Blackmagic sent me their brand new Micro Studio 4K camera but at first I didn’t know what to make of it. Clearly, it’s aimed at work-a-day pros capturing high-end live events (like, for example, Elton John’s “All the Hits” world tour). Which has nothing to do with me. I was about to send it back with a simple “I’m not the right person to review this -- for Chrissake, they’ve got a guy with a freakin’ soldering iron in the brochure to take advantage of a programmable port -- when I realized I was looking at a new branch of an older evolutionary tree: the modular camera system. Heck, I can write about THAT.
Never mind that Blackmagic’s new Micro Studio 4K camera is not dramatically larger than a GoPro (which makes it pretty dramatic, in point of fact). Never mind that it has a 4K-recording Super 16 sized sensor (the same one as in their much larger Studio Camera 4K) and micro 4/3 mount, a magnesium alloy body, battery or external power, SDI in and out, HDMI out, mic in, headphone out, and a customizable expansion port with the ability to remotely control camera settings, focus, aperture, zoom, and more.
Well, never mind if you’re not trying to figure out how to shoot a live event with interchangeable lens multi-cam 4K setup as close to a zero footprint as possible, at a price point that makes them practically disposable (not to you or me, but to the big boys).
The choices Blackmagic has made at every step of the way fairly scream “forget everything but what pros ACTUALLY need for live events.”
As in, for example:
· “We don’t need to stress about absolute widest dynamic range, because our target market will be shooting properly lit scenes with narrowed DR (pro sports, concerts, theater, etc., ergo no need for large photosites nor built-in ND).”
· “We don’t need to stress about ultimate low light noise (ditto on photosites for the very same reason).”
· “We don’t need to stress about megapixels and photosite size the same way we would if this were a hybrid stills camera relying on available light (these first three mean the Super 16 sensor is, as Rolls Royce used to say about horsepower years ago, "adequate").”
· “We DO want to be able to put it up in a drone or gimbal; we do want to be able to tuck into tight places; we might even be willing to let it be destroyed in pursuit of the moment."
· “We DO need to provide the most robust connections in the smallest form factor possible (ergo 6G SDI, and in fact 4K recording is available only through SDI rather than HDMI.)”
· “We DO need to provide maximum remote control capabilities, even including recording remotely in order to keep the package as small and robust as possible and not worry about fiddling with physical camera controls once the event is underway (ergo programmable port, no recording on board the camera directly, optional battery that slaps onto the back rather than inside).”
· “We DO need to worry about continuous recording (ergo, primary focus on external power and keeping everything cool by using an on-board fan and really big vents for such a small package and the option of attaching a single Canon battery externally for additional convection cooling if really needed).”
· “We DO need to worry about accessibility in tight situations (ergo, minimal external buttons, but those that are included are accessible from the lens side of the camera).”
It is a very precisely targeted list, with well thought-out use cases.
But these choices are most interesting to me for a very different reason: you’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration than this camera of the changing boundaries among software, hardware and chemistry in image-making, nor a clearer indication of where things ought to be headed.
Sure, Let’s Start with the GoPro
It seems clear to me that the GoPro Hero was an inspiration for the Micro Studio 4K Camera -- but then again, that's me and I'm not privy to Blackmagic's inner working. Still, it's an easy jump to think of the Micro Studio 4K as a professional GoPro Hero4 Black (which is to take nothing away from the professional athletes and DPs who use GoPros, let alone the extraordinarily gifted athletes who don’t bother with labels and just do amazing things – the Micro Studio is designed to go longer with more options). In both cases:
· Neither can be made meaningfully smaller (today) without losing functions each company deems vital.
· They eschew built-in viewfinders and LCDs, opting instead for remote operation and/or add-on components (in the case of the GoPro, a wireless connection to a smartphone app.
· They rely on as few physical buttons as possible.
· They are, based on price, ultimately disposable in service of the shot (though I think this more relevant to the Micro Studio’s twin Micro Cinema.
But Really, Let’s Talk About the Hasselblad 500C
The first revolutionary camera that comes to my mind which separated lens, viewer and image capture from body is the legendary Hasselblad 500 C.
Or, in this case and for purposes of illustration courtesy of the good folks at KEH (an outstanding source for used camera and lenses) its later variant the 500C/M.
Of course, your mileage may vary.
But think about it:
· The Hassy uses interchangeable lenses. Check: the Micro Studio 4K uses MFT or (with adapter) B4 lenses.
· The Hassy uses quick-changing film backs. Partial check: the Micro Studio 4K uses SDXC cards inside Blackmagic’s Video Assist (1080p only) or solid state drives in other third party recorders like the Atomos Ninja Assassin (also 1080p only via HDMI), the Atomos Shogun, Convergent’s Odyssey 7Q+, or Atomos’ just-announced Ninja Flame and Shogun Flame. Still, the actual sensor itself is still inside the body and cannot be changed.
· The Hassy uses quick-changing viewfinders like the standard waist level and angled prism finders. Check: those recorders I just mentioned as anyone reading this piece knows do double duty as beautiful field monitors. Hmm…can the Micro twins be used with Blackmagic’s new viewfinder? Have to ask about that…
I can’t think of another video camera nearly as small or inexpensive which checks as many boxes (RED cameras are vastly more expensive -- as well they should be -- and while the latest does boast interchangeable optical low pass filters, as far as I know the sensors themselves are not swappable.).
Let’s take a moment to get to the Micro Studio Camera 4K itself.
