some ways I like the crop factor. In others, it makes me wish this was a 35mm sensor we were dealing with. When I use my favorite lens, the Zeiss 50mm f/2.0 Makro-Planar ZE, it is a 115mm equivalent when attached to the BMCC. This mimics having two unique lenses depending if I am using a 35mm sensor camera or the BMCC, which is not a bad thing in my book. But if I need a 24mm or 35mm equivalent on the BMCC, well, that’s when I wish things were a bit different.
The Canon lens mount (EF) is really designed with a larger sensor in mind. This means, to get wide, I had to go out and buy a lens specifically for the BMCC. It seems the two most popular wide angle lenses for the BMCC EF version are the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 and Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6. I really enjoy a faster lens so I went with the Tokina 11-16mm. This lens will provide you with a 25mm-37mm zoom equivalent on the BMCC. If you own the MFT mount version, more lens options will be available but the 2.3x crop factor will still be present. If you fancy more information on the wide angle side of the BMCC, Andrew Reid goes into some wide angle lens choices with his guide over at EOSHD. Marco Solorio with OneRiver Media also sheds some light on shooting wide with the BMCC.
7. Screen glare
The very first time I used the BMCC I shot outdoors on a bright sunny morning. I quickly installed the detachable sun shield thinking this would help. The name implies some type of shielding but the display was not shielded at all. In fact, it was a great mirror. After fixing my hair and freshening up, I threw a towel over my head, which was too hot and a hassle to keep in place but did offer better visibility. “What am I doing?!” I thought. This is 2014 after all…I needed a better solution, one on the cheap.
I picked up the antiglare screen protector by Tech Armor. It is not designed for the BMCC so I cut it to size. The results were not as great as I had hoped with roughly a 30% reduction in glare. There are screen protectors designed for the BMCC which may work better.
8. The quirks
Before I get started, I should note the current firmware is 1.5.1 with version 1.3.1 being the last update for the BMCC. To date, there are still some quirks to deal with and not all of them can be fixed with firmware.
First, form factor. How do you hold the thing? I really like the idea of keeping my gear compact as possible and I also like the idea of keeping my costs down. So, one possible solution is the Smallrig V8 Multi-purpose Top Handle. This is one of many handle solutions out there and it is very similar to the Zacuto Blackmagic Top Handle and the Wooden Camera NATO Handle Kit. The included rail accommodates additional accessories and makes removing the handle a cinch. If your budget isn’t as tight, there are several cage and rig solutions.
Battery.I found it odd that the battery is not removable. Whatever the design reason, this means a short shoot or an external battery solution. I actually received the Switchtronix PB70-BMCC bundled with my purchase of the BMCC. It is almost essential in many recording situations but will add bulk and an additional 1.4 pounds.
Fan noise. Just be aware that the fan is audible. Not like a radiator fan in your car audible, more like a very quiet laptop fan found in newer Macbook Pros.
Next up, Aliasing. It is not exclusive to the BMCC. I have been using a 5D for years now and it is possible to work around the problem. For example, using a different lens or more shallow depth of field, changing the wardrobe, and/or correcting in post can reduce or eliminate aliasing.
The menu indicators/options (or lack there of). One of the most requested features to be added to the BMCC is visual audio meters. Not having the meters is a big swing and a miss. Also, there is no option to delete clips nor format the SSD internally. Make sure you have a formatted SSD before hitting the road. Wondering how much room you have on your SSD? It is a guessing game. The battery indicator is not of much help since it only shows a few increments and then suddenly dies. White balance settings are limited to 6 choices. The nice thing is that most of these quirks, if not all of them, can be fixed with future firmware updates. This is a beautiful segue to my next point.
9. Firmware updates
I cannot tell you how many forums I have read through with customers (and non-customers) asking about future firmware. There are so many questions. When is the next update? What will be fixed? What features can we expect to be added? Why are we left waiting without any answers?
From what I gather, there are no real answers to these questions. There have been a few recent updates for the Pocket Cinema Camera. The BMCC users on the other hand, await for their long list of firmware requests – or angry demands in some cases. It is very uncertain how future firmware updates will play out. Maybe the BMCC has been left by the wayside. Maybe their is an update around the corner packed with fixes and new features. Or maybe the “BMCC 2″ is the answer. Blackmagic has released a few updates for the BMCC with version 1.2 being especially helpful (time lapse recording, displayed F stop values, etc). I would be incredibly shocked not to see valuable firmware update(s) in the near future. Now, what to expect and when to expect it – that will be up for further debate.
10. This is an investment
Plan on spending $2000 for the camera, a few dollars on an external battery, an SSD or two – or three, specialty lenses, and so on. There is always some sort of financial investment with any camera you buy and the BMCC is definitely no exception.
The investment that I am concerned with pointing out is that of time; taking the time to learn how the camera processes and handles light. Learning how to deal with the limitations and quirks of the camera and also learning the strengths. Developing a workflow that will meet your needs. The BMCC is a powerful tool and the better you understand it, the better experience you have with using it.
I hope these 10 points help those of you new to the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera or those of you interested in making a future purchase. As always, feel free to leave a comment. And be sure to check out my latest BMCC post, The Blackmagic Cinema Camera – Love It Or Loathe It; A Sobering Review.
Looking for more?
Here are some helpful reviews. Each review offers slightly different insight into the pros, cons, and workflow of the BMCC.