Time for a Blackmagic URSA review. I’ve had a URSA sitting on my desk for months, and recently I had a chance to take it out for a proper test shoot. Actually way out, like five nautical miles out into the Arabian Gulf courtesy of RAK Sailing Academy. Here are my practical thoughts on the camera.
Blackmagic URSA 4K
My friend Marcel Beck and I boarded a small rib at Al Hamra Marina in Ras Al Khaimah with a URSA, a pelican case of lenses and a Macbook Pro. We knew we’d have to transfer CFast 2 cards quite often so we had a USB 3 card reader and a Thunderbolt SSD dock with a half terrabyte SSD.
Upsides to URSA
Almost everything I am about to say will sound totally counter-intuitive to whatever pre conceived ideas you may have about URSA. Believe me, I was totally taken by surprise by this camera.
Size Does Matter
The Blackmagic URSA 4K is a rather large camera, and not a lightweight one at that. However shooting on a moving platform such as a small rigid inflatable boat, these two factors couldn’t have proven more useful to us.
When we moved onto the sailboat, a Lutra 30v1 there was not much room considering the crew needed the space to move quickly, but the camera was very stable in handheld movement and when planted on a pile of ropes or leaning against a open hatch. Our shots are stable, and I don’t think this would be the case with a Production Camera 4K, Cinema Camera or an Epic.
RAW 3:1 and 80fps
I have to admit I was worried about burning through our 128GB CFast 2 card in no time requiring constant pauses to transfer data but this simply was not the case. We shot entirely in 4K RAW 3:1 at various frame rates and it felt like we were rolling all the time. I was constantly looking at the remaining capacity on the card and was surprised by how long we were shooting before it was full.
RAW 3:1 is one of the smartest things Blackmagic Design have implemented, we can shoot 20 mins of 25fps footage onto a 128GB card, and while that number drops to under 7 mins at 80fps, we were switching around between frame rates so our number was somewhere in between. Totally reasonable in any case and not something to be worried about when considering the URSA.
The high frame rates are fantastic, giving very filmic movement and motion blur and 80fps smooths out everything when shooting a moving boat from another moving boat. We were able to capture some stunning imagery.
Navigating the camera and changing settings on the fly is very fast. We were able to change frame rates very quickly without missing a shot.
One of the most useful things you never knew you needed or wanted until using it is multiple touchscreens with menu access and image preview. I was able to check focus and histogram and relay that information to Marcel very quickly in certain positions where he was framing shots on the main monitor but had no access to the touchscreens because of physical obstructions.
All of this made for some quick, reactionary shooting with two people using a camera you wouldn’t normally think of for this purpose.
The CFast 2 cards are really really fast. Using a USB 3 card reader and a Thunderbolt SSD drive we were copying 128GB in less than 10 minutes. I can’t even pretend that our shoot was held up by card transfers, it wasn’t.
We had a single Bebob V180C 180Wh V-Mount and it lasted us at least 4 hrs and wasn’t dead when we packed up.
Downsides to URSA
I really have no real major downsides to this camera only that it has a sweet spot in terms of ISO (ISO 400) and needs to be lit and exposed for that sweet spot. I guess the main thing is the size and weight in situations that really suit only a smaller, lighter camera. It is always best to choose the right tool for the job, and the URSA is not going to be the right tool for every conceivable job. There is no one-size fits all perfect digital cinema camera.
It’s clear that ISO 800 is useless, and in my opinion shouldn’t even be in the menu as it sets unrealistic expectations and false hopes of a usable image. This creates more problems than it solves as I find myself explaining ad-infinitum that this is a ISO 400 camera and should be used only at ISO 400. ISO 200 I also don’t like, so rather stick to 400 all the time and add ND.
ISO 400 is however beautiful, it produces fantastic detail in highs, mids and shadows, lovely skin tones and has a very filmic look. It really is a very sweet spot.
Many people will argue that the native ISO 400 is too low, and not on par with where the rest of the industry may be at the moment. My personal opinion is that ISO 400 is plenty for the types of production the camera is intended for, which will typically involve planned location and studio based setups with crew and adequate lighting. Anything in daylight is of course not a problem, in fact we were using ND heavily.
The Blackmagic URSA 4K is the result of incredibly thoughtful design, it’s new, to some it may seem quirky, but every aspect becomes intuitively useful immediately. That 10″ screen is bright and now I don’t want to monitor on anything smaller or lower than full HD resolution. The dual touchscreens are incredibly useful, you’d find a way to reach some other menu screen if they weren’t there on both sides of the camera, but they are, so you don’t have to. URSA has everything you didn’t know you needed, because nobody else has built a camera like this yet.
A tank couldn’t kill this camera. It’s beautifully constructed and finished, materials are second to none. This is a camera body made to last, not be replaced quickly. A solid investment.
The World’s First User Upgradeable Digital Film Camera
UPDATE: This article was written before Blackmagic launched the URSA Mini and the 4.6K sensor. For more recent articles read Blackmagic URSA Mini 4K EF First Impressions and Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K | An Alexa for the Masses?
I think the winning card that Blackmagic Design have played is the fact you can replace the sensor as technology improves. You’ll see, in time we may have higher than 4K resolution in URSA, at higher native ISO’s and even higher frame rates.
My wish list would include a extended dynamic range by a stop or two (or three) with a future sensor, as well as a native ISO closer to 800. 5K+ would be nice, as I would have liked the room to stabilise or crop in on some shots on a 4K timeline. I guess that’s Red Dragon territory, and comes with the associated price tag but just maybe Blackmagic will push the URSA that far and deliver Dragon performance at Blackmagic prices.
I’m not sure if an off the shelf imager is going to deliver competitive performance in the year ahead, and I imagine anything custom would have a impact on R&D costs and thus price, so time will tell what Blackmagic have up their sleeves.
Here’s the graded final result. Make sure you set it to 1080p (or up to 2160p if you have a 4K TV).
For a more in depth review, check out Shane Hurlbut’s URSA review part 1 and part 2.