REVIEW : Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro

A few weeks ago, I was very fortunate to be able to borrow a new Blackmagic Design URSA Mini Pro 4.6K video camera kit.  The camera is very much in demand, so my hands-on time was limited.  In the time I had it, I used it primarily in the field, shooting off my shoulder but also very briefly in my studio on sticks.  Am I impressed?  Well that's what the review is about.

Unboxing

I am not compensated in any way for these reviews that I write, other than the fun of working with new gear.  I am, however a long term Blackmagic Design customer, having a couple of 2K switchers, a couple of Hyperdecks, a web presenter and one of their Intensity boxes.  The URSA Mini Pro 4.6K kit that I received came in three boxes.  There was the camera itself, the shoulder mount kit, and the external EVF.  All were well packaged with simple assembly sheets, not unlike the pictogram style sheets from IKEA, but without the need for Akvavit as a mental lubricant and small easy to lose tools.

I did have to have a set of long hex keys handy as well as larger bladed flat screwdrivers, but nothing really strange.  As with many Blackmagic Design products, while there was a power brick to supply AC power, there was no cord from the brick to the wall in the box.  I believe that this makes it easier for Blackmagic Design to ship the same box anywhere in the world, although I would suggest that they put a giant sticker on the box that says AC cord not included.  I was prepared for this because my last three purchases had the same issue, and I had gone to the local computer outlet store and bought half a dozen generic power cords for the studio.  Now at least, I could power up the camera.

This is an important thing because while the URSA Mini Pro can run off batteries, as the hip folks used to say, "that's extra man…"  I was kindly loaned a pair of V-Mount batteries and their charging unit, and the camera had a battery mount already affixed.  Note to self, put one of these on the shopping list because it is not in the box.

I am accustomed to most video products that could be used by prosumers having HDMI out.  Not on this baby, this is SDI all the way.  Thus, I was glad that I had an SDI to HDMI converter to push output to a small LCD display so I could see what I was shooting when I was doing one-ups where I was the talent.  I don't think that this is a big missing, although I would have liked to have one HDMI out on the camera.

The URSA Mini Pro 4.6K came with a Canon EF mount, which is fine as that's the mount that I have lots of glass for.  The nice thing about the Pro is that the mounts are interchangeable.  There is a PL mount available as an option, and Blackmagic Design announced a mount for Nikon glass at NAB 2017.

Having been a BMD customer for a while, I was used to the perception that the company would announce something and not ship it for months.  According to their CEO, they saw this perception and now when they announce a product, it's shipping.  This is a huge step forward for customer satisfaction.

The URSA Mini Pro 4.6K can be set to record internally to either SDXC cards or Cfast cards.  I know that there are enhancements coming to the whole SD space, but this is a serious camera needing serious bandwidth.  There are two Cfast card slots and I would suggest that you load them both up with large cards.  When we get to the specs, you'll note that the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K can shoot in CinemaDNG RAW.  Be well assured that this is a storage eater of Galactus level.  You can of course push to an external recorder over SDI, like one of Blackmagic's own units, or to an Atomos Shogun or Convergent Design Odyssey.  I own a Shogun and it worked fine, although mine Is an older model without support for all the options in the URSA Mini Pro.

 The Optional Shoulder Rig Kit

The Optional Shoulder Rig Kit

Shooting the URSA Mini Pro

I struggled a bit getting the shoulder pad in the right place to be well balanced, and so created fatigue for myself faster than I would have liked.  I shot all my clips using a Canon 28-300 L series zoom.  It's an old lens but is very sharp and I found shooting the camera with this beast mounted was actually quite easy. 

 2 XLR inputs, built in microphone and simple yet effective audio controls

2 XLR inputs, built in microphone and simple yet effective audio controls

I was doing some work that would have audio overlaid later, so only had the in camera mics active and they are better sounding than most in camera mics, but still best used for scratch audio only.  I did use the built in preamps in the studio with Sennheiser wireless packs and the on camera recorded audio is perfectly acceptable.

