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Comparing the Panasonic VariCam LT to the Sony FS7 Camera

German Wildlife Filmmaker Tobias Mennle has been testing the Panasonic VariCam LT camera out.

Below are two real world tests done by Tobias: “APRIL FIRE” and comparing the Sony FS7 camera to the Panasonic VariCam LT camera.

VARICAM LT REVIEW part 2 – Comparing to the Sony FS7 from Tobias Mennle on Vimeo.

Finally, film´s full beauty is within reach for many filmmakers: shining 65mm, velvety smooth 35mm, gritty 16mm finally go digital. In colour reproduction, dynamic range and image texture the Varicam LT provides us with film´s best qualities, but with gorgeous ISO 5000 and an easy digital workflow the LT takes us far beyond film. I started my journey with the Varicam, and suddenly new horizons are everywhere.

PROS:

1. The Varicam LT captures all the finest nuances of colour, and not only in skin tones, but also in the most difficult and saturated greens and reds.

2. Dynamic range is excellent, and as with film you can always choose to blow out highlights because they roll off so nicely to get cleaner shadows.

3. ISO 5000 gives a fine velvety 35mm film grain texture. If you underexpose, you will get a contrastier, slightly desaturated, more gritty sort of S-16 film look, with grainy noise but with high sharpness (acutance). Remember, at two stops underexposure – which for my use can still yield very usable images – we are looking at an effective ISO of 20 000, and without any noise reduction out of the box! I prefer this very much to the Sony way of turning everything into plastic by noise reduction and then boasting about high ISOs.

4. ISO 800 gives clean yet beautiful images reminding me of that lovely 50ASA Kodak film stock, and the 65mm.

5. Very highly resolving, artifact free images in an efficient codec. AA filtering a Bayer sensor is always a compromise, but it works extremely well in the Varicam.

6. V-log is a pure joy and very easy to use. With the Panasonic viewfinder and V-709 lut just expose for best looking skin tones, and in most situations your highlights will be great as well as your shadows. Even with the monitor lut on the waveform will show the log signal, not the useless rec709 one as in the FS7.

7. For wildlife and documentary filming, the essential 3 seconds prerecord is available for ALL framerates. The timemachine!

8. Internal grey filters, I cannot work without.

9. Build quality is superb. A bulletproof tanklike yet elegant camera. Even the little wheel for iris control has perfect friction.

10. The fan is constantly in action and purrs reassuringly until you press Rec.

11. All my EF mount lenses worked perfectly, with IS, too. No AF though.

12. A positive locking EF mount for rock solid lens attachment. Simply great.

13. Four audio XLR inputs. Wow. All necessary in- and outputs in a solid, brick shaped body, no fiddly attachments (hello, Canon…)

14. The control unit is beautiful, but can be left at home when weight and size is an issue.

15. AVC Intra 4:2:2 (and 4:4:4 from the Varicam 35) work perfectly in Resolve on my iMac and Pegasus R6 raid. This codec is rock solid and I had zero artifacts – very unlike the Sony FS7.

16. Download speed from P2 via USB3 to my raid is – just like with Sony XQD – about 20GB/s. Nice.

17. I did not have the time to check out that infrared mode, but will probably love to use it to film animals in the dark.

CONS:

1. Panasonic has not optimized for small size yet. This is a big and heavy camera weighing a full 4kgs with body, EF mount, handle and viewfinder arm.

2. Microphone levels can manually only be adjusted deep down in the menu. WHAT A CRAP! Panasonic, please give us quick access via the control unit! AUTO levels should work fine in most situations and you can use limiters and low cuts in camera.

3. Although the menu has some logic, it often drove me crazy. For example, to change from 4K 25p to 2K 100p you need to know that you 1. change in system settings to 2K WINDOWED, then 2. change to LT CODEC, then 3. change to VARIABLE FRAME RATE, then 4. change to 100F/S, then reboot. 4 steps in different parts of the menu.

4. Switch on and wait a long 16s before you are able to record (well, Arri Amira is 14s…)

5. One menu design fault: Without an SD card in the slot and the slot not explicitly switched to OFF in the menu, the camera will tell you: CANNOT RECORD. It is nowhere in the documentation. Any dumb consumer camera will tell you: NO CARD and then you know what to do. Also, though only once, after switching to 100F/s and a reboot, my deactivated SD slot would suddenly be active again so another CANNOT RECORD.

