Mix 'N Match Vari & HDX-900


Well-known member
Well, this didn't take long... We've already had discussions about ESPN's HD camera of choice being the VariCam, but this week I had a two-cam sit-down and I couldn't get another shooter with a VariCam in town(went through at least 7 other people), so the desk starts calling around and brings in an HD crew from another part of the state. We start setting up and I go to hook-up the cams to the monitor and that's when I notice that the other crew had an HDX-900, not a Vari(I could have called a few people in town had I known they would have accepted it). Not a knock on the 900, I did split screen in the monitor and our cams appeared to match(we were both shooting 60P, 4.3K preset). But the real surprise was the next day when I got booked for an E:60 shoot for next week and I got the crew request/spec sheet. There it was in black and white: HD Camera needs: Panasonic VariCam OR HDX-900. In just a few months they have gone from saying that the Vari is the only HD cam they will accept for primary photography, to allowing the HDX-900, also. Not bad if you own an HDX... It cost's about $20K less than my Vari and I'm sure the rate is the same.


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I'm currently negotiating with a company that wants me to DP a big production for them, so they sent a spec sheet. Being an owner/operator of a Varicam, I presumed I'd be shooting with my camera package, but there on the list was "HDX900--producer will carry." I quickly emailed them and gave them my Varicam rate and told them that was the rate regardless whether I used their camera or mine. I've yet to hear back from them.

HDX900 owners will argue their cameras are just as good as Varicam. I'm not a technician, but side by side I believe there is a difference, and just from a simple physics point of view, the HDX is inferior to the Varicam based on the amount of information gathered by the tape speed alone. The fact that HDX guys are charging the same for the camera diminishes the Varicam investment and will deeply hurt the wallets of Varicam owners.

Hiding Under Here

Well-known member
I don't think your last sentence is logical Dave. If owners of a cheaper camera are charging the same for a more expensive camera, then those people are actually holding the line on rates. If they were charging less than Varicam owners and arguing that their cameras were just as good, then, I believe, they might (operative word being "might") be undercutting you to some extent.

If HDX900 owners hold the line on rates and keep their prices close to that of Varicams, I believe they are actually doing you a favor because Varicams have fallen in price and also because a USED Varicam now sells for LESS than a new HDX900. In the end, I think you Varicam guys want -- and need -- HDX900 owners to toe the line at your price-point.

By the way, I like the look of the HDX900 on a stand-alone basis. It's a good camera. Better yet, it's a "good enough" camera for many many projects. I also appreciate that it's frustrating for Varicam owner/operators to watch as their investment gets eroded by newer and cheaper formats. That pressure is coming from everywhere -- from the bottom as well as the middle. One has to consider there may not be any kind of format stability in our lifetime. We might live with this uncertainty for the rest of our careers and be, essentially, dupes and slaves to the equipment manufacturers who hold many of the cards critical to our future financial success. I wonder if there is any other industry with this level of anxiety associated with its primary capital investment.

Freelancers need to realize that pricing on day rates for HD camera packages is critical to their ability to survive. Using the Betacam rate as the benchmark, compensation for our investment has tread water for well over a decade. We do not receive any more money now for Betacam packages than we did in the early 1990s. When you consider the inflation calculus, Betacam rates have declined precipitously from when we first bought them. HD cameras represent the only real opportunity we have had to raise rates sine we invested in Betacams. If we allow producers and production companies (not to mention rental houses) to pressure us into lowering the HD camera (HDX900/Varicam/F900/PDW700) price-point to anywhere near Betacam levels, we will effectively be surrendering any hope for financial advancement. House prices have risen, gas prices have risen, milk, bread, vegetable, college tuition, clothes prices have all gone up consdierably in the past fifteen years. If we aren't able to keep pace with those rising prices by elevating our rental rates, obviously we lose ground. And we fall behind -- or out of the race completely.
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The HDX900 is an darned nice tool, especially considering the price. Being the newer camera, it does have some spec superiority over a Varicam. It's got 14 bit quantization on the front end and greater sensitivity, plus you've got on-board downconversion, firewire output and the ability to hand over a 1080i tape at the end of a shoot.
However, the Varicam has two pretty big features that the HDX can't touch. Truly Variable Frame Rate, for one. Film Rec is the other. Those two features offer you so much more control than an HDX operator. A longer field load and the 18 micron pitch mean you can play the tape in any DVCPRO HD deck still. HDXs can only playback in a 1200a/1400.


