First impressions of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K

Tips & Techniques

The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K attracted me the instant it was announced. I’d been looking at upgrading from my Nikons to something a little better suited to shooting video for a while and on paper it looked like the perfect solution. I’ve been in possession of one for a couple of weeks now, so I wanted to give you some of my initial thoughts about the camera and how I see it fitting into my workflow.

I started out shooting video with great big Sony DSR-500 broadcast cameras, and later Sony EX3 cameras. Boy, was I glad when DSLRs gained the ability to shoot video. Sure, it came with some caveats, and you needed to buy a bunch of extra crap to make them really useful, but it offered so many more creative options, and it was a much lighter overall setup than those big DSR-500s.

I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out a path to 4K, as all my DSLRs shoot 1080p. I was already considering the Panasonic GH5 when Sony announced the A7III. With only 8-bit footage, the Sony was something of a compromise vs the 10-bit that seemed to be coming to other brands. The A7III was suddenly in the lead, though, as I figured if I was investing that much, I wanted something that was “good enough” for video, but could potentially replace my Nikons for shooting stills, and I’d need full frame for that.

Then, Blackmagic came and surprised the world by announcing the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. A Micro Four Thirds camera, specifically designed for video that shoots 12-bit 4K DCI raw video at up to 60 frames per second. And 1080p raw at up to 120 frames per second. And I could actually get a pair of these for the price of a single Sony A7III (at least at UK prices).

Immediately, the other contenders ceased to be contenders. I have actually used both the GH5 and the A7III, and while both are very good, the advantages the Pocket 4K’s spec sheet offered, especially for the price, looked to be a much better deal. I figured I’ll just stick to my Nikons for regular stills photography.

I currently have a Pocket 4K on loan from Blackmagic in order to see how well it will fit into my workflow for both my personal work as well as that which I create for DIYP. I’ve not had it long so far, but I wanted to talk about some of my first impressions, coming from DSLRs & mirrorless cameras to the Pocket 4K.

What was in the box

The box of kit that I received from Blackmagic is not the standard retail box that consumers will buy. It came supplied with Angelbird UHS-II SD card, CFast 2.0 card & reader, as well as a Type-C USB SSD. Also included were the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 OIS lens, the Mini XLR adapter cable, an AC adapter, a 3rd party Canon LP-E6 compatible battery, and a charger for the aforementioned battery.

Normally, there’s no media included, no lens and no Mini XLR adapter cable. While there is an AC adapter and an LP-E6 compatible battery, there is no separate charger. You can charge the battery up in the camera using its Type-C socket, though – and it does charge fairly quickly.

On pulling the camera out of the box, I was surprised at how light it was for its size and appearance. I expected it to feel much heavier, like a heavy DSLR. It being light makes a lot of sense, though. There are vents all around the top and bottom of the camera, because a sensor pushing this kind of data can generate a lot of heat, and without some space inside the camera, there’s no way for the air to flow and keep it cool.

But beyond the weight is how it feels. Aside from the massive 5″ touchscreen LCD on the back, it looks and feels a lot like a regular DSLR or mirrorless camera. Except, it’s a little wider, not quite as tall, and it doesn’t have a hotshoe attachment. Instead, it has a 1/4-20″ socket.

That lack of a shoe is frustrating, as it means there’s nowhere to slot in my microphone without buying some accessories. The lack of any kind of articulation on the LCD is also potentially annoying. Fortunately, I have a couple of external monitors. The Feelworld FH7 and the new super bright Feelworld FW279 (review coming soon!). So that won’t be too much of a problem for most of what I need to do.

First use

My first use took a while because the battery arrived completely dead and I didn’t want to shoot indoors with the AC adapter. So, I put the battery on charge, waited a couple of hours, and then headed out the door.

The Panasonic 12-24mm f/2.8 lens I was using has optical image stabilisation built right in. So, on this first trip out, I didn’t take a tripod or any gimbals. I just grabbed the camera, the lens, and a little Joby Handypod and headed out my back door and into the woods.

I used the CFast 2.0 card for my first walk with the camera and spent around 40 minutes shooting various clips and familiarising myself with the settings and options. That 5″ touch screen LCD is a fantastic interface.

This camera came with firmware update 6.2 pre-installed. This means that CinemaDNG is gone, replaced by Blackmagic RAW. Blackmagic RAW is a sort of partially processed raw format which offers a lot more versatility in post than full baked 8 or 10-bit footage. It also uses potentially less storage space than ProRes at the same resolution depending on the compression level you shoot. It’s certainly smaller than shooting CinemaDNG, that’s for sure. And because a lot of the heavy lifting job of demosaicing has been done in-camera, it’s a little gentler on the computer requirements to work with it, too.

