The Ultimate Large Format Multi-Application Camera
These days we need one camera that is suitable for a wide range of projects. For feature films and commercials, superb performance and colorimetry are the primary considerations. For nonfiction, run-and-gun style productions, price point and certain operational advantages, such as well-placed controls and the ability to see critical focus, are higher priorities. The requirements for documentary and narrative filmmaking are so different that it is rare that one camera is versatile enough to work well at both ends of the spectrum.
VariCam LT vs VariCam 35
The VariCam LT differs from Panasonic’s flagship VariCam 35 (V35) in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Both cameras share the same imager, dual native ISO 800/5000 capability, and the main and sub recorder configuration that underlies the VariCams’ practical and efficient workflow. However, the VariCam LT sells for less than half the price of its older brother, features a native EF lens mount instead of PL, and offers somewhat reduced frame rates and resolution options consistent with the lower-power model.
The VariCam LT is a top-tier S35mm camcorder that admirably meets the needs of a wide range of filmmakers from run-and-gun documentarians and nature specialists, to feature filmmakers. The camera employs the same sensor as its costlier brethren, producing superb colorimetry and dynamic range in excess of 14 stops.
Panasonic Senior Engineer Steve Mahrer describes it this way: “The V35 sports an eight-cylinder engine with a turbo while the LT is more modestly powered by a four-cylinder engine with normal aspiration.” In concrete terms, while the VariCam 35 can record 4K raw at up to 120fps to its onboard Codex recorder, the VariCam LT has no 4K raw or 4:4:4 recording capability. 4K recording is limited to AVC-Intra 4K422 (although 4K raw recording is still possible over SDI to an outboard Atomos or Odyssey recorder).
The two cameras’ physical design and ergonomics are markedly different. The pricier V35 features a modular construction with a detachable camera body and recorder that allows very convenient mounting on a Steadicam or jib. The LT has a united construction and is considerably lighter weight, more compact, and less power-hungry — the precise attributes that will appeal to many nonfiction and documentary shooters.
Compared to the VariCam 35, the lower-cost LT is more likely to appeal to owner-operators working mostly in non-fiction genres. Onboard 4K recording is limited to 4K422 to the P2 Express Card or miniP2 card, albeit 4K RAW recording is possible over SDI at 10- or 12-bits up to 60FPS to an outboard recorder like the Atomos Shogun Inferno or Odyssey 7Q+ and 7Q.
Drawing about 70W fully configured, the VariCam LT consumes about 25 percent less power than the V35, which translates into reduced heat and cooling requirements — and a more reasonably sized battery complement when traveling on commercial airlines. I used the Anton Bauer Digital Series 90 batteries on a recent LT project and found that one battery could power the camera for about 90 minutes with standard accessories — follow focus, Teradek, and a small monitor. Not bad, given the LT’s high performance and significant data loads.
Reflecting the camera’s inherent appeal to broadcasters, the VariCam LT features additional looks not found in the V35 or the new V35 Pure. The BC-Look is intended for use when recording in log is inconvenient or too time-consuming for television applications. Most LT shooters working in non-broadcast genres will opt for recording in V-Log. The camera can simultaneously record a proxy to the sub recorder with a Rec. 709 viewing LUT applied for reviewing dailies and initiating a rough cut or assembly right on the set.
For most shooters, recording in log makes sense because of the improved latitude and dynamic range. Quality aside, it also means less fill light and grip gear are required to capture professional-looking images. The brightest highlights in sun-dappled scenes, for example, may often be accommodated without clipping or loss of detail.
Most LT shooters will opt to record in V-Log. The V-Log image at left was captured to the camera’s main recorder. The proxy image (right) with a 709 viewing LUT applied was captured simultaneously to the sub recorder.
When shooting with the LT, I usually assign Y-Get to user button 1. When centered over the brightest part of the scene and the iris adjusted to 69 IRE, the camera recording in V-Log will accommodate 3 to 4 stops of additional latitude before clipping or losing noticeable detail in the highlights. This method of setting exposure is simple and effective, and it obviates the need for a bevy of external exposure meters, scopes, and reference monitors. Keep in mind that the camera’s 14 to 15 stops of latitude in V-Log exceeds the current HDR display range of only 11 to 12 stops. That means translating LT images in post to HDR will lead to some image degradation.
The LT supports the many existing EF still lenses, plus the new higher performance native EF cine lenses like this 55mm/F1.4 Zeiss Otus Distagon.
