URSA Mini 4.6K Review

The URSA Mini 4.6K (EF) is a deeply engaging camera. It sits on the shoulders of its many past iterations: the Cinema Camera, Pocket Camera, Cinema Camera 4K, and its older sibling — what I like to call — the URSA Major. But where it remains true to its Blackmagic Design parentage, it feels fundamentally different from any of its predecessors. What I adorably call the ‘URSA Minor’, breaks away from past convention and aims for a more modular, cinema camera friendly, and refined experience for its user. It manages to take the Major’s unwieldingly large size and shrinks it down into a very compact and lightweight body. EVFs, side handles, top handles, and shoulder rigs are all at the users discretion to either use or not use. Blackmagic Design is so happy with this new design they decided to release a $2000 cheaper 4K version to compete in price — but I do not find it worth it IMO, the 4.6K sensor is such a nice sensor. However, as any newcomer to a space there will always be growing pains to be dealt with and Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini 4.6K is no exception.

After using the URSA Mini for about two weeks, it’s clear to me that Blackmagic Design has a very bright outlook for the future of its cinema cameras and how it should fit into our work and lives. But it’s also clear that the URSA Mini is a transitional step towards that vision of the future, a mere piece of their opus. There is so much I’d love this camera to be, so many aspirations I’d like it to achieve. Where it shines as bright as the best of the best cameras, it can also let you feel so underwhelmed you start questioning your investment. My short journey with the URSA Mini has left me with many lessons and I’d love to share them with you.

In short, I’d buy this camera all over again if I needed to.

Joseph T caught me staring at something I later captured in Montreal Old-Port.

Image Quality

There is no doubt, the URSA Mini has produced the nicest image out of any camera I’ve owned. Blackmagic Design (BMD) has invested close to 10M into research and development of their 4.6K super 35 sensor and the dividends are immediately apparent. Touting 15 stops of dynamic range is justified. You’re able to capture a smooth highlight roll-off while not throwing away all the details hidden in the shadows, or vice versa. The latitude of the camera I’ve pegged at around +/- 2–3 stops (depending on lighting conditions). The sensor is rated at 800 ISO and I mainly leave it at that for daytime/well lit shots but I’ve rated the sensor at 400 ISO during low light situations. It helps with noise and helps keep blacks looking nice, clean, and smooth.

This is NOT a low light camera. I’d only use the 1600 ISO option in an emergency situation and if that’s not enough, bring in sufficient light to shoot at a minimum of 800 ISO or… use your favorite low light camera e.g. A7S. Speaking of noise… I’ll get this out the way now but my unit has shown something more than the typical FPN while underexposing digital cinema cameras. It’s shown 2 dark lines that run horizontally across the top third of the frame that only seem to appear at about 1–2 stops of underexposure. This is very problematic in low-key lit scenes. Again, this only happens on the part of the image that’s underexposed and does not bleed into the properly exposed or overexposed portion of the same frame. Though unfortunate, BMD has been very good in acknowledging the problem and as of writing this review, my unit is being shipped back out to BMD to further investigate and repair.

Two dark bands. DNG is from recording of body cap and brought up by 5 stops in Resolve to show issue.
Dark bands at top left where the exposure of sky is at its lowest. Does not manifest in the higher exposures of the sky as it transitions towards the setting sun.

When you nail exposure however, the images out of the URSA Mini are nothing short of phenomenal. Pulling the footage into Resolve and it takes very minimal effort to take the BMD log film space to a very beautiful low contrast grade. Simply add an S-Curve and saturation and you’re in business. Need something a bit more stylized? Whether you’re shooting in RAW or ProRes you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how far you can push the image. The URSA Mini can record (as of firmware 4.0 in either RAW or ProRes) 4.6K resolution all the way down to 1080p in either full sensor readout or windowed sensor mode for high speed work (>60fps). It can also do a 3K anamorphic mode by utilizing a 4 by 3 part of the sensor and allows native 2x desqueeze at a touch of a button.

Record options in firmware 4.0. Courtesy BMD.

