Mini Review—Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini Pro 12K

The URSA Mini Pro 12K is a truly groundbreaking camera that counts several unique features that set it apart from the rest of the camera market, low to high end.

I reviewed the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 about a year and half ago, and upon unboxing the URSA Mini Pro 12K, I was struck that both cameras are almost physically identical, and operationally, only minimal differences are apparent. Because of my limited space, I’m not going to delve too far into specs and spec charts as those can easily be found on the Blackmagic Design website.  

I had to utilize the best quality lens I had at my disposal. In this case, my Canon CNE 18-80mm t/4.4 servo zoom. This lens doesn’t have nearly enough resolution capability to utilize the potential of the 12K Super 35 sensor, but the images were impressive nonetheless.

The Layout

Generally, you’ll find that the URSA Mini Pro 12K is laid out logically. If you’ve been in this business for a while, the camera kind of reminds me of a shoulder-mounted 2/3” three CCD camera than the typical generic shoebox form factor favored by most camera designers in 2021. I find the form factor of the URSA Mini Pro 12K to be refreshingly not friendly for gimbal and drone use. As a gimbal and drone owner, I find that the value equation of trying to mount your big, heavy and bulky “A” camera onto either type of device to be poor.

I’ve found that small and light mirrorless cameras have increased in quality so much that mounting them to these devices as your “B” camera to be much more practical. On the flip side, the form factor shoulder mounting and shooting tripod mounting the URSA Mini Pro 12K is delightful, the camera feels like a true digital cinema camera versus a metal shoebox with a ton of gak hanging from it. The optional Blackmagic URSA Mini Shoulder Kit will be a big plus for most users. The Blackmagic URSA Viewfinder remains one of the highest quality, most reasonable cost EVFs in the pro camera market but it’s really only practical to use on Blackmagic Design URSA Mini cameras.  

The URSA Mini Pro 12K closely resembles the current URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2 camera. The only layout difference is the addition and location of a USB 3 port for recording to external SSDs.

The Sensor

Unlike much of the rest of the production world, I’m personally not that excited or reverential about the actual raster size of the 12K. It’s not that I don’t need a 12K raster, which incredibly means that each frame is 12,288 x 6,480 pixels! But from an engineering perspective, the 12K Super 35 sensor is a staggering accomplishment. When shooting 12K, each frame is recorded as a compressed RAW 80 MB still image that can be recorded at up to 75 frames per second. From a practical aspect of shooting and editing the footage, I find the idea of working with this amount of data, both in raster and file size, to be superfluous to my work, but that’s not to say that it would be superfluous to others work. Upon further examination, and shooting some footage, I found that the 12K produces a beautiful, very impressive image when shooting 12K. It’s smooth and very “cinematic” looking, for lack of a better descriptive term. The images show amazing detail without “straining” as sometimes even 4K footage can seem to do, if that makes any sense?

Stock camera image adjectives used to convey the impression of the imagery feel inadequate to describe how the 12K images appear, but needless to say, the 12K footage looks very, very good, even though the best display I could view the images on was my 5K iMac Retina screen. It has been said that the images from this camera aren’t any “sharper” than the images from other 4K, 6K and 8K cameras, but from a mathematic standpoint, the 12K images are smoother than the images from lower resolution cameras. Dare I say, the footage I shot reminded me quite a bit of low ASA 35mm motion picture film that I used to shoot much more often than in recent years.

The URSA Mini Pro 12K is relatively power hungry and longer operational times are obtained by utilizing larger Goldmount or V-Mount batteries.

What I found most exciting about this camera wasn’t the 12K recording capability, although that was interesting. It was the fact that the camera utilizes a brand-new custom-engineered sensor that Blackmagic Design designed. It’s not a Bayer pattern sensor, it’s an RGB sensor. Not sure if you’re familiar with how a Bayer sensor works, but let it be said that while Bayer sensors work very well, they lose considerable resolution over the sensor’s native resolution because of the Bayer/DeBayer cycle. In practical terms, this means that the 12K uses the full width and height of the sensor when shooting 4K, 8K and 12K. Impressive, as the camera doesn’t need to crop the sensor or the FOV of the sensor for those lower raster sizes, although 6K is available with a Super 16 crop. This means that the 12K has the right combination of amazingly high built-in frame rates at all resolutions and most of these higher frame rates are available to you without crop.