Common Super 35mm Sensor
The large-format VariCams feature the identical Super 35 MOS sensor with 4448×2308 pixel resolution. This latest-generation sensor is capable of reproducing images with extraordinary color accuracy and range — better than Rec. 2020 color. The LT’s colorimetry and wide dynamic range in combination with Panasonic’s AVC-Ultra produces a very sophisticated look on-screen, justifying the camera’s greater financial investment.
Dual Native ISOs
Most folks understand that the VariCam offers dual native ISOs at 800 and 5000. The higher ISO provides 6x the sensitivity or the equivalent of a 2.6 stop advantage. Some LT shooters may want to work exclusively at a native ISO of 5000 regardless of conditions, opting to reduce the working sensitivity via the menus and/or by utilizing a -3dB gain to minimize potential noise in the blacks. Note that shooting at a reduced non-native ISO slides the toe curve only; it does not affect the highlights.
There are many advantages to shooting at ISO 5000. In low-light situations, the addition of a weak eye light from a flashlight or cell phone may be all that is needed to achieve sufficient illumination and proper grey scale. Illuminating a city street may require only one 500W lamp on the Condor instead of a 12K or 18K HMI. Considering the reduction in manpower, grip, and electrical needs, the convenience and potential savings of shooting at native ISO 5000 cannot be understated.
While shooting in extreme low light can be liberating, working at an elevated ISO can get tricky. A subtle reflection in an actor’s eyeglasses can suddenly appear too bright and become objectionable. An ordinary streetlight at night may clip, or the urban sky above a cityscape may require ND. Few shooters are accustomed to thinking about utilizing an ND filter at night!
Many LT users will opt to shoot 4K422 23.98fps at ISO 5000, which translates into working scenes with an illumination level of a scant 10 FC. Compare this level to a typical dimly lit screening room at 30 FC; the LT will capture detail far in excess of what the human eye can see. Distracting background elements can suddenly appear and wreak havoc on a DP’s plans, so appropriate caution must be exercised when shooting at very high ISOs.
Some LT shooters may opt to shoot ISO 5000 to maintain a constant noise floor throughout a production, which can lead to much smoother and faster grading. Still, shooting natively at ISO 5000 is going to take some getting used to.
Speaking of grading, the LT’s built-in live color grading can be very helpful, especially in multicam settings. Tweaking the final grade on set makes a lot of sense and can save time and money in post.
Native EF Mount: Is It Robust Enough?
The LT’s lens mount is a concern for shooters who find the EF mount’s consumer design and fragile bayonet mechanism insufficiently robust for professional applications. Since the introduction of the Canon AE-1 SLR 30 years ago, EF lenses have proliferated — literally tens of millions of them are in drawers and camera bags around the world. It made sense for Panasonic to produce a camera that takes advantage of these ubiquitous lenses, even if the EF design is less than optimal for pro shooters utilizing heavier, cine-style zoom and telephoto lenses.
Worried about a fragile EF lens mount? Don’t be. Panasonic’s implementation of the less-than-venerable EF mount is extremely strong and robust.
Fortunately, Panasonic has addressed this issue head on. The LT incorporates a ruggedized version of the EF mounting system that dispenses with the fragile bayonet mechanism, relying instead on a heavy PL-like locking ring to secure an EF lens to the camera body. When mounting an EF lens, users must be sure to align the locating marks on the camera body and lens to ensure the electronic control pins make proper contact. Since most EF lenses lack a manual-control iris, the adjustment of the aperture can only be achieved electronically via a rotary dial built into the side of the camera or a second similar dial control located at the end of the camera grip.
A PL-mount adapter is available for the LT as a $1,200 option.
The LT allows the use of 16mm PL lenses in cropped mode, which helps maintain brightness by eliminating the lens adapter. Two-thirds type B4 lenses may also be used in cropped mode with a two-stop light loss — perhaps not a bad thing when shooting at ISO 5000 in daylight and facing the prospect of heavy ND filtration.
Built-In ND Filters
We all know this story well. Shooting in daylight with a large-sensor camcorder at a high ISO means wrangling ND filters for proper exposure. The LT features four built-in ND filters: clear, 0.6, 1.2, and 1.8. High-value ND filters and/or stacking multiple filters can introduce or exacerbate IR color shifts. Most modern cameras with integrated ND filters, including the LT, effectively eliminate IR contamination without cutting into the red visible wavelengths that are critical for rendering accurate flesh tones.
