Fstoppers just did a cool review on the Camera we are now using for all of our background shooting. Read the original article here.
Blackmagic sent me one of their 4.6K URSA Mini Cinema Cameras to play with, and after just a few short days of messing around with it, the URSA Mini certainly made an impression. A RAW, 16-bit, 4608 pixel-wide impression to be specific. In short, this camera system is a beast, and comes at a price point that is very attractive.
To bring you up to speed on this particular camera system, let me briefly digress about the Blackmagic camera lineup. (If you’re on top of this, then skip ahead to the next section.)
Blackmagic Design has a range of video camera systems that include their Cinema Camera, originally released in 2012. Since then, we’ve seen them release the smaller Pocket Cinema Camera, and in 2014 a high-end system known as the URSA was added to their lineup. A scaled down version of the URSA known as the URSA Mini 4K came out later, with a 4.6K model taking a bit longer to ship due to delays in implementing a global shutter, which was eventually omitted in the final release.
The URSA Mini with 4.6K sensor is the version that I received to review, and while it looks the same on the outside as the 4K model, the sensor that is underneath the hood is quite different.
The 4.6K Sensor and other Specs
The big deal about this camera is the resolution and dynamic range. It can capture 4608 x 2592 pixels (larger than Cinema 4K resolution) with its Super35 sized sensor. When recording in RAW, you can capture as much as 15 stops of dynamic range, which is incredible for a $5,000 system. It can record up to 60fps at 4.6K and 120fps at 1080p, and comes in options for either PL and Canon EF mounts. When recording in CinemaDNG RAW, the image is 16-bit, and other formats are 12-bit. Those other formats include ProRes 444 XQ, 444, 422 HQ, 422, 422 LT, and Proxy.
Ok, enough about what this camera is on paper. If you want to know more of that stuff, just read the specs on Blackmagic’s site. Now on to my actual review.
Batteries and Media
After receiving the URSA Mini 4.6K, I had only a few days and no crew to take the camera on a test drive. My URSA came with a V-mount plate, and I don’t use V-mounts, so I had to scramble to find some locally. The same thing went for the memory cards, as I had to borrow CFast cards from a friend. This was kind of a reality check for getting into this system– you should expect to spend a few thousand dollars on media and batteries if you don’t already own them, as neither are cheap. Oh and don’t forget a card reader! I got about two hours of use out of a large V-mount battery, with some room to spare. Recording times vary wildly based on the size of your card and the resolution/codec you shoot, as data rates for 4.6K RAW go from 513MB/s (uncompressed) to 135MB/s (4:1 compression).
Setup and Ergonomics
My first shoot was in the field, near some hiking trails and climbing walls. At home I packed up my kit with being mobile in mind, as I'd need to carry 30lbs of climbing gear in addition to the camera kit. I had a hard time deciding how to pack it, since the camera is pretty large, relatively speaking (it’s larger than an FS7/FS700 and notably heavier once you add a battery and lens). What I found was that having the option to remove the viewfinder and side grip allowed me to pack it into a large backpack (this Lowepro Pro Trekker 650), and then build the camera on site, which worked out just fine.
A key word that I might use a few times in this review is versatility. This camera is easily configured to work well for a single operator, but can be built up to be used in a large crew setting and would fit right in on a film shoot. In my case, I’d be flying solo and using this camera handheld, operating it from the top handle as well as from the shoulder.
The shoulder mount, top handle, side grip, and viewfinder are all removable in the field, which is awesome, but my complaint is that you need three different tools – a flathead screwdriver and two different sized hex keys.
The large flip out LCD is huge, and works well when holding from the top handle. When shooting from the shoulder, an extension arm mounts the side grip and it balances nicely, while the viewfinder is adjustable to your eye.
I found the menu system to be easy to navigate, however the touchscreen access is both a blessing and a curse. The large LCD presents the menu beautifully, and the touch screen action is responsive. What’s not great is that when operating on your shoulder, if you want to change a setting, you’ve got to lower the camera and tap the LCD to change pretty much every important recording setting. Those settings include your iris, ISO, shutter angle, white balance, and more.
The side grip does have three buttons, one each for start/stop, auto exposure and auto focus, but it really needs to have roller for your aperture, and a menu button with a small joystick so that you can easily jump into the menu while operating from the shoulder. (The camera can be controlled by third-party LANC controllers, so you attach one of those if you’d like.)
Holding the URSA by the LCD and the side grip for run and gun shooting worked well enough, but it gets heavy after a while. The LCD is bright and looks great– it's certainly bigger when compared to other video cameras with small LCD/EVF combo screens.
There are two function buttons on the outside of the LCD screen, which can be mapped to control iris, shutter, WB, ISO, or FPS, or toggle color bars or a LUT display. This is a great shortcut, but I still felt a bit handicapped while operating from the shoulder. A few custom function buttons aren't enough to replace a handful of physical switches or dials for settings that need changed constantly, and can be done so without moving the camera away from your body.
