For those of you who want to jump right in and see the images, below is a video showing three sequences shot on the Panasonic Varicam 35 using Ultra-prime lenses.
The first sequence, showing the collodion wet plate photographic process, is an attempt to show detail and colour rendition. The second sequence compares the native 800/5000 ISO’s of the camera, and the third sequence shows some examples at 120fps, the maximum frame rate of the Varicam 35.
All footage was shot at 4k and graded in ACES in Baselight.
The Panasonic Varicam arrives into a camera market where the dust is beginning to settle somewhat since the Red One first exploded on to the scene back in the mid 2000’s. While individual manufacturers continue to produce cameras with quite distinctive images, today’s top of the line digital cinema cameras can be considered broadly similar when it comes to dynamic range, sensor size and the implementation of some form of raw and/or log shooting. In the same ball park if not playing quite the same game.
Any manufacturer entering into the fray today really needs to ‘up the ante’ and offer something unique. Panasonic have done just that.
It seems to be a two pronged approach from Panasonic. Drawing on the established Varicam name and associated emotion attached to the original Varicam camera, they are very mindful of the ‘Panasonic look’ and that today’s digital cinema cameras can be approached much like different film stocks.
There was always something very pleasing about the colours that a Panasonic camera could produce. A long time ago I owned a 102A and I absolutely loved the colour and tone of the SD images it recorded on to tape. In the days when everyone was desperately trying to make video look like film, Panasonic cameras were going in the right direction and it is this historic Panasonic look that the new Varicam is hoping to take advantage of.
The second prong is one of workflow, both on-set and in post-production and together Panasonic combine all of this into a camera that jumps right in at the high end of image making.
Overview (or what it says in the brochure).
There is a lot of Press out there on the Varicam and what it is capable of doing. I will keep the overview purposefully brief and go into more depth with the actual hands-on testing, however the following is the official information supplied by Panasonic.
The camera’s sensor, developed by Panasonic, can record 4K up to 120FPS.
It records an AVC intra Codec that is a flavour of H.264.
At 25fps it can record a 4:4:4 12 bit image at 800mbs, or a 4:2:2 10bit image at 400mbs.
Panasonic have developed a 4:2:2 LT codec for recording 4K high speed images.
The camera has 2 native ISO’s, 800 and 5000 each exploiting separate circuitry to keep the signal to noise ratio low.
The camera records three formats onto two cards simultaneously. Panasonic continue with the P2 recording format calling the cards P2 Express and P2 Micro.
The camera is modular, with the camera head and recorder module able to be separated with a cable. The camera head comes in two flavours, the 4K Varicam 35 and the ⅔ inch HD HS (high speed)
At Present there is only log recording. Raw recording is being developed in association with Codex.
The test (or what it is really like).
Our testing was undertaken with the camera in Log mode, (Panasonic call it V-log) with monitoring and post using the in-camera 709 LUT. No grading was done in-camera. There is comprehensive in-camera grading available via apps from the likes of Pomfort and Colorfront, but I left it well alone for this introductory testing.
All images were mastered at 4k (log only) on the P2 Express with a lesser format (2K!) being recorded on the P2 micro card as a backup in case the 4K post workflow fell over (also log only).
The Micro card P2 additionally recorded a proxy with the V-709 LUT baked in.
The first part of my testing was photographing charts, a Picscan grey scale chart for determining the ISO in order to match the camera to my meters and a textured grey surface for determining a practical dynamic range.
The Picscan chart gives me a known black, grey and white reference with which to check exposure in various ways. I first use the cameras built in false colour to determine where mid-grey sits and then use the waveform, also built into the camera, to see what percentage this represents. The Varicam also has a very useful spot meter function that Panasonic call Y-Get. I used this to double check the mid-grey level. This can be set in either percentage or stops.
Across the board, mid-grey sat at 42% for both tungsten and daylight at 800 and 5000 ISO. The wave forms were all virtually identical which bodes very well for matching and the ISO in relation to my meters was accurate.
The second test was for dynamic range using a textured grey surface, in this case a towel. It is a great way of seeing in real world terms the reduction of detail during over and under exposure and is an easy way to determine a cameras useful dynamic range. The images below are log.
Below are some larger views of the +6 and +7 squares.
Good detail up to +6. There does appear to be a little more detail at +7 in both tungsten examples, however most of this is the shadow area of the towels pile and I would probably discount it from being useable.
Again definite detail down to -6 but at -7 it is mostly noise.
Below are larger images that make the difference clear.
Panasonic claim that the sensor has a dynamic range of 14+ stops, and while I have no real way of measuring if the sensor can produce this sort of dynamic range and whether it will record such a range when a Raw version of the camera is released, for practical shooting purposes I would stick to 6 stops over and under mid grey. This is however a solid and useable 12 stops. What is also really impressive is just how uniform the image quality remains between the two ISO’s, throughout all the steps and in both tungsten and daylight.
One of the biggest talking points of this camera is the dual ISO’s of 800 and 5000, implementing independent circuitry in order to keep noise to a minimum. Of course there is slightly more noise with the 5000 ISO images but for the extra 2 2/3 stops it is generally more than acceptable.
Below are a few comparisons along with some comments.
No Iris Change or grading. Straight switch between ISO’s. T1.9 / 180 shutter / 25fps
Again a straight switch between ISO’s. T1.9 / 180 shutter / 25fps
Looking at around T 5.6 for the 800 ISO shot. 5000 graded for density only. (No colour change)
Noticeable noise increase in grey sky.
