Digital Bolex D16 and D16M

In March 2012, Joseph Rubinstein started the Digital Bolex campaign on Kickstarter to create a camera that would bring the charm and desired look of 16mm film to the digital age using a Super 16-sized sensor and a RAW-based codec that helps preserve image fidelity. That Kickstarter campaign was a great success and nearly two years later, the Digital Bolex D16 Cinema Camera came to the market for those looking for the nostalgia of working with 16mm cameras without the hassle of using actual film. Everything from the form factor to the sensor choice comes together to create an unusual blend of the old and the new, providing an opportunity for those willing to work with something that is a little different than what the mainstream camcorder market is offering. The big question is, can a camcorder that is designed to emulate a specific look and feel be useful for a variety of cinematography needs? 

Going Retro

If you are going to create a product with a retro design, the first thing that is always appreciated is consistency. Digital Bolex has done a fantastic job with this and everything from the exterior design of the D16 to the packaging and marketing material on the Digital Bolex website has a cool, hip vibe that attracts the eye. The 2K CCD sensor, working in conjunction with the Cinema DNG RAW codec, completes the package by creating a 16mm film-like look with up to 12 stops of dynamic range.

The D16 has a unique teardrop shape that tapers toward the back and most of the controls and buttons have no labeling to detract from the minimalistic design. The detachable pistol grip, which includes a recording trigger, blends in perfectly with the D16’s design and provides a pretty comfortable operating mode for handheld shots. The front features a C Mount lens mount, which uses a threaded connector rather than more modern mounts, which have a bayonet mounting system. On the top, there is a cold shoe mount for accessories, a small LCD monitor for settings and video monitoring, and basic function buttons for accessing the settings menu and to start/stop recording. One interesting aspect of the D16 is the fan vents on the very front, which allow hot air to be expelled from the camera body by a small multi-speed fan.

Digital Bolex D16M Audio/video I/O and side-panel cold shoe
Digital Bolex D16M Audio/video I/O and side-panel cold shoe
The left side features a second cold shoe mount, two XLR inputs with phantom power, 4-pin 12V power input and output, and 1/8-inch headphone and composite video outputs. On the right side, you’ll find two cranks, one that is smaller than the other, that can be used to control various camera settings and two small knobs for controlling the audio recording levels. On the back, below the control buttons,
Digital Bolex D16 CompactFlash slots and USB 3.0 connection
there is a small media door that reveals two CompactFlash slots as well as a USB 3.0 connector for transferring files to a computer.

The D16 has a very solid build quality and is much heavier than it appears.  Weighing in at 8lb. without the pistol grip, the D16 is very dense and can get a bit heavy when operating handheld for an extensive period of time. The control surfaces are placed in appropriate locations for easy access while shooting, although it can be difficult to see the monitor on top and adjust settings if you are shooting using a tripod at head height. Overall, the smooth curves and classic looks make the D16 one of the most unique looking cameras available. 

Roll film!

To put the D16 through its paces, we ventured out to a small community park in the California foothills on a bright, sunny day. The harsh sunlight and bright colors created a lot of contrast between lit and shady areas, so this was a great location to test the dynamic range of the Super 16 CCD sensor.

See the results here.

We had four lenses to use with our D16: a 10mm fixed f/4, a 10mm f/2.8, a 25mm f/0.85 and a 50mm f/1.4. We also had a gradual neutral density filter we could use in place of adjusting the aperture for bright scenes. Three of the lenses had focus rings, but the 10mm f/2.8 did not and could only be focused by actually unscrewing the lens little by little on the mount itself. This proved to be a somewhat precarious proposition, as we were operating handheld at first and having the lens not solidly mounted created a sense of impending doom that was difficult to ignore. The other lenses worked as you would normally expect on any other camera that uses fully manual lenses. On the positive side, C Mount lenses are small, lightweight and can be found fairly cheap these days.

The 2K CCD sensor, with the Cinema DNG RAW codec, completes the package by creating a 16mm film-like look with up to 12 stops of dynamic range.

Operating the D16 handheld and being able to squeeze the trigger on the pistol grip to start and stop recording felt very natural and is a nice feature to have when grabbing quick shots that don’t need the stability of a tripod. The grip is easily removeable and attaching a tripod plate in its place is just as easy. The small internal fan eventually fired up between shots but is set by default to turn off when recording is started. When the recording stops, it will start back up if the internals need cooling.

We started to shoot some footage of the surrounding grass, ponds and trees and one thing became quite apparent when shooting with the D16: make sure you have an external field monitor with you for focusing and setting exposure! We used the internal LCD monitor, which has an adjustable angle of about 5-10 degrees, has a very low resolution and has fairly poor viewing angles. These factors led to some of our test footage being slightly soft in focus and some shots were overexposed. The internal LCD monitor is OK for changing settings or checking your shooting parameters, but should probably not be used as your main monitoring source when filming. The built-in HDMI output can display 1080p video on an external monitor, which will greatly aid you when setting focus and exposure levels. With the cold shoe mount on the side, that would also be the perfect location for an electronic viewfinder as a better monitoring option as well.

