The $4,000 4K camera field is a crowded one, but JVC's GY-LS300 4KCAM handheld Super 35mm camcorder stands out from the pack, primarily for its ability to accommodate a broad range of cinema and photographic lenses via Variable Scan Mapping technology, and its built-in live HD streaming capabilities.
Before I even began to consider the strong feature set, however, the construction and ergonomics of the camera caught my attention. Weighing just 3.75 pounds with battery, the camera is a well balanced handheld specimen. It is small enough to be held comfortably either cradled or with the side handgrip, but not so small that the controls are cramped and inaccessible for large fingers. The detachable top handle with integrated dual XLR audio inputs, record switch and zoom rocker attaches to the camera both with a slide-in shoe and with a large thumbscrew into the camera body. The connection is secure—I could feel no play whatsoever holding the camera by the handle.
The test unit I received at the beginning of August was a production model loaded with the original firmware. The very next day JVC announced a significant free firmware upgrade for the camera that will add several exciting new features. According to JVC, the 2.0 firmware will be available by the end of September, but I was not able to test it in time for this story. Here, I'll relate my experiences with the original firmware and make reference to 2.0 features that will be available soon.
The LS300 has a unique sensor and camera mount combination, a feature that will be further leveraged in the 2.0 firmware. First of all, the camera boasts interchangeable lenses for greater versatility. Its native mount is Micro Four Thirds (MFT), with a Super 35 size 4K CMOS image sensor. That may seem like a strange combination, but JVC's Variable Scan Mapping (VSM) technology allows the camera operator to select the appropriate scale area of the Super 35 sensor to provide native support of PL and EF mount lenses, among other lenses. With the right third-party adapter and lens, VSM intelligently remaps the pixels on the sensor chip in accordance with the native field of view of the lens so that the pixels fill the entire picture frame—thereby eliminating vignetting.
I tested the camera with a Metabones MFT to Canon EF mount adapter and the sensor perfectly accommodated the larger lens size—in this case, a full-frame Canon 24-105mm lens. It worked equally well with APS-C lenses.
With version 2.0 firmware, the camera will actually be able to use the zoom rocker switch to make any prime lens a variable prime by effectively cropping the sensor. This feature, called Prime Zoom, takes advantage of Variable Scan Mapping technology. When used with an MFT prime lens, the image can be adjusted between the maximum scan area and minimum scan area, meaning that the camera can deliver 2.3x maximum zoom for HD or 1.25x maximum zoom for 4K. Prime Zoom can also be used as a lens extender for zoom lenses.
While other cameras may offer a center-cut option, JVC is the first to offer variable center-cut. This opens possibilities of using even Super 16 lenses with the camera.
With the original firmware, the camera records to SDHC/SDXC media (two card slots) in a variety of image formats including 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160), Full HD with 4:2:2 sampling, and SD and web-friendly proxy formats. 4K UHD video is recorded in QuickTime (.mov) file format at 150 Mb/s, which requires UHS-I Speed Class 3 SDHC/SDXC cards to keep up with the data rate.
While the camera's 4K mode currently records up to UHD frame sizes at 24p or 30p, version 2.0 firmware increases resolution to record full DCI 4K (4096 x 2180) at 150 Mb/s, as well as a 70 Mb/s option that makes it possible to record 4K on more economical Class 10 SDHC/SDXC memory cards. When the new firmware is released, it is best to check JVC's site for the list of qualified cards. V2.0 also adds 2048 x 1080 Cinema 2K recording at 50 Mb/s. Both 4K and 2K modes support recording at 23.98 or 24 fps.
GY-LS300 with adapters
HD is recorded as 8-bit 4:2:2 or 4:2:0 at frame rates up to 60p (50p for PAL). The ability to record H.264 4:2:2 24-60p at 50 Mb/s adds to the camera's versatility in production situations. The camera also offers AVCHD recording modes. I was more concerned with testing its 4K and HD capabilities, but it is good to know that lower bit rate, smaller file size and even SD recording are possible. Lower resolution H.264 files (480 x 270p, 960 x 540p, 720/480i, 720/576i) may be recorded simultaneously with full HD thanks to the camera's dual codec design.
