5 Reasons Why I Bought a RED SCARLET, and Why It May (Or May Not) Be the Right Camera for You
One No Film School writer happens to own a RED SCARLET. Now there are two. Ryan already discussed his purchase back in November last year, so if you came here from Twitter or somewhere else and you're confused why this post is happening a year after he bought one...well...this is your answer. Back when RED had their one-time-only Battle-Tested SCARLET deal, I pulled the trigger, and have not looked back since. This post isn't an attempt to enrage DSLR users or DIYers, or encourage RED-haters -- because I've used and owned every brand that exists (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, etc.) and I can find positives and negatives about all of them. As a writer for a website with a very diverse audience, however, I thought I had an obligation to explain why I made such a major monetary decision.
A Little Background
I have directed a number of films in the past, including a feature (a few of which have yet to be released), and I've also been the Director of Photography on a number of shorts (and part of a feature). Since I've mostly worked in the no-budget sector of filmmaking, I've also acted as the focus puller on many of my films, as well as a few others. I work in television from time to time and I also do some documentary/special interest work. Most of what I do involves working in situations where I'm either in daylight, working with lights indoors, or in a space where I have just enough light to work with already. I would like to do more music videos and commercials (directing or shooting) in the near future, so that is also factored into the equation of what I was looking for in a camera, since, as you'll read, I didn't have one when I made the purchase.
I haven't owned a camera since February, which happens to be when I began writing for this site. The freelance jobs I've taken between then and now have luckily not required me to have my own. Does that mean I probably missed out on a few more? Absolutely, but at the time, I needed the money, and the quickest way to get some was to sell my Canon 5D Mark II, and I did, and I didn't look back, knowing I had jobs coming up that didn't necessarily require a camera -- whether one was provided or I was just working as audio.
So I waited...and waited....and waited. Nikon grabbed my interest first, and once I had put the money together, I was going to jump on the Nikon D800, because for my uses (not really any situations where I needed a low-light monster, though the D800 is capable with a little post work), it was a perfect camera, especially since it had the ability to record the HDMI, which I found in my own testing superior to the internal recording.
After Blackmagic introduced their camera, I had a choice to make, but after a few months of finally getting the money together, I pre-ordered the Cinema Camera. After the initial delays were starting to come in, and they introduced the MFT mount (which also is better for what I wanted to use a camera for), I changed my order, and again, never looked back.
Well, months later, here we are, and RED introduced what I think was an incredible deal (still better than their recent price drop -- though arguably the RED ONE MX is the best bang for the buck), basically offering a brand new camera for a used price. I could not pass it up and since I had saved more money than I needed for the Cinema Camera, I jumped at the SCARLET. I still have the Blackmagic Cinema Camera on pre-order, and I'm still excited by the images I've from it, but the reality is that I won't be shooting anytime soon with that camera, as you've probably read about.
I'll have to make another confession: currently I do not have the rest of what I need for a fully working SCARLET, which is really only power and media, since I own a SmallHD monitor and I have quite a few Nikon lenses (which can be adapted to the RED Canon adapter very easily). I could have bought the rest of what I needed to get shooting with the camera, but as a purely financial decision, it did not make sense for me personally to spend every last cent on a camera system right away. The decision to buy the camera was based on funds I had readily available, and the goal is to finance the rest of what I need to shoot as cheaply as possible, which will most likely involve interest-free credit cards and/or selling gear I may no longer need. I also wanted to do as much research as humanly possible before getting the rest of these parts, but since the deal was only going to last a few days, it made sense to buy the body immediately for a greatly reduced price than even what the camera is currently retailing for (which is about $10,000 as opposed to $7,100 for the deal).
These reasons are based on having the money (at least at some point soon) to put together a camera package in a specific price range: $5,000-$15,000. If you don't already own some of the pieces to get you going (monitor/tripod/lenses), it could be at least a $15,000 investment or more. I've been investing in these specific parts over the last few years, so the investment is slightly lower for me, but it's something to keep in mind.