Last light. Shot wide open at T1.9. Colour shift between the two when wide open on lens. I could not see as much with my naked eye as the camera could see!
Sky exposed at white clip. Really nice highlight roll off.
Using the Camera.
The Varicam has an ease of use that belies its powerful capabilities. From its viewfinder to the menu system to the layout of buttons, it is a well thought out and easy to use camera.
The viewfinder is a really nice little OLED unit that comes complete with a full swing wave-form. It only has lines (no numbers) on the vertical axis but is very easy to read (once I worked out that the top line was 120 and not 100). It can be turned on and off with an assignable button.
There was a small amount of vignetting on the left and right side of the view finder but I believe that the camera I was using was a test unit and was assured that production models do not show such vignetting. The camera also has false colour and the aforementioned Y-Get (spot meter), all assignable to function buttons and all making metering with the camera very intuitive and flexible.
One can cycle viewing between 709, Log and a low contrast intermediate as well as user defined LUTs, but you have to look at the menu to see what you are viewing as there is no designation in the viewfinder. While one can usually tell if they are viewing Log or 709, in some circumstances they can look very similar and with the third low contrast setting in the mix, not having an indication in the view finder is an oversight I hope will be addressed.
There are three hard switches on the front left side of the camera to control WB, ISO and Shutter as well as three soft assignable function buttons that are easy to get at and to use while operating. The hard switches are especially useful, bypassing the menu and allowing the changing of WB, ISO and Shutter while recording.
The record button while large and red sometimes proved a little difficult to press and sometimes had to be pressed more than once before the camera started recording. This could be improved on.
The camera starts up in 20 seconds but there is an image in the viewfinder within 5 seconds. There is no record button on the right hand side but there is a programmable function button and the menu control panel can be removed from the left side of the camera and mounted on the right hand side. The layout of the menu is very intuitive and easy to navigate by way of soft buttons and a rotary wheel.
From what I could ascertain there is no still frame capture function.
On the right there is a lens socket for ENG style lenses
Built in IR ND of 0.6, 1.2 and 1.8 (2, 4 and 6 stops for you young ones).
800 is lowest ISO available to this camera. You can go up from there along with having the 5000 ISO option, but it would be good to see the implementation of lower ISO’s. More and more I find myself using ISO as another way of manipulating stop and the ability to lose a couple of stops quickly like this would be excellent.*
The highest frame rate from the Varicam 35 is 120 frames but the camera does have to be in a time-base other than 25fps to achieve this, ie 24 or 30fps. With a 25fps base the top speed is 100fps. Watching 120fps play-back on-set directly from the camera to a 4k monitor (by way of 4 HD-SDI cables) is, I have to say, pretty awesome.
This leads me to the codecs. It is very simple to set up the dual card recording allowing for 3 formats to be recorded simultaneously. In my case 4k 444, 2k422 and a proxy.
But if you change the frame rate of one, you have to change the frame rate of the others also. Seems obvious now but I just assumed it would follow… it does not.
And this applies to playback too. The camera has a nice little monitor on the side for viewing playback and it will play back up to 120fps, but the camera needs to be set to the same codec/ frame rate of the recorded image to play back. So if you have clips at different frame rates and time bases you have to change the camera settings each time to view them. Not a biggie and most of the time it would not be an issue but it took me a little while to work it out the first time.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article we graded the footage on a Baselight and in the Aces colour space. The offline was done in Avid.
The Baselight received the firmware upgrade for reading the 4:2:2 light codec used for the high speed footage literally 2 days before we graded.
Getting the footage into the Avid did take a little bit of effort. For some reason the clip numbers did not match between the Express P2 card and the Micro P2 and so we were unable to use the proxies generated by the camera. We ended up having to transcode our own DNx files from the 4K master files. Having said that there was no issue from then on and conforming back too and grading in 4k proved no problem.
Why they did not match I do not know. Modifying file names is possible in the camera, but I left it at the default so it was probably operator error… Considering the fantastic ability to record 3 formats at the same time that this camera allows, I imagine it was. The native file numbering in camera is quite unusual and in no way relates to reel numbers etc. I was told that there are some copyright issues involved...
When the footage was opened up in Aces and the v709 LUT was applied the images were quite saturated and warm but it was an easy tweak back to a more natural colour and tone. It would be interesting to experiment in different colour spaces and even on different hardware to see how each renders the images from this camera. I would certainly look at creating my own LUTs and perhaps tweaking the v709 LUT for a long form project.
Again working in 4K seemed no different from a performance point of view than working in 2k.
With such a long wait between this iteration of the Varicam and the last and the progression of camera technology since then, Panasonic had their work cut out for them. But they have created a great camera. The build, layout and form of the camera is a pleasure to use and the dual ISO’s is a really interesting ‘point of difference’.
The pictures are beautiful and the workflow simple and elegant.
There are few if any real issues. Fix that record button, sort out some sort of viewing status in the viewfinder regarding Log / 709 and allow ISO’s lower than 800.
Many thanks to Cinestuff, Images, Imagezone and Nutshell for their help with facilities and equipment. Thanks also to Paul Lear, Ian McCarroll, Richard Elworthy and John Bell.
*Since the writing of this article I have been made aware that Panasonics next round of firmware upgrades in April 2015 will include lower ISO support. Down to an ISO of 200. There will be a resultant change in dynamic range at the lower ISO's so as always it would be worth testing before shooting.