Camera Review: Red Scarlet-X
SEPTEMBER 06, 2012
By Dan Havlik
Back in 2006, I wrote a story for a popular science magazine about a new “camcorder” that could shoot video four times the resolution of HD. At the time, high-def camcorders themselves were still something of a novelty for most folks and few could get their minds around a device that could capture footage in something called “4K.”
The touchscreen itself is a good one, offering 800 x 480 resolution and decent touch capacity for changing settings on the go. No, it’s not as sensitive or responsive as an iPhone, for example, but I found it easy to adjust essential settings such as resolution, ISO or color temperature. Video playback also looked nice on the display, giving me a good bead on sharpness and tone for my video clips. (Believe it or not, LCD video playback is not a standard feature on some 4K cameras.)
Working It Out
For my field test of the Scarlet-X, I collaborated with Jordan Matter, a photographer who I often test products with. Matter was in the midst of finishing his first book of photographs, Dancers Among Us, which is being published by Workman Publishing Company in New York City.
The subjects of the book’s photos are dancers performing in everyday life, such as on the street, or in a park, library or restaurant. As part of the project, Matter thought it would be interesting to photograph Workman’s main publicist, who is an ex-dancer, “performing” in the company’s office as part of the “Work” section of his book. The twist is that the publicist is pregnant and she would be holding a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a book on pregnancy that is one of Workman’s most popular titles.
As part of the project, he invited me along to shoot some of the “behind-the-scenes” video of this interesting photo op with the Scarlet-X. One catch, I quickly discovered, was that the Scarlet-X has no built-in microphone and since I was fresh out of boom mics, it would have to be a silent video that could, perhaps, be overdubbed with music later.
As mentioned earlier, holding the fully rigged Scarlet-X for the hour-long shoot was tough on my arms. The shoot took place in a somewhat cramped office with Workman employees acting in the scene. In Matter’s photo, the employees are trying to get the attention of the publicist who is looking off into the distance, reading the book as she strikes a dancer-ly pose.
It’s worth noting that to cool down the Scarlet-X’s powerful “brain,” a noisy fan runs loudly when the camera is powered on. This attracted a bit of attention from those in the room. When you start recording video, however, the fan automatically quiets down. (Fan speed is also adjustable in the menus.) Either way, you should definitely use an off-camera microphone with the Scarlet-X when recording sound or you might pick up the fan noise.
The RAW footage I captured with the Scarlet-X, while shooting in both 4K and 1080p HD, looked fabulous after I ran it through Red’s free Redcine-X Pro conversion software. At times my video clips looked positively cinematic. Though working with your video in Redcine-X Pro is essential, not only to transcode the Scarlet’s R3D files into other, more editing-friendly formats but to do some basic non-destructive color correction of the RAW video.
Redcine also gives you the ability to pull still photos from the footage, a process I found to be unusual but effective. (With so many video frames to choose from you have to be draconian in your edits or you’ll spend hours fussing over whether one frame out of hundreds is better than another.)
On the lens side, the 17-50mm T2.9 was a premium piece of glass but it took me a while to get used to pulling the manual focus during the scene to keep the subject sharp. (I didn’t have a “follow focus” mechanism, which is an essential item for pulling focus when working with this type of cinema camera and lens. So, again, the important accessories can pile up.)
The same held true for keeping the ten-pound setup steady without the benefit of a more extensive stabilizing rig for the Scarlet-X. Consequently, much of my handheld footage of the photo shoot had an unintentionally shaky “cinéma vérité” style to it.
As I mentioned earlier, while I used to think I was pretty adept at shooting video, after working with the Scarlet-X on this project, I realized I still had a lot to learn. While Red has mainly targeted the larger filmmaking and cinematography world with the Red One and Epic, the Scarlet-X clearly has some crossover appeal to photographers. For one, its design alone looks like a DSLR on steroids and the company might do well to offer some training videos or educational material via its Web site for photographers looking to make the transition from HD-DSLRs to a serious digital cinema camera like this.
In short, this is not a “straight out of the box” camera experience and if you’re looking for something easy and flexible, the Scarlet-X isn’t really for you. If you operate with patience and precision, however, the Red workflow does have its appeal.
The Scarlet-X, however, seemed way overpowered for the type of loose, behind-the-scenes project I was shooting. (For this sort of thing, an HD-DSLR or even a HD-capable, high-end compact camera would have been fine.)
In addition, I expected the Scarlet-X to do better at higher ISOs; footage shot above ISO 1600 was noisier than that from any of the latest full-frame HD-DSLRs from Canon and Nikon that I’ve tried. On the other hand, Red’s HDRx technology did offer an incredible amount of dynamic range that an HD-DSLR couldn’t touch. With HDRx, I was able to capture lots of luscious detail in the shadows without blowing out highlights.Even more importantly, for those looking to take the next step, the resolution, crispness and detail produced by the Scarlet-X were downright spectacular. Despite its small size and rugged good looks, the camera is really made for feature films and bigger projects in more controlled shooting environments.
Or in other words, photographers who have outgrown their HD-DSLRs and are looking to get really serious about filmmaking couldn’t do much better than Red’s Scarlet-X. The added bonus is the ability to grab very useable still photos from the camera’s ultra-high-def video, which is something that, quite frankly, began to feel quaint. Sure, a client might ask for stills, but once they see what’s possible with the Scarlet-X’s video, they might rethink the entire project.
In the end, the Scarlet-X is not only a camera that makes you feel like a cinematographer, it’s a product that makes you understand digital cinema as a medium of expression. Weekend warriors and video dabblers, however, need not apply.
The Bottom Line
So let’s say you bought a Canon 5D Mark II a couple of years ago and not only have enjoyed shooting with its 1080p HD feature, you’ve been able to find a way to add HD video to your business. Is the 4K-capable Scarlet-X for you? I’d say no but that’s only because this digital cinema camera is no mere “bridge” device. Along with being a major financial investment (when you add on all the crucial accessories), there’s a fairly steep learning curve to the Scarlet-X, even if you’re using it with your familiar Canon EF lenses. Once you understand the Scarlet-X’s potential, however, its rewards become apparent. It’s a device for making beautiful feature films, ones you might even see at your local theater. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus and The Social Network, are just a few recent films that have been shot with Red products.) In addition, you can pull high-res photos from your ultra-high-def clips fairly easily, if you or your client’s minds are still in the still world. And while that’s an option, the Scarlet-X is not really about “still photos” as its rugged, back-to-the-future good looks suggest. This is a modular, updatable motion picture machine for capturing 4K video that makes even standard high-def look tired. The Scarlet-X is all about the future. The question is: Are you ready for the future?
Pros: Capable of producing mind-blowing 4K video; free Redcine-X Pro software lets you easily pull high-resolution stills from the video; modularity extends to the sensor, letting you swap in a new chip (for a price); small and rugged camera design looks and feels rad; enough imaging power to let you make the leap from shooting HD clips to creating gorgeous feature films
Cons: Essential accessories increase the overall price; becomes considerably heavier with important add-ons; loud fan noise (though quiets when recording starts)
Prices: $9,700 for body (aka “brain”) only; $19,500 for configuration tested; www.red.com
© Courtesy Joan B. Miller / Magnum PhotosWayne Miller, LIFE Photojournalist Dies
© Gerald Mabee/Brent Foster Photography & CinemaFrames Per Second: Pitching Video Storytelling
©Ali EnginFaces Portrait Photography Competition
© Brookelyn PhotographyPDN May 2013
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