Something I wrote to someone this week in response to a Varicam vs. HDX question - it's basically a cut/paste:

The Varicam is still a great camera. It's downside is that it is a few years old at last release. The front end A/D is 12bit (on the current 'H' model), versus the HDX900’s 14-bit processing. It is a little noisier in the blacks. It has a longer field load than the HDX900 and records at the longer track pitch (18 microns), which makes the tapes playable in any DVCPRO HD deck. The HDX900 uses a 9 micron pitch and those tapes can only be played in an AJ-HD1200a or AJ-HD1400. Most decks out there are one of these, but some post houses and trucks still have the older decks. The Varicam still offers you the most control over framerate in a high end, yet affordable, camera. You’ve got FilmRec in the Varicam, something the HDX900 does not offer. Much greater control over gamma curves and you can set the camera up so much more customized than most people realize. The format is widely accepted by many networks. You can’t hand off a 1080i tape at the end of a shoot with the Varicam (like you can with the HDX900) but conversion to 1080i at the station/in-post is very simple to do with no image loss over what the HDX900 does. Both of them are NATIVE 720p cameras.

They are working on a new Varicam (Varicam II) and will show more info on it at NAB this year. It has been in the design and mock-up stage for 2 years now. Mostly they have been working on it in a film camera configuration with a 1” imager. There is discussion now, however, that they may offer two designs. One for the 1” crowd & one for the ENG crowd. No confirmations, mind you. And, that is 18 months away at least.

In short: If variable frame rate and Film Rec are important to you, the Varicam is still THE choice. If not, the HDX900 is a winner as well. Tossing in one of my favorite analogies: A Varicam is like an incredibly high end brand box of 32 crayons. Beautiful color, amazing control. Some people think you’re crazy for spending the money on them and you have to go to a very special store to find them. The HDX900 is very good (but not the best) brand in a box of 64 colors. You can buy them just about anywhere. But, the crayons are thicker, which is good for less experienced fingers, and therefore not as easy to draw a fine line. You have more colors to use to make your image (higher A/D at front end) but you can’t draw as intricate a picture with them.


Varicam owners today are faced with the same issue as F900 owners will be faced with when the ever-changing release-story on the PDW700 (or possibly another model?) finally gets resolved and the eventual full-featured camera ships. Learn it, embrace it, be able to work in conjunction with it and then set yourself apart from it. Use the features that your camera has over the new one to define your style more and hold to your rate as best you can.
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Well-known member
Just to underscore Hinding under Here's point of pricing of freelancers gear. The networks were the ones creating the basic price point for rental gear when Betacams were King. I have a copy of a memo in February of 1983 from CBS News providing rental rates to freelance crews for the new 1/2" Beta format, replacing the older Umatic 3/4 inch gear. They increased the daily rate for the new format by $25 per day, (up from $500 day for U-matic package). The Dayrate for a BetaSP package in 1983 was $525.00 day. Twenty five years later the dayrate for a BetaSP package remains the same (at that network), but the package now must contain a great deal more equipment. As we move to HD production, we need to have the day rates at a more realistic level. Especially now that we have to have at least a couple of HD lenses options as well as HD playback/monitoring in the basic package.