Yes, I Opened the Box, Popped on a Lens, Attached the LANC, and Hooked Up a Couple of Monitor/Recorders
Full confession: I wasn’t all that interested in exploring the image quality on this camera because I think those of you who follow Blackmagic already know it: as I wrote above the Micro Studio 4K uses the same 13.056 x 7.344 mm sensor found in Blackmagic’s own Studio Camera 4K. Looks to me like Blackmagic has updated its line by shrinking and modularizing the Studio Camera 4K and calling it the Micro Studio 4K.
And – forgive me -- in the tightly controlled and properly lit environments for which it is intended I have no doubt the IQ would be just fine. More than fine: lovely.
Yes, I attached an Olympus M.Zuiko ED 12-50mm F3.5-6.3 EZ power zoom lens to it. The lens didn’t rock me ergonomically nor by specification (I prefer fast primes for what I do), but it’s economical, plenty sharp for purpose, and did the business (put differently: in combination with the camera, it was lovely, too).
Yes, I connected an Atomos Ninja Assassin via HDMI, and fell in love with the Assassin all over again with its big, bright and sharp 7” screen, flexible focus and exposure assists and user interface – but it was way too big for this camera, and as it’s HDMI only, wouldn’t allow me to record 4K.
Yes, I connected Blackmagic’s own Video Assist, and…wait a minute, I really liked it.
· very compact
· built like a brick
· full 1920 x 1080 5” touch capacitive screen
· full-sized HDMI in and out ports
· mic jack
· headphone jack
· SDXC card slot and the ability to record 1080p ProRes 422 HQ, ProRes 422, ProRes LT, ProRes Proxy, Avid DNxHD
· 10-bit, 4:2:2
· multiple mounting points
· dual power (AC, or via a pair of Canon-style batteries)
· compact price ($495)
· only 1080p, only up to 60 fps
· rudimentary exposure and focus assists
· SDXC only (no SSD option)
· The combination of the five physical buttons on the camera itself plus touch screen menu system feels less than fully sorted (I found myself down a rabbit hole more than once and wished the assists were more directly accessible).
Add a custom, form-fitting cage and a truly excellent grip (and address the aforementioned cons) and whoa -- what a rig (too bad their new viewfinder requires regularly sized SDI connections)!
Or: hook it up to something like a Sony a6000 [B&H|Amazon] . In some ways, this is an ideal matchup: more compact (5" vs. 7" for a Ninja Assassin), and no worries that it doesn't record in 4K nor have high frame rates - neither does the a6000.
But let’s get back to what makes this camera an evolutionary milestone – and a big opportunity for Blackmagic… and others.
Back to the Future
Back in the day (the 1950s), photographers used interchangeable film backs (and DPs film canisters) for physical image capture (different emulsions offered the photographer the choice of color or black and white, negative or reversal, with ISOs and related grain structures ranging from 25 or so up to 400).
Now, that function has been turned over to digital sensors, magnetic media and software.
With that move away from chemistry to hardware and software, the imaging business has been riding Moore’s law with wildly accelerated improvements in resolution, dynamic range, low-light sensitivity, noise, lens correction, and higher frame rates.
It’s about to get even wilder with multiple lens/sensor units stitched together by software within the same camera body. You’ll be able to have vastly smaller camera/lens combinations and even be able to dial in the kind of bokeh you want (stay tuned to the second half of 2016, especially in the smartphone segment).
Don’t even get me started on what this means for bringing down the barrier to entry for virtual reality filmmaking.
For consumers and pros alike, this new normal has meant facing the prospect of either choosing to be happy with what you have (a pretty good idea), or going through expensive upgrade cycles every couple of years, heck – every year. Yet in the broadcast world, corporate customers are pushing back and at least one vendor I know now offers a resolution upgrade path at the circuit board level as a way to protect their customers’ existing investments.
I expect to see (maybe I’d simply like to see) more granular modularity so that even sensors themselves can be swapped out, truly achieving the level of modularity represented by the 500 C/M and the competitors it inspired like the Rollei 6000 series and my personal medium format favorite the Contax 645.
The Blackmagic Micro twins aren’t there yet, but they’re the closest I’ve seen with the exception of the vastly larger and more expensive RED lineup (they don’t have interchangeable sensors either, but they do offer swappable optical low pass filters).
Oh, wait a minute: the Micros' big brother the URSA has a user upgradeable sensor, and even a swappable lens mount....Hmmm....
You know what’s REALLY intriguing?
With Blackmagic’s foray into modularity in the video business and newly-installed Hasselblad CEO Perry Oosting calling for a return to Hasselblad’s roots, would it really be that far-fetched to assert there could be an amazing collaboration between Hasselblad and Blackmagic?
'Hasselblad has core strengths in design, in optics, in software and in intuitive handling – and in combining those elements to make great products. I want us to really focus on those strengths, to go back to our core and to make the most of the expertise that exists in this company.” – Hasselblad CEO Perry Oosting (from interview with DPReview, June 25, 2015)
Sounds just like what Blackmagic needs to raise its profile in the image acquisition game. It also seems to me that Blackmagic is in a space that could be a huge new opportunity for Hasselblad.
And, come to think of it, yet another opportunity for Sony’s sensor business, with which Hasselblad has more than a passing familiarity.
Wouldn’t that be something?
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Product photos courtesy of the manufacturer; all others by Hugh Brownstone copyright 2016 Three Blind Men and an Elephant