How It All Started
Let's flash back a few scant months to April 2016 and NAB. I know it (really) seems like such a long time ago. But it wasn’t. So there I was. I took one look at the Panasonic Varicam LT, picked it up and said to myself, hey this is the kind of camera I have been waiting for. (I really said that.)
The Panasonic Varicam LT is a really well built camera both in its physical make up and in its ability to make really great looking images. I knew this was a camera I would want to review. Recently, I had the opportunity to put the Varicam LT through its paces with rigorous testing in a variety of locations. I brought along Director of Photography, Sam Eilertsen, and one of the principals of WoodHaven Media, a noted shooter in his own rights with solid screen credits and a great eye for detail. I also brought Sam along because he could help me carry stuff. No just kidding! (kind of) He is one of my better editors and knows his logs from LUTs like nobody else I know. And he is fun on shoots too. But lastly, with a camera in this range hey, I try to be a good guy when I can. With a camera as good as the Varicam LT, it seemed almost selfish to go on a solo shoot. Anyways, let's get on with the show.
A Little Background
As part of the Varicam family, the LT has some big shoes to fill. When the original Varicam was first introduced it instantly gained a great reputation as a “go to” cinematic camera that has plenty of big time film and episodic credits. So, the challenge for Panasonic of course was to take as many of the totally awesome features of the original Varicam, and get it into a somewhat smaller and, yes, more affordable camera. Overall in my opinion, I think Panasonic did a solid job with that and then some shooters I have talked to have groused about the relative size of the camera weight wise but ergonomically? I loved it. Yes I know but as usual, I get so excited about these reviews I get ahead of myself. So we just need to move on.
Making the Case for the Beast
When I am on camera, I want to know what I can do physically with the camera. How does it feel? Is it comfortable to keep up on my shoulder for an extended period of time? Will I be able to (don’t laugh at me) glide on a low handheld? The direct answer would be a resounding yes to all the above. The very thing that some would find as a negative, I found as a positive. Sam thought it was a little heavy, maybe a little but the balance was spot on.
The full body size and weight acted very pendulum-esque with one hand as I ran down the shot on multiple takes. Sousing the camera as a handheld? Delivered a rock solid performance. Also as a nod to engineering and design, the handle on the top chock full of mounting points the unit and the extended shooting arm/trigger provided with this set up made it easy to get really comfortable for an extended period of time in the waning hot and humid summer months with little to no fatigue. Even with a full Anton Bauer clipped on the back (loved it) the Panasonic Varicam LT, the weight of the rig was not a deal breaker to me.
The Set Up
The Varicam body was indeed very solid with most of the controls easy to find and change on the fly as needed. The electronic viewfinder was a really solid addition and even with my glasses, (pictured) I was able to make the focus adjustments I needed. Also once I figured out the comfort point, I liked that the articulating viewfinder arm made it so I could get the right placement for the eyecup, which is not always an easy task because I am kind of a wide guy. That ended up being important because in the direct sunlight it was much easier to use the viewfinder instead of the provided video monitor.
Honestly although it looked cool, the monitor itself on location outside was disappointing. Too small to use as a client approve or confidence tool unless you just had to go it alone. But after looking at the monitor indoors it was a different picture. The menus were much easier to read and the controls that were too small and hard to figure out outdoors were much much easier indoors in a controlled environment. Sam or I still had to mash the record button pretty hard to kick the camera into record mode. So even though it was smallish, again not a deal breaker. But that said, if I was buying or renting the LT and working outdoors I would go with the Atomos Inferno, Black Magic Design Video Assist, or VideoDevices PIX-E7.
More Good Stuff
Before we get to the imaging (making pictures) part of the program, I wanted to mention a couple of other features and thoughts on important points in the Varicam set up. Maybe not flashy but when its your neck and reputation on the line, do you always want flashy?
Nope. Go ahead and mock me for these features but I don't care cause they worked! The mounting plate/shoulder pad was great. Plus plenty of “connect” 2 SDI outs TC, LAN, USB, and my own old school fav, built in XLRs actually on the camera where they belong! The hardest thing to find? Headphone jack. Arrrggg. So laugh all you want now, but when I'm the one shooting I’m not laughing. No, really I’m not.
