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Do Filmmakers Really Need A Digital Camera As Beautiful As This One?

Blackmagic Design unveils a svelte competitor to RED and Canon’s digital cinema rigs.

A curious middle ground has risen up in the indie filmmaking world. DSLR cameras like the Canon 5D revolutionized low-budget videography, while higher-end digital cinema rigs like the RED Scarlet and Arri Alexa are robust enough for Oscar-nominated cinematographers while remaining "cheap" by Hollywood standards. But DSLRs are still-photo cameras at heart, and are ill-suited to some of the rigors of film production; meanwhile, the RED and Alexa are still expensive enough to remain out of reach for many productions, not to mention cumbersome to use. Isn’t there a camera that can appeal to middle-class media makers who occupy the growing territory between "one man band" and "major production company"?

The recently-unveiled Blackmagic Cinema Camera seeks to fill that niche. At $3000, it costs less than Canon’s flagship DSLR, the 5D Mark III. But it’s designed to shoot motion pictures with professional workflows, just like the RED and Alexa. Oh, and it’s freaking beautiful-looking, too.

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera looks more like an iMac crossed with a Polaroid than a piece of production equipment: all smooth aluminum curves and lush matte plastic, with a sheer touchscreen interface gracing the back panel. The aluminum body allegedly gives the camera a rugged solidity without excessive weight. (I say "allegedly" because I haven’t seen it in the flesh, and Blackmagic didn’t respond to my requests for comment.) Unlike the RED Scarlet’s aggressively, often inscrutably technocratic interface, the Blackmagic camera’s touchscreen actually looks human-readable. And it’s stuffed to the gills with pro-quality specs, like 13 stops of dynamic range, the ability to output into industry-standard lossless video codecs, and a full raft of ports for external monitors and mics.

Then again, "user experience" means something very different to professional filmmakers than it does to amateurs or even prosumers—and a well-designed cinema camera has more in common with a Leatherman tool than it does with a svelte piece of consumer tech like an iMac. For example, consider the gorgeous-looking flush-set ports on the side of the Blackmagic. There’s a reason why the Alexa and RED cameras are studded with open ports like a horny toad—in the heat of production, when you’re pushing cords and cards and peripherals in and out of the camera all the time, messing around with doors and covers just gets in the way. Also, it’s only a matter of time before they get broken off.

And what about that large, friendly touchscreen—you might think, how could anyone mess that up? I’m not saying the Blackmagic does, but putting crucial controls into an interface with non-haptic feedback can drive cinematographers nuts if it’s not carefully considered. At the very least, touchscreens are fragile and usually require gentle swiping and tapping, and sometimes they simply aren’t that great at registering input compared to physical controls. Think of the difference between an iPad and a Kindle Fire: while setting up a shot, I wouldn’t want to be jabbing and swiping repeatedly on a touchscreen that wasn’t perfectly, seamlessly responsive. (I had this experience recently with the RED Scarlet, which also builds most of its controls into a touchscreen UI.)

The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is undeniably sexy, and sends a very clear message: professional filmmaking gear should be beautiful, not just functional. And what’s wrong with that message? It works for Apple. But the design language of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera feels a bit off all the same. It’s saying: Love me. You know you want to. But what it should say is: Trust me. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m just not sure I do.

Read more about the Blackmagic Cinema Camera

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  • Foto_technica

    I love the design. I love the size. I love the price. Is there any optics in the middle to reduce Canon EF lenses image to suit the sensor or the registration is incresed to take only sweet spot. In that case how to use extreme wide angles?  Is not DOF lens' attribute? How sensor size can alter it ? as some body said. The best in this camera is RAW image. Once you can play with color corrections in RAW you do not have to worry about low light and other light artifacts. You can make the images the way you want them. I shoot only RAW in Canon EOS 7D. Even with 4:2:0 limitation I am able to get fairly beautiful images. Imagine it with full RAW. For the budget and for the price It should be a very ideal camera to work with limited crew and funds. I will love to walk around having it on my DOY Steadicam and Merlyn. Camera behaves well in the hands of the maker. Slumdog millioner used SI2k because most of the slum shots were made unaware. Likewise this beautiful cure little camera will not attract any ones attention in the middle of a huge crowd. So it is the best in the category and price. I love to own it. I am waiting for the three weeks period.

  • Iantimothy

    I have decided to buy one. i already have the tokina 11-16 which will work fine with the camera (22-32mm) i feel that people worry far too much about what others are doing. and do not focus upon their own style and creativity, which is the real tough one! I remember walking around with a zorki 4 with a leica lens on it knowing full well it was the lens that mattered! this camera looks great for pop vox and docu filming which is where I am at now,  I never worry too much about kit, if it does the job and the price is right buy it. I have a friend who produces the most incredible 3 minute movies on iMovie 11, its not what you have its the know how to use it, a camera or a lens will NEVER compensate for creative ability. the built in battery? two hours is a lot of time if you have thought out your days filming and 2 hours filming in ProRes is fine by me. cannot wait to pick mine up  IanT

  • Derek Van Gorder

    This will be a beautiful and very useful camera for a lot of people. However, what everybody is forgetting is that DSLRs are popular with indie filmmakers for one reason only, and that's their large sensor, shallow-depth-of-field capabilities. In terms of sheer image quality there have always been superior options to the Canon 5D available at similar prices, what attracts people is getting that pretty, stylized "cinema" look by throwing the background out of focus and making the subject "pop."
    You will not be able to throw the background out of focus with this camera, because it has a very small sensor. It doesn't matter what lens you attach, the depth of field is determined principally by sensor size.

