REVIEW: Panasonic Varicam LT is a Viable Alternative to RED and Alexa
The Varicam LT is Panasonic's latest in indie-friendly 4K cameras with beautiful images and a lightweight body.
Varicam was once one of the leaders in digital cinema, and Panasonic has been back on a roll over the last few years. The Varicam LT is a $14,500 camera, so by no means is it something most of us can afford to own. But it’s competing with cameras like the Alexa Mini ($34K) and the RED Weapon ($40K), and in some respects is competing even with a full-fledged Alexa, so it's adding a valuable option to the rental market.
With its exploding popularity in the TV space—Master of None and the upcoming David Simon production The Deuce are both shooting some flavor of Varicam—we wanted to take a look at the most affordable Varicam option, the LT.
Note: We borrowed the Varicam from Panasonic for a week for the purposes of this review.
RED and Alexa often feel like the only choices at the highest end of the digital cinema market. When we run articles on the cameras of the Oscar nominees, or if we profile the cinematography behind a hit show, we’re mainly talking about Alexa and RED (with the exception of projects still shot on film like Westworld) . Yes, Sony has the F65, but aside from the occasional outlier project (Billy Lynn, Cafe Society) and films from Sony studios, it just doesn’t come up in the conversation that much. That might change soon, but one of our ways of tracking camera impact is how often we get asked about a camera, how often young DPs tell us stories of being out on a set and seeing a new camera and being curious about it, and the Alexa and RED dominate those conversations.
It wasn’t always this way. At the start of the digital revolution, more than a decade ago, it was Sony and Panasonic who owned the market. Between the mass market DVX 100, and then the “first of its kind” HVX 200 (No tape drive? What will we ever do without a tape drive?!), and its upper-tier Varicam line, Panasonic was a huge player. Especially known for it’s beautiful color reproduction, especially in the skin tones, the Panasonic reputation was strong enough that producers would frequently push for it.
After RED’s disruption of the industry, followed by the 5D for the indies and the Alexa for the studios, Panasonic wasn’t a name much discussed in the cinema world for a few years, other than the use of their amazing Plasma monitors for color grading. However, with the launch of Varicam 35 back in 2014, the Varicam name came back into play. Not just on a lot of the TV shows you watch, but also conversationally, it’s got a buzz. With the LT, which really hit the streets full throttle in the summer of 2016, you get all the benefits of the phenomenal Varicam 4K sensor, in a smaller body.
Can something feel both like a tank and be light and easy on your shoulder? Weighing in at 14 lbs, the LT never felt like a hassle to use, and spent long hours comfortably on our shoulders during testing without any frustrations. However, it also felt incredibly tough and durable. While some cameras feel a little bit like beta designs, with eyepieces that won't hold their position or connectors and buttons in odd places that are in the way or out of reach, the Varicam LT design is thoroughly thought out and incredibly solid throughout. It just feels durable. Panasonic's decades of experience designing cameras for field use really shows.
That 14lbs is body only, of course, and once you add accessories, batteries, and lenses the weight adds up, but you could potentially build a 20lb or so package that you could gimbal if you needed, and you could easily make it into a tight rig for Steadicam work.
As mentioned, the camera sits comfortably on your shoulder, and it's possible to tweak many of the controls easily while operating. If you want to do more elaborate menu work, you use an external menu panel, which gives an intuitive and easy-to-follow user interface that can help with initial set up when you first get your hands on the camera at the prep, and also enables camera assistants to keep making changes through the shoot without the operator needing to get out of the way.The only possible oddity is the dual cable connection for the eyepiece, which requires one power/info cable and one SDI cable. This makes a ton of sense, since it makes it easier to use third party eyepieces that you power via d-tap and ultimately makes for a more open experience for the end user. Especially since the OLED viewfinder isn't cheap ($5400), the ability to use third party options, or just operate a small monitor, or is a nice plus. As we move towards simpler and simpler packages with fewer cables, it’s just ever so slightly more cables than some users might be used to, but the flexibility makes the extra cables worth it.