Hiding Under Here

Well-known member
Kerri (Gear Chick), welcome to the freelance forum. Thanks for your post. But you are overrating us in writing it. Most of us are market reactors. We do not really drive these purchase considerations. We provide tools that our clients want and many of the choices we make -- like selecting which camera to purchase -- are not based on our evaluation of comparative image quality, or on the capabilities of a particular product. Instead, we own cameras that will, in the end, get us the most work. Where we DO have some kind of choice is in the work we desire to accept. A freelancer who eschews DVCam assignments, for example, doesn't own a DVCam. Those who wish to focus exclusively on HD work own only HD cameras. Many of us own multiple cameras. But we own them because we have determined that our clients will call us and ask for them.

So the HDX900 comparison to the Varicam doesn't get us (us being freelancers) all that far. Our current discussions regarding HD are more about money/cost than they are about specs. If Panasonic comes out with a new, improved Varicam that costs $60,000, it will only be of strong interest to us if our clients start demanding it. And my guess is that, given the current trend of downward pressure on HD prices in our market, there will not be too strong a demand for such a camera and, thus, little reason to buy it. Producers and production companies are looking for cheaper ways to make HD. We, in turn, are hoping to see HD rental prices stay -- at the least -- LEVEL over the next few years. Of course "work flow" considerations are also key to our clients' hardware choices.

Finally, let me say (and please do not take this as personally critical of you or your company) that I think rental companies represent one of the biggest threats to our attempts to maintain a freelancing pricing structure. When a rental house offers an HD camera, as many do, at a discounted rate of three paid days for seven days of use, THAT is, perhaps, one of the biggest stresses on our ability to maintain our bottom line. We are, in effect, competing with rental houses as producers learn they can bypass us and separate the camera from the freelancer. It is only natural that a producer would ask the implicit question -- "if the rental house will accept less for their camera, why won't you?". There are, of course, logical and legitimate answers to that challenge. And those answers tend to make up the meat of what we discuss here.
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Well-known member
I have a question. How are freelancers going to cajole, force, entice, negotiate (pick your method) the networks into raising their "Basic Camera Package" rate? If freelancers have acquiesced to the same rate for the past 25 years, plus provided additional equipment over the spec, how are freelancers going to push for a higher rate now? I suspect if the Networks can find people willing to bill their HD equipment out at the the same rate, those are the freelancers they'll use.

Hiding Under Here

Well-known member

I think that is the key issue going forward. Will the networks want to increase their rates to accomodate freelancer purchases of HD equipment? Or will they attempt to hold the line regardless of our future capital outlay?

ABC news magazines have, in effect, already conceded a raise in rates. If you work for, say, 20/20 on a Varicam shoot, they will pay you $1000 for your gear package. If you do the additional math -- add $315 for 8 hours for the camera operator and $315 for 8 for the audio tech -- and you are now up to $1630 for an 8 hour day. Two hours of overtime at $59/per times two NABET workers brings the 10 hour day rate up to $1866. They make a FLEX Plan contribution and an easy "penalty" would get the total 10 hour rate up to $1900/day. Let's count the truck rental and mileage and the a la carte add ons as extras.

So ABC news magazine are already paying above Beta rates but below the national market rate for a Varicam package. If I had to guess, I would posit that the networks want to get the HD camera package rate below $2000/day for a ten hour day. And I think they will also attempt to offset that expansing bottom-line by using as much HDV footage as they are able.


Well-known member
Dhart: The way to entice a better rate for HD camera packages is to not work for the lower rate with newer equipment. If a network (or other client) says they want an HD quality camera package, (say HDX900, Varicam, XDCAM HD, HDCAM) and they are paying their standard rate that they have been paying for BetaSP, tell them no. HD shoots require more expensive equipment and command a higher rate. If they can't find anyone to work at that lower rate, they will have to pay the higher rate to get the work done. We then have a Basic SD Camera Package Rate, and a Basic HD Camera Package Rate.


