December 1, 2014

The Panasonic VariCam35 Has Two Native ISOs and is a Low-Light Monster

We've already seen that the Panasonic VariCam35 can produce some stunning images. However, did you know that it also features a unique sensor technology that allows the camera to operate at two separate base ISOs, thus turning the VariCam35 into what is perhaps the best low-light cinema camera in existence?

If you didn't know that, don't feel bad. I didn't either until I came across the following video, which shows a demonstration of the Panasonic VariCam35 at an event held by the Digital Cinema Society. So here's Michael Cioni to show you how Panasonic's new cinema camera can pull off some delightful sensor voodoo.

I'm not sure about you guys, but I for one am absolutely blown away by this technology. Traditionally, the native ISO of a camera is the singular point at which the analogue signal does not need to be electrically amplified before being converted into a digital stream of information. Basically, the native ISO is where the camera performs best in terms of its signal to noise ratio and its dynamic range. When you raise your ISO beyond the native setting, you are artificially boosting the signal by adding decibels of electronic gain, which adds more noise to the boosted signal the higher the gain is pushed.

Hence the reason that this is such an amazing feat. Panasonic may be the first company to make a camera that looks significantly better at 5000 ISO than it does at 4000. How exactly they're pulling off this bit of engineering magic, I have no clue, but I assume that the change from 4000 to 5000 ISO triggers a dramatic shift in the way the raw sensor data is being processed, and there's likely some kind of intensive noise reduction involved.

To me, the 5000 ISO image still looks a bit noisier than the 800 ISO images, which calls into question the idea that the camera truly has two native ISOs. However, there is no denying that the VariCam looks amazing at 5000 ISO, especially in comparison to how terrible it looks at 4000. That, in and of itself, is an absolutely incredible engineering feat that will likely cause cinematographers working with low light levels to choose the VariCam.

What's perhaps even more exciting about this is that you can be certain that competing high-end manufacturers like RED and Arri are going to take notice and look for ways to implement this technology - or a similar proprietary technology - into their cameras. Essentially, unless they're content to watch the VariCam35 take over the low-light cinematography niche, RED and Arri are going to have to innovate and come up with a way to compete. That means that in the near (ish) future, we may see dual native ISOs as a standard feature on high-end cinema cameras. That also means that this technology might one day make its way into our inexpensive cinema cameras.

What are your thoughts on the Panasonic VariCam35's dual native ISO feature? Will it spur other high-end manufacturers to innovate in order to keep pace with Panasonic? Let us know down in the comments!     

Your Comment

21 Comments

I saw this video a few days ago and I shared it with every camera nerd I know. This is truly wonderful. Also, if you watch the other videos of the same event you will see some massive innovation in workflow technology. Keywords wireless and up to 99 LUTs per shot.
I have the feeling that they will become standard in the industry very soon.
Also I can see that Panasonic wants to push for non-raw recording using in-camera grading which I think is great for talented DPs with a clear vision what they want to shoot.
As nice as the demo is, it probably gives a very limited look into the asthetic possibilies. I personally don't like the look of it although it needed to be shot that way to show off the cameras's abilities. Although when Arri relaeased the first reel of the Alexa it already showed the amazing beauty of the images and I have to say Varicam's reel looks too clean and non-filmic, non-poetic if I may use that term. Nevertheless, Panasonic is asking for our creativity to change that. Overall a great re-entry of Panasonic in the high end camera market.

December 1, 2014 at 12:59PM, Edited December 1, 12:59PM

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Jan Becker
DP, Director, Producer
362

Non-poetic? Good Lord, shoot flat log with your favourite optical filtration, add film LUT or Filmconvert to taste. What does it even mean, poetic? Color shifts, highlight halation, grain?