While it’s true that, with enough work in post production, you can usually get a Dragon pretty close to matching an Alexa and vice versa, image quality straight out of the camera still matters. Opinions are formed by looking at dailies. Sometimes clients don’t involve the DP in post. Dailies can dictate the look of VFX. Even if you can do post work to make skin tones feel more natural, isn’t it better to just have skin tones feel natural to begin with without the extra work?
There’s a temptation to say "Alexa-like" because it’s got that creamy, low contrast, accurate-but-not-particularly-saturated look.
Footage from the Varicam just looks great. There’s a temptation to say "Alexa-like" because it’s got that creamy, low contrast, accurate-but-not-particularly-saturated look. However, it’s not quite got the texture of an Alexa; it’s a little smoother than that, missing the granularity of Alexa footage. "Creamy" is the word that we kept saying as we shot with it, but that doesn't mean you couldn't dial in rich blacks in the grade if you wanted them.
Color accuracy feels great. You look at lemons and oranges and they feel appetizing without having to isolate the color and tweak it. Color accuracy feels like it should be easy, but it's amazing how often it’s not, and the Varicam LT just feels right. In none of our shots did we have that disorienting feeling of looking at the monitor and seeing a color look dramatically wrong. While Alexa and RED have a huge foothold in the commercial market, I could see Varicam being very popular on commercials for the accuracy with which it could reproduce a brand's key assets.
The Varicam has two native ISOs, 800 and 5000. While some testers claim results were identical, we noticed a tiny bit more grain at 5000, but it was very minor. In reality, it's 5000 ISO on a cinema camera, which is great, and it still looked amazing. While there is a low light race going on in the mirrorless market that beats 5000 by far, the other image quality sacrifices that come with those cameras don't really compare to what you get from the 5000 ISO on the Varicam, which is exceptionally useable footage.
Panasonic claims 14 stops of latitude, and while we have never yet felt like a manufacturer's claimed latitude matched the reality, this comes close. While we love tests from a Xyla or an Imatest with an HDR light box to give us insight into latitude, there are so many variables to consider (lenses have different contracts, and even change for different apertures, along with post processing introducing changes, along with monitoring), we tend to trust real world tests to give us a sense of useable latitude.
While we have never yet felt like a manufacturer's claimed latitude matched the reality, this comes close.
Nothing about our results makes us doubt the 14 advertised stops or other reviewers' experiences; it felt like plenty of latitude. In the shot below, it is clear that the camera couldn't hold full detail on the reflection of the sun in the water and also hold detail in the water, but we have never worked with a camera that could, and the amount of detail we see down in the water while also holding info on the boat is enough for us.
Rolling shutter artifacts were very minor, as you can see from the still below, pulled from a moving shot of a fence, which looks nearly identical to the fence when stopped (there is a bend in the physical fence, that isn't an artifact), and the cranes look correct. It's barely detectable if it's there at all, and it wasn't crippling to the footage in any way shape or form. You could easily expect to shoot action with this camera and get quality results.
Lens mount swapping
The Varicam LT lets you swap between lens mounts, and works equally well with both EF mounts and PL mounts. For its price point, you are likely going to end up mostly shooting PL, but there are honestly so many beautiful EF mount lenses around today that shooting all EF to save costs while getting a body like the LT will make sense on a lot of productions.
P2 has been around forever, and while it's frustrating that Panasonic continues to use their proprietary P2 cards, with more than a decade of use in the field, cards are plentiful and familiar to many users. The camera is capable of delivering 4K raw to external recorders like the Odyssey 7Q+, but for internal recording, it uses AVC-Intra, either in 422 for 4k, or 444 for 2K. AVC-Intra is Panasonic's own implementation of H.264, and while H.264 gets a bad rap from low-bitrate recording on some consumer cameras, its implementation here is a great use of the technology, with higher bitrate encoding allowing for robust and gradable images in post. The format is supported by all the major NLEs, including Media Composer and Premiere along with Resolve.