The top handle is extremely robust with multiple drillings, and it has a focus hook to affix a multitude of accessories.
The LT handle grip is very comfortable, with integrated control of the iris and audio level. The camera will not sit squarely on a flat surface with the grip and handle attached. Panasonic should design a spring-loaded system to allow the arm to be more easily re-positioned while shooting and for setting the camera down afterward.
Easily Removable IR Filter
The LT sports an unusual feature of particular interest to wildlife shooters. Most nature preserves currently ban the use of conventional lighting when capturing certain species of penguins, sea tortoises, and other nocturnal animals. In those cases, IR lighting is required and, for this, the LT's easily removable IR filter is a godsend. The LT may be reconfigured in the field as the opportunity arises, obviating the need for a second camera body or the hassle of removing and re-installing the IR filter in a service facility or rental house. The IR filter may be removed or reinstalled in less than five minutes, making the LT invaluable for certain types of nature shows, especially in conjunction with the camera’s high frame rate (up to 240fps) and native ISO 5000 capability.
Ineffective, cheaply manufactured viewfinders are the bane of shooters everywhere. Fortunately, the LT offers what is almost certainly the best and brightest viewfinder in its class. The 900,000-pixel OLED features zoom-up viewing and up to 10% lookaround at the sides of frame, plus 5% at the top of the frame, where errant mics at the end of boom poles tend to congregate.
Probably the best EVF I’ve seen regardless of price! It has a bright 900K pixel OLED panel, zoom up magnifier, and pressure sensitive eyecup.
The EVF is fitted with a pressure-sensitive eyecup to prevent accidental sun damage to the delicate OLED panel. Such damage can occur in a matter of seconds so this feature (once common in professional film cameras) is a welcome addition in the LT.
4K-resolution images are notoriously difficult to focus, so the 1.4x or 2x magnifier is handy. To activate, the magnifier function may be assigned to a user button. The camera features four user buttons on the left side, with a fourth button option permitting five additional user buttons. Curiously, the full range of user options is only available on user buttons 1-4; a more limited range of functions is assignable to the five supplemental buttons.
For an operator working alone, achieving focus and following focus in 4K can be tough. The LT’s ingenious assist function employs rectangles that enlarge and shrink in size with critical focus. This makes following focus in run and gun situations relatively simple to accomplish.
The unsurprising downside to this fabulous new viewfinder is cost. It adds $5,700 to the base price of the camera. Buyers must consider this as part of any purchasing decision.
Some Inconvenient Truths
This review would be incomplete without mention of a few notable shortcomings.
The industry-standard control panel is simple and a joy to use, but the attached cord can be unwieldy and a bear to wrangle and store. A bayonet mounting system should be implemented to allow secure repositioning of the controller at various points around the camera without the dastardly cable. Experienced shooters know that cables and plugs are the main cause of equipment failure in the field, so the controller cable is a potential weak point.
The headphone plug is difficult to extract from the LT body, especially with gloved hands. Strongly consider a right-angle adapter here.
The LT features an extraordinarily low-noise four-channel 24-bit audio recorder, which is great. What’s not great is the lack of dedicated audio-level control knobs and external VU meters. (This must be an unfortunate trend, since the new Canon C700 also lacks this basic function.) For a multi-application camera that is intended for use across a broad spectrum of production, including run-and-gun documentaries with or without a dedicated sound recordist, the absence of traditional audio controls and meters promises needless frustration.
The absence of a user-accessible main fuse can be a drawback for some shooters, especially those who like to power a multitude of accessories directly from the camera. These folks should use extra caution when plugging and unplugging accessories. For powering an on-board monitor, I recommend connecting to the battery’s top- or side-mounted P-tap rather than the camera’s built-in Hirose connector, just to be safe. Some very good third-party power distribution regulator options can mitigate the risk of overdrawing the camera’s (12V/1A) Hirose connector and blowing an internal fuse that would require a shop visit. Suffice it to say that it makes sense, when dressing any camera, to use such power regulation to reduce the risk of a blown fuse, accessible or not.
The bright, oversized record buttons on the control panel and operator side of the camera are clearly visible across a busy set. I like that. For the camera operator, however, the minuscule record indicators in the EVF are problematic. Harried operators may easily miss the tiny dots at the top of frame. Panasonic should provide a more definitive indication in the EVF, such as an illuminated red frame outline. Whether or not the camera is recording on a set should not be a closely guarded secret!