 Informative but not cluttered LCD display panel

Informative but not cluttered LCD display panel

Shooting outdoors, the swing out LCD panel on the side of the camera is pretty hard to read due to glare, although if I were shooting off sticks, I could rig a sunshade pretty easily.  The optional EVF is a real pleasure to use and I recommend it.  It's bright and crisp and has very fast response.  There was no issue positioning it successfully.  I have to shoot left-eyed and I have found other viewfinders to be problematic, but not this one.  For in studio work, Blackmagic Design offers the optional URSA Studio Viewfinder which delivers a large 7" screen as well as camera control and tally light all manageable from a suitable Blackmagic Design ATEM Switcher.

With the shoulder rig option, you get a grip extension arm to make start/stop and autoiris easy to use.  The grip is made of plastic but does not feel fragile.  I did find the extension arm easy to mount via the rosettes, but would prefer a longer or extensible arm personally.  Fortunately, the mounts are standard rosettes, so I could call the folks at Shape and be set in no time.

It will take a bit of time to get used to the control layout without looking, but there are detents and raised edges to help you build the mnemonics for faster use.  The built in ND filters are very well placed and very easy to use, no button press guesswork, turn a real knob.

There's a good framerate range and the footage keeps its look whether down at 24fps or up at 60fps.  You can also choose an "off speed" frame rate if your use case drives this.  I didn't think of one during the loan and so only shot at 24, 30 and 60.  

One of the other things that I liked about the URSA Mini Pro is the ability to hot swap cards.  If you are shooting in very high resolution, even Cfast will fill up and with the auto-cutover option enabled, you can actually pull the full card and replace it while recording to the other card and when that fills up, have it cutover to the replaced card.  I did not have need for this, but I like that it's there, especially for streaming/recording scenarios and work where you just have to let the camera run.

I found the focus peaking option to work very well even in extremely bright light and didn't miss focus much, except when trying to track a great horned owl flying straight at me.  I do not blame the camera.  In the studio, I tried my 50/1.2 on the camera and could even get the camera to autofocus with the lens.  It's nowhere near as quick as the Dual Pixel function in Canon's Cine lineup, but surprisingly quick.  I don't think it is at the level to let the camera do the work, so I pulled focus manually for anything critical and was not disappointed.

One thing that did surprise me was that the maximum ISO on the URSA Mini Pro is 1600.  Given that both Sony and Canon will go much higher, it might make you wonder if this is enough.  In my opinion, it comes down to use cases.  When I shoot in the field, I'm either using ambient or I'm bringing LED panels.  In the studio, there are always lights, whether KinoFlos or LEDs.  I did not notice excessive digital noise in my tests which included shots at the maximum ISO.

I tried the CinemaDNG RAW, as well as a variety of ProRes options at a variety of resolutions.  The biggest post processing challenge has been to learn how to deal with CinemaDNG files.  Here's a tip.  Get DaVinci Resolve.  My other tools did not handle them well.  The price on Resolve has dropped substantially and it is a very powerful NLE that any serious editor should look at, particularly if fine colour management is desired.

Some Other Observations

There are many mounting points on the camera handle, but they were all 1/4-20.  I would like to see a couple of 3/8-16 holes as options.  The bottom plate has only 1/4-20 mounts as well, but all my video head plates come with 3/8-16.  I'd prefer choice.  There is a V style mounting plate recessed into the bottom plate, but while quick, it means having to buy another adapter to quickly mount the camera to my Sachtlers.

You're going to want to shoot this camera freehand and that means budgeting for the shoulder rig kit, the EVF unit, a battery plate and external batteries.  The camera is priced very aggressively, but plan properly because these other pieces add up.

I would like to see a longer cable between the camera and the power brick.  With the unit plugged into the camera and the camera set about 5 feet high, the brick is off the ground.  I think that this places more strain than I would like on the power port.  I velcroed the brick to a tripod leg, but would just prefer a longer cable.

The LCD that swings out from the left side is really nice, easy to read and operates as a very functional touchscreen.  I normally hate touchscreens.  This one is great and doesn't turn into a smudgefest like so many do.  The information is well sized and quite easy to read.  It also rotates a full 90 degrees up and 90 degrees down.  I could not get it to rotate to face front, necessitating another display if you are doing a one up where you are the videographer and the talent.  It's a little thing, but I have been spoiled by the flexibility of the LCD on my C300.  From a usability perspective, the screen layouts are large, easy to read and logical.  The onscreen buttons are large enough that hitting them quickly is easy even when working quickly.  I like that the learning curve for the camera operation and settings through the touchscreen is so smooth and so quick.

