Though it has been inevitably overshadowed by the Ursa Mini 4.6K, Simon Wyndham reckons that the Blackmagic Micro Cinema Camera is well worth a look for specialist uses and more.
The Ursa Mini 4.6K has been the camera that has been stealing all of the headlines, and rightly so. It is after all a camera that could deliver a swift and painful kick in the nuts to some of the competition. But slightly under the radar the Micro Cinema Camera has also been released into the world. Suffering from similar delays to the Ursa Mini 4.6K, for the same reasons relating to engineering difficulties with regard to the promised global shutter modes, the BMMCC is now, finally, here.
At first glance the BMMCC appears to be successor to the Pocket Cinema Camera. In some ways it is, but it isn’t really aimed at the same market. Or is it? While the BMPCC is a general use system, the BMMCC is aimed at highly specialised applications, such as being hidden, or as a stunt camera. However it does have some crossover and complimentary uses to the BMPCC as we’ll see.
I don’t care what anyone says, the build quality of the Blackmagic cameras is fantastic. The BMMCC is no exception, with a magnesium allow chassis, solid lens and battery mounts and straightforward controls. It feels nice to hold, and just like its stablemates there’s a consistent industrial design theme running throughout. BMD care what their cameras look like.
The body of the Micro Cinema Camera is very light at 11oz. Although the weight of your final system will depend on what you mount on it. Clearly once a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS lens is mounted on it, the weight will go up considerably!
Coupled with the right lens though, and this will be a very inconspicuous and easy to mount system where discretion is required.
On either side of the camera are some large vents, which are part of the fan cooling system. The front right hand corner is dominated by the transport and menu buttons, while on the side is a full size HDMI socket and a 15 pin expansion port. This latter port has some interesting possibilities for remote control, which I will delve into later on. The left hand side of the camera has a mic in and an SD card slot. The top and bottom of the camera has a total of four robust 1/4” screw mounting points for accessories and tripod/mounting plates. At the front of the camera are two tiny microphones for stereo sound.
Simple is the word here. If I had one suggestion it is that the top could do with the three screw mounting points more than the bottom.
Although the BMMCC is not primarily designed as a general use camera, the fact is that it can be, and most definitely will be used in this fashion. This surely must be the smallest camera capable of recording raw footage on the market, and as such there will always be people who find a use for it outside of its intended scope. The screw mounting points make it easy to be able to rig handles and monitors etc for such purposes.
To test out some footage I took the camera out with the Blackmagic Video Assist attached, along with an SLR Magic 12mm Hyperprime. I also used some Formatt Firecrest IRND filters to mitigate any IR pollution issues. The resulting video can be seen at the end of this review.
Manual lenses are the way forward. Unlike other Blackmagic cameras there is no iris or focus button for electronically controlled lenses. Exposure on such glass is step controlled by the transport buttons on the front, which can be fiddly because you cannot immediately see what you are pressing. This is not really a design flaw since this camera is primarily designed to be controlled remotely via the expansion port where such functions are readily available, or set up and then left. But if you do want to use this camera as a general purpose one, manually controlled lenses are what you’ll want to be using. So you might want to get some of the newer primes such as those by SLR Magic, or scour eBay for some classic vintage zooms.
Controlling the menu functions on the camera also uses these buttons, which again can be a bit fiddly. As per the Pocket Cinema Camera before it, ISO settings are limited to 200, 400, 800, and 1600. However unlike its brother the Micro Cinema Camera can shoot up to 60fps, which will be great for slow motion. It isn’t at the heady heights of 120 or 240 fps, but it is a very welcome addition to the feature set. There is a slight loss of sensitivity using this framerate, but that is to be expected due to a smaller interval for light to hit the sensor.
Subjectively, noise performance seems to be slightly better than the BMPCC. There is still some moire and aliasing, but it seems to be slightly better controlled than its predecessor, only appearing on very high frequency edges, although it can still be distracting when it comes to shots of water or sharp building edges.
The Micro still retains the wonderful filmic style qualities of other cameras in the range, with that certain organic “something” that I have never quite been able to put my finger on. It just produces a lovely, pleasing picture. It grades really nicely and can be pushed and pulled in ways that you simply couldn’t achieve with any other camera of this size and weight.
In use I found ISO800 to be the best compromise between dynamic range and noise performance, just like the Pocket Camera. You can go higher than ISO800, and it will give you ever so slightly more dynamic range, but the trade off might not be worth it. That’s not to say that the picture becomes unusably noisy, in good light at least, but there may be very little to be gained from doing so since the difference in dynamic range is quite small.
