I just wrapped a 2 week shoot with Digital Paradigm where I was the Director of Photography on a promotional series for the Skin Cancer and Cosmetic Dermatology Center. As with every project I take on, the choice of camera is very important. After weighing the options and constraining factors, I decided that the Blackmagic URSA 4K was the best camera for our budget.
Having used the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera two years prior, I was excited to see how the company had improved their offerings.
The major persuading factors for me selecting the URSA were:
Wide dynamic range
Blackmagic claims 12 stops for the URSA 4K (15 stops on their new 4.6K sensor) and I was pleased with the results. I was able to use the natural light from a large window as background/ambient fill for my interview setup without blowing it out.
Having the RAW image data is a life saver when it comes to color temperature, which can be exceedingly difficult to manage in corporate office environments where less than flattering fluorescent light is the norm. Having the additional room in post to preserve skin tones was a big plus.
I acknowledge that this point is very subjective. To me, the images the URSA produced felt very organic—as opposed to the sterile, harshly digital feel of some other cameras. I was especially pleased with the way that the URSA handled skin tones and mixed color temperatures.
The URSA does up to 80fps, which was plenty for my desired subtle use. If you're looking for stop-in-your-tracks slowmotion, you'll need to look at other camera solutions.
4K resolution (the new 4.6K sensor was not yet available)
Because of my limited lens options and that the final product would be in 1080p, having the additional resolution for cropping possibilities was an added benefit.
This was a major concern with Blackmagic's earlier cameras. With the URSA, the company seems to have put a lot of thought into ergonomics and usability, especially right out of the box.
Because of the money saved on the camera choice, I was able to invest in more lighting and a better lens package, as well as adding the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera as a B Cam.
After using the camera for two weeks, I was really able to appreciate how nicely each aspect of The URSA is designed and laid out.
The first thing you'll notice are the 3 fairly large screens. The main display (coming in at 10.1") has been mockingly referred to as "a tacked on iPad." However, I think this is a situation where you can't knock it till you try it. I loved being able to view my shots at that size and in full 1080p. It also felt much more immersive while operating than a typical 5" display.
Unfortunately, the screen alone is not bright enough for harsh, direct sunlit conditions and you will need to plan accordingly.
The two smaller (touchscreen) displays can cycle through showing the settings menu, a recording info display, or a monitor feed. This can eliminate the need for an additional monitor, and having one on the dumb side of the camera allows for an AC to make quick adjustments, determine focus, or even allow the boom op to quickly check the shot framing.
The layout of the recording info display is one of my favorite aspects of the URSA. Cleanly laid out is a large timecode that is easily read at a glance (for example, by an interviewer gauging how much time has passed), a large histogram, audio levels, recording format information (roll, color temperature, fps, shutter angle, compression rate, resolution), and my favorite: two bar graphs depicting each CFast card and the clips they contain, with remaining space at the end.
It's a lot of info for one screen and yet it tells you exactly what you need to know with just a glance. Simple, smart design.
The top of the camera is full of screw holes allowing for several further accessories. I gladly adjusted the top handle to optimal position.
All of the ports are easily accessible and don't get in the way when operating the camera or with several cables hooked up. The ease with which I connected a feed for video village or AC power seems so simple it should be a given, but when compared with other cameras (I'm looking at you RED), the URSA shines in this department.
When we had to use on-board audio (more on that later), the two large VU meters made monitoring levels a breeze and the physical adjustment knobs were another nice surprise.
As I mentioned earlier, skin tone reproduction, good color science, and high dynamic range were important for me and I think the URSA delivered great results. Image quality can be subjective, but the natural, vibrant colors and clean skin tones really made me happy.
I won't delve in to the camera's tech specs, but the global shutter and native ISO 400 are two aspects that should be addressed. The global shutter is lovely—no jellocam, movements felt much more fluid, etc. The native ISO 400 took a little getting used to, as many cameras today are native ISO 800. Just meter your scene and make sure you're using enough light and you'll be fine. Even if you have to push the image a bit as a result, I found the digital noise or "grain" structure from the URSA to be quite pleasing—no bright harsh pixels or busy noise here.
The images below are straight out of camera with the standard REC709 LUT applied—no other adjustments.
At one point during the shoot, we were about to record an interview only to realize that our Zoom H6 Audio Recorder was out with the B-unit. Taking a plunge into the unknown, we ran audio through the URSA's built in inputs. The full size XLR ports were great (no need for an adapter as with many other cameras) and as I mentioned earlier, the large VU meters are both pretty and functional. While the URSA preamps weren't as strong as the H6's, (I would say they were about 3/4 as loud), they were surprisingly noise-free. So, if you're looking to go single system sound, the URSA is a good option but I still prefer using an external recorder.
The Carl Zeiss CZ.2 28-80mm T2.9 was my primary lens for the shoot. When working on commercial projects I've found that having a zoom lens allows me to adapt to the often run-and-gun style required by these environments.
We got one of the new Anton Bauer batteries (along with several older ones), and we all strongly disliked the new design. It's bulkier, has an odd shape, and had a smaller capacity than the old ones.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Redrock Micro matte box and it's swing away design. I also appreciated that the filter trays accommodated multiple filter sizes.
For lighting I used two KinoFlo Diva Lites, and an ARRI field kit containing a 650W, 350W, and 150W fresnel light.
For camera support we used a Manfrotto tripod and a Dana Dolly as well as the ocassional handheld shot.
Things to be aware of before you decide
This camera is heavy. I mean surprisingly heavy. Body only, it weighs 16.5 pounds, but once we added the lens and everything else the camera ended up weighing just over 30 pounds.
CFast Cards and Formatting Issues
As wonderfully fast and spacious as CFast cards are, they aren't exactly cheap yet. We used two Lexar Professional 256GB 3400x cards which are nearly $700 each. Thankfully, the industry seems to be embracing them, so we should be seeing some price drops soon. Also, not all CFast cards will work with the URSA, so be sure to check Blackmagic's list of approved cards beforehand.
Also, please be aware of serious issues when formatting your card using HFS+. You should format using exFAT if you want to avoid data loss. Thankfully, I discovered this early on in tests but I wish Blackmagic were more forthcoming about it. Better yet, they should remove the HFS+ formatting option entirely until they've resolved the issue.
Shooting RAW comes at a cost. It takes up a lot of space! Thankfully, the URSA provides a slight compression option (3:1 ratio) but that's better than no compression at all—which is what you're stuck with if you choose an older Blackmagic camera.
The URSA is manufactured by Blackmagic Design, and they have generously bundled it with the full version of their renowned DaVinci Resolve software. This allows for a wonderful color correction workflow. However, be advised that the 3:1 RAW compression setting is proprietary, meaning that the files are only readable using DaVinci Resolve. In order to bring the footage in to your NLE of choice, you need to first create proxies. This can take several hours, so be sure to anticipate the additional time. If you choose to shoot in Uncompressed RAW or ProRes HQ (as we did with our B Cam) then those files are ready to go for the edit.
The Blackmagic URSA is a great choice for many projects and is a major improvement over Blackmagic's earlier offerings.
To briefly recap, here's a quick pro and con list:
- Beautiful image
- Global shutter
- 4K RAW or ProRes HQ
- Decent single system sound option
- Extremely quiet and well cooled
- Weight (16.5 lb body only)
- LCD not bright enough for harsh sunlight
- RAW data is storage-intensive
- CFast cards are expensive (but prices are falling)
I hope you found this review helpful. If you have any other questions please leave a comment below!
A big thank you to Niki Penola for the beautiful on-set photography.