When Digital Bolex first hit the scene in 2012 with their Kickstarter campaign, I was instantly fascinated by the camera. At that point there was really nothing else like it on the market (and in many ways that’s still true), and like many of you I was extremely eager to try it out for myself.
Somehow though, it took me until now – 4 years later – to actually shoot with the camera for the first time. As much as I wanted to test it out for myself, by the time it was released I was already knee deep in productions with other cameras like the BMCC, C100, RED Epic, and others. In the end, it took me quite a while to come around to actually shooting with the D16, but now that I have had a chance to shoot with it for a few days, I have to say I’m quite impressed.
Digital Bolex was kind enough to loan out the D16 to me last week, and although I’ve only shot with it for a few days now, I already feel like I “get” the camera, and understand what it does best. Before I get to some of my first impressions though, here is why I wanted to shoot on the D16 in the first place –
A couple months ago I was gearing up to shoot a short film on Super 16mm film. I’ve always really wanted to shoot on 16mm and the short film I was developing called for that gritty, raw aesthetic that Super 16mm film is known for. I also liked the challenge of shooting on film as it’s something I’ve never had the opportunity to do before. The idea of creating spontaneity and immediacy for the cast and crew seemed exciting, and after realizing how affordable shooting on 16mm could be, I was completely on board.
In the end though, the project shifted gears in many ways and ultimately called for a different format. While the aesthetic of S16mm film was absolutely still right for the creative direction, the logistics of shooting on film no longer made sense. The concept of the story changed, as did the length of the project, and other key factors that subsequently made shooting digitally a more viable option.
I’ll still be shooting another upcoming project on the S16mm film stock I now own… So for those of you interested in that project, I will be sure to post updates on it soon. But for now, back to this –
Once I decided to shoot this piece digitally, I considered loads of different camera options, from Alexa to RED to Blackmagic to others. In the end though, I kept getting pulled in the direction of Digital Bolex. I spent a lot of time researching the camera, watching test footage, and really understanding the aesthetic that the D16 was able to deliver… And it was unlike any other camera out there.
Having never shot on the camera before, it was hard to know if what I was seeing online was simply very well graded footage, or if the D16 just had a really filmic look right out of the box. The only way to know for sure was to test it out myself.
All of my thoughts below are very much first impressions. This isn’t meant to be a detailed review (hopefully I can do one in the future), but rather some of my initial findings with this camera as I’ve experimented with it over the past few days.
The first thing that hit me when I started taking some test shots on the D16 was that this camera feels more analogue than digital. People often compare it to the original Blackmagic Cinema Camera, but in many ways the D16 is closer to an Arri SR2 (film camera), than any of it’s digital equivalents.
I feel this way not only because of the image quality (we’ll get to that), but also because of how the camera operates. From the pistol grip to the internal memory, the overall design of this camera is unlike any other digital camera I’ve ever used.
I wasn’t sure I would want to use the pistol grip at first, but soon discovered that for handheld/tracking shots, it works beautifully – especially on a wide lens. You can actually hold the trigger down when you want it to record and it will stop when you release. It might seem gimmicky at first, but in some situations it can actually be really helpful to shoot that way and can help keep your overall footprint small.
What really makes this camera feel like a film camera though, is the fact that you are quite limited in your ISO settings. Although the camera can now go up to ISO 800, it performs best at ISO 200, and from the test shooting that I’ve done so far I would only ever want to shoot on this camera at ISO 200, as the image looks so perfect in that sweet spot.
Shooting everything at ISO 200 might seem limiting (and in some ways it is), but it’s more manageable than you might think. There are loads of extremely fast S16mm lenses (some in the F0.85 range), and as long as you use fast glass and aren’t shooting in the dark, you’ll be just fine. In fact in some ways you’ll be better off, as the D16, like a film camera, requires that you light your interior scenes carefully and purposefully.
Here are a handful lightly graded test images I shot around the house when I first picked up the camera:
Most of the test shots you’ll see on this post were shot on the excellent Veydra C-Mount Cinema Lenses.
So often now with digital cinema cameras, DPs avoid lighting their shots properly because they can get a “clean” image at a high ISO. Unfortunately, a clean image isn’t always a nice looking image, and a poorly lit shot will always look bad no matter what camera it’s shot on. Although it might seem like a compromise, in some ways it’s a nice challenge to have to light your shots as if you were shooting on 200T film. And if you rise to the occasion, the results will be incredible.
A well exposed shot at ISO 200 on the Digital Bolex D16 looks so filmic, I would be hard pressed to find any other digital cinema camera that looks more like film. Even a camera like the Arri Alexa – which is arguably the best digital cinema camera ever made – doesn’t have this exact look straight out of the box. That’s not to say an Alexa isn’t extremely filmic, but certainly not in a gritty, 16mm kind of way. The D16 has a very unique and distinct look that is extremely reminiscent of actual film. This is probably thanks to the CCD sensor (as opposed to CMOS), and great color science.
It’s hard to describe exactly what it is about the D16 image that makes it feel filmic as it isn’t any one thing. It’s not the dynamic range (other cameras that have more DR are much less filmic), it’s not just the fact that it has a global shutter, and it’s certainly not only because of the RAW recording format. It’s the combination of so many different elements that create the look the D16 is known for, and it’s something you just sort of feel while you’re watching the footage.
The RAW images are extremely flexible in post, which is fantastic of course. What I find most interesting though, is no matter how much you push the color, the image always seems to retain that intangible “film look”. The RAW files aren’t just a blank canvas that give you a neutral starting point. They truly have that cinematic looked baked it, and retain it exceptionally well, no matter how you choose to color your footage.
Here’s a before and after example of a graded shot of my dog, Peanut.
The single biggest reason I like this camera is because it has an identity. Unlike many of today’s cameras (like Sony’s FS7 for instance) that attempt to serve everyone – from narrative filmmakers to event shooters – the D16 has a specific purpose. It is designed to authentically emulate the look and process of shooting on Super 16mm film, and it does that extremely well.
Often times people complain when a camera like the D16 can’t do everything that some lesser expensive cameras could. For instance, it’s easy to pick apart it’s lack of low light ability or it’s limited frame rate options… But the truth is, if those are important considerations for you as a filmmaker, you shouldn’t even be looking at the D16 in the first place. This camera is designed for a specific purpose as I stated above, and that comes with a specific process.
In the case of the short that I’m shooting this week, the D16 is truly a best of both worlds option. It will allow us to capture a truly authentic Super 16mm look, while still maintaining the conveniences of shooting digitally, which are necessary for our production.
The project itself is a mood film I’m creating as part of the development process for my feature (more on that in the near future), and as the edit comes together I’ll be sharing footage, more detailed feedback on the camera, and a behind the scenes featurette on the making of the short.
All of the images above were color graded in DaVinci Resolve using the Film Convert plugin. You can buy Film Convert for 10% off by clicking this link and using the code: KROLL
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!