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Blackmagic’s latest camera ups the ante on resolution and image quality
I’ve always hated the gimmicky and mostly meaningless tech-jargony term “disruptor,” but that really is the role Blackmagic plays in the film industry. It makes cameras that shoot footage with a quality that approaches giants like RED and ARRI but at a fraction of the cost. The Pocket Cinema Camera line has become a favorite among indie producers, studios, and DPs, and the latest iteration shoots at a staggering 6K resolution and starts at just $2,500 instead of the tens of thousands of dollars those other cameras command. It’s incredible, but it’s certainly not for everybody, and it isn’t designed to be.
Blackmagic made waves last year with the 4K version of its Pocket Cinema Camera. “Pocket” is a misnomer, as the 6K’s body is 7 inches wide, 3.8 inches tall, and 4 inches deep, so that would require a pretty massive pocket. It’s a lot fatter and wider than your modern DSLRs and full-frame mirrorless cameras from Sony, Nikon, or Canon, but it retains that same sort of shape. That’s curious because while it can shoot still photos, that’s really not what this camera is made for. This camera is made for video, pure and simple. Compared to those aforementioned RED and Arri cameras, it is indeed much smaller.
Physically, the camera is very similar to the 4K version. The backside is dominated by a massive 5-inch touchscreen. It looks great indoors, but unfortunately, it’s really hard to see anything when you’re outside in sunlight. This is where you’ll really wish it had an electronic viewfinder like a mirrorless camera, as it’s nearly impossible to pull focus or judge proper exposure. Next to the screen are six buttons for autoexposure, autofocus, HFR (high frame rate), focus assist, menu, and playback.
On the top right-hand side of the camera is the record start / stop button with the still photo button next to it. Behind that are buttons for ISO, shutter speed, and white balance, and hitting one of those buttons will let you control those settings with the single scroll-wheel by your index finger. There are also three customizable Function buttons, which you can program to toggle zebra, grid lines, or LUT previews so you can what you’re shooting might look like after you grade it. The camera does have a built-in mic, but its quality is garbage. You might use it for syncing video with an external recorder, but that’s about it.
The right side of the camera has a door that covers the SD and CFast 2.0 card slots. The left side of the camera is where all of the ports are. You’ve got a standard 3.5mm stereo mic jack, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a full-sized HDMI out (very handy!), a locking 12-volt power supply, a USB-C port, and a mini XLR in with phantom power support for high-quality audio. I really don’t like the port covers on that side. They’re extremely fiddly, awkward, and hard to put back on. The bottom of the camera has the battery door, the tripod mount, and a large opening so the built-in fan can keep the thing from overheating, which is a problem that mirrorless cameras often encounter when shooting long video clips.
The biggest difference between the BMPCC6K and last year’s 4K is the 6K has a larger image sensor. The 4K had a 4/3 sensor, while the 6K has been bumped up to a Super 35 sensor (similar in size to an APS-C sensor). This has several advantages. For starters, the sensor being roughly 58 percent larger can gather a good deal more light, though the advantage is someone mitigated by the higher-resolution sensor, so it’s only a modest boost in low-light situations. The larger boon is that you can use Canon EF-mount lenses, which are widely available and have excellent optics. Further, the Super 35 sensor only crops the field of view 1.5x compared to a full-frame sensor, whereas the 4/3 sensor cropped 2x. The net effect is that you can get a cleaner, wider field of view.
The largest (dare I say, only) reason to get this camera is the image quality, and wow, it does not disappoint. Shooting 6K video with 12-bit colors produces footage that is unbelievably flexible, especially in the colors. Selecting Film mode in the dynamic range nets you some very flat, gray-looking footage straight out of the camera. But don’t be fooled: there is a ton of data stored in those files that lets you push and pull the colors in any direction you please. This means you can achieve all kinds of dramatically different looks. Want it to look like some washed-out 1970s filmstock? Easy. Or make it look like an early-2000s Busta Rhymes video? Not a problem. Take a look at my test footage, and you’ll see what I mean.
