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Review: Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

If you're currently dealing with a two-piece system with an external recorder, or looking at a DSLR solution but find long-GoP MPEG recording to be too heavy-handed with the compression, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K deserves your attention.

Getting beautiful 4K footage is now even more affordable with the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K (Figure 1, below). If you're currently dealing with a two-piece system with an external recorder, or looking at a DSLR solution but find long-GoP MPEG recording to be too heavy-handed with the compression, the Pocket Cinema Camera 4K deserves your attention.

Figure 1. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

(The camera’s name is a mouthful, so henceforth I’ll refer to it as the P4K.)

The Market

Having used the Panasonic GH4 to shoot 4K almost since it became readily available in 2014, I have loved having all that extra resolution to punch in on the image, reframe, stabilize, do smooth zooms, and more--and still deliver full HD. The Achilles heel of DSLR footage, however, is the heavy compression. Even at 100 Mbps the dark areas in Panasonic's 4K have considerable macroblocking. 400 Mbps of all I-frame doesn't help any. Not to mention the reduced color space that makes it a challenge to "fix" images that aren't captured perfectly.

The solution for the Panasonic, almost every DSLR, and even some large-sensor camcorders, is an external monitor/recorder that offers higher-bitrate codecs, bigger storage--like SSDs or even HDDs—and better image assessment. All of that helps you to have a much better deliverable.

What if there were a DSLR-sized camcorder that offered a reasonably larger-than-1" sensor, interchangeable lenses, and a reasonably sized monitor, and used the same high-quality recording as the external monitor/recorders? In a nutshell, that's the P4K.

DSLRs that shoot good video start just under $2,000 and go well beyond that depending on the model you choose. Then you need to price in the external monitor/recorder for the high-quality recording which can add another $700, $1000, or more depending on size and features. With a street price of $1,295 the P4K is already a great value. Consider also that it includes a $299 DaVinci Resolve Studio license, which brings down the net camera price to about $999. That's just an amazing price point.

The P4K

I had an opportunity to handle the pre-release model at NAB 2018, and just before NAB 2019, I received a review model on loan for two weeks to put it to use and give my impressions before having to return it to the PR pool at Blackmagic Design. But in this short time, I have some very definitive takeaways.

This camera delivers what I hoped it would: 4K images free from the compression artifacts that I deal with on a daily basis with my GH4. I don't need an external recorder to get higher-quality compression or RAW recording options. The P4K takes both UHS-II SDXC cards and CFast cards so I can choose my media (Figure 2, below). I can even use external SSD media over USBc, offering better cost savings on media, at the expense of dealing with external attachments.

Figure 2. Recording media options

The P4K is purpose-built for video and it makes using the P4K much easier than I expected, coming from a very fast and fluid DSLR workflow. The touchscreen is responsive, the menu clean, and the most used features are right in front of me or can be put a button press away. Kudos to Blackmagic Design. They've been doing this long enough now that they can take the refinements from other systems, apply it to something brand new, and it feels well done right out of the box.

In fact, v.6.1 of the firmware came out while I was testing the camera and it addressed several issues we were having. So, the P4K is actively moving forward with development, refinement, bug quashes, and new features. One of the most hotly awaited features, I'm sure, is BMD RAW, which lowers the data requirements for RAW, makes it more media management-friendly, and even lowers the overhead in post by debayering the image in camera. Something very exciting to look forward to.

Design

The P4K is like a DSLR in some ways, but in other ways it's not. I consider the P4K Blackmagic's first attempt at a real DSLR-type camera, since the original Pocket was a very tiny little thing. The grip is a little small to me. My hands aren't big and there's a gap in the palm of my hand where more grip, and more battery, would be welcome. More on that in a bit.

The P4k has direct access buttons to ISO, shutter, and white balance (Figure 3, below). There’s no aperture button because that's currently mapped to the single dial under the shutter. Unlike a DSLR that offers two dials--one of them the shutter--with the ability to map them where you like and change operational directions, the P4K offers no dial customizability at this point.

Figure 3. Direct access buttons to ISO, shutter (S), and white balance (WB)

When you select one of the adjustment buttons, or touch something on the screen, the dial adjusts that parameter. I requested that a future update instead let the user map shutter or ISO to the dial.

Because ramping the aperture completely changes the look of the shot, I can't imagine any reason someone would need to flick their finger and go from an f/1.2 to f/11. But if you're doing talking-head stuff, and the sun is going in and out of cloud cover, it's much less visible to roll that dial to compensate for the dramatic lighting change with a shutter speed ramp, or an ISO ramp--especially since the P4K has a dual native ISO. As a result, going up to 3200 on the P4K looks dramatically better than on my GH4.

This particular instance of user assignability is critical because, when you bring up Shutter, or Aperture, or ISO control on the rear display, you lose the ability to see the histogram. By making us select shutter speed, we lose the ability to assess exposure with the histogram. That makes no sense. If you just use the front dial to adjust the aperture, then you can continue to see the histogram. But selecting something, via button or screen touch, brings up an overlay that hides the very meter you need to see to assess the adjustments you're making. I hope a future update fixes this oversight.

Three user buttons let you map some features you use most, from a select set that BMD provides. The back buttons provide quick access to the menu, playback, punch-in for focus, quick-change to a high frame rate setting--like 120fps HD--and back, plus two buttons for quick auto focus and auto aperture, neither of which I used. I don't understand auto aperture when there are less "shot altering" ways to adjust exposure. For auto focus, I touched the screen so it would focus on what I wanted it to, and not something in the far background.

BMD touts a super-bright touchscreen. However, outdoors I found it hard to see when I was recording because the screen reflected the sky, and there's no LED tally for recording in the back of the camera--only onscreen recording indicators (Figure 4, below). There's no beep for start & stop (something my DSLR has), and no beep for focus confirmation. These are things I rely on in fast-moving production situations.

Figure 4. Outdoors, the touchscreen reflected the sky

The P4K shows focusing with blinking brackets that then vanish--that is, if you could see the screen outside. I had to trust that I was getting the shot. It could try to focus, fail, give up, and I'd never know. In lieu of a missing LED tally on the back, the P4K needs more audio feedback of operations being started and completed. That can be added via firmware.

I didn't want to bring my Shogun Inferno, which I know I can see outside, because that's the whole point (to me) of putting high-quality recording codecs in the camera: to ditch the external devices. But in bright or challenging situations, I can definitely see a need for a brighter monitor or even an EVF connected to the P4K's full-size HDMI port.

The P4K lacks a hot/cold shoe on top, and every accessory I have for my DLSR is set up for that, so I had to add a screw-on shoe (Figure 5, below). Unfortunately, the P4K lacks the extra pin hole to keep a shoe or nato rail from spinning around unless you really tighten it down hard. There's also a 1/4-20 threaded hole on the bottom.

Figure 5. I had to add a screw-on shoe to mount accessories on the P4K.

Related Articles
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