Camera Review: Red Scarlet-X

September 6, 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.”

That camera was the Red One, created by a start-up known as the Red Digital Cinema Camera Company, launched and financed by Oakley sports gear founder Jim Jannard. The Red One had made an auspicious (and controversial) debut at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference that year and my editor at the magazine sent me to check out some video produced by this mysterious camera that used a “Mysterium” imaging chip. (There was speculation at the time that the Red One was, at best, “vaporware” or, at worst, a complete hoax.)

While the Red One footage I saw wasn’t much to write home about as far as content goes—as I recall, it consisted of a girl drinking milk and someone blowing smoke from a cigar—it was incredible in terms of resolution and fidelity. Add the fact that the Red One was selling for under $18,000 when comparable 4K digital cinema cameras went for over $100,000, and a cult video hero was born.

The Red One was for real, and filmmakers couldn’t wait to get their hands on it.

Flash forward five years to last November, when the second follow-up to the Red One was launched: the smaller and lighter Scarlet-X. No longer just a cult hero camera company, Red had become a bona fide player in the world of digital cinema.

Director Peter Jackson was famously using Red’s larger scale Epic camera to shoot his The Lord of the Rings-prequel, The Hobbit. Meanwhile, Canon had entered the small-camera digital cinema space with its 2K-shooting EOS C300 (and later, the 4K-capable C500), which would prove to be direct competitors to the Scarlet-X. (Red brazenly launched the Scarlet-X just hours after Canon unveiled the C300.)

Scarlet Fever
What does this all mean for photographers? Well, there are a few who got on board early with the Red One and immediately saw its potential. I wrote a story for PDN back in 2008 about photographer David McClain who shot an ad campaign with the Red One, pulling stills from the ultra-high-def video footage to provide a multimedia package to his client.

Others, however, were dipping their toes into the HD pool more gingerly, either by experimenting with the HD feature on their Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D90 or just shooting 720p clips with their iPhones. Capturing HD and editing it into a polished, attractive product is a lot harder than it seemed, as many found out. That’s changing, however, as photographers continue to get more comfortable with the HD workflow and find ways to sell video to their clients.

Both Red and Canon know this, which is why the Scarlet-X and C300 (not to mention the 4K-shooting Canon EOS-1D C digital SLR) are aimed as much at still photographers transitioning to video as they are at true cinematographers.

Though I got a chance to shoot with the Scarlet-X briefly during this year’s CES, it wasn’t until this summer that I was able to get my hands on a full Scarlet-X test rig and put it through its paces. What I found after trying this impressive if somewhat intimidating camera is that I know less about shooting video than I thought.

Indeed, even if you’ve captured extensive high-def footage with the latest and greatest HD-DSLRs, such as the Canon 5D Mark III, and Nikon D4 and D800, you’ll find that the 4K-shooting Scarlet-X is a whole different animal. Just as Canon’s 1D line is a giant leap from its Rebel cameras, Red’s 4K shooters are in a class all their own. And while the Scarlet-X is not exactly “for pro filmmakers only,” it’s certainly serious business. And that’s not just because Red’s erector-set design makes the Scarlet look like something the Terminator would use to lay waste to an entire city.

Let’s take a close and careful look at this powerful video tool.

Made to Order
So what is 4K video anyway? Well, it’s a digital cinematography standard offering approximately four times the resolution of 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) HD video. In the case of the Scarlet-X, it can shoot RAW 4K at 4096 x 2160 pixels—actual resolution in 4K cameras varies slightly from model to model—at up to 30 frames-per-second (fps). The Scarlet-X is also capable of shooting 5K (5120 x 2700) still-image bursts at up to 12 fps, an appealing feature for photographers who might want to pull stills from this footage. (A number of major magazine covers have featured stills captured with Red cameras.)

But do you really need such a high-resolution video camera? In your immediate future, especially considering there are a limited number of monitors and projectors that can handle 4K, probably not.

But Red’s highly modular products, in many ways, are future-proof devices, partially because that modularity also extends to the camera’s sensor. Though we found the Scarlet-X’s 14-megapixel Mysterium-X sensor—the same one used in the larger and more expensive Epic—produced spectacular video results in decent lighting, whenever Red introduces a new and improved chip, they will swap it into your Scarlet-X. (For a price, of course.)

