Review of the RED Scarlet-X

Frame grab of my lovely mum from 4k capture video

NOTE: My goal for this article is to provide a fair, unbiased review of the Scarlet-X. I am aware that RED has numerous fans who can at times be a little blindsided to negative feedback of RED cameras – this review is probably not for you, even though for the most part it is VERY positive! This is a review for individuals looking to make an informed purchase decision and who want to learn more about this camera. These are my own findings and must NEVER be used solely in your decision to purchase the camera. Get your hands on one and test it yourself! One last thing, RED are constantly updating firmware to improve features. This is a review as of release firmware on the 5th February 2012. 

I was not paid by anyone to do this review. I did this on my own time for my readers. For more on my ethics please read my ethics statement. 

Scarlet-X review test footage from Philip Bloom on Vimeo. Footage has only minor colour tweaking in RED Cine Pro-X. No Grading.

This is probably one of the most unique camera reviews I have ever done. Why? Even before ever touching it, seeing it in person or shooting with it,  I knew EXACTLY what it would be like. You see as a former owner on a RED Epic and having shot on that camera many times, knowing that the Scarlet-X is simply a cut down version of the Epic, everything about the camera was going to be familiar to me, both its pluses and negatives.

The Scarlet-X was finally launched on November 3rd last year, just a few hours after Canon announced the C300. Initially people, including myself, were underwhelmed by the C300 compared to the Scarlet. But things change. Once I read up on what the Scarlet could actually do, I realised that this is not a camera in competition with the C300 at all. It is a camera that occupies a unique place in the market. Whereas the C300 is an all-rounder, the Scarlet is a specialist camera. It is simply the cheapest way to acquire 4k video with a super 35mm sensor. Basically they’re taking chips made for the RED Epic which apparently hadn’t passed the QC and sticking them in the same (more or less) housing as the EPIC-X and limiting the features. That is it in a nutshell. A superb 4k acquisition camera.

If like me you have had experience with an Epic then Scarlet will frustrate you. It’s like having a Ferrari but being limited to 1st gear…The 1st gear is amazing but you SO want to open her up. It looks great, handles the same but doesn’t do most of what the Epic can do.

Mmmmm….that analogy kind of works. How about it’s like being a member of a swish club but you don’t get to go into VIP area or it’s like being given the new XBOX console but limited to just one game! That is enough for analogies….onto the review! Feel free to add your own below!

Thanks to Stewart Addison of Panny Hire, I had a RED Scarlet-X for the weekend. I am still recovering from laryngitis that wiped me out so I didn’t do a whole lot of filming with it and my plans to do an on camera review went out the window with my voice. But I still did some filming down at my parents’ to test it out (thanks mum and dad!). As I said earlier, it was not a surprising experience in the slightest! There were no wow moments. But it was, as ever, a pleasure to operate one of the new style RED cameras.

This is what the Scarlet does EXCEPTIONALLY well…The 4K recording is just amazing. The detail in the image plus the amazing latitude is a thing of beauty. The Red code RAW codec is robust and working with it in RED Cine Pro X makes working with ANYTHING else seem like a compromise. The ability to take frame grabs from the camera is just incredible. These are really high quality images and for me represent true convergence between video and stills, as these are grabs from video – you’re not stopping recording video to take a still.

The joy of RED Cine X Pro
Frame grab of my dad

Unfortunately the cool feature from the Epic, that is HDR-X, the ability to capture two streams of information at a different exposure simultaneously to create a much higher dynamic range, is missing in 4k. It only appears at 3k and even then only for 24p, not 25p.

The camera shoots up to 5k and when it does that the part of the sensor used is larger than super 35mm. More like APS-H. Unfortunately it is useful for nothing more than stills or timelapse as its fastest frame rate is 12FPS. Although you can get away with a little video with it if you need it as you can see in my test video.

So really it’s 4k that is the main resolution for this camera. Not as big as the 5k but sill plenty! Also it’s super 35mm at 4k so that’s just fine as it’s the standard and as I have already said the 4k is exceptional.

Now for off speed, currently the fastest frame rate you have is 60fps at a windowed 2k. That means the field of view is half that of the 4k. A massive pain if you want to keep the same frame, lens etc but suddenly need slow motion. For me in my tests I found the 2k 60fps vastly inferior in quality to the 4k both in noise pattern and in resolution. Even when exported to full HD ProRes. I found this with my EPIC too but I rarely needed to use the 2k in the EPIC, as it can do 120FPS in 5K and that was more than enough for most things! I have always found the 2k to have a disappointing amount of noise in it.

