Blackmagic recently made waves with the announcement of its new RAW format (BM RAW), which delivers superior image quality while improving post performance. It is currently only available on the URSA Mini Pro, but I am sure that it will be rolled out to other systems over time. Since I own the Mini Pro, I decided to take a few minutes to take some quick test shots and get an idea of the performance of the new format.
Blackmagic has been offering RAW images on its cameras since the original BMCC, but has always relied on Cinema DNG. This allowed for compressed recording (either in 3: 1 or 4: 1 quality), which kept the file size small. However, if you weren't working on a really fast computer, playback in the post was chunky and slow.
The new BM RAW format, on the other hand, solves the problem of playback directly and is the next logical development of RAW recording. While it minimizes the size of RAW files by compression (up to a 12: 1 ratio), it is also designed to optimize playback. This means that even if you are using an older computer, you should be able to play the files much more easily / smoothly than with Cinema DNG.
There are two modes you can use in the Blackmagic RAW settings: constant bit rate and constant quality.
The constant bit rate works almost exactly like most other RAW codecs. You choose your compression ratio (3: 1, 5: 1. 8: 1 or 12: 1) and the camera compresses your footage accordingly. There are no file size fluctuations – regardless of what you record, your files will always use a consistent amount of data based on your specifications.
Constant quality, on the other hand, works differently. The image quality is prioritized, so the data rate increases when you record something that needs more data (e.g., a whip swing as a busy background). This setting makes it difficult to accurately predict the remaining card space, but has the advantage of higher quality. When using constant quality, you can choose between Q0 and Q5 compression. Q0 is the option with the highest quality available.
I didn't have much time to shoot with the new format, but I was able to take a few test shots of my porch the other day. It was just after sunset, so I decided to roll with everything I could for about 30 minutes to see how the camera would behave with BM RAW in low light.
I did some tests before to see the difference in image quality between each RAW setting, but they were almost unnoticed. Pictures taken at constant quality at Q0 looked incredible, but so did pictures taken at 12: 1 compression at a constant bit rate. I'm sure you'd make a bigger difference between the two under more difficult circumstances, but under normal conditions, I was really impressed with how good the more compressed RAW options looked – including 12: 1.
That said, everything you see in the video below was shot with the highest quality setting (Q0) at ISO 8oo in 4.6 KB. In contrast to my previous tests, I only wanted to test the best quality that the camera can offer for these shots and did not want to compare the individual compression settings. Check out some shots below that were easily rated in Resolve –
I always rate Color science primarily and as usual BMD delivered on this front. Many cameras struggle to achieve natural color balance in low light, but the URSA Mini Pro has never had this problem … and it really shows when BM RAW is used.
The recordings above weren't stained with any of Blackmagic's LUTs (I just created some basic qualities from scratch), but I did experiment with Blackmagic's latest LUT "Film to Extended Video V4". At first glance, this LUT seems to offer much better results than all V3 LUTs, which were always a bit too strict for my taste. In both cases, I was completely impressed with the color performance, both when sorting manually and when experimenting with presets.
Another interesting thing I observed was the difference in noise and grain when shooting in BM RAW.
Low light noise is the Achilles' heel of most BMD cameras, but BM RAW seems to improve things a bit on this front too. I have to do a couple of tests side by side to make sure my eyes don't prank me, but at first glance, BM RAW seems to have a more comfortable noise pattern than any other recording format. It's less distracting and somewhat cinematic, not to mention that it seems easier to reduce the noise in the mail. None of the recordings in the video above used noise reduction, but I experimented with NR in Resolve and was really impressed with the results.
All in all, shooting with BM RAW was a great experience. The new settings take a bit of getting used to – especially the constant quality, as this jumps your recording time up and down on the monitor – but the color science, the grain and the overall quality make it difficult to do without BM RAW. Even editing the footage was a breeze, which was surprising considering I was using my 2 year old MacBook Pro to edit the highest quality (Q0) files possible.
Hopefully this format will also be available for other cameras in the future – including cameras outside the Blackmagic ecosystem. And hopefully it will be integrated into other editing platforms such as FCP X or Premiere, as it may not only work as a capture and DI format, but may also work as a delivery format. But it looks promising at the moment. and I'm sure this is just the beginning of a long journey with this incredible new format.
Have you tried BM RAW yet? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!