First Look: Panasonic 4K Varicam LT - Review and Thoughts

A little while ago I made a post on the Panasonic VariCam LT and why I was really excited for this new camera to be coming to market. The demo footage from the camera was something to be marvelled at.

Photography by Shooby Kandel

Photography by Shooby Kandel

So when Panasonic & Videocraft brought the VariCam LT (as far as i'm aware the only demo version in Australia) to town, I had the awesome opportunity to get 36 hours, all to my self to test out.

When I get the chance I will publish a video version with samples of the VLOG footage + graded shots, my experiences and workflow using the camera. 

Being limited to only ever shooting on Sony and Canon systems, I’ve never used Panasonic cameras and have never been exposed to their intricacies and workflows. So this has all been a big learning experience for me. I also didn’t have a lot of time to play with the VariCam so please bear with me. 

Photograph by Jack Keogh

Photograph by Jack Keogh

As soon as I brought the camera home I tried to get my head wrapped around what was a strange menu system. It honestly didn't take long to know the ins and outs of the menu. The interface is clean, intuitive and straightforward to use.

VLOG PICTURE PROFILE

Having never worked with VLOG before I wasn’t 100% sure on what was the best way to expose the image. Having used mostly SLOG2 and usually over exposing by a stop, I found the best results came from under exposing VLOG in daylight by about half a stop. I found it a bit difficult to correct over exposed footage in broad daylight as the highlights aren't protected as much as SLOG2 in my opinion.

However I didn't have heaps of time to work with this and I've been told by others that they have found exposing by 0.5 to 1 stop over works best.  

Indoors I actually found that over exposing a stop was the best course of action. 

Original VLOG footage

Original VLOG footage

Final footage with Curves

Final footage with Curves

DUAL NATIVE ISO

The dual native ISO function is awesome. Both 800 ISO and 5000 ISO are for most part noiseless. If you’re going to shoot at 3000 or 4000 ISO (which are noisier then 800 & 5000 ISO) you may as well just shoot at 5000 and use ND to bring the exposure down to correct levels. The furthest I pushed the sensor was 8000 ISO which gives very usable pictures and what noise was noticeable was very forgivable and easily removable with noise reduction.

Taka Mitsui the lead engineer for the Panasonic VariCam 35 and VariCam LT was able to give me some insight into how the dual native sensitivity works. 

"Basically, we implemented two analog circuits dedicated for ISO800 and ISO5000. GAIN amp placed after those analog circuits increases sensitivity and noise. But we switch the analog circuit from 800 to 5000, so there is no gained noise by gain amp on the 5000 image. Of course, all processing after sensor is the same in the 800 base or 5000 base, which means that you can get same dynamic range without ugly digital processing to make 5000 sensitivity." - Taka Mitsui, Lead Engineer on the VariCam 35 and VariCam LT

So effectively you get much higher sensitivity without increasing noise. ISO5000 has the same dynamic range and similar noise to ISO800 which is awesome for low light shooting.

Shot at 8000 ISO with noise reduction

Shot at 8000 ISO with noise reduction

HANDLING & ERGONOMICS

The EVF is good. The Focus peaking is fairly accurate but didn’t have enough time to test out all the features.

The camera is still quite heavy when the whole kit is assembled. I really wanted to test it out on a gimbal when stripped down but the DJI Ronin M I use with my Sony A7s was never going to handle the weight and size of the VariCam LT. 

Photograph by Shooby Kandel

Photograph by Shooby Kandel

I shot pretty much exclusively off the shoulder. It feels very balanced with a V-Lock battery on the back and I was easily able to go all day without exhaustion.

SLOW MOTION

Changing frame rates is very straightforward and easy. You don’t need to adjust the shutter speed to suit the frame rate every time as you can set the camera to be constantly complying to the 180 degree rule. 

You can of course have a higher or slower shutter speed depending on the cinematic effect you want on your film. 

I shot everything in 4K and didn’t test out 1920x1080. The maximum frame rate in 4K is 50p/60p which is good enough for me. The VariCam really is more of an all round beast of a camera and I don’t expect it to beat Sony systems like the FS7/FS700 in the slow motion department. 

However, like the FS700 you can go to 240 FPS in Full HD but I unfortunately didn’t get an opportunity to test this. 

PICTURE QUALITY

Simply put, the image quality is superb. The skin tones are accurate, edges are sharp and detailed and the picture has a very filmic look with just a simple curve applied in post. 

My only disappointment was when I was doing a whip pan to keep a moving motorcycle in frame, there was clear rolling shutter issues. 