I tend to like setting up the camera for grab and go.  If I left the shoulder rig mounted, there was only one 3/8-16 hole on which to mount a tripod head plate.  I tried it, and it was sloppy so I got used to unscrewing the shoulder pad and removing it when I wanted to shoot off the Sachtler.  I know I could buy an adapter to use the V mount in the base but would prefer not to have to.  Niggling, I know.

I liked that the camera body had holes prepped for standard 15mm rods.  The holes do not extend far into the body, but have enough depth that you could use short rods to hold a follow focus and a proper matte box.  The rods are not included, but are standard video fare and a buyer may already have them in their kit.

The Footage

The camera shoots in Log.  You can load LUTs for the EVF if you wish.  A Rec709 EVF LUT was installed but I never used it.  I am comfortable shooting in Log and seeing in Log.  For those who are not, there is the load LUT option.  The Blackmagic Design Log format is very flat, owing to the massive dynamic range (15 stops) that is available.  There are LUTs for BM Log readily available and come by default with FCPX, Premiere Pro and Resolve.  The LUTs for the camera are all 3D with 33 points for very fine control.

I loved what the camera produced.  I did all my practical testing by writing to the Cfast cards in the camera.  Downloading to the computer takes as long as with any large set of files, with CinemaDNG downloads being a go for lunch, rather than go for coffee exercise.  You will need serious hardware to process CinemaDNG at 4.6K so figure a big machine to handle this stuff.  On the other hand, even the full 4.6K clips in ProRes HQ while large, were readily imported into FCPX and Premiere Pro without issue.  I am still learning Resolve in order to maximize the ease of use of the CinemaDNG files.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the ProRes files, but if one can shoot in RAW and is prepared to handle the post processing that is needed, it makes sense to do so when the job allows for it.

Why an URSA Mini Pro 4.6K?

I've been shooting Canon Log out of a C300 since I bought it when it first shipped, and my purpose in looking at the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K is to add a 4K or better camera to the arsenal, and while I love the C300, it was expensive and its value has dropped faster than its depreciation schedule.  As good as it is, adding a C300 Mark II is not financially viable.  Even the new Sony FS7 II, which is a brilliant piece of gear, is still very pricey for a small independent such as myself.  I could fully kit out an URSA Mini Pro 4.6K for less than the body of an FS7 II, and use all my L glass directly without a mount adapter.  With technology moving so fast, and these new cameras being mostly computers and less gears and mechanics, I think that it is prudent to consider the lifecycle for your use cases. 

There are things that I would like to be different in the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K.  The same thing is true for other 4K serious video cameras.  When I look at what I can get for the money, and how quickly I can make the device pay for itself, that makes the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K the camera to beat for me right now, and so I'm putting the money aside to order up a kit as soon as fiscally possible.  

Full Specifications

Apologies if this part is hard to read, they are screen captures from the Blackmagic Design website, and you can see the specs larger there.

Summary

The world of high resolution video is growing and growing quickly.  What used to cost half a million dollars can be had for one fifth of that today.  Cameras are as much computers as they are cameras, and in many cases moreso.  That means that costs and retail prices will continue to come down, and the smart customer will buy only so much as he or she needs for as cost effective an investment as possible.  I love my C300 but had I known then what I know now, I never would have done it.  It devalued much faster than depreciation allows and despite it being an excellent product, I am financially behind the curve.  The URSA Mini Pro is of this new league.  Feature packed in a reliable chassis that is firmware updatable and priced such that it can be fully paid off before it comes time to roll it over for something new.  Digital stills have stagnated.  They no longer innovate, and their market is compressing.  Digital video is exploding with new users all over the place.  If you want your place in 4.6K video today, you owe it to yourself to do your research and visit a Blackmagic Design dealer.  There may be products with more features and functions, but none that I have found that balance that with cost of acquisition effectiveness.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.