Some have claimed that Digital Bolex’s 16mm 2K cinema camera, the D16, is simply a “niche” camera. See:
- Philip Bloom’s Review of the Digital Bolex D16 (Yes, Bloom loved it.)
- Joe Rubinstein’s response: Philip Bloom Reviews the D16.
A cell phone is a niche camera if you’re using it for serious production. The D16 is a Cinema Camera and I would place it side by side with a RED camera and not be ashamed. I have shot two short documentaries with this camera:
In addition, I have also shot a professionally paid promotional film with it since I’ve received my camera late February, which I discuss below.
After taking my Bolex through these projects over the past six weeks, I can safely say that the D16 is a professional 16mm cinema camera that works great as a regular production house A-camera. No hesitation.
I would only consider this a niche camera if I were to consider 16mm film a niche medium! The processing of raw files harkens back to the classic world of traditional filmmaking, where the filmmaker processed film through a color lab before editing.
In addition to shooting 12-bit CinemaDNG raw, the D16 engages in a potential filmic grain from its analog sensor. See:
The D16 provides the look of 16mm film stock, a look not found on the digital CMOS sensors of other CinemaDNG raw cameras (such as the Blackmagic Cinema and Pocket cameras).
The Bolex also contains a global shutter and 24-bit audio, unlike nearly all of its competition. Thus, if one considers a 16mm film look, niche, then so be it. I’ve shot on DSLRs (and still love them) and the C100, and these provide a thin clean plastic look — not the look of film (although post elements can be added to them in order to make them look more film-like). With these 8-bit compressed cameras (some costing thousands more than Bolex) you must get the image right in-camera, since you have little latitude in post to shape the look of the image.
The D16 is not a “thin” 8-bit video camera, but a fully realized 12-bit raw cinema camera, providing a “thick” film-like look in the promo, “American Community School, Amman, Jordan”:
As can be seen in the promotional film, the 12-bit raw image is “thicker”, more film-like in its development and “lab” processing potential and capabilities. The D16 is the first digital “video” camera I’ve shot with since learning to shoot on 16mm film back in my NYU days in the mid-1990s that feels like I’m shooting on film. It’s fun to shoot with it.
Thus I had no hesitation in approaching a promotional gig in Amman, Jordan with this camera and as a solo shooter (with no assistants). (I did bring along my 5D Mark II just in case the Bolex broke down, but I never ended up using it.)
The piece I shot in Jordan, “American Community School, Amman, Jordan” was mainly shot on a monopod (with a couple of tripod and slider shots). The monopod allowed me to move quickly with my setups, shooting over ninety percent of my shots in one day, with a follow-up the next day for several additional shots.
I dumped my footage that night through the USB cable from the 500GB internal drive to my USB 3.0 500GB G-Drive mini (it takes about 75 minutes to dump a full load). I did not use any CF cards, which does allow you to copy footage from the SSD to them as you shoot.
I did a simple color correction in the easy to use LightPost (adjusting exposure) and then exported as ProRes 4444 (since I wanted to do additional fine-turning of my grade in Final Cut Pr0). ProRes 422 does not allow you to do anything but simple correction before the image falls apart (it’s really not any better than H.264 convert to ProRes 422).
In either case, the rough cut edit was completed within a day, which I uploaded to Vimeo and I was able to send send the client the rough cut and get feedback right away.
Additional footage shot on a consumer video camera — the footage from Somalia and the celebration of cultures day — was sent to a shared dropbox folder. I ended up treating this footage with a 16mm plug-in in order to get rid of the plastic video look of a consumer video camera.
For lenses, I shot with my 25mm f/2.8 Zeiss Contax lens with a C to EF mount adapter (the EF mount plate wasn’t available, yet from Digital Bolex), as well as with Rokinon’s 8mm f/3.5, 16mm T/2.2, and 24mm T/1.5 EF lenses.
For audio, I simply attached a shockmount to the top cold shoe mount and used the Sennheiser ME64 cardioid capsule mic with the K6P power adapter — good for interior dialogue (although some shots were a bit environmentally noisy and I wished I used the ME66 shotgun mic). Unlike much of its competition, the D16 has two 24-bit XLR audio inputs, so running and gunning is not a problem with this camera, providing clean manually adjustable audio.
In addition, I used the SmallHD DP4 EVF, because the weakest link on this camera is its onboard LCD screen (I did shoot a short doc with just the built-in screen, so it can be done). But the SmallHD provides a nice focus assist and a large clear image. (After hanging out at NAB recently in April, I have since decided to purchase a small 3″ monitor, the Kinotehnik LCDVFe Electronic Viewfinder, one that is lighter for the Bolex and allows for angle adjustments without unscrewing mount nuts.
Ultimately, the Digital Bolex D16 is a camera I will continue to shoot personal and professional projects. It provides a solid film look that I find more appealing than the images coming out of 8-bit compressed cameras (DSLRs, C100, nearly every prosumer video camera on the market) — and I definately would take it over a 4K camera, since that market is less than 1%. We still live in a 2K world, despite what many manufacturers are trying to hype up otherwise. Give it another five years and we may begin to hit 10%. Most Hollywood films — even if shot on 4K — output at 2K masters for screening (even in the few 4K theaters).
Remember, cinema cameras are not about specs but about image quality, the look and feel of the digital film (in addition to how you engage in composition and lighting). This is where the D16 shines and stands out from nearly all of its competition.
For $3600 (with the 500GB drive), it’s one of the best — if not the best — cinema camera for under $10,000. Some have even completed comparison footage showing how the image is better than a RED (more about that in a later post).
The D16 is a solid production house camera. Will I use other cameras? Perhaps. It depends what the job calls for. I love my 5D Mark II and its large low-light sensor is nice for some projects. But the D16 is now my go-to camera for all types of production, not just for “niche” projects, but for nearly any type of production I would want to shoot.
Kurt Lancaster is the author of DSLR Cinema and Cinema Raw: Shooting and Color Grading with the Ikonoskop, Digital Bolex, and Blackmagic Cinema Cameras. He teaches digital filmmaking and documentary at Northern Arizona University. Kurt received his PhD from NYU.