In addition to 4K and 5K, the Scarlet-X can shoot in 3K and 1080p, giving you flexibility. (You can also shoot at 120 fps at 1K for gorgeous slow-mo footage.) But let’s get back to that fabled Red modularity. If you’ve done any basic research on these products, you’ve probably heard that they’re smaller and relatively low-priced compared to digital cinema cameras from Sony, Arri and Dalsa.

That’s true from a base standpoint, with the Scarlet-X’s battleship-gray body, or “brain,” selling for $9,700. You need to add components to make the camera operational though, and those begin to add to the cost, size and weight.

The Scarlet-X model I tested had a PL lens mount—it also comes standard with a Canon EF lens mount—and an attached side SSD module for storing your footage. Red also loaned me 17-50mm T2.9 and 85mm T1.8 lenses; the Red Touch 5.0” LCD accessory; and a 64-GB SSD card. This initial setup was enough to record video in a studio environment when plugged into DC power but because there was no battery, I couldn’t take the Scarlet-X out in the field.

That sort of defeated the purpose of my field test, which was, obviously, to test it in the field, so I requested loans for the DSMC Side Handle ($950), a couple of RedVolt batteries ($195 a piece) and chargers, and an Outrigger Handle ($350) to let me hold the entire rig without a tripod. Red was kind enough to provide all this extra test gear but, as I did the math, it brought the entire price of the Scarlet-X rig to approximately $19,500.

Rigged Up
The various accessories increased the weight of the Scarlet-X, turning what was essentially a five-pound gray box into a ten-pound, fully realized camera rig. (That’s with the 17-50mm T2.9 lens attached and battery loaded.) Even with the Side Handle and the Outrigger Handle, you feel every ounce of those ten pounds. During my field test—which I’ll discuss later—my arms got rather tired holding the Scarlet-X setup after just a few minutes. (Especially when lifting it above my head to record from different angles.)

This is not a complaint, so much, considering digital cinema cameras such as the Arri Alexa are significantly bigger and heavier than a fully tricked out Scarlet-X. But if you’re planning to use the Scarlet-X to do run-and-gun, documentary-style filming, you’d better hit the gym first.

Overall though, I liked the look and feel of the Scarlet-X. There’s something utilitarian and futuristic about it all at once, and while it’s certainly a sophisticated piece of digital technology, it’s relatively easy to figure out in a short time. Red’s founder has described the Epic camera as a “nuclear reactor in a matchbox” and there’s a sense of that with the Scarlet-X as well.

If you’re working in the studio or on location where you have readily available wall sockets (and don’t need to move around too much), you can power the Scarlet-X via a DC input on back of the camera. I preferred attaching the Side Handle, which has a space in the grip for a RedVolt battery. It took about an hour and a half to charge the RedVolt battery and I was able to run the Scarlet-X for, at most, 30 minutes on one battery before it got dangerously low. If you’re using the camera out in the field, make sure you have a least four of these batteries on hand.

You turn on the Scarlet-X by pressing a big red button on the side of the body, and it takes about ten seconds to power up. While this might seem slow for an HD-DSLR user, it’s faster than Red’s previous products, which can take a few minutes to power on.

Footage is recorded on-board to removable Red SSD memory cards—I used a 64-GB card—which slide into a slot on the side module of the Scarlet-X. They stick out slightly when inserted, which is a simple way to tell they’re loaded. The 64-GB card fits approximately 20 minutes of Redcode RAW 4K footage.

To transfer the data to a computer, you’ll need the Red Station RedMag card reader ($195), which I connected to an iMac using USB 3.0. A fully stuffed 64-GB card took me about 25 minutes to offload to the iMac.

The Red Touch 5.0” LCD ($1,600) is another—in my opinion—essential accessory for the Scarlet-X. Like everything that connects to the Scarlet-X body, there’s a literal “plug-and-play” aspect to its modularity. In this case, a short cable and a few screws—make sure you have an Allen wrench and Torx screwdriver handy when you “accessorize” this camera—are all it takes to add the screen to the top of the brain.

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.)


Camera Review Red Scarlet-X

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.

Cinema Star
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.

Raw Power

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

Essential accessories increase the overall price; becomes considerably heavier with important add-ons; loud fan noise (though quiets when recording starts)

$9,700 for body (aka “brain”) only; $19,500 for configuration tested;

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