Blackmagic made huge waves recently with the announcement of their new RAW format (BM RAW), which delivers superior image quality while improving performance in post. It’s currently only available on the URSA Mini Pro, but I’m sure over time we’ll see it introduced to other systems as well… Seeing as I own the Mini Pro, I decided to take a few minutes to shoot some quick test shots and get an idea how the new format performs.
Since the original BMCC, Blackmagic have offered RAW recording on their cameras, but have always relied on Cinema DNG. This allowed for compressed recording (at either 3:1 or 4:1 quality) which helped keep file sizes down, but unless you were working on a really fast machine it was clunky and slow to play back in post.
The new BM RAW format on the other hand tackles the playback issue head on, and is the next logical evolution in RAW recording. While it minimizes RAW file sizes using compression (with up to a 12:1 ratio), it is also engineered to optimize playback. This means even if you’re using an older machine, you should be able to play back the files far more easily/smoothly than with Cinema DNG.
There are two modes you can utilize within Blackmagic RAW settings: Constant Bitrate & Constant Quality.
Constant bitrate works pretty much the same as most other RAW codecs. You select your compression ratio (3:1, 5:1. 8:1 or 12:1), and the camera will compress your footage accordingly. There will be no fluctuations in file size – no matter what you are shooting, your files will always use a consistent amount of data, based on your specifications.
Constant Quality on the other hand works differently. It prioritizes image quality, so that if you record something that needs more data (such as a whip pan across as busy background), it will increase the data rate. This setting will make it more difficult to predict exactly how much card space you have left, but it comes with the benefit of increased quality. When using Constant Quality, you can choose between using Q0 or Q5 compression – with Q0 being the highest quality option available.
I haven’t had a ton of time to shoot with the new format yet, but I was able to sneak in a few test shots off of my front porch the other day. It was just past sunset, so I decided to roll for about 30 minutes on whatever I could, to see how the camera would perform in low light using BM RAW.
I did some tests beforehand to see the image quality differences between each RAW setting, but they were almost unnoticeable. Images recorded at Q0 in Constant Quality looked incredible, but so did those recorded at 12:1 compression in Constant Bitrate. I’m sure under more strenuous circumstances you would more of a difference between the two, but under normal conditions I was really impressed at how good the more compressed RAW options looked – including 12:1.
That said, everything you see in the video below was shot using the highest quality setting (Q0) at ISO 8oo in 4.6K. Unlike my earlier tests, for these shots I just wanted to test the best quality the camera could offer, and wasn’t as concerned with comparing each individual compression setting. Take a look at a few shots below, which have been lightly graded in Resolve –
I always assess color science first and foremost, and as usual BMD delivered on that front. Many cameras struggle to achieve natural color balance in lower light situations, but the URSA Mini Pro has never has had this issue… And it really shows when using BM RAW.
The shots above weren’t colored using any of Blackmagic’s LUTs (I just created some basic grades from scratch), but I did experiment with the latest “Film to Extended Video V4” LUT from Blackmagic. On first glance, that LUT seems to offer much better results than any of the V3 LUTs, which were always a bit too severe for my taste… Either way, I was impressed by color performance across the board, both when grading manually or 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 little bit on that front too. I’ll need to do some side by side tests to be sure my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me, but on first glance BM RAW appears to have a more pleasing noise pattern than any of the other recording formats. It’s less distracting and more filmic in a way, not to mention it seems to be easier to de-noise in post. None of the shots in the video above used any noise reduction, but I did experiment with NR in Resolve and was truly impressed by the results.
All in all, shooting with BM RAW was a great experience. The new settings take a bit of getting used to – especially Constant Quality, as it makes your record time jump up and down on the monitor – but the color science, grain, and overall quality it delivers makes BM RAW hard to pass up. Even editing the footage was a breeze, which was surprising considering I was using my 2 year old MacBook Pro to edit the highest possible quality files (Q0).
Hopefully in the future we’ll see this format brought to other cameras – even those outside of the Blackmagic ecosystem. And hopefully we’ll see it integrated into other editing platforms like FCP X or Premiere, as it may not only work well as an acquisition and DI format, but perhaps as a delivery format too… But for now, things are looking quite promising, and I’m sure this is just the very 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.
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!