With that said, let's get into why I bought a SCARLET, and why it may, or may not, be the right camera for you:
1. The Look
I'm sure most of you reading this have seen RED footage. Some of it is fantastic, some of it is good, and of course, some of it is terrible. This isn't any different from any other camera out there. Even the Arri Alexa -- which I think has made some of the most beautiful digital images so far -- has produced less than stellar footage. The RED MX sensor looks cinematic to me, not just in the way it renders colors, but in the way it renders motion. Even when it's not graded very well, it still feels right to me in a way that I haven't felt from other camera systems in this price range (except for the Blackmagic Cinema Camera).
This is, of course, purely subjective and intangible. What satisfies "the look" for one person may not for another, but really, that's what makes filmmaking interesting. I might make a different decision about what a film looks like than someone else, but for me, I know the look that I want to achieve in my work, and I'm confident I can get it from RED. As a perfect example of what I'm talking about, here is the short our own Ryan Koo made with his SCARLET:
2. RAW/Post Flexibility
Having played with RED RAW files in the past, I was simply blown away by what was possible, even at relatively higher compression ratios. This is certainly a part of "the look." I personally wanted a camera that would hold up in post. If I want to keep an image flat, that's one thing, but if I want to do serious color grading with lots of secondaries, there aren't many cameras in this price range that can deliver.
Part of my background is in photography, and I've shot on everything from DSLRs, to 35mm, Medium Format, and 4 x 5 Large Format. All throughout I've been using RAW in one way or another. Whether it was shooting and developing a negative in a certain way to retain information, or scanning a negative, or getting a digital RAW file from a DSLR, I've been working with the least compressed quality possible. I wanted to be able to do that once more in my video work. For me, shooting video on DSLRs or on another camera in a highly compressed format is not very far off from shooting JPEGs on a DSLR. Of course you can get beautiful images, but you don't have much room for error, and you certainly can't push the image very far before the compression starts to show up.
10-bit 4:2:2 is nice, but the only camera capable in this range in the F3, and even then, it's not going to come anywhere close to what you can get from RAW.
The RAW files are large, there's no question about that, and that's definitely one of the drawbacks of shooting 4K RAW. For me, however, the compression options and lower frame sizes make this less of an issue than if I were shooting uncompressed RAW. Of course, you can shoot with an external recorder with RED, though I'm not familiar with the kind of quality you'll get out of the HDMI or the HD-SDI of the SCARLET. If it's better than a DSLR, I would still say it's a success, and there are plenty of relatively inexpensive recorders that you could add if you needed to.
RED's post workflow with REDCINE-X or with any of the supported editors (which includes Premiere Pro and Final Cut 7 and X), is mature considering the growing pains that many went through in the beginning. This is another consideration for anyone in this budget range considering the Sony FS700 and 4K upgrade, as it's unclear what the post workflow might look like at this point for that system.
I like sharp images. I'm not talking about digitally enhanced edges, but actual resolved detail. There are only four cameras that hold a candle to the SCARLET in terms of a 1080p image anywhere near this price range: the Sony FS100, Sony FS700, Sony F3, and the Canon C300 (since the C100 hasn't been released yet, I can't really say definitively -- though it's likely that would be the fifth). I got to see all of these cameras on the big screen in 2K (except for the FS700) including some cheaper cameras like the Panasonic GH2 at the Zacuto 2012 Shootout, so that is where some of my opinions are coming from.
I've shot on 35mm adapters and DSLRs for a while now, and they've both got their quirks and issues, but for me, I wanted a camera that could finally resolve an image as good as the best 1080p cameras out there. 4K was also a consideration. Yes, it's not "real" 4K, but if you're keeping score at home, the only true way to get 4K is to have three separate sensors for RGB, or to oversample a tremendous amount. RED claims its 5K delivers a true 4K resolution, but to me, it's really kind of a pointless discussion at this point. 4K displays and projectors are coming, but until I see 4K, 5K, and 6K all compared together on a 4K screen or projector, it's not a terribly productive conversation (at least for my own sake). The advantage that I see to those higher frame sizes at the moment is for stabilization and reframing, not necessarily for getting a higher resolution 4K image.
Having 4K though, does mean I can go back and actually show work at full resolution -- and it's likely this will happen on a computer monitor before it happens on a TV screen (in greater numbers). Does this mean I will? Not necessarily, but again, for me, having the option was a consideration.