PRO user
HUH is right about where freelancers are in the chain of who picks the gear we use. Every camera I have bought has been in reaction to what was requested the most by clients. And it goes for all your gear. It makes things alot easier when you have "name brand" items in your gear package. There are many different lights that can do the job, but if you don't have some "Arri" lights, "Chimera" bags or "Tram" mics , you constantly have to explain yourself to new clients.

On another point that HUH makes, a rental company recently screwed me out of 60 days for camera rentals. They offered the client their 3 for 7 deal, (with an extra two days for setup and teardown for a total of 9 days), and I was asked to do the same deal. - Thanks for coming, have a nice day.

We are a necessary service to the video business. The best line I heard was "until cameras can walk by themselves, there will be a need for camera crews"....well I guess we may be getting close to that since I think VJ's are only one evolution above that.

Hiding Under Here

Well-known member
I'm not trying to diss rental houses. Obviously I have to have relationships with them and they can be very helpful -- and knowledgeable -- allies.

The poster I was addressing works for a rental company. I just wanted to be upfront about the inherent tensions between the perspective she represents and the general freelance point-of-view. I think we already understand the virtues on every camera on the HD horizon. It's our job to know those things. This thread was germinating into a discussion of HD economnics and I was hoping to see it stay on that track.

Speaking for myself, I welcome any new poster's input. However, the content here on the freelancer board has an extremely independent component to it. We have worked collectively to develop that atmosphere over a long long time. Personally I am wary of corporate concerns attempting to influence our autonomy. The internet is now rife with that kind of manipulation in the guise of "personal" input. And while anonymity is a key to free dialogue, we need to be vigilant about protecting the integrity of the information exchanged here. If our dialogues are corrupted, the freelance board will become useless. Or, at least, that's what I believe.


Well-known member
In the 'production world' the 4 day week has been around since the 1970's. It changed to a 3 day week in the early 1990's. Some Hollywood rental houses have been doing 2 day weeks for a while now on all kinds of gear.
My Arriflex camera package rate was always based on a 3 or 4 day week.
This isn't something new, just new to this part of the market.


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If I have told Run&Gun this once, I have told him a thousand times; HD is not going to "take off" until the crew rates are more in line with the current SP rates. TV networks, especially cable networks, can't double their production costs without an increase in ad revenues. Being "HD" is not a big enough banner to get most advertisers to pay more.

So, the market has needed a catalyst to draw the HD rates more in line with SP rates, and this meant a camera that was in line in price. The HDX900 is the first and only tape driven camera to do that, and it does it in 1080i and 720p.

Now, you can argue all day it is not as good as a Varicam, and the 1080i is not the same as an F900, and you are correct. The cold hard truth though is that only a few engineers and camera geeks really care! You can tell a difference on air and that is all that matters. In a world of "up converting" Digibeta and SP into HD, just the fact that something is shot in HD is enough to make most assignment desk folks happy.

A local cameraman gave me a good saying when I asked whether he was going HD. He said, "the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land". Cute, but it applies here.

Some folks who spent $100,000+ on HD cameras and lenses got a good return on their investment depending on their market and clientele. Some, especially the ones that arrived a little late to the game will be cussing the HDX900 because it will do the same job in most cases for 1/4 the cost. Buying a camera package has always been somewhat of a gamble, but it is even more critical in todays ever changing world of HD.

There will now be a divide between the Varicam owners and the HDX900 owners jsut as there was between the D600 owners and the "cheaper" Betacam owners in the 90's. The Varicam owners will oversell their cameras to the assignment desk folks and the HDX900 owners will sell their mroe affordable day rate. In the end, when it hits the air, none of us will be able to tell the difference.

Personally, I think the "name" Varicam is the big winner for Panasonic out of all of this and it may become the "Kleenex" or "Chapstick" of the the HD world. I have had two cllients recently that referred to the DVCProHD format as Varicam, but once pushed did not care if it was an actual Varicam or a HDX900. So, they got an HDX900 at a Varicam rate!!!