If you’ve pre-ordered your Blackmagic URSA Mini, your patience has probably worn thin, and you’re hungry for any news on Blackmagic’s latest elusive camera. Well, since IBC a few cameras have surfaced here and there but real-world information takes some searching.
I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on the URSA Mini 4K EF this week and while I haven’t been able to shoot anything of consequence with it, I do have some opinions to share.
First of all, I want to say how impressed I am with Blackmagic Design’s industrial design team on this one. They have created a beautiful looking camera, and while a camera doesn’t necessarily have to look good to function well, I think logic dictates the two go hand in hand.
URSA Mini really is a design statement, angular and sculpted but well balanced.
When you look to the everyday technology around us, the products we consider to be premium level products come from companies that place detail oriented design at the heart of their brand identity. Of course I am thinking now of Apple, who have become synonymous with the artful integration of form and function. For Apple, form and function are inseparable, one cannot exist without the other.
I believe if Blackmagic Design follow the path they’ve started with URSA Mini in future products, they have a very strong future ahead of them with far fewer design and ergonomic criticisms.
I’m very glad that Blackmagic took much of the criticism they received when URSA launched to heart, and went back to the drawing board with URSA Mini. Personally I like the full size URSA, but really, it needed to be revisited for those who need a single operator, run and gun solution. You can read my thoughts about URSA here: Blackmagic URSA Review and my test shoot: 4K URSA Footage – Sailing with the Blackmagic URSA in UHD.
The materials used and build quality defy the price, and it’s in the details I can see why Blackmagic decide to hold out shipping cameras rather than ship an inferior or compromised product.
That’s not to say I don’t have some criticisms, but so far those are not major.
The URSA Mini’s body is made from Magnesium alloy, a high performance material which is both very strong and very light. Magnesium is the lightest structural metal and is now common in many consumer electronics from cameras to phones to Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets (Apple use aluminium alloy, but that’s another story). It’s a common material for high performance automotive and aerospace components, which brings me to my next point.
Naturally, one of the first things you do with a camera is lift it, and this was my first big surprise. The URSA Mini weighs very little, especially considering how solid it is. This will be a big plus for anyone with plans to fly the URSA Mini on a gimbal or drone. By far your biggest weight considerations will be glass and battery, as the camera itself only weighs 2.3kgs (5lbs).
Ergonomically speaking the URSA Mini is fantastic. It’s easily a handheld camera and the side handle is comfortable, giving you a confident grip on the camera. The side handle is removable and is fixed on a standard rosette. It is well positioned when the camera is light, but in configurations where a large or heavy lens or battery throws the balance off, the side handle can easily be mounted further forward using an extension arm provided in the shoulder kit.
The shoulder kit comes with a shoulder pad / plate with rosettes, rail mounts and tripod quick release, an extension arm for the side handle and a top handle which is required in order to mount the Blackmagic URSA viewfinder.
I would have liked to set it up with the shoulder kit and viewfinder but the shoulder kit has not yet arrived. From the images I have seen, it looks like URSA Mini will sit very nicely on the shoulder for comfortable run and gun use. This is another smart move by Blackmagic Design as I doubt many owners of the full-size URSA are shouldering it, despite the shoulder pad that is available for it.
Side Handle Pros and Cons
The side handle however is where I found my first (and only) real criticism. It’s basically a LANC controller, and has a cable which plugs into the LANC port on the camera. It features a record start / stop button, auto focus and auto iris buttons. Rec start / stop works perfectly but I really didn’t like the auto focus / iris buttons, as the lens (all I had available was a Canon 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS II zoom) did not respond well at all.
Now, I never use auto focus or iris, so it wouldn’t really end up bothering me in practice. What does bother me, is it should work perfectly with Canon’s de-facto standard kit lens, if its going to work with anything. I’m confident though that if this really is an issue with some lenses, it will be addressed in a firmware update. Secondly, what was sorely missing from the side handle were more fingertip controls, perhaps user assignable buttons that could be assigned to stepping iris open / closed for instance.
As with the other Blackmagic cameras, electronic iris control is with the forward / backward transport control buttons, which are clear on the other side of the camera, either behind the 5″ swing out monitor, or on the outside of the monitor panel. I think this is quite an oversight and should be right at the fingertips on the side handle. If I were to use the URSA Mini handheld or on the shoulder with my eye to an EVF, then I’m shooting on the go, probably capturing something as it happens, and electronic aperture control needs to be close, easy and instinctive.
I should mention that the flip out 5″ touchscreen is both crisp and responsive. I have not yet had it outside under daylight so I’m not sure how it will hold up outside in the sun.
However, the URSA viewfinder is a work of art. It’s full HD, designed and built just as well as the camera and beats any third party EVF’s I’ve used. There’s no plastic in sight and it just feels like quality construction. I would consider the URSA viewfinder to be a must-have accessory for URSA Mini and I think it will take care of the situations where the 5″ monitor is not bright enough. Because the shoulder kit has not arrived, I was not able to mount the viewfinder on URSA Mini, although it does mount on the URSA without a problem.
4K vs 4.6K
The URSA Mini 4K brings you the same imaging characteristics and limitations as the Production Camera 4K and URSA. Saying that, in most situations with enough light, using fast lenses it performs well. I enjoy the URSA’s image, I enjoy grading it as long as exposure is spot on and the overall lighting ratio is within 10 stops or so. Beyond this, and in low natural light situations the 4K sensor’s performance falls off.
This is why the new 4.6K sensor is such a potential game changer. The combination of everything URSA Mini has going for it, plus a slightly larger 15-stop, ISO 800 4.6K sensor with a USD $4,995 price tag should be making the competition nervous.
The URSA Mini 4.6K is going to be a serious heavyweight contender punching way above it’s physical weight and price.
For my thoughts specifically on the new 4.6K sensor, see my article: An Alexa for the Masses? – Blackmagic Design Aim For The Top
I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that RED have updated the sensor specs of Raven to 4.5K, increasing the sensor width (but not its height) in the process. Raven has a lot to beat in URSA Mini if the 4.6K sensor really delivers what is promised.
Unfortunately, most URSA Mini 4K buyers are still waiting, so it’s too early yet to speculate about the 4.6K. In true Blackmagic style, we’ll just have to wait to find out. My expectation however is that the results will be well worth the wait.