The Digital Bolex - A Brief Review

Digital Bolex Charging

Hey you guys!

(Updated May 2016)

It was December 2013 and it happened: The first iteration of the Digital Bolex, the D16, went on pre-sale. This was a camera that started with a Kickstarter campaign, of all things, that had finally, finally come to fruition. Now when the Kickstarter started, I didn't have the money to shell out, so the Pre-Order was the next best thing. Part of the way into 2014, I had my camera (Number 107) and before I even tried to turn it on, I knew this thing was a great purchase. It felt great in my hand with its molded pistol grip and dense, well-made body. Just solid. Feels like it could take a beating.

Natively, the D16 takes c-mount lenses, not unlike it's past film counterparts. As of the writing of this blog, however, a MFT and PL mount are also available and definitely something I'm interested in. I'm constantly on a budget, so I couldn't afford to go scouring Ebay for c-mount lenses, so I bought a $30 AR to c-mount adaptor so I could use a set of very old still lenses that my Grandfather gave me with his Konica SLR. They have an interesting, light-leaky aesthetic that gives my work with this camera a unique quality, but I would definitely love to see what I could do with a modern set of lenses.

With the latest firmware update (Dirawong 1.4.0), the camera shoots 2K raw at 24 fps at 100, 160, 200, 400, and 800 ISO. It can also shoot time lapse and single frames with an option for long exposure. It has two audio-ins, two shoe mounts, and two (in and out) 4-pin power ports (The complete specs can be viewed here). The firmware updates are few and far between for Digital Bolex as they continue to mature as a camera developer, but the full potential of the camera will include many more features. One thing I have been waiting for is 60 fps (at 720p) for the purposes of slow motion. I like slow motion and the beauty of this camera is that the latitude and filmic qualities of the images are such that I have no qualms about up-res-ing. The company has promised the additional frame rates, but it's never clear when they will show up. Fortunately, the Digital Bolex has an active online community so I see the progress before my eyes and I have never felt like I've been in the dark, especially during the long, arduous development of the camera before its release. The folks at Digital Bolex are also willing to share failures with the successes, a refreshing take on business/client relations that I admire.

Shooting with the camera is almost a religious experience. You pick it up. You feel the solid construction. The grip sits perfectly balanced in your hand. The thing simply looks cool! Then you actually turn it on. The D16 is a very simple camera. It's easy to go into the menu and know everything there is to know in minutes. Choose your settings and shoot. Easy. What's not easy, of course, is getting the most of this camera that needs a lot of light knowledge and a light meter to get what I consider a quality image. Ironically, I have used the camera almost exclusively for run-and-gun stuff over the past year with varied success, but mostly in the outdoors with lots of light. I use a Zacuto EVF with it (attached to one of the shoes). The monitor is a must as the rear screen is barely good enough to read the menu settings and lies at an awkward angle for shooting. Digital Bolex does offer a mirrored camera hood that resembles a shark fin for situations when using a monitor is impossible, but I still subscribe to the importance of a good external monitor. The camera doesn't have a built-in microphone, so I bought a small shotgun mic for scratch audio. I'm not a sound expert and, in fact, I'm hard of hearing, but the sound recorded on the camera is fantastic and warm like the reel-to-reel Nagra analog recorders I used in college. I like the aesthetic, I like the attention I get on set, and I like the functionality, but if you're a professional, this camera is likely not going to be your work horse because it's so specialized and so hipster.

On the post end, raw video means large files sizes compared to DSLRs and all those compressed cameras. For someone like me with little money to burn, that means spending time processing the footage and making compressed versions and destroying the originals to save space on my computer. I hate doing that! Raw is raw is raw 'though, and nothing beats that flexibility with the footage. A application called Lightpost is provided with the camera, but most people, including me, use DaVinci Resolve to color the footage and create proxies. It's important to note that, until the latest firmware update, the footage from the D16 had an inherent red cast to it that had to be neutralized, but now that annoying problem has been fixed. I edit in Adobe Premiere which now takes the image sequences straight off the D16 and onto the timeline natively, but I still subscribe to a more meticulous workflow with Resolve first. Then you edit. Then you spit it out on the Internet. Others have edited entirely in DaVinci Resolve with great success, but that program is still in infancy when it comes to its editing interface. It's important to note that Vimeo kills some of the unique qualities of this camera (Although Vimeo now supports files up to 4K in resolution), so I like to compress it myself before uploading, not that it has mattered much for the types of projects I have been creating. 

This is a camera unlike any other at the price point. Unfortunately, that is as much a detriment as a selling point. It's a very specific looking camera. It takes time to warm up, so it's not something you can just switch on and shoot (In fact, if you shoot before the camera is warmed up, the resulting footage will have a line right down the middle. This can be repaired in post). The camera is also the first for the company and it has yet to be seen if they can take it where they want it firmware-wise (So far so good) and whether or not they might come out with a bigger, badder version 2 as newer components are available on the market (They already released a monochrome version and versions with huge internal capacity up to 2 TB). When fellow professionals ask me whether they should get one or not, I tell them to borrow mine if they want to use it. While I love the camera, it's like the double boiler in your kitchen: You use it for special circumstances and it can't do everything. That said, Digital Bolex, as a company, seems to have their head on straight and I'm very excited every time a new update is released or a fellow filmmaker posts his/her work. At the price point, this camera produces some of the best footage I've seen and, for my part, it never stays in it's case for too long.