The URSA Mini does RAW, RAW 3:1, RAW 4:1, and your pick of ProRes flavour: ProRes 444XQ all the way to Proxy. At full RAW (4.6K; 30fps) it can record as high as 513 MB/s and as low as 22.4 MB/s for ProRes Proxy (Ultra HD; 30fps). From my tests, I find it very hard to discern image quality between RAW and all steps in between ProRes LT. Of course, with a lower bit rate the image would be more prone to blocking in complex scenes or if the footage is needed to be graded. If you are looking to key I would stay in the higher recording options. Shooting in RAW allows for a greater latitude in massaging the image in post and I wouldn’t be afraid of using RAW 3:1 on a short or commercial that melds the best of both worlds: image quality and storage space. Yes, I am not going to dance around it, storage options are expensive. By shooting CFAST 2.0 we’re pretty limited in our options. I’m shooting with Lexar 3600x 128GB cards and each is going for $365 on B&H. Shooting ProRes HQ at UltraHD resolution with these cards means about 22 minutes per card. You should budget appropriately to store all that footage.

Albeit storage options are expensive, the image quality stands up as being right up there with the Dragons, Weapons, Heliums, ALEXAs, F55s, C500s, etc. of the cinema camera world. To note, out of all those cameras the URSA Mini is clearly the most affordable and starting at its body only price of $5000.

The Pirate Ship, URSA Mini first light.

Usability & Design

In the past two weeks I’ve used the URSA Mini in numerous conditions. All the way from a controlled corporate shoot to just strolling in and out of streets in Montreal. Even though I’ve praised the ‘URSA Minor’ for taking a major leap in volume and weight over its older brother the ‘URSA Major’, rigged with a battery, top handle, lens and ND filter, the rig is still quite hefty at around 11lbs. You’ll also need to carry around a decent tripod to handle its weight. I’m using the Benro S8 head with A373AL legs that should support about 17lbs on the top end. Plenty of head room to add an EVF, bigger lens, matte box, filters, side handle, and shoulder rig if I so need it.

I’m very much a cradle shooter when it comes to handheld filming. What I find has worked for me that gives me the quickest tool-less setup and tear down time is to build the camera with just the body, lens, side handle, battery, and a Small Rig top handle with quick-release rail. With this setup I’ve been extremely comfortable getting smooth shots while cradling the body.

But if you need to go on a shoulder rig, it’s not as easy as you might think. It’ll take a few more minutes to screw in the URSA’s shoulder mount with extender arm. Oh, you’re not done yet… You’ll have to mount the EVF (fantastic quality by the way) as the 5" fold out monitor is much too close to your face when the camera is hoisted up on your shoulder. Doing so has already added about 5lbs to the already hefty 11lbs. Now at this point it gets crazy, because of the way the side handle screws into the camera/extender arm (through an inner recessed mid-point hole in its grip), if you need to adjust its angle to maximize ergonomics you’ll have to put the camera down, open the hole’s cover, and loosen, adjust, and tighten back the adjusted position. And if you don’t get it just right the first time, you’ll have to redo it. It definitely is in need of a quick release button for quick operation. Not a huge deal for me as I do minimal shoulder work but I imagine if you are a shoulder rig shooter you’ll want to port over your favourite solutions for the shoulder mount and side handle/arm. There are 2 LANC ports on the camera for your usage so you’re covered.

Shoulder rig setup. Courtesy BMD.

Overall as an evolutionary step from its predecessors however, the design of the URSA Mini is a breath of fresh air. Its modular nature means you don’t always need to have a side handle attached if you don’t want it, or you don’t always need to have the shoulder mount installed if you’re not doing any shoulder work. They serve their purpose as you command them. I especially like — but also dislike — how the EVF installs seamlessly on the camera with the top handle from the shoulder kit. It slides in perfectly where you’d expect it to and installs without tools but mounting the EVF onto the body without the top handle from the shoulder mount kit is a nightmare as you really need the 1/4" thumb screw that is only included with the shouder mount kit. A very odd decision by BMD but I understand they want to drive sales of their accessories. The EVF is really engineered to be used with the shoulder kit.

Balanced. Courtesy BMD.

But stripping all the pieces off and just exposing the URSA Mini’s body, and you can really start to appreciate the evolution Blackmagic Design has gone through in the past 4 years. Gone are the rough and unrefined looks and edges of the Cinema Camera and in are the smooth and sexy curves of the URSA Mini. In your hands you can really start to appreciate the level of effort BMD has put into making this camera have a greater mass market appeal.

But again, where BMD takes great strides in one area, it leaves much to be desired in other areas. For example, the inner buttons are laid out as follows: Left and Right recording level knobs that if you twist, there is no visual indicator at which level you are actually recording (fixed with firmware 4.0), IRIS, FOCUS, PEAK, PGM, MENU, REC, Shuffle Back, PLAY, Shuffle Forward, and Power. The only buttons I’ve been using are MENU, and REC all the way to of course Power. IRIS, FOCUS, PEAK, and PGM are all functions you can access as of firmware 4.0 or of no interest to me (PGM).