Lenses

I’ll be frank here; I don’t own any lenses that could really do justice to the MTF required by the 12K sensor to fully realize its potential. I’m convinced that to exploit the full image capability of this camera, one needs to access the best PL-mount cinema glass made. That said, I requested that Blackmagic Design send me the camera with an EF mount because those are the lenses I own and I was between client projects where I could have justified renting some higher-end PL glass just to test it. I tried out the camera with a variety of my still lenses and was most impressed with the results from my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II and, switching to something a bit more cinematic, my Canon CN-E 18-80mm t/4.4 actually produced the best-looking images I could obtain. I have no doubt that a Zeiss or Cooke cine prime lens would look that much better, but for most of us, those type of lenses are a rental item as they are cost prohibitive for most budgets. This ties in with the fact that there are no 12K production monitors currently available.

The URSA Viewfinder is the same one I used when I reviewed the URSA Mini Pro 4.6K G2. For a mere $1,500, the quality and construction are impressive. I didn’t have a 12K monitor to evaluate overall image sharpness after I had shot footage, but on my iMac 5K Retina screen, the images looked clear and in focus, so I have to assume they’d likely look as sharp on a 12K monitor.

I utilized the URSA Viewfinder and my Atomos Shinobi 5” field monitor to shoot some nature footage and test shots around the office. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to line up any shoots with talent like interviews or spokesperson segments during the short time I had the camera, but I suspect that human subjects would have looked as impressive as the trees, babbling brooks and vistas that I shot as test footage.

The features on the URSA Mini Pro routing and signal options on the 12K model are mostly physical buttons instead of being buried in menus. I like this much better for operating in the field, under the pressure of shooting.

Considerations

In assembling the camera, I have to be honest that while I really like the camera’s overall form factor and especially the URSA Viewfinder, the camera’s handle-mounting system feels very archaic, the same as my Canon C300 MKII, where you must have a long Allen wrench to affix the handle to the body using two long Allen bolts. There are no hand tighten-able screws like my C200 has. The method that Blackmagic Design uses to affix the EVF to the handle is also clunky and overly fussy, relying on four small screws, then some larger screws to attach a plate to the handle. This whole scheme works, it’s just that it’s not quick or convenient to affix or detach either to or from the camera body. Same with the grip extension and the shoulder pad.

I can only hope that other camera manufacturers take a design cue from Blackmagic Design. Their cameras’ menus are among the simplest and most intelligently designed, making selections easy to find and see when under the gun of tight production schedules.

From a media standpoint, my current Ego Disk 256 GB CFast 2.0 cards weren’t approved by Blackmagic Design and would stop recording after a few seconds. I ended up renting two Lexar 3500X CFast cards that are on the Blackmagic Design approved media list and they worked well. The URSA Mini Pro 12K can require up into the 2,377 MB/s range when using high frame rates, low compression levels and Constant Quality settings. This goes beyond any currently available media sustained write data rate, so the camera will smartly write every other frame to one card or the other so as to prevent dropped frames. I didn’t have a chance to test it, but the camera can also record to an approved external SSD via a USB 3 connection as well. If I was going to do any amount of production with the camera, I’d skip CFast 2.0 cards and just use SSDs. The camera only shoots Blackmagic RAW. No ProRes, no DNxHD, no CineForm. Just Blackmagic RAW.

I spoke with a Blackmagic Design spokesperson and the development of the camera was tied integrally to the development of DaVinci Resolve. What this means in practical terms is that you’ll want to only consider renting or buying this camera if you’re comfortable working in DaVinci Resolve, although Adobe Premiere Pro also now has Blackmagic RAW support. While I’m not a fan of Premiere, I really like DaVinci Resolve. It’s a great program that’s constantly updated and each release just gets better and better. That said, I also edit using FCP X and Apple likely will never support Blackmagic RAW, so that’s a consideration for some.

I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient Blackmagic RAW was with the 12K footage on my 2020 iMac. I can’t say it was snappy, but it was no worse than working with Cinema RAW Light from our C200, which is very impressive considering the raster of the 12K footage is three times the size. Optimization with the next generation Apple M1 and M1x chips will make working with 12K footage even smoother and faster. I also shot some higher frame rate 4K footage. Blackmagic Design recently released a firmware update that added several new frame rate options to URSA Mini Pro 12K.

  • 12K 2.4:1 maximum frame rate to 75fps
  • 8K DCI, 16:9 and 6:5 Anamorphic to 120fps
  • 4K DCI, 16:9 and 6:5 Anamorphic to 120fps
  • 8K 2.4:1 and 4K 2.4:1 to 160fps
  • 4K Super 16 to 240fps

The camera can shoot 4K 120fps using the full sensor, 2.4:1 4K to 160fps, or if you’d like to shoot at 240fps, you can go down to a 4K Super 16. If you like to shoot slow motion, the 12K is an impressive offering.

