Industry heavyweight

Harvey Glen with the Blackmagic URSA.
Harvey Glen with the Blackmagic URSA.

Our resident DoP Harvey Glen tests the Blackmagic URSA and gives us his verdict on the camera’s performance  

Blackmagic’s URSA camera was hotly anticipated when it was announced at NAB last year, primarily because it seemed to offer a lot of features for a very affordable price range of $5,000.

With a 4K (4000 x 2160) 80FPS RAW 3:1, a 4K (3840 x 2160 UHD) 80FPS ProRes HQ (or lower), and a 12-bit RGB ProRes 4444 (up to 60FPS in UHD and 80FPS in 1080 HD), this camera looked great on paper and the best at that price point.

All very impressive! Since the initial release, Blackmagic Design has introduced a number of upgrades to the camera. I was given the EF mount 4K version of the URSA and tested it on a variety of different shoots.

Let’s begin with the form. It does look like a real camera with a built-in handle, a very large 10-inch LCD screen (which I’ll get to later), space for two CFast 2.0 slots, two XLR inputs, SDI IN and OUT, TC IN and OUT, and an interchangeable turret, which ensures you can upgrade the sensor whenever needed to keep up with the ever-changing technology.

The first striking thing about this camera is its weight, which is around 7.5kg (without lens or accessories). Quite heavy for a handheld camera, but to put this in perspective, the Alexa XT is heavier at almost 8kg. However, there is a key difference in the segments of the market the two cameras address.

The URSA is low-cost and thus, more likely to be bought and used by people who have grown up shooting on DSLR cameras – which means the weight might be a deterrent. They are simply not used to filming with bulky, heavy cameras and tend not to have any assistants, let alone the grips and grip support that you would find on a typical Alexa shoot (the ARRI Alexa is currently the camera of choice for higher-end shoots). Have a look at the Oscar winners: the Alexa is used by many Hollywood DoPs.

Once you get over the weight issues, the next striking attribute about the URSA is its large 10-inch, flip-out LCD screen – there’s no denying it’s big! With the previous Blackmagic cameras, one of the biggest critiques was not being able to see clearly the image. However, with this beauty you can; even in bright daylight, it’s decent. Initially, I thought it might be easily damaged or snapped off the hinge, but it’s robust, sturdy and views well off-angle, with decent contrast.

It’s a little tricky to use it on the shoulder, as the screen is so large that you can’t see around it easily. I’m a big fan of viewfinders – that way you can choose to open or close your left eye to survey what’s happening in the scene. Blackmagic has released a viewfinder as an additional accessory with the camera; sadly, I didn’t have it to test.

The camera menu is easy to navigate and you can choose user preferences to display on the LCD, such as waveform, focus peaking, zebras, audio metering – all the tools you would expect from a professional camera – and these can all be displayed on the three screens on the camera.

Yes, another striking feature of this camera is its three screens: the main LCD, an internal LCD and a dumb-side screen. Just like the Alexa, the URSA has a ‘dumb side’ so that assistants and sound recordists can easily access the menu without getting on top of the camera operator.

Even the camera’s image can simply be pulled up by pressing the display button on the internal and external LCDs. This is a very useful feature for a director who doesn’t like to carry a monitor or sound recorder to check the shot’s size. On the dumb side, you can also add a slate with the name of the project, the take number, notes and so on. These are stored in the metadata, which might come in handy for post, especially for VFX shots.

The fact that you can record RAW in 4K at 3:1 makes it an ideal camera for high-end green screen and VFX work.

Sound recordists will be happy, as the URSA’s internal audio functions work well, something that many cine-style cameras bypass. It has XLR inputs and bright metering levels that can easily be seen from a distance, and physical audio pots are not buried deep in the menu. The camera is also handy for ‘one-man bands’ recording their own sound, with the option to clearly view the levels on the LCD.