Not all so useful physical buttons. Courtesy BMD.

The worst part is that as of firmware 4.0 beta 2, you are still not able to assign these buttons to another function. Both F1 and F2 function buttons are on the front side, err, back side of the 5" fold out monitor. They don’t physically feel differently than the other buttons on the reverse side and so although you are able to program them to a select few choices, most of the time you’ll actually have to peer at what you’re actually touching to activate or deactivate. Why not just put those function buttons on the inside?

A small gripe I have with the URSA Mini is that as its a cinema camera, many of the convenient features a more prosumer camera such as the Sony FS5 might have are no where to be found. Namely, I do wish it had a built in ND filter (one similar to the variable one on the FS5) as it’s just an extra step I have to take when setting up the camera for bright scenes. I can learn to live without it, and I have by using SLR Magic’s variable ND filter II along with a UV IR cut filter. It’s more extra steps to take but this is a simple solution — you might also be more inclined to use a matte box with Firecrest IRND filters.

Software

ƒirmware 4.0. Courtesy BMD.

The camera ships with firmware 3.3, a firmware where you must enter the menu in order to change key functions of the camera, e.g. ISO, shutter angle, and recording format are only starting to scratch the surface… If you are trying to alter ISO or shutter, there’s no way of seeing the immediate impact of your change without first entering and exiting the menu. Trying to alter the recording level with the external knobs? Forget it, you have no visual feedback on what changes are being done when twisting those knobs. Only when you head into the audio menu you will see what recording levels you’re actually at.

I could go on and on but firmware 4.0 is definitely the firmware this camera was meant to ship with. It brings a RED level tactfulness to its fold-out 5" monitor. At a press of a button you’re able to turn on and off: Peaking, guides, zebras, false colour, 3D monitor luts, FPS + Off Speed, shutter, iris, ISO, white balance (temp + tint). You’re also able to format and select which card you’re recording or playing back from. You can also activate clean feed by swiping down and up and mark a certain clip as a good take by swiping left. And finally… twisting those audio knobs will pop up a dialogue showing exactly what your audio levels are.

Firmware 4.0. Courtesy BMD.

One thing I am hoping a future firmware update brings is the ability to playback footage filmed in RAW while in ProRes recording and vice versa. It’s a bit cumbersome to show clients past takes in a certain format while you are currently in another… you have to remember what that take was shot with, either RAW or ProRes in order for it to appear in playback.

The changes from 3.3 to 4.0 in and of themselves are insane when you come to think we’re in the year 2016. I am happy to see BMD is commited to bringing the best experience for its customers on a firmware basis but questions still remains on how long support and innovations will last for the URSA Mini? We’re seeing less and less support already for its older brother URSA Major. It was definitely a question that weighed on me while making the decision to purchase this camera but ultimately, its pros outweighed this con.

Conclusion

To be honest, it will always be much easier to write about a product’s shortcomings than successes. And without question that is the case for this review of the URSA Mini… but where it really matters for cameras, the image quality, the URSA Mini delivers in spades.

The URSA Mini 4.6K is absolutely the best cinema camera BMD has ever produced, and the most forward thinking expression of their vision for the future. The design and usability are taking huge steps in the right direction, the price is incredibly hard to beat, and the image quality is fantastic. This is a terrific camera.

This is a terrific camera

But it’s also a frustrating camera. I’ve always been so close in buying a BMD camera for their image quality (all the way from the original Cinema Camera). It’s always resonated with me but I’ve always been turned off by how beta their usability has been. Does anyone remember how you couldn’t format a SSD in-camera with the original Cinema Camera? The URSA Mini has finally reached that threshold of a useable camera but it’s no where near perfect.

But it’s also a frustrating camera

Investing into a young cinema camera company such as BMD has its growing pains: sensor issues, distribution issues, usability issues… but I have no doubt that the next iteration of the URSA and its firmware will sing, adding yet another piece to BMD’s opus.

Right now, I am content. I’ve spent two weeks with perhaps my favourite cinema camera. I’ve learn to love it, and I’ve learned to be frustrated by it… and as it’s on its way back to BMD for a repair, I really would buy it all over again if I had to. █

Update 1:

I’ve received my camera back and it was stated to be re-balanced and working correctly… However, I’ve run the same tests and it is still exhibiting the dark band at the top of the image. A bit frustrating… Looks like I’ll have to get another RMA for either a sensor repair or complete replacement.