As an added bonus, the LT allows you to record your clean, ungraded footage to P2 cards, but also make proxy prores files with a look baked into them to SD cards, for a speedier process to get you editing faster. This is actually a feature that is no longer supported on the Dragon platform (you can make internal proxies, but not bake a LUT into them; you can only use the internal camera controls), and it's much appreciated to have it here.
If absolute resolution is your goal, Weapon (and now Helium) is still the winner, with 6K and 8K. If you need to reframe a lot, do a lot of post stabilization, or are otherwise in love with high-resolution, the 4K Varicam won’t be your choice.
If resolution isn’t your primary decider, the Varicam deserves a serious look and will likely win many conversations. For a while, on Netflix and Amazon jobs where 4K was required, Varicam was regularly chosen by productions that didn't like the look of the RED but couldn't afford to go Alexa. While there are now 4K options from Alexa and rumors that if you are a big enough director you could deliver 2.5K to those outlets, the Varicam still deserves a close look. The image quality is stunning. The ergonomics are great. The workflow is insanely well tested.
Price also does matter. While, theoretically, we would all like to shoot our next movie on Alexa 65, most of us can’t afford it. But bumping up to Varicam LT rental from a C700 or an FS7 might not break the bank, and will offer a huge bump in image quality. Or, if considering an Alexa Mini job, you might be able to squeeze 2 Varicam LT bodies into the same budget range.
Additionally, at NAB in April Panasonic teased a new camera (that appeared FS7-sized) under a tarp, and there's a press event happening at Cinegear that we assume will reveal what is under the tarp. That camera, if it matches the FS7 well in features but matches well with the Varicam for image quality, might well be a world-eater, and would make a great owner/operator camera that matches well with the Varicam on bigger jobs. The Varicam LT is just slightly too big for a full-time gimbal camera, but hopefully whatever is released in June will cover that space and make for a real third horse in the race.
- Same 4K Sensor as the VariCam 35
- 14+ Stops of Dynamic Range
- Dual ISO: 800 and 5000
- Removable Canon EF or PL Mount Option ($1,300)
- 4K-UHD — AVC-Intra 4K422: up to 30p
- 4K-UHD — AVC-Intra 4K-LT: 30p to 60p
- 2K — AVC-Intra 2K444: up to 30p, AVC-Intra 2K422: up to 60p, up to 120p (cropped), AVC-Intra 2K-LT: 120p to 240p (cropped)
- HD — AVC-Intra444: up to 30p, AVC-Intra422: up to 60p, up to 120p (cropped), AVC-Intra100: 50i/59.94i, AVC-IntraLT: 120p to 240p (cropped)
- HD ProRes: 4444 up to 30p, ProRes 422HQ up to 60p
- One express P2 card Slot
- SD Slot for Proxies — AVC-Proxy G6 (6Mbps): up to 60p
- RAW Output from SDI Coming in Summer 2016
- ND filters (CLEAR, 0.6, 1.2, 1.8)
- 256GB expressP2 card — 90 minutes of 4K/4:2:2/23.98p content
- 3G-SDI OUT x3 (SDI OUT 1/ SDI OUT2/VF SDI)
- Genlock IN, TC IN/OUT, LAN
- USB HOST (for Network Connect), USB DEVICE (miniB)
- XLR 5 pin x1, XLR 3 pin x2
- DC OUT 4 pin Hirose x2
- Lens/Grip Connector 12 pin
- 12 V DC-IN 4 pin
- Head Phone x1 3.5 mm Stereo Mini Jack
- Proxy FTP
- Can use Panasonic AU-VCVF10G viewfinder and 3rd party viewfinder solutions
- Weight: Under 6 Pounds Body Only
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 184 mm x 230.5 mm x 247 mm (7-1/4 inches x 9-1/8 inches x 9-3/4 inches)
- Power Consumption: 47 W (body only), 77 W with all ports maxed out
Varicam LT gives you great images out of the camera
A lot of your favorite shows have been shooting with it and you’ve likely thought “Oh, is that Alexa?”
Panasonic has decades of experience designing for users and it shows