While the colors are incredibly malleable, you don’t get quite as much flexibility in the shadows. Blackmagic claims 13 stops of dynamic range, but I think that may be a bit exaggerated. It’s pretty easy to blow out highlights if you aren’t careful, so then you stop down. But you can only bring the shadows up so far before you start seeing a lot of noise in them, and that noise tends to be purple and ugly. The camera’s sensor has a dual native ISO of 400 and 3200, and both look really good. Things started getting pretty noisy at ISO 6400, but it was still usable. At ISO 12,800 that digital noise is far more prominent, and I’d definitely avoid the camera’s maximum of 25,600. My Sony A7Riii has better dynamic range, is less likely to blow out highlights, and detail in shadows is better-preserved (as you’d expect from a full-frame camera). But because it’s only 8-bit video, the colors aren’t nearly as flexible. It’s honestly not even close in the color department.
There are a lot of advantages to shooting in 6K. Most likely, you’ll be mixing down to 4K for your finished product, right? Well, when you shrink a 6K frame down to 4K, that over-sampling gives it a nice little boost in quality. You can also crop in by about one-third, and you won’t have any loss in quality. Or say you’ve got some shaky footage. You’ll probably want to apply a stabilization effect (such as Warp Stabilizer in Adobe Premiere), but that crops the edges of your video a bit. If you were shooting in 4K and finishing in 4K, that crop would mean that you have to stretch the video to get it back to a 4K frame, which causes pixel-stretching and a noticeable drop in sharpness and quality. When you’re shooting 6K, you can stabilize a very shaky video (which would require even more edge cropping) and still not have any pixels get stretched. You can see some examples of that in my video above. It’s pretty amazing. There’s also a built-in 6K time-lapse mode, if that’s your thing.
Part of the BMPCC6K’s special sauce is that it leverages the proprietary Blackmagic RAW codec. It’s some Pied Piper-level compression. I shot the above video using the 5:1 constant bitrate setting, which produced fantastic footage. If you want to try to eke out a little more color info, you can even go to 3:1 compression, but that’s a difference only a professional colorist would see while using a very expensive monitor. Even with that impressive compression, though, files are very large. If you’re shooting 6K24 in Blackmagic RAW 5:1, you’re looking at 1.5GB for a 10-second clip, and you can double that if you’re shooting 6K50. That’s significant, and it will eat through your cards very quickly. The 256GB card I was testing the camera with filled up in just over 28 minutes of shooting when I was shooting exclusively at 4K24, Blackmagic RAW 5:1.
Blackmagic RAW files are increasingly easy to work with. Up until recently, you had to use Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve editing software to edit it. Now, Blackmagic has released software that lets both macOS and Windows computers use the files with relative ease, which meant I could cut the above video in Adobe Premiere. DaVinci Resolve 16 is a fully functional post-production suite now, and it has best-in-class tools for color grading (especially if you’re shooting Blackmagic RAW). But there is a learning curve, and I didn’t have time to teach myself an entirely new editing platform in time for this review.
The maximum speed when shooting 6K is 50 frames per second, but if you know your project timeline will be 24 fps (which gives a more cinematic look than the standard-for-video 30 fps), then you can shoot in the High Frame Rate mode. This will shoot at 6K50 but save the file as 24 fps, slowed down to half-speed. The half-speed footage it produces looks really good, and if you know for sure that you want that clip to be slo-mo, then it’s an easy option. It does record audio, but the audio is real time, so it isn’t synced to the half-speed footage and will run out halfway through the clip. Still, it’s better than not having audio at all, and you can stretch it in audio editing programs if you want.
The camera looks friendly enough, with its reasonable price, its big, bulbous shape, and its extremely intuitive touchscreen menu (seriously, the menu is fantastic), but don’t be fooled. This isn’t the type of camera that a beginner can grab and just start busting out beautiful clips. For starters, it doesn’t have the auto features you would expect on a consumer or prosumer camera. It doesn’t have things like auto ISO, which would be nice for times when you want to lock in your shutter speed and iris. It also doesn’t have any in-body stabilization (which we’re now seeing in mirrorless cameras from Sony and Nikon), so handheld shots are really shaky. You’re going to want a tripod or a gimbal for basically every shot. Also, the body isn’t weather-sealed, so using it in the rain or in dusty areas would be a significant gamble.
The worst part is the autofocus. For starters, there is no continuous autofocus option, so it can’t track a subject if it moves in the frame, which basically all mirrorless shooters can do, and do well. (Sony’s Eye-AF is the current leader in this arms race.) If you want to use autofocus, you press the button in the back, and then it typically takes a few seconds of wild hunting until it locks in on the focal point, which makes it effectively unusable during a shot. You also can’t tap to focus or move the focal point away from the center of the frame, which means you may have to move your shot to focus on something, and then move it back, and even then, the autofocus isn’t super accurate.
