Panasonic VariCam 35 Review – Challenging the Arri Alexa?

The Panasonic VariCam 35 was introduced last year and marked Panasonic’s entry into the cinema camera market. We had a chance to test the VariCam 35 during a live production. In this review, I will share my thoughts on working with the camera and look at the technical performance of Panasonic’s flagship cinema tool.

 

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Photos by our friend Tony Gigov

The VariCam LT was introduced two months ago. It is a smaller, lighter camera for single operator use that has the same sensor as the VariCam 35. Just like those produced by other manufacturers, it seems as though the VariCam 35 sensor is here to stay. Let’s take a look.

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Panasonic VariCam 35 Review

As with any new camera, when the Panasonic VariCam 35 arrived at our office, we wanted to test it during a real production. There’s no better method for evaluating a camera’s performance. Fortunately, I was able to with the young musician iNana and made this music video with her.

This music video had a limited budget. I had a single day of daylight to create the video, with two improvisational dancers. Along with my camera assistant, Michi Mrkvicka, I lit the whole video with a single 1000W tungsten light as a kicker. I also used an ALZO LED softlight and some minus fill for a few of the beauty shots.

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The dual base ISO has been one of the unique features of the VariCam 35 which Panasonic’s marketing team have given priority to. It allows you to shoot clean video at ISO 800 and ISO 5000. For this shoot, I opted for ISO 800. I found it gave me the best overall performance. We have also shot a video with ISO 5000 which will be used in our review of the new VariCam LT, scheduled for publication next week.

For this shoot, I tried the Schneider Cine PL lenses as well as the Zeiss Cp2 50mm Macro. We also had the Camdolly System with us (an affordable and mobile dolly with tracks).

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Handling

The Panasonic VariCam 35 consists of two separate parts: a recording unit and a sensor unit. This allows you to break down the size of the camera if needed, but usually, you’d go with the complete package.

Immediately, I noticed that the camera is in the same weight class of the Arri ALEXA. At 6.5kg, the camera wasn’t ideal, since we had a crew of 2. The camera is certainly geared towards larger productions, with at least one or two dedicated camera assistants. The Sachtler Cine tripod I was using was too small, but it did get us through the day eventually.

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That said, the VariCam 35 is well-made. It is robust and has excellent ergonomics. It quickly becomes apparent that Panasonic has been absent in this game for too long because they do know how to make a camera! Its menu is straight-forward and its controls are ideally situated for a single operator. The side menu for assistants works well, too. Despite a slight lack of clarity around the edges, the viewfinder is really impressive—and the mount is well made too.

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Camera assistant Michi Mrkvicka intrigued by the great EVF | Photos by Tony Gigov

While the intuitive Alexa-style menu is good, there is a quite frustrating aspect involved in the handling of the camera that I must mention. The boot-up time of the Panasonic VariCam 35 is about 40 seconds. This wouldn’t be a big problem if you only needed to boot once, but every change of frame rates, resolution or codec requires up to 2 restarts. That can be quite problematic, especially given that the camera cannot restart on its own. It needs your assistance with the on/off switch.

Battery life was good. We had no problem getting through the day with a few V-mounts and the fan noise wasn’t a problem. Well, it was a music video, but I’d say the fan is discreet and shouldn’t be a problem at all.

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Working with the Footage

Unfortunately, the Panasonic VariCam 35 maxes out at 120fps in 2K. For my shoot, I needed a stronger slow motion capability. To achieve this, I used the Sony FS700 with an Odyssey 7Q+ as a b-camera for the slow motion shots. Matching the two cameras wasn’t hard, especially as the Panasonic VariCam 35 produces very nice images, but also because Vlog and Slog 2 don’t seem to be very far apart.

I noticed a difference and that also gave me a good perspective of the performance of the VariCam. The Sony FS700 gave me a much softer image and I also felt that the dynamic range was more limited. The noise was also much more apparent, meaning I had to process it in DaVinci Resolve.

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It’s nice to see the step up in quality, but the VariCam 35 costs a lot more. I still like the performance of the FS700, as it produces nice slow motion RAW images that I could fit into this video. To really match the quality of the VariCam 35 I would have needed the VariCam LT though, as it is capable of shooting at 240fps, like the FS700.

