Underwater Cinema

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Why I am cautiously (extremely!) optimistic about Black Magic Design’s Cinema Camera for underwater use.

Rudi Herbert September 4, 2012

It should be no news by now that Black Magic Design (BMD), the Australian company that got its start in our industry as a producer of capture cards, and which recently has gone on a acquisition binge that absorbed names like Da Vinci, Cintel, ATEM and Teranex, has further broadened its profile by stealing the show at NAB 12 with the announcement of the Black Magic Design Cinema Camera (BMDCC). This post is not a review of the camera, that has been amply and aptly done by many others. Read some of the more informative reviews here:

http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/2012/08/31/black-magic-cinema-camera-bmcc-beautiful-befuddling/

http://magazine.creativecow.net/article/blackmagic-cinema-camera-can-it-run-with-the-big-boys

http://provideocoalition.com/index.php/awilt/story/nab_2012_is_bmd_the_new_red_part_2/

No, this post is more about how I think, or rather hope, that this camera will find a fit in the world of underwater cinematography. The prevailing wisdom dictates that the camera’s specific weaknesses are, in fact, a big No-No for our medium. However, because I find a lot to like about this camera, and because at our production facility we do plenty of topside work that will benefit from the camera’s unique features, and thus we have a couple on order, I have kept trying to find a way to fit the camera to the unique needs of the underwater medium. Let’s see if I can make sense of this:

THE GOOD

Where to begin? Oh yeah, how about the fact that it sells for $2995, with a copy of the $995 Da Vinci Resolve and the $695 Ultra Scopes, which is like buying the camera for $1,305. So, what kind of camera can you get for $1,300 nowadays? Have a look at B&H here. Or, if you don’t buy my $1,300 rationale, let’s see then what’s available for $3K. Even in the better cameras, you get 1/3″ or 1/4″ sensors, tiny lenses and highly compressed recording formats, the best of which, the Canon XMF, is only 50 Mbps, at 8 bits, 4:2:2 space. Still, why do I rile on these cameras, revolutionary by 2010 standards? Because underwater shooters enjoy the unique distinction that our chosen medium yields images that are, from the get go, highly degraded in clarity, brightness and color fidelity. And to preserve, and enhance, the look of those images, we need the highest quality possible recording format. And as of right now, the only camera that offers what the BMDCC brings to the table in that sense, has RED in the name.  None other. How?

RAW, baby, RAW! The BMDCC records to 12 bit RAW, the absolute best way to preserve image quality. There isn’t enough good I can say about RAW, misunderstood and feared an animal as it is. That is material for another post. But while it has drawbacks, and RAW eats through massive amounts of storage space and system resources like a great white feasting on a seal pup, it is a match made in heaven for underwater footage. As the camera nears wide release, BMD made available some sample footage RAW files, shot by Australian cinematographer John Brawley, for people to play with the footage. I, like a thousand others, took a shot at it and color corrected it very aggressively, trying to, in fact, break it. To my pleasant surprise, the footage not only held its own, but also exhibited some unique features, such as a very filmic look with wonderful Technicolor-style colors and a saturated but coarse, grainy, unsharp look, like old Kodak slide film. Take a look at my grade below and see how malleable the footage is:

You could not push this footage this far were it not RAW. And if you still don’t have the desire, or the means, to embark on the adventure that is a RAW world, then this camera offers you a choice of the next best two formats:  Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD, both of them 10 bit, 4:2:2 codecs that record at high bit rate (at up to 200 Mbps) and are, in terms of a compressed workflow, the best compromise. The BMDCC gives you all these choices without having to go to an external recorder, whatever you choose, it records onboard for you.

And that is what I love about this camera, the commitment to preserving the quality of the image it can produce. By giving us either RAW or the best compressed formats, BMD has shown more integrity, intelligence, common sense AND respect for the user than many of the behemoths that turn out a new flavor of the same camera every couple of months, all of them with as many features as unforgivable compromises. No compromise spoken here.

THE BAD

Are you sure about that? How about the sensor? How is a 2432 x 1366 pixel, 15.8 mm x 8.9 mm sensor, that is the lone inhabitant of a “segment” between the very old Super 16 and the very new Four Thirds formats, not a compromise? This weirdo of a sensor has a crop factor of about X 2.4 relative to full frame 35 mm, which means that, a super wide angle lens like a 14 mm, which yields an outstanding 114 degrees of horizontal field of vision (FOV) on 35 mm, and already a not so wide 85 degrees on a Super 35 sensor like the RED, Alexa or Sony F65, gives only an FOV of 65 degrees on this sensor. Yikes! And although there are many lenses wider than a 14 mm, all the way down to say, an 8 mm, most of them are not capable of being used on this camera given its EF mount. Also, the wider the lens, the more expensive it becomes and the more optical sacrifices it presents, this last point being compounded by the nature of using land lenses behind a dome port, which noticeably decreases the performance of any lens. Well, that is ABSOLUTELY true, but before we write this camera off as the worst possible fit for underwater use, let us consider a couple of very interesting possibilities.