Recording in the 1.0 firmware version is strictly Rec. 709, so the material looks like video. I was surprised to note, however, that while aliasing and rolling shutter were present, the effect wasn't horrible. Matrix and other settings can be fully controlled from the camera's menu system, so it is entirely possible to paint the camera to your needs. There is a cinema-like preset matrix that offers a more subdued, less video-y image.
I was willing to overlook the strictly video functionality, despite other cameras in this price range offering "cinema" options. I was delighted to read that the 2.0 firmware will offer JVC Log mode, an 800 percent logarithmic option to help take advantage of the full dynamic range of the camera. (JVC says the camera's single-chip CMOS sensor has approximately 13.5 megapixels and achieves a standard sensitivity of ISO 400 with a total of 12 stops of exposure latitude.) JVC Log definitely merits testing once the firmware releases.
I was somewhat disappointed at the lack of scopes beyond adjustable zebras. The forthcoming firmware update adds a histogram display, as well as a color matrix adjustment, spot meter for more accurate setting of exposure values, and black paint setting.
GY-LS300 with Vocas follow focus
As would be expected, the LS300 offers AV, SDI and HDMI output. There's also a USB jack, either for network connections or external storage.
And here is another area in which this camera positively shines: built-in HD streaming. JVC was one of the first manufacturers to include the ability to stream video directly from cameras. While that capability used to require third-party solutions, JVC now offers full in-camera encoding and transmission.
The LS300 includes a built-in HD streaming engine with Wi-Fi and 4G LTE connectivity for live HD transmission directly to hardware decoders, the Wowza Streaming Engine and JVC's ProHD Broadcaster server powered by Zixi. With support for various streaming protocols including RTMP, the camera can stream directly to CDNs like Ustream and sites including YouTube.
As you can see, the streaming choices are numerous. Using 4G LTE modems from Verizon or AT&T, the camera can stream video cellular, enhancing the camera's ENG capabilities, one of its target markets. Using Wi-Fi or LAN adapters, the camera can be controlled remotely via any IP device or, using RTMP protocols, stream to any content delivery network supporting RTMP.
GY-LS300 with Canon lens
I was able to set up a 1080 29.97 stream from the camera to YouTube streaming—the only real hang-up being my clumsy fingers attempting to enter my WPA password into the camera to connect to my studio LAN. Once I cleared that hurdle, streaming was as simple as connecting to the camera via a web browser, setting up the stream (in this case, YouTube) and doing a copy/paste of server and stream ID into the camera's web GUI. Then I just needed to map one of the 10 user-assignable buttons to "Start Stream" and I was streaming. Version 2.0 firmware will carry this capability to the next level with adaptive bit rate control.
If you are not using the remote web GUI for streaming, numerous camera and data options are available, including metadata entry and editing from your remote device.
The camera's pop-out LCD screen is sharp, and peaking features assist in focus. The eyepiece is adequate, but I honestly never hold a camera of this form factor up to my eye, so I confess to not paying much attention to it.
The unique sensor, broad feature set and low price do come at a cost: this camera is definitely not a speed demon. Native ISO is 400; in Rec. 709, I was able to push it two stops before noise became a problem. The 800 percent log update in version 2.0 will help remedy the speed issue. Of course, 400 is more than enough for outdoor work, and if light needs to be even further restricted, the three-level ND wheel comes to the rescue.
It's easy to see how the original JVC GY-LS300 would suit broadcast production departments, webcasters, bloggers and documentarians, as well as news crews with coverage to be transmitted via 4G or streamed live on the Internet. The addition of the Cinema 4K and log functions may also make this a highly featured and reasonably priced unit for indie cinematic applications or even as B- or C-cameras on higher-end productions. I will wait to see how well the JVC Log cuts with other cameras before making that jump, however.
Product:JVC GY-LS300 Camcorder
Pros: Low cost. Low weight and mass. Unique variable scan sensor combined with MFT mount. Firmware 2.0 adds full 4K, histogram and log recording. Controls all where an experienced video shooter would expect them to be.
Cons: Low ISO. Picky about media in 4K 150 Mb/s mode. Small LCD screen. No interval, slow-motion or fast-motion modes.
Bottom Line: A lot of camera for the money. With updated firmware, can be used in virtually any scenario from event and ENG to documentary and scripted cinema.
MSRP: $4,395 (body only), street price $3,995