While shooting with the D16, you’ll have to adjust a lot of settings before each shot, as everything is set manually. You won’t find anything that is automatic on the D16, so easy access to ISO, white balance and audio levels is a must for proper use. The D16 has two crank wheels on the side that can each be set to adjust one of many available settings including ISO, shutter angle, white balance and headphone levels. The clicky feel of the crank wheels made them a delight to adjust, but the D16 often lagged behind when adjusting the parameter assigned to the crank wheel. It also was not clear how much turning was required to adjust a setting. If you turned the crank one click, nothing changed, but turn too many clicks, and you’ll pass the setting you actually wanted. This imprecision made the crank wheels a little fiddly to use, but they worked OK for the most part. There are a few other quick-access features to help get things ready for shooting. You also can press the Enter button to zoom in the video to 100 percent and move the zoomed in section around to help with focusing. You can also press the Display button to turn on a set of helpful overlays with common aspect ratios or turn the monitor off completely.

The audio levels have dedicated control knobs, which are used to adjust each channel individually. There is no built in microphone, so you must use an external mic through the two XLR ports to record any audio. Fortunately, the audio interface captures clean, 24-bit 96kHz audio, which sounded good from our small shotgun mic. The headphone jack can be used to monitor the sound, but if you are recording using one channel, the audio will only come out of the left or right headphone and not both.

One small point of contention with using the D16 is that you must discover some things on your own as the documentation that is provided is very limited. There is only an eight page quick-start guide available on the Digital Bolex website at the time of writing. There were a few settings for the LCD monitor that we wanted clarification on, so we visited the website to look for the full user manual. Where there should be a link to download a full user manual, there are the words, “Coming Soon.” It would definitely be nice to have a full manual available that documents every feature and setting for users that may not be familiar with all the terms used in advanced video production. 

In the Cutting Room

The D16 records using the Adobe Cinema DNG codec, which uses about 5GB of disk space per minute of footage. This robust codec plays a large role in providing the increased latitude and flexibility you have with the footage in your editing software. Before you can bring the Cinema DNG files into your editing software, they must be processed first by intermediary software in which you can adjust basic parameters of the footage including the color temperature and color profiles that are applied. Once this step is done, the footage can be edited similarly to many other professional codecs.

The CCD sensor in the D16 uses a global shutter, which doesn’t produce any rolling shutter or Jell-O effects when panning the camera rapidly. This is nice to see in a world full of CMOS sensors, which are commonly afflicted with this behavior. However, CCD sensors can be affected by very bright sources of light and can cause strange vertical lines to appear when the pixels get “hot” and overflow into their respective columns. The dynamic range shown in our test footage was very good, showing detail in both bright and dark areas of the frame. Footage shot in low light using the maximum ISO setting (800) generated a high level of digital noise, but this can be used to enhance the 16mm film look, if desired.

Digital Bolex also created a monochrome camera, the D16M that is identical in design to the D16 except for the sensor. The CCD sensor in the D16M only captures luminance values, which results in a cleaner image with less digital noise than one captured with a full color sensor. Our test footage from the D16M had a smooth, pure quality that looks much more satisfying than desaturated color footage, and the image is very clear of digital noise. All the highlights have a slight glow to them and the overall effect the monochrome sensor provides is quite impressive. If you are interested in shooting in black and white often, the D16M is definitely a camera you should check out. 

It’s in the can!

The D16 and D16M Cinema Cameras are certainly an interesting diversion from the mainstream camera market. There are some quirks involved in operating them, but the results you get are worth the trouble. Both of these cameras provide a unique form factor and sensor combination that produces a specific quality and experience similar to working with a Super 16 film camera. There is also something attractive about working with a fully manual camera that lets you do exactly what you want to the image and it won’t try to correct your intentions. Whether it is for nostalgic purposes or simply to take advantage of the advanced codec and pure image quality, the D16 and D16M Cinema Cameras will be attractive to cinematographers that are looking for something different than the usual suspects used for professional shooting today.

Digital Bolex
www.digitalbolex.com

D16: $3,300; D16M: $4,000 

Tech Specs

Sensor Size/Type: Super 16-sized CCD
Video Format: 12-bit Adobe Cinema DNG (RAW)
Resolution/Frame Rate: 2K (24/30), 1080p (24/30), 720p (24/30/60), 480p (24/30/60/90)
Recording Media: Internal 256/512GB SSD and Dual CF slots
Display Size/Resolution: 2.4” 320×240
Lens Mount: C Mount
Included Lens: None
Audio In:  XLR Inputs (2)
Audio Out: 1/8” Headphone
Video Out: HDMI, 1/8“ Composite
Other Interface: USB 3.0, 12/V 4 pin XLR In/Out
Shutter Range: 45°-360°
Shot Assist: Aspect ratio guides, zoom for focus
ISO Range: 100-800
Battery: Non-removable, 4-hour life

Strengths

  • Decent dynamic range
  • Robust codec
  • Inexpensive lenses
  • Solid construction

Weaknesses

  • Lackluster built-in LCD Monitor
  • Noisy high-iso performance
  • Limited documentation

Adam Vesely is a videographer/director of photography and a still photographer in Northern Calif.

1 COMMENT

  1. Having owned and used an H16 Reflex Bolex film camera for many years, I am astonished that the Bolex Digital camcorder does not feature one of the most useful facilities of all, provision for a three lens turret to enable rapid changes of prime lenses. Include that as standard, and I might be tempted, myself. Secondly, I wonder how the spoon-fed, automated-into-the-ground modern generation will react to a camcorder where the user actually has to possess some camera know-how and experience.

     

    Ian Smith

    Dunedin, New Zealand.

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