Phil Rhodes takes a detailed look at the JVC GY-LS300: a big-chip handycam with some killer features and compatibility with more or less any lens ever made.
JVC's new 4K camera, 4K 2160p if you want to be really exact about it, is something that we've been trying to get hold of for a while. It's the company's first major effort since its acquisition of sensor manufacturer AltaSens. And, if sensors are the key technological leveller in modern cameras, we might expect great things from the newly combined organisation.
The GY-LS300 is a diminutive camera, laid out in the most conventional of camcorder styles. This has downsides with regard to endurance operating, but also upsides, particularly in situations where there's a need to be unobtrusive or highly mobile. Layout is conventional, with a flip-out TFT on the left and a loupe viewfinder at the back. One useful detail that hasn't been widely discussed is that the handle on top, which incorporates the audio inputs and controls, is removable, which makes the camera smaller, lighter and even more inconspicuous.
The top handle, with audio inputs and outputs, is removable
Without the handle, the LS300 looks like a chunky palmcorder. Most importantly, though, there are sensor options, about which more below, which make it simultaneously a contender in both highly mobile documentary and current affairs production, as well as more traditional big-chip cinematography.
The LS300 has a widely-compatible micro four-thirds mount with active electronic control
The base technical specification is a list of sensible decisions. That it's a full-sized super-35mm sensor is fairly well known (though precise dimensions are hard to find), and the intention here seems not to be to create a cinema camera, but rather to use the large sensor with excess resolution to create flexibility. JVC has made the eminently sensible choice to put that sensor behind a micro four-thirds lens mount which can be adapted to suit more or less any type of lens.
The mount is active and compatible lenses can be electronically controlled. There is a rotating filter wheel (missing unfortunately, you might recall, on Blackmagic's Ursa Mini) with quarter, sixteenth and sixty-fourth ND filters. It records AVCHD footage, which can be readily decoded by more or less anything. The recording medium is SDXC cards, which are available everywhere and represent about the most cost-effective way to buy flash storage capacity, and there are two recording slots for redundant backup, extended endurance, and other modes.
There are real physical switches for gain and white balance, a proper BNC video output, and the batteries are made by IDX. Although the DC power input is a domestic coaxial type, it accepts 12V power, even though the batteries are 7.2V. These are all excellent choices which do not attempt any sort of vendor lock-in and do not seek to create a range of products from a single design by conspicuously omitting basic features.
Real physical gain and white balance switches are welcome
Viewfinding is not such a strong point. At around £3000 body-only, the camera is priced low in the market but not absolutely at the bottom, so it's unfortunate that the pop-out TFT suffers a degree of backlight bleed at the edges and isn't particularly bright. The documents state 920,000 pixels, which implies 1280x720 resolution. The loupe viewfinder is a little sharper, but dimmer, and with only a modest apparent image size. It's also a sequential colour type, producing rainbow effects during rapid eye movement.
None of these problems are extreme and none are completely unreasonable in a big-chip 4K camera at this price point, but it has to be said that viewfinding will never be a strong point of the LS300. An Atomos recorder, which now has support for the low-contrast J-Log recording mode, outclasses the inbuilt monitoring (and recording) facilities hugely, but naturally impacts portability.
Several Atomos recorders now support JVC's log recording mode
Speaking of Atomos, external recording is likely to be a subject of great relevance to people interested in the LS300 for its big sensor; it has HDMI and SDI outputs, both of which are optionally clean. 150 megabits per second at 4K works out to the same bitrate per pixel as HD would have at just under 40 megabits, which is perhaps not a recording suitable for cinema release but fine for news and documentary. An external recorder is well worth considering in more traditional, single-camera dramatic circumstances, although regrettably there is no way of getting 10-bit pictures out of the LS300. The recordings are 8-bit, which is reasonable on SD cards, but the lack of 10-bit on the SDI output is a shame. The SDI is 3Gbps, so beyond-HD output is, necessarily, HDMI-only.