My videography diary is a series recounting my experiences as a newbie videographer, after many years of still photography. In it, I’ll cover the kit I use, as well as the lessons I’ve learned that may prove useful to others who are also making a move into video.
For someone who loves the latest and greatest technology, I made kind of an odd decision when it came to my choice of camera …
Back in my magazine days, tech writers were expected to do one thing and one thing only: write. Magazines had photographers and art directors. The web is a different beast, where writers need to take their own photos – with video becoming increasingly important for product reviews.
However, while I had plenty of experience with still photography, my professional videographer colleagues at 9to5Mac set such a high bar that I kept on putting it off. But I finally decided to bite the bullet, which meant researching video cameras.
Initial choice: A first-gen Sony A7S
At first, the Sony A7 series seemed the obvious choice. I already owned an a6300, so was familiar with the lineup, so started with a used first-generation A7S to dip a toe in the water and see whether the bug bit me. The plan was that I could upgrade to a later model if I got hooked.
My camera research had taken me deeply down the rabbit hole of amateur filmmaking. In particular, one-minute films and other shorts – and I fell in love with them. So much so, I ended up making my own one-minute film, The Decisive Moment, which was shot with the Sony.
It had a one-person crew (me), a cast of one (a friend); and a single location (our apartment). It was shot and edited in just over a day, with three very surprising results.
First, despite fully expecting this to be nothing more than practice, I was actually pleased with the result. Second, a professional filmmaker friend suggested I enter it into some film festivals, saying it was likely to be picked up. Third, she was right: It was selected for screenings at nine festivals, reached the finals in six, and won awards at four. Of course, they were small festivals, but it was still an encouraging start.
Something else happened: I was hooked! I already have a plan for a second one-minute film and a documentary short, even before I begin planning my first tech shoot.
But getting hooked had me look afresh at my choice of camera. The A7S had the video quality, no question about that. However, it does have some drawbacks.
Top of the list of these is the terrible, awful, horrendous menu system. And this isn’t unfamiliarity speaking: I’ve been using Sony mirrorless cameras for still photography for years, from the Sony A6000 back in 2015. A combination of unfriendly names, and Sony’s inexplicable habit of putting things that you’ll want to change together into completely different multipage menus, makes it fairly painful to use.
There are some programmable buttons, but these are sprinkled rather randomly across the body, and they are also limited in what they can do.
I could cope, but if I was going to be shooting regularly, then there didn’t seem any reason to suffer. As I’ve always said to friends when they were debating whether or not to buy something, if you can afford it, and it will bring you pleasure, then go for it. So I decided to take my own advice.
BlackMagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K
A very long name, so BMPCC from now on.
I did a lot of camera research. I read countless reviews, and I wouldn’t even dare try to add up how many hours of YouTube viewing I’ve done between video reviews, rigging options, and sample footage.
As you’d expect, every camera system out there has its fans – including later generations of the Sony A7S, and various Canon bodies. But gradually, a consistent story emerged, assuming you want to stick very firmly to four figures rather than five (and I most definitely did). The internet basically divides in two.
One camp says there’s no question, a BMPCC gives you the most bang for your buck. This is designed to give a film-like look – with RAW footage capabilities for maximum flexibility in editing – in a highly affordable package (in filmmaking terms). The other camp says you should buy whatever their chosen system is, but they will also agree that the BMPCC is a very good alternative. It pretty much seems that nobody has a bad word to say about the system.
Aside from the cinematic look of the footage, three things particularly appealed to me:
- User interface
- External power options
- Recording to external SSD
The user interface is essentially the anti-Sony: everything beautifully laid-out in simple, logical, touchscreen buttons on a gorgeous five-inch screen.
The native battery life is pretty terrible, at around 45 minutes, but there’s a 12v input port that makes it really convenient to use external power options like V-mount batteries (rather than the clunky battery eliminator and velcro-attached power bank I used with the Sony).
Recording to an external SSD like the Samsung T5 gives a huge amount of affordable fast storage plus the convenience of simply unplugging the SSD from the camera and plugging it into my Mac at the end of the shoot.
But BMPCC 4K or 6K?
The only question was which model: 4K or 6K? And, if 6K, original model or Pro?
That’s not an easy decision at all, because they have completely different lens mounts: The 4K is Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) while the 6K is Canon EF mount, so you’re buying into a lens system as well as a body.
Which means that if you buy the 4K today and decide to later upgrade to the 6K, you need to swap out all your glass. The one exception is if you buy the Metabones Speedbooster adapter to convert the 4K from MFT to EF mount, but that’s so expensive you might just as well buy the 6K in the first place.
I almost talked myself into the 6K for that reason, but there were a couple of reasons I decided against it. First, shooting 6K really bumps up storage use, and editing demands, so it’s not just a question of “more is better.” And if you shoot the 6K camera in 4K mode, it uses a windowed sensor mode that changes the effective crop factor of your lenses.
Second, sticking to the MFT mount opens up a very interesting option in terms of glass: Meike cine lenses. I mean, technically they aren’t real cinema lenses, as those cost tens of thousands of dollars, while these are about $400 each, but they do offer some key features of cine lenses:
- Iris* is set in T-stops, not F-stops (the amount of light exiting, not entering, the lens)
- The iris ring is also stepless, so you can control the light very precisely
- Long-pull focus rings, for very precise manual focusing and easy rack-focus
- Consistent diameters, lengths and focus ring positions for easy lens-swaps in rigs
- Beautifully controlled flare when shooting into the light
*No, I don’t know why photographers call it aperture while filmmakers call it iris.
They also get fantastic reviews from users, and I adored the sample footage I’d seen.
Of course, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and the smaller sensor means less control over depth of field. Essentially you’re giving up two stops on MFT, so T2.8 on MFT gives the same depth of field as T5.6 on EF, and that’s a big sacrifice. However, the Meike lenses are T2.2, which is T4.5 equivalent. For still photography, f/4 and f/5.6 are my go-to apertures when I want to shoot shallow DOF, so I can comfortably live with an effective T4.5. If I do find myself wanting more, I can always add in a T0.95 lens (T1.8 equivalent) further down the line.
So that’s where I ended up – a BMPCC 4K with, initially, two Meike cine lenses: 12mm and 25mm (equivalent to 24mm and 50mm). I have no doubt I’ll end up buying more.
Of course, one thing you very quickly learn about videography is that the camera and lenses are just the start: What you need for practical filming is a complete rig. I again did an absolute ton of research on this before building mine, so I’ll do a follow-up Videography Diary piece on that – with a video, naturally.
The BlackMagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 4K is available from Amazon, as are Meike Cine Lenses in 12mm, 16mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 65mm, and 85mm focal lengths (equivalent to 24, 32, 50, 70, 100, 130, and 170mm).
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