Just like other cameras from Blackmagic, ISO settings lower than 800 will affect your dynamic range substantially, too, particularly if you go as low as 200. Given that the type of situation where you might want to go that low will quite likely be one of bright light and high contrasts, it is best to stick with ISO800 and use ND filters to control your exposure.
In general, if you already own the Pocket Cinema Camera, you’ll know what to expect from the Micro Camera. They will make very good stablemates and they will match very easily. Finally, before anybody asks, there was no issue with black spots on bright highlights. In the low light shots I tried out I did not notice any fixed pattern noise to speak of.
The Micro is not really intended to be a general use camera, but it can be rigged up if you like. For those who are looking to use it as an alternative or a progression from the Pocket Cinema Camera, I certainly couldn’t advise against it. It is a bit more fiddly to use with electronically controlled lenses due to the positioning of the control buttons, but it also has some distinct advantages over the Pocket.
For starters you can keep the Micro Cinema Camera as a smaller rig. It will be practical to add a handle, and you will most definitely need an external monitor since it lacks the built in screen of the Pocket. But the use of a single Canon LP-E6 style battery means that power is not so much of an issue. BMD state that it should last 1.5hrs. In fact I got through a good portion of a day on one battery through careful usage. Contrast this with the BMPCC, which cannot be practically used at all without some form of external powering system. As a result there is less need for a full cage and rail system in order to have something that is practical to use.
The other big advantage of the Micro Cinema Camera is its 60P capability. Given that adventure sports will most likely be a popular application for it, this feature was a must, and long awaited from many Pocket users. Many cameras today may be capable of 120fps or higher at 4K resolution, but for a lot of shots 60P will be more than good enough.
On top of this, the size means that it is very easy to mount onto a lightweight handheld three-axis gimbal for super smooth Steadicam style shots. Being so small opens up some wonderful possibilities for not a whole lot of expenditure.
The Expansion Port is one of the Micro Cinema Camera’s main selling points. The box includes a base cable that contains a number of different connections including S-Bus and PWM channels to allow multiple functions to be controlled. This port also houses the pins to allow composite output and LANC control, as well as DC in.
On its own the cable isn’t too practical due to the number of wires and plugs that come out of it. But it is really a way of showing what can be done. Those who are serious about developing remote systems for it will likely be making up their own cables. The possibilities are intriguing, however.
For example when the camera is mounted on a drone or on an elevated pole or jib, the iris, shutter, zoom, focus, shutter, and white balance functions could all be controlled remotely. Something that cannot be done with the likes of the Sony A7S, or even some of the larger cinema cameras. It could also enable better synching with motion control apparatus allowing lens functions to be controlled at precise times.
With a custom control system, this could all be rigged up to run via a phone or tablet app with an intuitive interface.
It isn’t 4K
True, this is still a 1080P camera. But let me put it this way. The Micro Cinema Camera is a fraction of the cost of many bigger cameras that are still stuck recording at 8-bit colour resolutions in highly compressed MPEG formats, even if they are 4K. You could buy roughly two GoPro Hero Black cameras for the price of the BMMCC, and while the former may have a waterproof case and record 4K, I can tell you right now that you will be much happier with the quality that comes out of the BMMCC.
The inexpensive price means that you should more than make the money back on it well before 4K becomes the established mainstream standard. At $995 (or around £750) for many types of production it is almost at the point of being disposable. Which I guess is the point.
The BMMCC would make a great addition to anyone's arsenal for specialist use. And for some who can work with its foibles it may make a great compact documentary or location camera. In some respects it is the camera that the BMPPC perhaps should have been. Even if you have a 4K workflow, for confined or risky areas it could still be a highly useful tool. The lack of a global shutter due to technical difficulties may be frustrating to some, but it is something that I can live with because the advantages of the BMMCC outweigh the disadvantages.
Technology has moved on even further since the BMMCC was first announced, and no doubt a 4K version with even better framerate capabilities will be in the embryonic stages. I can’t wait for that time, but in the meantime the current camera will come in highly useful.
As a side note to this review, the SLR Magic T1.6 12mm Hyperprime performed exceptionally well. It is extremely well built, and both the manual and iris controls feel very solid and smooth with absolutely zero play. I could highly recommend the range for use with a camera such as this.