Ursa Mini Pro Review. Black Magic scores by keeping it simple and looking great.
I don’t often write camera tech reviews but the Ursa Mini Pro is an exception. I’ve worked with it on four different projects at this point and it’s left me genuinely impressed and a little bit shell shocked. The UMP (Ursa Mini Pro, for short) has blind sided me with it’s capabilities simply because previous generations of Black Magic cameras, for one reason or another, were never really ready for professional use. The UMP however has made me a believer in Black Magic again.
I’ve been lucky to use RED and Alexa for most of my work, but going forward I can confidently say the UMP deserves serious consideration when choosing a camera for my next project. Before posting this review I wanted to make sure I really put the UMP through it’s paces. I began with a couple of tiny jobs where I could test the waters and play around knowing I wouldn’t get myself into too much trouble. From there I wanted to see if it lived up to it’s infamous reputation as a poor candidate for run-and-gun cameras in a documentary hand held situation, with minimal lighting in a dimly lit environment. Finally, I finished testing on a legitimate commercial shoot with bright high key lighting. The bottom line in all scenarios was exquisite image quality without any negative consequence. For those that prefer to consider things more objectively, I broke down the rest of the review into four main parts.
Build Quality: The first thing that immediately surprised and impressed me before I even turned the camera on was the extremely solid build quality. The UMP is a heavy camera constructed of magnesium alloy which also works to its benefit to cool the camera by having the metal act like a big heat-sink. The tactile feel is nicer than Sony plastic camera bodies in the same category. While it’s reassuring to know that the UMP is built like a tank, it’s definitely a bit heavy and a little awkward for hand-held use over extended periods of time. But with the right shoulder rig and the amazingly good OLED EVF attached, the UMP is on the same level as operating an Alexa Classic hand-held, and in my opinion, still much better than a Sony FS7 and far better than any Canon C-series camera. (with exception the the C100 Mark 2 which is amazing)
Bench marker for hand held shooting: Once you put a balanced Sony F55 on your shoulder and shoot all day, you will know how hand held operating should be done. And no the Amira doesn’t come close.
User interface: I loathe the amount of time in camera prep I spend menu diving in SONY cameras. (Owner-operators of Sony cameras don’t experience this fortunately because for the most part, they set and forget) The Alexa and the UMP are on the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum with a similarly intuitive and easy navigation design. The UMP might even be arguably better than an Alexa because it takes the good from both RED’s touch screen interface and combines it with Alexa’s intuitive menu structure. The menus in the UMP are clearly organized via a tile format and options are selected through a very responsive touch screen. It took me 10 minutes on my very first try to navigate everything and set the camera the way I liked. Granted, it’s still very sparse on options and doesn’t come close to an Alexa or RED but what the UMP has at this point is very clear and easy to work with. It will be interesting to see if Black Magic can retain their current level of simplicity when/if they begin to add more functionality via future firmware upgrades.
Bench Marker for user interface: Alexa and Ursa Pro.
Ergonomics and usability: As a studio camera I’d give the UMP a fair score for its ergonomics and usability which means there is still lots of room for improvement with their next iteration of URSA. Some buttons and switches are in odd places, like audio jacks that seems to have been placed as an afterthought. More options for viewfinder set-up and separate monitoring paths would also be much welcomed but I quickly out that aside when I consider the price point here. Despite this, the UMP surprisingly never slowed me down a second while shooting on any of the four different projects. It’s definitely a camera that has an uncanny way of melting into the background and just getting out of your way and letting you do your work to the point of almost forgetting you are even using it. It never crashed, froze or did anything odd that I did not ask it to do. I’ve had to reboot buggy Sony FS7’s and RED cameras countless times on set which is always annoying, distracting, somewhat embarrassing and time consuming.
Bench mark for Ergonomics and Usability: Alexa and Sony F55
Bench mark for reliability: Alexa, Sony F55, and Ursa Pro
Codecs: The Ursa Pro has an amazing list of codec options from PRORES light to PRORES XQ highest quality, and DNxHD. It also has the ability to shoot lossless RAW on board and light RAW. Another nice surprise is that the RAW files are encoded as adobe .DNG files at 300dpi for extracting still images. There simply isn’t anything more one could want when it comes to codecs from this camera. It’s down right brilliant, in my opinion.
Bench mark for Codec variety: Alexa, Ursa Mini Pro and RED Weapon.
Image quality: It’s the image quality that makes shooting with this camera so worth it. It has a visual identity similar to an Alexa, yet retains its own unique look and feel. It has incredibly clean blacks with extremely low noise and the way it tone maps light is subtle and surprising when viewing dailies. To some extent it’s kind of like shooting film where you get some nice surprises after processing. But to get the images to look their best the UMP requires ample amounts of light to expose the sensor. And here in lies the UMP’s main shortcoming; it simply can not compete in low light with modern day sensors. Interestingly however, from a subjective standpoint I never found it any worse or less sensitive than a RED camera. I feel I put about the same amount of lighting with both cameras, but at any rate, don’t confuse low sensitivity to mean you can’t shoot low lit scenes. On the contrary. This camera has cleaner blacks and less noise than any other camera I’ve used. The difference is you simply can’t underexpose with the intent of ‘pushing’ the exposure in post. If you do this, you will be in for a world of hurt. The sensor has a demon lurking inside and it manifests as ‘fixed pattern noise’ in both the highlights and shadows if a shot is under exposed and pushed in post. Just don’t do this. A way to keep the demon at bay is to rate the camera at no more than 400 ISO in low lit scenes and 800 ISO in bright scenes. I shot everything at 400 ISO both high and low-key lighting and I had rich, super clean blacks and gorgeous colours.
Overall value, and who this camera is for: The UMP offers an incredible choice of PRORES CODECS, including lossless and compressed RAW recording onboard. It down samples 4.6K resolution and the look and feel of the images is akin to an Alexa, while the build quality is high and the camera is very low maintenance to operate. There is really not too much to gripe about here, especially if you remember the price of admission. It’s best suited in a predictable and controlled production environment where you can feed the camera’s healthy appetite for light. To be conservative, it is not the wisest choice for working in run-and-gun situations where the shooting environments are unpredictable and lighting is questionable, although in my experience it performed admirably well there too! BlackMagic is definitely onto something, and for those looking for a simple budget cinema camera that looks easily as good as a RED or Alexa costing 10X more, then bang for buck, this camera is an absolute no-brainer and its future is definitely looking bright.