Because my lighting options were limited, I did a lot with the footage of the VariCam 35 for this video. I pushed it and changed the colors quite a bit to get the high key pastel look I was going for. I felt the VariCam 35 had excellent color accuracy. The image was very crisp and clean in 4K. There was a little more noise in the shadowed areas than I had hoped for and I also found some strange color artifacts in high contrast areas.

All in all, the image seems quite comparable to that of the Canon C300 mark II in terms of dynamic range, low light performance, and noise. But I must say, I felt it didn’t reach the performance and organic feel of the Arri Alexa. While the VariCam image is very neutral, it’s not as filmic and seems more in-line with offerings from Canon and Sony.

Like with other 4K footage in Adobe Premiere, on my 8-core Mac Pro it was almost impossible to edit the VariCam 35 material. I felt the codec was even more intense on the machine than other H.264 based codecs. Eventually I had to re-encode to ProRes in order to edit properly.

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In the Lab

I also looked at the Panasonic VariCam 35 in our test lab. The usable dynamic range came in at roughly the same place as the Canon C300 mark II and Sony FS7, at between 12-13 stops. See how it tested here. Looking at the charts, I must say the VariCam 35 sensor performs very similar to the C300 mark II.

Also, regarding lowlight, the native ISO 5000 of the Panasonic VariCam 35 looks much alike—and gives us a similar brightness—as the Canon C300 mark II at ISO 3200. The two sensors don’t seem to be far apart. With both cameras, I observed a lot of noise in the shadowed areas, meaning a limited dynamic range. However, overall picture quality and color accuracy is excellent on both cameras at 4K resolution.

Rolling shutter is there, but performance is okay, again similar to the C300 mark II and FS7.

Image Quality Compared: Canon C300 mark II vs. Panasonic VariCam 35.

Image Quality Compared: Canon C300 mark II vs. Panasonic VariCam 35 (100% crop)

Speaking of resolution there was one problem with the VariCam 35. On hard and contrasted edges, I could see color artifacts, colored pixels that appear randomly. It looks like a derivate of aliasing which becomes most apparent on star charts like the one on the left.

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Conclusion

Every camera has its flaws. The color artifacts mentioned earlier and the noise in the shadowed areas seem to be the downside to the high resolution, color depth, and color accuracy the VaricCam 35 offers. But just like the Sony a6300 that has some minor aliasing problems, when you watch the 4K footage in motion, you should rarely see this problem.

In conclusion, I really liked working with the Panasonic VariCam 35. Especially the nice 4K image and color accuracy was enjoyable. On the downside, the weight was a problem for this small scale production. The VariCam 35 offers a lot of unique features like proxy recording and in-camera color correction that help in workflows on bigger productions. It is clearly tailored at those and brings a good sensor to the field.

Is it challenging the Arri ALEXA? Some DP’s do pick the VariCam 35 over the ALEXA for its clean ISO 5000 and high resolution. While the ergonomics of this camera are certainly something to consider, personally I still think the performance and organic image of the Arri ALEXA are unique in this market and no manufacturer seems to be able to compete, but Arri yet has to develop a 4K sensor for the mass market. For now, the Panasonic VariCam 35 is certainly a valid option depending on your production needs.

I hope you found our Panasonic VariCam 35 Review helpful. If you have any questions or thoughts, let us know in the comments.

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If you enjoyed the video, please give the musician iNana a shout at www.inana.at. You can download this song from her new EP for free.

To buy the Panasonic Varicam 35 we recommend you get it at CVP
Find current prices on their website.

Thanks to David Knapp at AV Pro for helping with the camera.

Thanks to the whole team for making this production possible:

Starring
Elina Lautamäki & Hussam N. Alsawah
iNANA

Photos by our friend Tony Gigov

Assistant Camera
Michael Mrkvicka

Makeup
Doris Konta

Special Thanks to
Meshit (Lena Krampf & Ida Steixner), Kunsthalle Berndorf BERNDORF AG (Rainer Koller, Andrea Gruber), Iva Zabkar, Carles Muñoz Camarero

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