December 3, 2014 at 4:05AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1353

I think Panasonic really understands the film makers community, I think now a days there are two types of people in the film making community, one who really like to have a solid codec with professional features and they do not mind lighting the scene for an extra cost of lighting equipment and they are called professionals and could say old school style. Other ones are new generation film makers and stepping up from their game they are fond of low light and high dynamic range and they want every thing in their camera. This camera is good for both types of film makers. I just bought sony fs7, I hope that sony will also implement similar technology in their next product.
As we talk Panasonic varicam is not cheap and not in the reach of majority of indie film makers however its good to have a tool if we need for certain situations, we could rent it. Good for film makers I hope other companies would also join the innovation route like Panasonic and sony which will help current and future film makers.
Happy Filming.

December 1, 2014 at 1:23PM, Edited December 1, 1:23PM

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Aurelien Brentraus
Director/Cinematographer
241

Couple of thoughts. The most obvious: Why would anyone use 4000ISO when 5000ISO looks so much better? If the 5000 is truly another native ISO, then couldn't they just map the information from 5000 to 4000 by reducing the gain to get a cleaner image? Sort of like how some DSLRs will have an ISO 50 when the native ISO is 100 or 160.

Also, bear in mind that we're looking at a compressed video of a screen projection. Not that I don't believe the 5000ISO looks pretty good, but there might be more loss of information than they're letting on. (Particularly in color data.)

December 1, 2014 at 1:27PM

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Benjamin Lebeau
Cinematographer, Colorist, Editor
349

Yeah I was thinking the same. Why wouldnt you just use 800 native for ISOs between 100-3200 and then Native 5000 for 3200-12800? You arent even dropping that Native 5000 1 stop to get to 3200.

December 1, 2014 at 1:44PM

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Very impressive! Looking forward to seeing this tech come in reach of lower budget cams :)

December 1, 2014 at 1:31PM

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Jeroen Rommelaars
Animator - Videographer - Motion Tracking
963

How much is that bad boy?

December 1, 2014 at 1:40PM

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Kyle Lamar
Director Producer DP
1205

Too much.

December 1, 2014 at 3:05PM

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Josh Paul
Most often DP, Direct or Gaff
1266

60K Alexa price range.

December 1, 2014 at 4:10PM

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Jan Becker
DP, Director, Producer
362

60K is better than 120K!

December 5, 2014 at 4:14PM

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But then, add the cost of the accessories...

December 5, 2014 at 4:14PM

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Yes! At EVS we were shocked when our training instructors informed us of this. During our tests, we discovered that bumping to 5000 ISO will be a frequent thing. The best part of 5000 native is the flexibility to utilize the 14+dynamic stops of range and when recording RAW 4K, the VariCam now joins the Alexa & the Canons (C300/500) as the best in low light…...
http://www.evsonline.com/panasonic-varicam-35-4k-camera-recorder.html
Ben, EVS Sales

December 1, 2014 at 5:25PM

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Ben Pitts
111

Also joins the Sony A7S - with a native ISO of 3200 and a price range of $2500. Or the Sony FS7 with a native ISO of 2000 and a price range of $8000. Obviously this is for a higher-end market - but you can get to 1600 ISO on the Sony F55 for a lot less money. And since these cameras all shoot RAW and log - does it in the end make that much more difference in cost to go Panasonic over Sony?

December 2, 2014 at 10:10AM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1662

I don't even know why 4000 iso is even an option. One could just use 5000 then stop down a little or slap an nd there or something

December 1, 2014 at 9:46PM

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Miguel Sotto
Cinematographer
267

"How exactly they're pulling off this bit of engineering magic, I have no clue, but I assume that the change from 4000 to 5000 ISO triggers a dramatic shift in the way the raw sensor data is being processed, and there's likely some kind of intensive noise reduction involved."