The URSA Mini 4.6K can shoot in a ‘Film’ mode, which is a log image, a flat, low contrast look that is meant to be graded in post, in order to get as much usable dynamic range as possible. (There is a built in Rec709, labeled as ‘Video’ mode.) When shooting in the film setting, the image you’ll see is washed out, as it should be, and exposing your image properly can be tricky. Using zebra stripes seemed to be the biggest help for me in keeping an eye on my highlights, but even still, I incorrectly exposed a few shots. What I learned was that when recording in ProRes, you’ve got to protect your highlights, even when shooting with the film setting. There’s a good amount of dynamic range but you can’t save highlights in ProRes like you can in RAW, so being able to judge your exposure while shooting is crucial. Besides zebra stripes, there is a histogram at the bottom of the screen.
There are customizable peaking and digital zoom functions that are helpful for nailing focus. Audio meters, card and battery indicator, image overlays and more can be seen on both the LCD and viewfinder.
Speaking of focus, autofocus does work with AF-equipped Canon-mount lenses, and it seems accurate for locking in focus, but keep in mind that it’s not a constant AF so you will still have to manually track focus on moving objects.
Audio, Ports, and Mounting
The URSA Mini has two XLR inputs on the top side, with physical dial controls inside the LCD panel and other options in the menu. While there is a built-in mic, I wanted to use a short shotgun mic during my shoots. I quickly realized that I couldn’t mount one properly as there is no cold-shoe mount. Be sure to pick up an accessory like this cold shoe adapter, as there are plenty of ¼”-20 threads to use.
While the XLR ports have a nice rubber cover over them, rear ports for power and video in/out are all exposed. Why don't these have covers as well? If you shoot outdoors a lot, expect to get dust and dirt in these if you don't fashion your own DIY cover for these.
Users who are new to Blackmagic cameras might be confused when they see the ISO options offered on the URSA Mini. You’ll get 200, 400, 800, and 1600. That’s it. According to the manual, “the optimum ISO is 800,” which is how you get the most dynamic range possible. Rather than offer higher ISO options for low light situations, it would seem that you should use faster lenses or shoot in RAW and increase your exposure in post, as when I asked why there weren’t more ISO options, Blackmagic told me this:
The challenge with pushing the ISO on any camera is that you will start to introduce noise on the image. On many other 'video' cameras this isn’t as much of a problem because they are often compensated by noise reduction in the camera. This often is not noticed greatly because of the compression algorithms used by these devices. However, Blackmagic Design’s cameras want to have the ability to shoot RAW or lightly compressed files (relatively speaking) like ProRes. Ultimately we chose to limit the ISO settings to where we felt there wasn’t a need to have noise reduction in camera as that would have really compromised the theory of shooting RAW files.
I kept a close eye on how the camera performed while I used it, and at no point did the camera fail on me. I didn't notice any odd color shifts or weird ISO noise patterns. I did however encounter two minor bugs. First, the ISO displayed on my viewfinder didn’t match my setting in the menu – I changed it three times before it finally took. Then, my viewfinder image would randomly fade out, even while I was recording! I mentioned this to BM, and they suggested that the proximity sensor made it fade out, so it's possible that this was user error, but to prevent it from happening it's recommended to put tape over the proximity sensor.
Footage in Post
How the camera handles aside, the footage is fantastic, and it’s great to have the option to recording in multiple flavors of ProRes for when you don’t need to capture in RAW. I found myself shooting in ProRes LT or 422 most often, still getting a sharp image with a wide range. According to a Blackmagic rep I spoke to, you get somewhere between 13 and 14 stops of dynamic range when recording with the film setting, even on ProRes. I switched over to RAW recording for a few select low light and high-contrast scenes.
Here are two of the same edits of footage. The first is ungraded, the second used the Blackmagic 4K Film to Video V3 3D LUT preset available in Resolve. A few clips were shot in RAW, but the bulk of the clips were shot in ProRes, all handheld, in varying light conditions outside.
What I liked:
- Incredible dynamic range
- Lots of hardware configurations to use on shoulder, cradled, on a tripod, etc.
- Nice looking menu and lots of recording format options
- Very affordable, even with accessories
What Could be Improved:
- I wish it had built-in ND
- Side grip would really benefit from an aperture dial
- The ability to flip the LCD all of the way around would be great
- A few more buttons or switches in key places, like inside the LCD and on the side grip
The URSA Mini 4.6K is a beast of a camera. The image is SO good. It’s very versatile and can fit right in on a proper film shoot, or work in the field with a 1-2 person team for run and gun type projects. The dynamic range and resolution are killer, but you don’t have to shoot RAW or in 4.6K if you don’t want to. If capturing the best image possible matters to you, then seriously consider checking out the URSA Mini 4.6K for your next shoot– just give yourself some time to learn how to use it properly.