After spending a couple of days shooting with the 12K, I found that it’s a very easy camera to work and live with. It’s bigger and heavier than my Canon C200 and 300 MKII. It lacks some features that I’m used to like usable autofocus and I wish that Blackmagic Design could have enabled ProRes recording on the 4K formats, but that’s not that big of a deal.

What I Liked

  1. Best, simplest and quickest-to-use camera menus on the market.
  2. The 12K image is impressive. The 4K, 6K and 8K are equally impressive, but just don’t feel quite as smooth looking.
  3. Form factor is excellent overall, easy to shoulder mount, easy to use from tripod.
  4. The tight and efficient integration of Blackmagic RAW and DaVinci Resolve is impressive and no other company can touch it because they don’t make camera and editing software, unlike Blackmagic Design, who makes both.
  5. The images, Blackmagic Generation 5 Color Science and Super 35 sensor are really amazing. For under $10K, this camera blows away some of the much more expensive competition that costs considerably more money.
  6. Recording to small SSDs is cost effective and convenient. Death to proprietary media formats!
  7. The URSA Viewfinder that accompanies the camera is a great value as well.
  8. Shooting with this camera was aspirational for me. The camera requires you to brush up on your manual focusing skills, up your glass game and learn new ways of imagining how you can photograph scenes with a glorious RGB 12K sensor.
  9. The overall value equation is kind of incredible. For all of the money you save by buying a camera like this, you can spend it on renting really high-end glass that it needs to realize its full potential.
  10. The camera’s slow-motion capabilities make it a natural for nature, sports, music videos and commercials.
I feel that Blackmagic Design could improve the location of the audio input XLRs. This location results in most normal profile XLR audio cables sticking straight up into the air. The design is also susceptible to moisture and dust.

What I Didn’t Care For  

  1. No usable AF—A lot of this will depend on the kind of work you do. For the work that best suits the camera, the lack of AF isn’t a deal breaker as you should be using high-end PL glass anyway and high-end PL glass isn’t AF. For my work, documentary especially, AF is handy.
  2. In assembling the camera out of the box, some of the basic body features and design seem to point to a camera that was designed by computer engineers and not working DPs and camera ops. Little things like the handle and EVF mounting systems are kludgy, the XLR audio inputs are in the top deck of the camera where water and moisture will seep into more easily, the lack of a waveform monitor, etc. This is one area that Blackmagic Design needs to get better at. It feels like they need more DP/AC and Camera Op input into how the camera is to set up and use.
  3. Camera has a max ISO of 3,200. Relatively high, but compared to some competing price class cameras that can operate comfortably at ISO 12,500 and above, 3,200 can feel a bit limiting. Then again, I like lighting, so as long as you are lighting your scenes, this is a non-factor. But for nature, event or documentary where you sometimes cannot light, it can be limiting.

Who Is the URSA Mini Pro 12K Intended For?

What I found most refreshing about the URSA Mini Pro 12K after spending some time with it is that it’s a very unique and innovative piece of gear. There really isn’t another camera like it. Very few cameras I’ve used made me aspire to be better at my job, to better my own skills. The camera proves that Blackmagic Design is disrupting the industry in a way that their competitors simply aren’t capable of. Shooting with the camera made me manually focus. It made me realize that my $5,000 CN E 18-80mm lens simply wasn’t up to the task of fully exploiting the image potential of the camera. It made me realize that until 12K monitors are available, I won’t ever even be able to see such a huge raster size video at its native resolution. I also came to the realization that even though the headline-grabbing feature of the camera is the insane 12K resolution, what I found more interesting was the new sensor’s look and feel and the fact that I could randomly change shooting resolution at will as I was shooting, knowing that the end result would look the same, just in different raster sizes.

In speaking with Blackmagic Design, without violating confidentiality, the URSA Mini Pro 12K is currently being used for several high-profile movies. I don’t think the URSA Mini Pro 12K will replace the Sony Venice’s and Arri Alexa Mini LFs that are the current darlings of high-end production, but I do think that the camera is so good that it will be used on some really interesting projects to achieve results that are astounding in the right hands. For less than U.S. $10,000, the URSA Mini Pro 12K is quite an impressive accomplishment. The URSA Mini Pro 12K is one more product that shows the world that Grant Petty and Co. aren’t afraid to take chances, truly think outside the box and define their own vision for production tools. The URSA Mini Pro 12K isn’t a perfect camera. Like every other camera, it has its limitations and things it’s missing, but as an engineering accomplishment and as an interesting and innovative product, Blackmagic Design has definitely accomplished its goal and then some.

Check the price and availability of the Blackmagic Design’s URSA Mini Pro 12K at Amazon and B&H.