If anyone's interested, Matt Allard has an explanation at News Shooter (http://www.newsshooter.com/2014/11/28/panasonic-varicam-native-iso-of-80...): "How can a camera have two base ISO ratings you ask? Basically there are two analog circuits right after each pixel before the gain amp, one each dedicated to 800 and 5000 ISO. This allows for two “native”, very clean settings. In one mode it has a native ISO of 800 and when you switch to another setting the camera clicks over to its other native ISO of 5000. This keeps the signal to noise ratio the same and allows for you to shoot remarkable clean images in low light conditions. The noise present at 5000 ISO is nearly identical to that at 800. It’s coming directly from the sensor, so it’s not simply a case of boosting the gain and erasing the noise. One of the reasons Panasonic has done this is to allow for high frame rate capture in lower ambient light."

December 2, 2014 at 4:55PM

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Adrian Tan
Videographer
1014

That's pretty fucking impressive. Well, like in the old days, you have your daytime interior / exterior stocks and evening / nighttime interior and exterior stocks. RED "solved" it (not really) by switching OLPFs manually (PITA on location) from LL to STH. Digitaal camera of the near future has it all built-in. Here's your normal native ISO and here's your low light native ISO. I love it already.

December 3, 2014 at 3:59AM, Edited December 3, 3:59AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1353

Couldn't agree more. this seems to be a fantastic innovation. hard to see how good with compressed online footage though. I bet Red and others will be wishing they thought of it or implemented it. I wonder if panasonic will later release a cheaper variant (amira) with restrictions on raw or something... more in f55 price bracket.

December 3, 2014 at 9:31PM

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Dean Butler
Writer Director Shooter Editor
640

Wow. Panasonic might actually make a comeback!

December 4, 2014 at 3:39PM

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Jon Wolding
DP/Director
177

Comeback? They never went anywhere! :-)

December 5, 2014 at 4:12PM

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For as long as I've been a videographer, I've had a love affair with Panasonic starting with my very first DVX100b. In my experience, ALL of their video cameras made beautiful pictures. Now I work with the AG HPX250 and 370 and have no complaints. Prior to the Varicam 35, many folks complained that Panasonic was doing nothing to compete with all the large sensor HD cameras by the other major brands. Little did the naysayers know, the venerable wizards at Panasonic were silently working in the background, snickering away the whole time while they built their most magnificent camera yet. Thank you, Mr. Matsushita! With or without the Varicam 35, I am your most loyal customer.

December 5, 2014 at 4:10PM, Edited December 5, 4:10PM

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Buyer beware:
Panasonic is introducing the Varicam 35 in a hobbled state. 60 fps initially, with higher frame rates to come “in a future firmware update.” As for a Panasonic RAW recorder (i.e., a recorder that is less expensive than the Codex)... they coyly indicate that they might be working on one.

Here's my personal experience with taking Panasonic at their word:
In 2013, I took delivery of Panasonic's new, top-of-the-line, $30,000 PX5000 ENG camera. It shipped with 60p/50p and 60i/50i (who shoots interlaced any more?!?) enabled, with 24p, 25p and 30p to come “in a future firmware update.”

OVER A YEAR LATER, the camera STILL does not shoot 1080 at 24p, 25p or 30p. Last week they released a firmware update with those frame rates… FOR A 720 DOWNSCALED IMAGE from the native 1080 sensor. I’m told the 1080 update will come by the end of the year, but in the meantime, I’ve had a virtually useless camera for over a year. It has 70 hours on it, which is a small fraction of what I’d normally do in a year. The lost income has been enormous.

In short, it has been a professional and financial DISASTER.

Beyond that problem, Panasonic's $7500 EVF for the camera has the worst shadow detail I've ever seen in a viewfinder. Per a Panasonic rep’s request, I dropped it off at a local vendor for him to pick up and take in for evaluation. A few days later, he called and said the service techs thought it looked fine… they wanted clarification on what the problem was. I sent examples, then went for three weeks without emails getting answered. Eventually he told me that he hadn’t even picked up the viewfinder; it was still at the vendor.

There's a lot about the Varicam 35 that looks very appealing, but I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like Panasonic has become a company that simply can’t be trusted any more.

December 8, 2014 at 12:07PM

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