MACRO

Yes, macro. Teeny, tiny, colorful critters cutely moving about against a background of splendorous anemones and soft corals. The kinda footage I’ve never had the patience for, yet, remains the best selling  underwater segment among stock agencies. But with this camera, I am thinking seriously about jump starting my macro career once again, this time, hopefully for good. No, I haven’t grown more patient and no, I’m not going to spend my whole dive prostrated in one place, waiting for this minuscule life to unfold before my lens. Instead, I plan of putting the BMDCC camera on a tripod, arm it with a set of lights, and leave it alone to record macro for me while I pursue other worthier endeavors like bigger than life, scenic panoramas. Heck, I may even pass by and change its location a couple of times throughout the dive. Whatever housing fits this camera will be tiny by today’s standards and the lights needed for macro need not be very powerful either, so all in all, a very portable set up that easily justifies being brought down on a dive as a second system. Even as a main system for an operator whom primarily shoots macro, the small footprint, it stands to reason, will allow for the camera to be put in places rarely accessible for the likes of a RED ONE or EPIC, an HDCAM, HPX or, God forbid, a film camera. And, there are a myriad EXCELLENT lenses that fit the EF mount and can shoot breathtaking macro in real-size detail, such as the Canon 100 mm macro or the Canon 60 mm macro. Further to this, this freak of a sensor, being that small, will allow quick, easy focus and nice depth of field. Try that with your Super 35 sensor. Not buying my macro infomercial just yet? You are a wide angle shooter through and true? Well, how about this:

WIDE ANGLE

Fisheye lenses for the BMDCC

Some of the lenses that may help get the BMDCC “wet”. On the left, the Sigma 8 mm circular fisheye, the Sigma 15 mm full frame fisheye in the middle, and to the right, the underwater workhorse, the Tokina 10-17 fisheye zoom.

There are several lenses that may solve the BMDCC inability to shoot wide. For example, we have full frame fisheyes, like the Tokina 10-17 mm, the Nikon 10.5 mm, or the Sigma 15 mm, all of which achieve 180 degrees diagonal FOV on full frame 35 mm. Given the X 2.4 crop factor, this would become 75 degrees on the BMDCC, not very wide, but certainly acceptable for many situations where the shooter does not need to be very close the subject. Need wider than that? How about a circular fisheye, the type of lens that projects an image circle onto the image plane. This is usually achieved by 8 mm lenses, and there are several out there, from Canon, Nikon and Sigma. Why this is interesting is because the crop onto this lens becomes much less severe, since a larger part of the visible image lies around the center of the frame, given that the corners are nothing but black. In this case, the BMDCC crop factor becomes more like a X1.3, meaning you could get over 100 degrees FOV from the center crop. Now we’re talking! There is even a very interesting lens, the Canon 8-15 fisheye zoom, which is a circular fisheye at 8 mm and a full frame fisheye at 15 mm, so you get both looks in the same lens. And the best part? By cropping much of the corners off, we are left with the sharpest, least distorted part of a fisheye image, the one around the center. This also means that we don’t need to worry about the losses of quality that are introduced by a dome, since 90% of that happens, again, at the corners. In theory, we would be left with very sharp, clear images. And, since all of these lenses have remarkably short minimum focus distances (MFD), a very small dome can be used with them, something like a 5″ or even 4″ in diameter. So  you now have a very small dome to go with your already small housing.

You hate the effects produced by fisheye lenses? So do I. But again, I reiterate that most of those aberrations are magically cured towards the center of the image, where they behave more like normal, rectilinear lenses. By following a few simple tricks, you can make all those quirks basically disappear. If that’s not good enough, then how about the Sigma 8-16 rectilinear super wide zoom? It is the only zoom of its type in the world, and though it lacks some of the sturdier build qualities of a Nikon or Canon lesn, it is VERY sharp. At 8 mm, the BMDCC’s X2.4 crop makes this lens behave like a 20 mm on full frame. Which means, 95 degrees of diagonal FOV. Niceeeee! In this particular case, we would need to use an 8″ dome since rectilinear lenses do not focus as close, but that should be an acceptable trade off for a wide, rectilinear image.

Canon fisheye & Sigma superwide

The two lenses that hold the biggest promise for the BMDCC underwater. The Canon 8-15 mm circular/full frame fisheye on the left, and the Sigma 8-16 mm rectilinear superwide.

In the end, precisely because the sensor has no choice but to crop all the available lenses down to the area immediately around the center, this will leave us with an image that, in a bitter sweet taste of irony, will be optically better than anything else shot with a bigger sensor that will, inevitably, capture a lot of the imperfections that come with the wider image.

CONCLUSIONS

  • A tremendous amount of bang for the buck, the only camera other than RED that records natively to RAW, or to high quality compressed formats without an external recorder, again the only camera to do so.
  • The footprint and form factor, although awkward for hand held work, makes perfect sense for building a very small housing.
  • A potentially ideal solution for close up and macro work, its small dimensions allowing it to be placed where bigger cameras can’t go, and its small sensor providing unlimited depth of field and quick focus, both of which are essential for accurate close distance imaging.
  • With the inventive use of super wide angle lenses, both fisheye and rectilinear, the sensor limitations can be overcome, yielding images not as wide as with bigger sensors, BUT wide enough AND devoid of all the optical maladies that plague those lenses on big sensors. Narrower field of vision in exchange for superior optical quality. No more soft, blurry corners, no more light fall off or vignetting on the edges, no more barrel distortion or waviness  on the outer parts of the image. Instead sharp, crisp, clear images courtesy of the best area of the lens, its center. This point may actually turn this camera’s apparent No-Go status for underwater use into a De-Facto solution for many a shooter.

Only time and rigorous testing will tell of course. As soon as we can get our hands on a BMDCC, we will put it through the paces and see whether all our optimistic assumptions above hold any water (pun intended :-)  ) All of the above lenses have been bought, a fabricator is ready to modify a DSLR housing for this camera, our boat is fueled and our tanks are filled.

….so stay tuned!

 Why I am cautiously (extremely!) optimistic about Black Magic Design’s Cinema Camera for underwater use., 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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