But shooting with it was much like shooting with any DSLR or mirrorless camera, really, except you have far fewer buttons getting in the way, and certain things happen automatically. Like, switching from 23.976fps to 120fps, the camera automatically adjusts my shutter speed to where it needs to be. And when I go back to 23.976fps, it automatically switches it back again. Yes, there’s no continuous autofocus, but I never use that with DSLRs or mirrorless anyway.

The optical image stabilisation built into the lens definitely helped when going minimalist handheld, but it’s certainly no substitute for an actual gimbal. It’s certainly good enough for those slow-motion b-roll shots, though. If you’re planning to use manual focus or adapted lenses, you’ll almost certainly want some kind of gimbal or shoulder rig with a follow focus wheel.

That giant LCD on the back is absolutely lovely to look at, even outdoors when it’s fairly bright. But only if you’re positioned directly behind it. The moment you want to get a low down shot, you’re going to have to lie on the ground with the camera, or you’ve no chance of really seeing what’s on the screen. This is quite frustrating because it can limit the shots you choose to take if you don’t have an external monitor with you – as I didn’t on this occasion.

Overall, it was simple to get to grips with, configuring the basics was a breeze, and there aren’t three million superfluous settings that you don’t really need. And I didn’t really even need to look at the manual. The camera I have did not come with a manual (yours should, in the regular retail packaging). I did find a link to download it, though and skimmed through that afterwards to see if I’d missed anything important.

Stuff you’ll want to buy

After taking it out and using it for the first time, I got to thinking about how I would use it in the real world on actual shoots.

For a start, there’s the battery life. Those little Canon LP-E6 batteries (and third-party equivalents) really don’t last very long. I didn’t want to buy a load of LP-E6 batteries, so I looked into other power options. An AC adapter comes with the Pocket 4K, and I tried to power it from my Novoo with that, but it just couldn’t put out enough watts. What I did find, though, was an NP-F battery adapter plate that offers a 7.4v output. Then I got a Canon LP-E6 dummy battery that I can plug into it. So, now I can use my 7200mAh NP-F batteries and get several hours of use from each one.

You’ll want to pick up some kind of hot/cold shoe adapter if you want to mount any kind of microphone or light on top of here. Instead of a flash shoe (because it’s a video camera, not a stills camera), the Pocket 4K has a 1/4-20″ socket. So, at the bare minimum, you’ll want to get a shoe to mount one device. Ideally, I’d recommend getting one of either the SmallRig or Tilta cages for the Pocket 4K, as it will offer a lot more versatility. If this Pocket 4K wasn’t a loaner, I’d have bought the cage already.

An external monitor. This is the main reason why you might want to get a cage instead of just a shot mount. If you want a monitor and a microphone, you’ll need more than one place to attach them. But an external monitor quickly becomes essential with the Pocket 4K depending on what you shoot. I have Feelworld FH7 and Feelworld FW279 (review coming soon) monitors here, although I think a 5″ monitor would be better suited out in the field. And ideally, something with the vectorscope and RGB Parade like the Atomos Shinobi. You could go for the Feelworld Master MA5 if you just want to check composition and focus without worrying about scopes, though.

You may want to buy some lens adapters, depending on what other lenses you already have in your kit. Most of mine are Nikon, so I bought a couple of Viltrox adapters. Both allow me to control the aperture with Nikon G type lenses that don’t have aperture rings. One is just a straight-through adapter, while the other is a 0.71x speed booster, offering me the equivalent of a 1.42x crop compared to “full frame” DSLRs & mirrorless cameras.

Other than that, the only things that don’t come in the box that you’ll need are storage. You might want to pick up an external SSD. I’ve got a Samsung T5 and the Angelbird SSD here, both of which work very well. But if you’re going with a minimalist rig, I’d recommend recording internally to CFast 2.0 or UHS-II SD cards.

The only thing I need to remember to do is to switch off the camera between takes if there’s a long gap. As I mentioned, the LCD is great when you’re standing behind it. But when you’re not, you can’t even tell that it’s turned on. So I’d set the camera aside waiting to get another shot, be distracted by something, and then 20 minutes later I’d go back to the camera, realise it was still on and a big chunk of the battery had disappeared. It’s not really a problem with the camera, just a workflow thing you’ll need to get used to.

Editing the footage

This is the first time I’ve really worked with a camera that has dual native ISO. Figuring out when to push that lowest ISO and when to step into the higher ISO range can be tricky at first. When shooting BRAW, you can tweak the ISO in post. If you shoot with any ISO on the lower native range, you can switch it between 100-1000 in Resolve. And if you’re using the higher ISO bracket, you can set it anywhere between 1250 and 6400.

Going to ISO1250 and forcing the higher range definitely looks a little cleaner than the lower range boosted to ISO1000. But you do lose a little dynamic range. Personally, despite a little drop in dynamic range, I haven’t found it to be much of an issue for the kinds of scenes I’m shooting – especially when I’ve got a polariser or variable ND over the lens helping to eliminate bright hotspot reflections.