Quick Look Varicam LT as tested
Camera: Varicam LT
Retail Cost: (body only) ($16,500
Lens: Canon 24-70 mm Ultrasonic
Media: P2,Card SD Card
Battery: Anton Bauer
Tripod: Sachtler FSB 10
Loaded Camera Weight: 16.5 lbs fully loaded with Anton Bauer full battery on the back
Location: Temple of Music Roger Williams Park Providence, Rhode Island
Weather: Clear, Humid, Sunny, mid to upper 90s
AVC-Intra 4K422: Up to 30p
AVC-Intra 4K-LT 30p to 60p
AVC-Intra 2K444: Up to 30p
AVC-Intra 2K422: Up to 60p, up to 120p (cropped)
AVC-Intra 2K-LT: 120p to 240p (cropped)
AVC-Intra444: Up to 30p
AVC-Intra422: Up to 60p up to 120p (cropped)
AVC-IntraLT: 120p to 240p (cropped)
ProRes 4444: 2 up to 30p
ProRes 422HQ: 2 up to 60p
AVC-Proxy G6: Up to 60p
Making Beautiful Pictures
The more I shoot with sophisticated cameras like the ones in the Varicam LT style and move into advanced post, the more I’ve come to realize how many more tools I have at my disposal in the camera and the more creative freedom I have. I think it is great to be given to make beautiful images in the camera and in post. So now even though my battle cry in the past has been to always “shoot native” and let the editors do their sh*t, that's not the way and hasn't been the way for a while. This is where it got really interesting.
Here We Go
Shooting a street scene at night?
The Varicam LT at an ISO 5000 setting? Crazy. Mad. Good. Sharp clean details even in the corners.
The amount of detail at this ISO setting made us believers. If you don't believe me there are plenty of examples on YouTube and Vimeo that I will list at the end of the article that pretty much can prove my point. In addition, each camera offers an in-camera color grading function and support for AVC-Intra 4K and Apple ProRes*2 codecs.
So moving on to some other examples let’s talk about the over/under. Using VLOG to V709 setting available on the Panasonic website and using DaVinci. So the test shots conducted ran all the way up and down the range. (see images) As tested the Varicam LT held up really well down to 3 stops under and then to the other way 2 stops plus before it got to a point where we couldn't recover the highlights.
Of course those kind of calls depend on what one would consider “saveable” But if we shot straight up at correct exposures the 4K just killed it with sharp detail even when we pushed the shot in at 2 times and LUTS translated very well.
The Varicam LT did everything I set it up to and more. The big plusses would be the phenomenal imaging at ISO 5000 and spot on detail in 4K. Other plusses include (for me) ease of set up and use, the electronic viewfinder, no issues with generating any external noise at all, nor was the weight factor of the larger camera body. Also using the P2 card wasn't On the other hand I wish we could have pushed a little higher from 2 stops over and wish the monitor Overall exceptional performance at the level I would expect at this pricepoint.
I guess the acid test of any reviewer is given the chance would I buy this camera? First response? Yes. But as with every equipment purchase, ad your homework, read the reviews (hint, hint) and decide for yourself if it is the best fit for yourself and your style. But in my opinion the Varicam LT would have to be at the top of any camera purchase conversation.
About Mark J. Foley
Mark J. Foley, MBA BA is the Technology Editor for ProductionHUB. When he isn’t out looking for the next big thing in technology he is working on his latest documentary “The Herreshoff Legacy."
About Panasonic Corporation of North America
Panasonic Corporation of North America provides a broad line of digital and other electronics products and solutions for consumer, business and industrial use. The company is the principal North American subsidiary of Osaka, Japan-based Panasonic Corporation and the hub of Panasonic’s U.S. branding, marketing, sales, service and R&D operations. In Interbrand’s 2014 annual “Best Global Green Brands” report, Panasonic ranked number five overall and the top electronics brand in the report. As part of continuing sustainability efforts, Panasonic Corporation of North America relocated its headquarters to a new facility, adjacent to Newark Penn Station in Newark, NJ. It is the first newly constructed office tower in Newark to earn both LEED Platinum and Gold certifications from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Learn more about Panasonic at http://us.panasonic.com/news.