All of this is to say that you need to have a good eye and a practiced hand for manually pulling focus, and that’s a skill that can take years to develop. But even if you are a skilled DP, the screen’s lack of brightness is going to make it really difficult for you to see what you’re doing if you’re shooting outdoors, so you may find yourself spending more money on an external monitor. This is less of a big deal for professional DPs, though, and that’s really who this camera is for.
“It’s got a consumer price but it’s really a pro camera,” Blackmagic’s director of sales operations – Americas, Bob Caniglia, told me. “The consumer price helps us reach people who are new to it but want to be serious about it. It’s not really something the weekend dad is going to get, unless he already really knows what he’s doing.” That’s about my read on it, too. If you’ve got some filmmaking skills already and have reached the limits of what a prosumer mirrorless camera can do, this thing is incredibly powerful. But even so, it would be nice to see some of these modern convenience features added.
The camera chomps through batteries and memory cards like a T. rex coming off a juice cleanse. It uses the puny Canon LP-E6 battery, a design that’s been around for as long as digital SLRs have. Blackmagic claims it will get you 45 minutes of 6K24 recording to a CFast 2.0 card with the screen at 50-percent brightness. Realistically, you’re going to need the screen at full brightness if you’re outside (and even that’s not bright enough). I tested it with an external SSD and only got 30.5 minutes of record time. Either way, that’s pretty bad. Blackmagic has a new grip coming out that uses two of the Sony L-series batteries which are a lot bigger. Blackmagic will get you two hours of recording time. It will be released next month for $245, plus the cost of batteries at roughly $125 a pop.
As far as storage goes, Blackmagic has a list of memory solutions that the BMPCC6K has been tested to work with without dropping frames or otherwise glitching. For 6K video, you’re going to have to use a CFast 2.0 card. The problem is that CFast 2.0 is still pretty new, so it’s not widely available, and it’s wildly expensive. I picked up a SanDisk Extreme Pro 256GB card for this review, and it set me back a knee-wobbling $420 before tax. That’s absurd.
The better solution would be to use the USB-C port and shoot to an SSD, right? Well, the above list only has two drives approved for shooting at speeds of 6K50. That’s not a lot of options. However, I tested it with a Samsung Portable T5 as well as a SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD, both of which are light and compact (so they can just dangle off the camera), and they both performed flawlessly. That’s a great option to have, and you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck than you would with a CFast 2.0 card.
When it comes to editing 6K footage, you’re going to want a computer with some serious graphics processing power, especially since you’re going to be editing color and applying filters, which take even more horsepower. You’re also going to want to use the fastest SSD you can get your hands on. For my edit, I used my late-2018 HP Spectre x360 15-inch laptop and a Samsung Portable SSD X5, which utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and the very fast NVMe interface. That hard drive gave me no bottlenecks at all, which was a relief. The computer did well, too. The only thing that kept falling on its face was Adobe Premiere CC. While coloring footage Premiere would crash roughly every five minutes. I spoke with some other producers, and they all confirmed that Premiere CC has been having tons of issues lately, and it made me wish I already knew how to use DaVinci Resolve. This camera comes with the Studio version of Resolve, which is the more fully featured version, and it includes everything from assembly to sound mixing and motion graphics.
The camera is really all about the incredible colors. They’re realistic, vibrant, and amazingly malleable. This was the first time I’d ever been able to shoot in 6K, and I absolutely loved it. It gives you a ton of flexibility for cropping and stabilizing in post, and Blackmagic RAW didn’t make my computer burst into flames. I really wish it had better autofocus, a little less noise in the shadows, in-body stabilization, an EVF, and weather-sealing, but to get footage of this quality at this price, there are bound to be some trade-offs.
In the last year, a ton of the DPs I’ve worked with have used the BMPCC4K as their B-camera, and the results they get with it are gorgeous (even though they, too, have a lot of focus issues with the camera). I know a couple have already preordered the 6K and will be switching to it as soon as it arrives. It’s easy to see why. A lot of small studios and independent DPs will pick these up in the months to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see your next favorite indie flick shot with one of these. You’ve got to know what you’re doing, but if you do, you’ll be capable of producing pure eye candy.