3K is a good compromise. It can do 48fps (so no 25p HDRx in 3K, only 24p) and that looks pretty good. A less severe crop, sharper and more detailed. For me if I owned this camera the 3K 48fps would be my slow motion of choice. For the cost of 12FPS you can a much better looking image.

120FPS is coming but only at 1k. Until I see it, who knows what it will be like. The 2k should be improved upon with firmware upgrades. Fingers crossed on that one! The biggest problem is that the 4k is just so damn superb that anything next to it suffers immensely.

There is a chance that RED will be able to offer these speeds at lower resolution without a crop at some point, certainly it has been mentioned for the Epic. That would be great as the crop can be quite a pain at times. You can see how much it crops from 5k, 4k, 4kHD, 3k and 2k below.

Sensitivity appears to be the same as the Epic, which is not great (although with no Epic to hand, I could not do a side by side test), it needs to have light. So indoors it needs to be lit. It doesn’t come close to the sensitivity of other large chip cameras out there like the FS100, F3 and C300, but it’s a totally different camera for a different market in my opinion.

The camera I had didn’t have the side handle yet, which is a shame, as the touch screen (as cool as it is) is not super responsive and not the quickest way to flick through menus. But, it is very intuitive. Just don’t expect iPhone style responsiveness. That mean no red volts too as they go in the side handle, so I was not able to test power consumption.

I had 2 64GB cards which was more than enough for the limited filming I did, but in my EPIC experience 4 x 128gb is a minimum amount of cards I would personally recommend for a full day’s filming without offloading during a shoot.

The camera also had the Canon EF mount which is just superb, different to the Ti one I had on my Epic in design but it worked as well. Controlled the aperture just fine, albeit only in 1/3 stop increments and powered the IS (and focus if that is your bag!) Next to the C300 one (which should be better as it’s on a Canon) this is the best Canon mount out there other than on a DSLR! It’s easy to switch mounts to PL by removing 4 screws and putting the different mount on. One of the loveliest features of this RED design. Both on the Epic and on the Scarlet.

I mentioned this in detail in my previous Scarlet post but beware of the costs of the camera. The base price of sub $10k is not shootable. A proper shooting package, without even getting into the need to really get a RED Rocket for post, is much closer to almost double that when you get the batteries, cards, EVF, cheese plates, rods etc. You can spend a hell of a lot more than that too if you wanted. Just with my Epic which cost me $58k I spent over $20k on bits for it. Be careful as it can become a bit of a money pit!

So in summary. What do I think? It’s an astonishing 4k camera for normal speed recording. Amazing flexibility in post with the RAW image. Skin tones impress for sure. They look terrific as you can see in the video of my mum and dad!

For off-speed this is not the camera for you, IMHO. Even though the resolution on paper is better than other cameras at 60fps, it’s inferior in many ways. For example the FS100 does 1080p slow motion and it’s gorgeous. Shame it’s at such a low bit rate of 28mb/s. The C300 only does 60p at 720p but it is not windowed (cropped) and suffers from a wee bit of aliasing. To be blunt, the cropping is a massive pain…ALTHOUGH there are times when being able to punch in is quite nice…the C300 720p 60p is of a mostly similar quality, in my opinion to the Scarlet is terms of sharpness at 60fps but it is cleaner for sure! That is what is so disappointing in the camera. For a camera that does one thing so well it’s a shame the rest is not so great!

Perhaps if I was coming at this camera without EPIC experience then I would see it differently, but then again maybe not. All I know is that 4K is so damn good it’s so damn frustrating that it cannot do off speed, even at 48FPS in 4k. If it did, this would be in my camera arsenal for sure! Only being able to do 30p at 4K is just so damn…limiting!!

Therefore, who is this camera for? Well it is a good backup for an Epic or RED One. A great camera for a narrative feature that you can light. A great camera for music videos with no slow motion (although many music videos need them). A great camera for commercials, again when you don’t need off speed. It’s not a great doco camera, which is my forte, where available light is often all you have to work with. Not a camera for the budget conscious. Not a camera for the casual user. This is a PRO camera for PROS. Getting this camera will not make you a better shooter. It will make your images look crisper, but it won’t suddenly make your work any better. It will make you more skint so remember that when you get out your credit card! 🙂

So is this the camera for you then, or is the C300? The F3? The AF100? The FS100? Well my next blog post is “Which large chip camcorder should I buy?” but I can tell you now those other cameras should be compared against each other. The Scarlet? It’s just unique and for a totally different task. I will go into that further in my next blog post.

If you are England based and need a Scarlet for hire, Stewart is your guy. For £350 a day (always check price!) this little beauty could be yours.