Bringing the footage into DaVinci Resolve, it all looks quite good. There’s plenty enough shadow, highlight and colour information that I can correct all the clips to match each other fairly well. And boy, are they quick to work with. As mentioned earlier, the BRAW files are partially processed inside the camera. This means there’s less work for the software to do on the computer. Working with the files, even on my 2017 ASUS ZenBook Pro is rapid. It feels like I’m working with 1080p ProRes or DNxHD.

Even though BRAW files are currently only natively supported by DaVinci Resolve, there is a 3rd party plugin available for Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe Media Encoder. It’s called BRAW Studio and is available for both Windows and Mac, but it does cost $29.99 for each of the two plugins (they’re having a sale on for $21.75 each right now). The plugins use the Blackmagic BRAW API, so you can change all of the same import processing settings using the plugin that you can from within Resolve. This setup worked surprisingly well. I expected Premiere Pro to choke on these files, but it was actually very responsive.

One thing I haven’t really touched on much yet is audio. The Pocket 4K has internal microphones, but also options for plugging in external audio. Namely, a 3.5mm stereo socket and a mini XLR input. I haven’t tried external audio yet, but I did catch a bit of the internal sound, and it was very impressive. Unless you’re standing right in front of the camera in a fairly quiet environment, I probably still wouldn’t rely on it for a main audio source, but it’s easily clear enough for syncing in post.

Pros & Cons

So, this is just based on first impressions and might change, but let’s start with the pros…

  • Low cost – At around $1300, there’s pretty much nothing on the market that touches it if you want RAW footage
  • Dynamic range is great and the footage looks beautiful
  • Easily adaptable to other lens systems via adapters
  • Small and light, so it’s easy to carry around in a backpack
  • BRAW files are a dream to work with and place relatively low demands on your computer
  • It’s super easy to learn the UI and configure for your needs
  • The internal microphones are way better than I expected them to be

As for the cons, there’s only really two that leap out…

  • Battery life with the LP-E6 sucks
  • The LCD, while awesome, only looks good if you’re standing right behind it

Both of these can be solved by buying a couple of extra bits. Some kind of external power solution and an external monitor. You’re going to be spending an extra couple of hundred bucks to get around these issues, though, so do bear that in mind. If you’re only ever shooting in a studio, and the camera’s always locked off in the same position, then you can run off AC power and you can just hook it up to your TV or a computer monitor that supports HDMI to watch what comes on the screen.

Going forward…

So I still have plenty of tests and shooting to do with this camera, but so far I’m very impressed. I already have the two Viltrox adapters I bought, so I’m good on lenses (my Micro Four Thirds collection is not extensive, by any stretch of the imagination), I have a couple of external monitors, the Feelworld FH7 and FW279, and I’ve now sorted out an external power solution.

For connecting accessories like a microphone and external SSD, I’ve bought a couple of bits from SmallRig and made a 3D printed a solution that should help with that. And speaking of microphones, the Pocket 4K has both a stereo 3.5mm microphone jack like you’d find on most DSLRs or mirrorless cameras, but it also has a Mini XLR socket which is capable of supplying 48v phantom power. So, I’ll be doing a microphone comparison at some point to see how well they all work. I’m particularly interested to hear how it sounds with my Saramonic UwMic9 wireless lavs.

I also need to set this thing up on the Zhiyun Crane 3 LAB gimbal. I have a Crane 2 as well, although the camera’s a little wide for it. The Crane 2 would require some kind of adapter plate to offset the camera so that it fits. It should fit perfectly on the Crane 3 LAB, though, without having to buy any additional bits.

I can easily see it being a straight up drop-in replacement for filming videos at home or in studio settings for my own YouTube channel as well as for DIYP content. All I need for that is a camera and a lens. I have a screen to monitor the camera’s feed, and my audio is recorded externally with a Deity S-Mic 2 into a mixer and then my desktop. And with the BRAW Studio plugins, I can stick with a Premiere Pro workflow – although I am forcing myself to learn Resolve better!

For shooting out on location… This definitely isn’t a vlogging camera. It could potentially be made to work as one by adding an external monitor and a shoe for a microphone, but I fear it may ultimately prove too heavy and unbalanced to use regularly in that capacity. For other uses on location, whether interviews at a trade show, shooting b-roll at a client’s location or something a little more creative and cinematic, it should fit into my workflow quite nicely. It’ll probably even be easier and more efficient than using the Nikon & Sony cameras I use right now as it’s not cluttered up by all of the stills features and too many extra buttons.

I’m still tempted to buy either the SmallRig or Tilta cage. Even though this is a loaner unit, I do plan to buy a Pocket 4K at some point, so I’d have to buy a cage eventually, right? And getting the cage now would force me to follow through on buying the camera. See? It’s easy to justify spending money if you really want to – especially on things that are worth it.

Stay tuned, and I’ll have a more complete review of the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K coming soon.

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