4. Form Factor/Modularity
The SCARLET is not a light camera. It's light when you consider it is shooting 4K video, but compared to a DSLR, it's heavy. At 5 pounds -- American, not British :) -- for the brain only, it's going to be heavier than any equivalent DSLR rig. That said, I like two kinds of cameras, small and maneuverable, or big and ready to throw on my shoulder at a moments notice. Either one can work for my purposes, but in this case, if I can't throw it over my shoulder (without needing a rig), I'd rather be able to handhold it like a DSLR if I need to -- and that excludes everything but the Canon C300, which didn't really make the cut for the reasons above.
The other half of the form factor equation is modularity. RED has created a system that Sony has smartly adopted in its own way, and it means that you can add and subtract functionality as you see fit. Yes, the modules are not cheap, but some of them may only be required for certain jobs, and there's a good chance if you really need a particular one, it can be rented from somewhere else. Take, for example, the Meizler Module, which is able to take wireless focus/iris/zoom signals from a remote follow focus as well as record proxy files. I can't ever see this being a purchase for me personally, but if a specific job needed exactly this kind of functionality, it's there. RED is most certainly going to build a cheaper proxy module, and since they've created an adaptable system, it's something that can simply be attached on the back, rather than hanging off the camera. If I can help it, this sort of rigging almost defeats the purpose of a small camera, though if I were on the right job and they were paying for it, I'll gladly build up the camera as big as they want me to (or as is required -- image courtesy of Creative Cow -- on the set of Total Recall):
5. Sensor Upgrade
It's definitely not the most important reason I considered a SCARLET, but after considering the other factors, only the FS700 is offering some sort of upgrade path, though at the time it wasn't clear what that might be. The fact that there will be some sort of upgrade to the Dragon sensor is not something to be taken lightly. Even if it doesn't quite live up to what Mr. Jannard is claiming, it's still going to be a pretty serious piece of technology. The upgrade path will make the camera that much more flexible in terms of dynamic range and low-light sensitivity. I don't expect this to be available for SCARLET at least for another year from now, but we should know by the beginning of next year what the upgrade for SCARLET will look like -- and more importantly what it will cost.
Even so, if I'm going to buy into a system, while mostly proprietary, this one makes the most sense for me at this time. Sony's system will not be out until February, and even when it is, the cheapest camera, the F5, will still be out of my price range when it comes to shooting RAW. As far as the FS700 goes, yes, it will be upgradeable, but I want the image quality in the next few months, rather than having to wait until the Spring for RAW capability. 8-bit 4:2:2 is the best that camera can deliver, and while I could make do, again, it came down to all of the factors listed above.
Wait...didn't you say 5? Yes, if you've gotten this far, it's a bonus, and really, at this point with so many cameras coming out, that's the way I was looking at it as well: a bonus. It's probably not going to be possible to make a living just renting out a SCARLET. That might have been possible when the SCARLETs first appeared on the market, but with a lot more users undercutting each other and cheap RED ONE MXs appearing, the rates will not be nearly as high as they used to be. One of the most rented cameras at the moment is actually the Canon C300, so if I was just looking at a rental investment, that might be the one I would look at in this price range. The renting/investment option still exists, however, and it's something I am considering. Either way, I made sure that I was fine with spending the money that I'm spending and not necessarily recouping the entire investment. This is a reality in today's world, and because I plan on shooting a feature film on the camera, there's no question it will be worth it for me.
RED SCARLET vs. Other Cameras
All, some, or none of the reasons above may apply to you in the same way as they do for me, but assuming you're looking in the same budget range as a SCARLET, I think there might be some better options for you:
If you shoot documentary or event work in uncontrolled situations often, an ND filter is going to be your friend. Sure you can work with fader NDs on the SCARLET, but RED sensors are very sensitive to the far red end of the light spectrum and are very particular about the NDs you put in front of the camera, so not all of them are going to give you satisfactory results. For those same people the file sizes and proprietary media will be an issue.
You can shoot all day relatively cheaply on a camera like the C300, but RED at 4K will make any documentary or event situation that much more complicated. In its least compressed mode you're getting less than 1 hour on a $1,250 128GB SSD -- a lot more space than the 20 or so gigabytes you'd get from a C300 in the same amount of time. In Sony land, the FS700 has ND filters just like the C300, and all of their cameras can actually take SD cards, even the F3 with an SxS to SD card adapter. The Sony 24mbps or 35mbps codecs will let you shoot practically forever at relatively low cost. Even with the ability to record compressed files from the SCARLET, having it onboard already with cheap media is an advantage, no question.