The URSA doesn’t come with a standard shoulder pad, and you may need to buy one. It has a global shutter, so you don’t need to worry about any image wobble. Like the ARRI Alexa, you can view in Rec 709, known to Blackmagic as ‘Video’, or in LOG, known as ‘Film’.

The URSA’s native ISO is 400, which in today’s world is quite low; it’s not meant to be a low-light camera, which means it has to be used in daylight or appropriate lighting must be used. For run-and-gun filming this might not be practical, especially on an observational documentary, but when you do hit the sweet spot, it looks great!

Blackmagic claims the URSA has a 12-stop dynamic range. From my testing, I think 11 stops is realistic, which is not so bad even when you’re dealing with Arab men and women in traditional white and black clothing in bright conditions. Recording in RAW makes a big difference, and it really does grade up beautifully.

Pushing the ISO up to 800 is possible, but noise does creep in and it’s not particularly pleasing. I tried to clean it up in DaVinci Resolve using noise reduction, but sadly at 800 ISO, it didn’t help much, and the image fell apart.

However, once the 4.6K sensor ships, current owners and new buyers will (I’m told by Blackmagic) have a native 800 ISO with 15 stops of dynamic range. This will be a massive change for the camera and bring it up to the quality professional DoPs expect. The camera doesn’t come with internal ND filters, which is standard with high-end cine cameras, so you will need to use additional ND filters, especially if you want to expose around F4 or wider to reduce the deep depth of field look. The camera’s sensor is very close to the Super 35mm, so achieving a shallow depth of field look is also simple. For my testing, I only had two 128GB CFast 2.0 cards, so I had to be careful with my rushes. The great thing about CFast 2.0 cards is that they download incredibly fast, especially if you’re using Thunderbolt drives.

A wish list request would be to add single clip deletion. If you’re shooting high frame rates at full RAW, it does use up a lot of data, and quickly. A single 128GB CFast 2.0 card only holds a few clips, and if the last shot is no good, simply deleting it rather than filling up more cards would be helpful.

On the LCD screen, there’s a recording button and a right arrow play button which plays back the last clip. The left arrow and right arrow, when using digital DSLR lenses, adjust the iris. The camera functions well with both active and passive lenses, meaning you can use your DSLR lenses and still get great imagery.

A zoom button magnifies the image even during recording, which I really like for double-checking focus, but you have to be careful as there’s nothing to signal you are zoomed in. You need to remember to press the zoom button again and zoom out, otherwise you’re framing for a close-up and recording a wider shot. This actually caught me out for a few moments.

The URSA has a USB port, and its firmware can be updated. Maybe in a future update, they will change this and add a zoom indication.

The URSA comes with the full version of DaVinci Resolve which sells for $995, which for me and many other users is the best post-production software on the market, especially for high-end grading. My question is: How can Blackmagic afford to make such a piece of technology at this price?

The URSA is a well-built camera (though heavy), and if you know what you’re doing and have access to proper lighting, you can get some stunning images. It is ideal for commercials, features or corporate interviews with more equipment and time to craft an image, but not so great for making a documentary, where you might find yourself shooting late at night by street light, or in dimly lit locations that you simply don’t have the time or resources to light.

If this camera, in its current state of 4K with native 400 ISO, had been released when the RED One first came out circa 2008, it would have been a huge success and I’m sure Blackmagic, as a camera manufacturer, would have been a major part of the digital revolution, as RED has been.

DoPs and camera people have come to expect a lot from cameras. We want them to cleanly cope with low-light situations, record RAW, have the option of high frame rates. So when the new sensor is ready (I look forward to testing it), the URSA will be a true competitor regardless of weight.

At NAB 2015, Blackmagic announced the URSA Mini will be available in either 4K or 4.6K PL or EF mounts.

It will cost as little as $2,995 to $5,495, depending on configuration. Body only, it will weigh around 3.17kg, less than half the weight of its big brother. This is bound to appeal to many more buyers, and I can’t wait to test it out.