Bonus Video:

APRIL FIRE – The Varicam LT film looks

APRIL FIRE – The Varicam LT film looks from Tobias Mennle on Vimeo.

APRIL FIRE
Varicam LT review part 1 – the Varicam LT film looks

Directed, photographed, edited and graded by Tobias Mennle.
Music: Anna Scott, „Stay still“.

The Varicam LT´s images are stunningly beautiful and a revelation. For me, they are a lifetime dream come true. What came to my mind when watching the footage from this master camera for the first time: Oh my god. This looks like film. Like gorgeous 35 or 65mm film. And maybe even better.

Compared to an FS7 this is a big, heavy and powerhungry camera. Perfect, tanklike but elegant build quality down to all the details. I was shocked by size and weight first (its a full 4 kilos with just the handle, EF mount and viewfinder arm), but while watching and grading my footage I realized that for giving me 65mm film quality the Varicam is actually quite tiny.

The „Panasonic film look“ is not marketing waffle, but simply amazing, and it is not one look, but THREE basic looks, with gradual transitions between them: Chrystal clean (but not digitally cold) 65mm, velvety 35mm, grainy gritty S-16mm. The Varicam LT has film´s rich and detailed colour reproduction, and at least film´s dynamic range with a truly superb highlight roll off. But in many ways it takes us far beyond film, as it is affordable, great in low light, and very easy to use from shooting to postproduction.

I love having three digital film looks in one camera as rock solid starting points for postproduction. And they feel a bit less like the Kodak film emulation of the Arris, but have a more vivid, lifelike Fuji film vibe.

Use this camera in good light, expose properly at ISO 800, and it looks like gorgeous 65mm, warm, but chrystal clear with little texture. It reminds me of the wonderful 50ASA filmstocks. ISO 5000 in the same conditions will have a little film grain texture in the darker midtones and below, highlights and bright midtones still looking chrystalline.

With ISO 5000 in lower, available light but well exposed you will get velvety fine grained 35mm filmlook, classic cinema.

Underexposure at ISO 5000 will give you a more contrasty, increasingly undersaturated gritty 35mm filmlook with a similar feeling as S-16mm, although much higher resolving.

After 15 years of cinematography on Kodak 16mm, 25 years of still photography on mainly Fuji films, and 10 years of often frustrating digital cinematography, the Varicam knocked me off. Suddenly this awesome image quality is in my life and in my budget. Workflow with AVC Intra 4:2:2 with Resolve 12, a Pegasus R6 raid and a new iMac is basically the same as it was for 8bit HD on a MacBook Pro for the last five years. This is revolutionary.

As Geoff Boyle recently remarked, „Arri has a real problem now“. In my opinion it is less about 4K vs 2.8K, than about even better colour differentiation throughout the spectrum, much better ISO 5000 performance, and all at a fraction of the price.

I want a Varicam LT. I asked myself is this a reasonable investment, but as I have seen no images from an F65 that I liked so much as to become excited about a new Sony F55, and the C300II being a big disappointment, I see no alternative on the near horizon. Using a new camera is starting a journey, and I trust Panasonic that they will accompany their customers . The LT should become a real cult camera and keep its value comparatively well. I produce international wildlife films, my footage and films are my main assets, UHD is a no brainer, and there is no other camera on the market with 3 seconds of prerecord at all frame rates, an internal robust codec, 240 frames, and grey filters.

I predict the Varicam LT will become a great success for Panasonic, and will really challenge the Arris as the golden standard of high end digital filmmaking.

NOTES
The test camera was kindly provided by Michael Schneider from Teltec/Mainz, Germany. Shot in UHD 25p AVC Intra 4:2:2 with v-log, no noise reduction, at native ISO 800 and 5000, WB presets 3200, 5600, 6300. Slomo at 1080/100p with cropped sensor. I used these lenses: Canon EF 16-35/4, Sigma Art 24/1.4, Olympus Zuiko macros 50/2 and 90/2, Tamron 180/3.5 macro, Canon HJ 18×28 and Angenieux Cinestyle 5.3-61, both with IB/E 35x adapter. Delogged with Panasonics V35 lut and graded in Resolve 12 on an iMac in Rec709.

About web compression and black levels: Except for four very underexposed shots I only crushed the blacks in grading before transcoding to H.264 for web use, to keep the contrast and colours closer to the original. Noise levels are higher accordingly. I think the result on vimeo is very ok though.

Special thanks to Anna Scott for letting me use her beautiful song „Stay still“! I would not have so quickly found a film in my footage without it.

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