The SCARLET isn't nearly as sensitive as the Sony and Canon cameras in this price range. While you can push the SCARLET a bit, it's going to be noisier at equivalent ISOs, so if you're shooting something that requires a camera that can operate in almost no light, the FS series and C300 are going to be better options. You're going to need lights with RED, whereas some of the other cameras can expose a relatively clean and bright image with just a household lamp.
If you're shooting for long periods of time (long clips), the SCARLET is going to get loud. That's the cost of 4K RAW in such a small package. If you're shooting for 10-15 minutes or more without stopping recording, there's a fairly good chance the fan on the camera is going to go up much higher than you'd like it to, and if for some reason you needed to be stealthy or noise would disrupt the shooting, the SCARLET is going to disappoint you.
RED probably would be overkill for someone who is making simple videos that only need to go to the web. Many people may not need this much horsepower if they won't be utilizing the image to the fullest extent, so if you won't benefit much from RAW or 4K, RED won't be a great choice.
If you need slow motion, prepare to spend a lot more money. You'll get it on the EPIC, but SCARLET is a different story, as you max out at 4K 24fps and a barely usable 2K/60fps. While the RED ONE MX is slightly higher than SCARLET at 2K (120fps), the EPIC is where it's at in terms of high frame rates. If you really need the slow motion, the Sony FS700 is the best option in this price range, with 240fps at 1080p.
If you're not interested in proprietary formats, any of the other cameras provide an LCD monitor right out of the box, and don't need a special device to operate the menus. One of the downsides to the SCARLET is that even though it's handy to have a completely adjustable menu, you need a touchscreen display, side handle, or REDMOTE to actually operate the camera. This is going to turn a lot of people off immediately as they won't have a choice, and will need at least one of those to even get a SCARLET working.
Last but not least: reliability. I shouldn't even have to mention this, but it's been a problem in the past. RED has come a long, long way, but in the grand scheme of things, it's possible you could run into technical issues. This is a mature product, and many of the initial issues have been worked out in firmware upgrades, but the more complicated a camera gets, the greater the chance that it can break down. You may find that another camera system is more reliable or rock solid, so that could be a final consideration if you absolutely cannot have a camera crash under any circumstances.
I'm sure I could be missing a few users, but basically I look at it this way: If you're a filmmaker that can control most of your shooting environment, and you want RAW flexibility, SCARLET could be a good fit. If need to record for long periods of time and you can't control your environment, and RAW isn't really necessary, the FS700 and the C300 are the better options.
I will still be writing about and recommending cheaper cameras, as most simply don't have the budget for this sort of camera system. I've been there, and I still see DSLRs as viable filmmaking tools -- and I'ves shot enough projects on those cameras to be OK with saying that. I thought it was important not to defend the decision, but to really explain why I purchased a SCARLET even with the other cameras on the market or coming soon to the market. I believe you should purchase a camera system that fits into your budget, and if you're concerned about recouping your investment, either buy the cheapest system possible, or rent your camera on an as-needed basis. There's nothing wrong with that option, but for me, owning a camera with this much power and flexibility was something I could not pass up.
What about the RED ONE MX over the SCARLET? Well, as far as pricing goes, it was a no-brainer at the time, but I would seriously have considered the MX over the SCARLET today. I do not regret the decision because of reasons 4, 5, and 6, but the MX camera could actually fetch higher used prices once this deal ends. It's basically all of the functionality of the SCARLET (with some more like 4.5K), in a bigger, heavier, and slower-loading package. I also believe I can get usable HD files from the SCARLET by using an external recorder, whereas the RED ONE is limited to 720p.
So, with all of that said, if you bought a SCARLET, why might your reasons differ from mine? If you're considering a camera in this price range, what are you looking at in terms of features? There are no wrong answers here, and you can feel free to disagree with any of them, but I would like to try to keep this discussion as constructive as possible.
[Intro image courtesy RED via DFX rentals]