    The Blackmagic camera will be fantastic for videography, documentaries, and certain types of movies, but DSLR owners who decide to switch will be very disappointed when all of a sudden the background is very sharp no matter what they do.

  • Cinestir

    Do you know nothing about photography? I have seen this camera already perform in the field with fantastic DOF. There lots of small sensor cameras that have great DOF with the right lens...

  • Bendubbs

    I wouldn't say that a 16mm depth of field amounts to "the background is very sharp no matter what you do." You can easily throw things out of focus on 16, and you can also with this camera. Use faster lenses, open up to 2, or 1.4. It will look very similar to a  DSLR at 2.8 or a 4. Or use longer lenses and back up if you want to intentionally throw things out of focus. 

  • Brian FitzGerald

    Sorry, but I see nothing beautiful about this camera. Minimalist, maybe, but not beautiful. I think the Red line is much more attractive.

  • Joe Correia

    That's exactly
    what I was thinking when I saw your comment.
    I am all for
    beauty, creativity, and elegance in front of the camera but a tool MUST serve
    the master for the tasks needed. Fashion and "Beauty" belongs in
    front of the lens on in hands of wannabe's.
    Once we start
    going down the fashion lane we go lame!

  • Len Feldman

    A "review" of a camera where the reviewer hasn't even seen or touched the camera? Couldn't Fast Company have found one person out of the nearly 100,000 people who were at NAB when the Blackmagic camera was announced who could write about it?

  • Pete

    I shoot stills and motion, so I have just purchased the Nikon D800 which will work perfectly for both. however I will have to add about $2k minimum worth of stuff to shoot motion better. So it's gonna cost me $5k. This camera costs the same and I will need to add a bit to it to work - but it shoots RAW! Awesome! Plus Black Magic are throwing in about $1500 worth of software with it! Now that's a deal! For small indie film makers, this camera looks great. I think those that were waiting for the $6k Red Scarlet that never came (instead it is now $15k with better specs), the Black Magic camera is in the right market spot. $3k: worth getting if you are an indie film maker.

  • njohns

    I completely agree about the touchscreen- not something that is easy to use in the field. The camera seems to be trying to hard to be clever, when what we need is something really functional. 

  • Serch

    I truly don't get the problem... The touchscreen for example has been operational in cameras like the SI2K I've used it for two films now and it's simply amazing, not to mention that Slumdog Millionaire was shot with it. The form factor is not the kind of RED or Alexa, you have to plugit into a mac mini, put cages all around it if you dont have the weight of the body on  your shoulders, but It is still a magnificent camera that shoots beatiful images. I think the Blackmagic is really ground breaking piece of equipment like the Silicon Imaging was at the time of it`s release. It will be fun, and intuitive simply for what I can see.

  • WillTech

    Mmmm.. yes, a breakthrough product at a great price, and it is geared (as JP states) towards cinema style production. I do want those lovely 2.5K images, but I also want that in a small camcorder format (I know many wouldn't, but I would). Sony's are too expensive. They are in financial difficulties - so are churning out prosumer camcorders, adding a few pro features e.g. XLR audio and adding a $1,000 to the price tag. Panasonic systems are always flawed in some way - bulky, chip too small for price point etc. JVC are closest - but their new 4K GY-HMQ10, is just not there yet. It has a limit imposed by the lens e.g. sweet spot is between f4 and f5.6 and requires more light than normal indoors! Also can be a bit soft at around f.11. So, a compromise. I just want a small camcorder with 2K chip, integrated quality lens, XLR audio, good in low-light, perhaps running Apples ProRes codecs, and some of the main controls worked via buttons/switches etc. So many new camcorders, and all fall short in some way! I am a one-person operation so I don't want to be carrying around a lot of gear. This 'cinema' camera is definitely very good, but by the time you have added all the 'extras' it becomes too bulky for the lone 'run-and-gun' operator whose output is geared towards the internet (but still wants those high-quality images).  

  • Brian

    What a waste of an article. Your bio says you focus on tech, but you left out most of the specs. If you're going to fault this camera you should mention that it has an internal battery with a 2-3 hour run time, a small sensor and no 60fps. 

  • Brian

    Thanks Atte, but this article is about how the BM camera compares to the RED & Canon cameras. Good luck trying to get a wide shot with the massive crop factor from the small sensor. 

  • Tio yesi

     It is not fps, or that the sensor is small, large or medium. The issue is that over the years we have the opportunity to play with optics, with the visual narrative language to better handle some basic parameters with flat images. I ask have you seen the work of the great directors of the 30, 40, 50, etc ... teams of those years were bulky, massive, limited, developing audio problem, and yet there are the works. Not the camera, is what is done with it. Atte Rodrigo H from Chile

  • Tim

    Did you just not finish writing this or something? Why don't you trust it? Just because there are port covers? What are the grounds for your skepticism, other than the fact that it differs greatly from professional form factors like the RED and Alexa? To be cautious when such a seemingly breakthrough product hits the market is natural— I guess I just don't get the point. What are you trying to get at?

  • webum

    Article looks pretty good at a glance. But I haven't read it yet. A little longer than I was expecting so I don't think I would trust to spend the time reading it.

    Sounds familiar?