CODEC’S & SDI OUTPUT

I hoped I’d be able to record 4K ProRes to my Atomos Shogun or Odyssey 7Q but on release I don’t think this is possible, that or I just could not figure out how to get a 4K output. Panasonic will be releasing a firmware update to allow RAW output which is coming mid this year and would most definitely solve this problem. 

Atomos Shogun_Panasonic VariCam LT_Ben Develin

I decided to still use my Shogun though as a monitor and if I wanted to, I could have recorded FULL HD in 50 frames per second.

I shot in AVC-Intra 4K LT which is the primary codec I was using to get 50p slow-motion.  I did this for two reasons... 1. To capture a larger then life feel and 2. I had limited time with the camera and I would be able to capture twice as much footage shooting in 50p. 

However, in hindsight I realised I made an unfortunate mistake. I actually couldn't read the LT files. 

I had installed the Pro Video Formats codecs for Final Cut and this made no difference. I tried Premiere Pro CC as well, this didn’t work. Adobe Media Encoder wouldn’t read them. DaVinci Resolve could however read the files so I had the option of either editing and colour grading in that or using DaVinci to transcode the files so I could edit in my preferred NLE which is Final Cut Pro. I do think Davinici Resolve still has a lot to do before it can become a top NLE like FCP or Premiere.

For me I’d rather a faster and easier workflow with FCP whilst compromising on downgrading the footage a generation and converting them to ProRes files.  

I've since realised that FCP and Premiere just can't read these files yet. However they can read the AVC-Intra 422 4K/2K files as well as AVC-Intra 2K LT. Had I realised this I would have been able to avoid the unnecessary frustration in post production.

Avid and DaVinci Resolve users will not have any problems. Hopefully we will see some updates from Apple and Adobe in the next few months. 

I've included a spreadsheet outlining which codecs are compatible with the major post-production programs as of 15th of April 2016. 

You can shoot in ProRes but from what I’ve seen with the camera that is only possible in Full HD. I hope that Panasonic might be able to release an update that allows you to shoot 4K ProRes.

POST-PRODUCTION

Besides the incredible frustration of dealing with this codec for the first time and spending 18 hours to transcode the MXF files (AVC-Intra 4K LT) to Apple ProRes. Editing and colour grading the footage after was awesome. I had a lot of fun working with the VariCam VLOG footage. It has a very filmic look, more so compared to my Sony FS700 or A7S which I bloody hoped would be the case considering the camera is definitely a league above in price. 

The skin tones are magnificent. I tested a whole bunch of looks. Tested my range of LUTS on the image. I didn’t have any VLOG LUTS for the mean time but found some LUTS designed for the ALEXA worked very well. Which justifies my thoughts that the VariCam produces the most ALEXA like image compared to Sony, Canon and Red. 

Despite all that, I ended up scrapping the LUTS and graded it all using curves and tinkering it to get the best skin tones I could. I reckon the skin tones would be even better if I didn’t have to go through a generation and converting the original files to ProRes. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I was limited to shooting on Canon L series lenses and the Sigma 35mm F/1.4 ART and don’t own any cine glass. Having acknowledged that, I’ve not yet produced footage this good on photography lenses and I can imagine that had I rented something like the Zeiss Ultra (or master primes), the Canon Cine lenses or even the Xeen cine lenses then the footage would truly be remarkable. 

Panasonic VariCam LT_Ben Develin

I wish I had more time to figure out all the intricacies of this camera and I probably would have been able to avoid the frustration of shooting with a strange codec. The pressure of having my friends commit to make a video, plus not even knowing if I’d be able to even edit with the codec was not fun. And to be frank, I was very close to just cancelling my plans and sending the camera back. 

But I’m glad I persisted because it paid off in the end. Despite it being so incredibly difficult to process the files in post, it is so incredibly easy to produce a filmic look with the VariCam and I’m very proud of the pictures taken on this camera. The current competition - the Canon C300ii and the Sony F5 just don't provide the same value as the VariCam. 

With it being a last minute and poorly organised shoot, plus myself not being a world leading cinematographer, I didn't expect that I was going to shoot anything to match the amazing demo footage that I've seen floating around. Nonetheless I'm pretty happy with the result and I’m excited to rent the camera in the future! In fact, since not having the camera anymore I think I'm developing a case of separation anxiety as I move back to using my current kit of cameras. 

For anyone interested I've linked below some really nice shots taken on the camera that I was never skilled enough.