It Shoots Like the VariCam 35, But It's a Lot Smaller, Lighter and Less Expensive

Panasonic’s VariCam 35 was released to great acclaim in 2014, updating Panasonic’s flagship camera system for digital motion picture production. The VariCam 35 contains a Super 35mm-sized sensor and captures up to 120 fps 4K and raw 4K to a compatible Codex recorder. What really separates the VariCam 35 to other high-end digital cinema cameras is its dual native ISO ratings of 800 and 5000, letting you capture clean images in extreme low light environments.

Yesterday, at the DGA in Los Angeles, Panasonic announced their new 4K cinema camera — the VariCam LT. The LT has the same imaging capabilities as its big brother but in a much more compact form. Weighing less than six pounds, the VariCam LT is ideal for handheld shooting, as well as Steadicam, jib, crane, drone and gimbal work. At first glance, the VariCam LT sort of resembles Blackmagic’s new URSA Mini in its compact, rectangular form factor.

Panasonic VariCam LT

Tech Specs
VariCam LT captures at a multitude of resolutions, including 4K DCI, UHD, 2K, and HD. In terms of codecs, you can capture ProRes 4444 (up to 30p) and ProRes HQ (up to 60p) for HD recording. You can also record Panasonic’s proprietary AVC-Ultra, as well as new codecs like AVC-Intra LT and AVC-Intra 2K-LT, which can capture up to 240 fps in a crop mode. The LT uses VariCam P2 media, including the 256 GB Express P2 card or Micro P2 or SD for proxy recording.

VariCam LT captures 14+ stops of dynamic range, making it a good camera for projects that will be posted for HDR delivery. (The VariCam LT does not have an HDR mode like Red’s HDRx, in which two exposures are recorded simultaneously.)

For color, VariCam LT shares VariCam’s extended color gamut and support for ACES workflow. There’s also a new color-processing feature, V-LOOK, which combines both V-Log and video, which is ideal for documentary or event shooting that won’t allow a lot of time for post-processing.

VariCam LT settings

Photo by Neil Matsumoto

Most important, VariCam LT also contains the dual native ISO ratings of 800 and 5000. According to cinematographers who have used the VariCam 35, native 5000 ISO has the same signal-to-noise ratio as native 800 ISO, delivering very clean images. So how does a camera have two native ISO settings? Are there two sensors? “We have both an 800 path and a 5000 path on the same sensor,” explained Barry Russo, Panasonic Supervisor, ProAV Product Engineering. “The 5000 path can read photons much faster, so the sensitivity goes up without adding noise. When you go from native 800 to native 5000, you’re literally switching channels on the sensor. It has to do with a photon readout and how we store them.” Once you’re in native 5000 ISO mode, you can still go to higher ISOs (up to 12,800), but you’re essentially just adding gain.

Panasonic VariCam LT on a shoulder

Photo by Neil Matsumoto

Differences Between LT and 35
Some differences between VariCam LT and VariCam 35 include the inability to do parallel sub-recording, although the LT can record high-res proxy files, which can be wirelessly uploaded through FTP. Since the camera body is smaller, LT is more of a one-piece camcorder, unlike the two-piece 35, which has both camera head and recorder.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that VariCam LT contains an EF mount, which makes the LT more of an indie film camera than the 35, which comes standard with a PL mount. I have to admit it was odd to see a Canon still lens on the production-kitted LT body, but from a marketplace point of view, it makes sense since there are over 100 million EF lenses in the world. If you want to shoot with traditional cinema lenses, you can install a PL-mount on the LT for $1,300, making it more of an industry-standard camera system.

VariCam LT front view

Photo by Neil Matsumoto

New features to the VariCam LT include power hot swap, IR shooting, 23.98 PsF output, and image presets as scene files. You have 3G HD-SDIx3 (SDI-Outx2 and VF), LAN, genlock in, time-code in/out, USB 2.0 Host and USB 2.0 Device (miniB), and three XLR inputs (one five-pin, two three-pin) to capture four channels of 24-bit, 48KHz audio recordings. You can also use Panasonic’s AU-VCVF10G viewfinder or other third-party viewfinders. Since it’s a modular camera system, Panasonic will also be releasing camera accessories such as handgrips, extension arms, baseplates, etc, along with the previously mentioned viewfinder and PL-mount,

Real World Shooting
At the DGA event, cinematographer Dejan Georgevich, ASC, presented a short film he shot with the VariCam LT to demonstrate the strengths of the camera, in particular its low-light performance. He lit primarily with available light, supplemented with LEDs and a few Par Cans. For a scene at a subway bridge, he rated the camera at 2,500 ISO instead of 5,000. “I really didn’t need to,” explained Georgevich. “I really wanted to emphasize the mid tones and work the toe. Even at 2,500, there was no noise and I was taken aback at how rich the colors and blacks were.”

Georgevich was also impressed with the ergonomics of the camera. Shooting in a lighthouse with a narrow staircase to climb, he said he was easily able to navigate up the tower steps with the VariCam LT on a Steadicam.

Price and Availability
Scheduled to ship in March, the VariCam LT comes in two packages — $18,000 for the body only and $24,000 for a package that includes the AU-VCVF10G viewfinder. It will also be available to rent at over 30 U.S. rental locations, including Panavision, Clairmont Camera, AbelCine, Sim Digital, and many others.

Our Take
Pricing for the VariCam LT seems about right, placing the camera in the same competitive professional marketplace as the Canon C300 Mark II, Sony PMW-F5 and Red Scarlet Dragon. All four of these cameras have different strengths and weaknesses but will still deliver a professional look for your project. Panasonic’s biggest challenge will be to sway indie filmmakers away from the likes of the lower-priced Sony FS5 ($6,699), Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K EF ($4,995), and Red Raven ($5,950). 

All in all, the VariCam LT adds another strong option for professional shooters who want a more mobile run-and-gun camera that delivers 4K and excellent low light performance. The camera looks like a big success — at least on paper.