While we wait for the GH5: Review of the VARY-i GH4 & GH3 Viewfinder

Is it just me, or did that GH5 announcement at Photokina seem a bit rushed?  What they brought was only a caged, not-working shell, which amounts to showing up empty-handed.  Panasonic did commit to announcing a few upgrades from the GH4:  internal 4K 30 frames per second recording at 10-bit 4:2:2, and 60 frames per second at 8-bit 4:2:0; and something mostly useless to filmmakers called 6K Photo (burst mode, basically).  What they could not commit to is fixing two Achille’s heels of the GH4:  in-body image stabilization, and improvements to the light sensitivity of the necessarily small Micro Four Thirds sensor.  Betting odds are in favor of them actually delivering on those two critical features (as if they have the choice now, in this market).  But we have to wait until 2017.

What does this mean for the GH4, and the GH3 for that matter?  Well, their non-working GH5 shell certainly looked a lot like the GH4 body, which was almost exactly like the GH3 body, so maybe they’ll keep it going.  That would be great news for those of us who invested in accessories to rig up our cameras.  I created a widely-circulated guide to rigging, in the below video.

One of the themes in my video was that the G-Cup eyepiece created by Miller & Schneider (still the best you can get) adds a critical third point of contact, to stabilize shooting hand-held.  And another key point:  Zacuto didn’t quite get it right with their adapted Z-Finder system on the GH3 and GH4:  over-complicated, expensive, and cropping the view.  I explain this starting from the 3:48 mark (you can click this link to go straight there).

Thankfully, just like Miller & Schneider, another independent entrepreneur has created a large-sized loupe that performs better than the Z-Finder using the rear LCD screen, as an alternative to the more portable G-Cup that attaches to the cameras’ smaller eyecup display.  Fitting both the GH3 and GH4, it adds a diopter for eyeglass wearers, more points of contact for steady hand-holding, and sturdy protection of the swing-out LCD screen.  (Indeed, when I got one of the first GH4s arriving to market, the rear screen flickered badly, as if a loose connection, and required replacement — straight out of the box, not because of rough treatment, suggesting that the swing-out LCD screen is delicate.)

The VARY-i costs €229.75 Euros, and if you’re in the United States, after shipping it’ll cost you about $275 USD.  If you do any serious hand-held shooting with your GH3 or GH4, I think it’s worth it.

Something you’ll notice from this top view is that there is a red diopter ring that twists into a lens correction that might or might not match your eyesight, without wearing glasses.  It’s not as advanced as Zacuto’s, also lacking their patented anti-fog coating, but it’s a great bonus if it you normally wear eyeglasses.  That said, I found that regardless of the diopter, I was able to use the VARY-i comfortably with eyeglasses on, too.  Another thing you’ll notice is a switch next to the diopter ring:  it activates a snappy, sturdy shutter over the loupe to protect the glass as well as the rare possibility of direct sunlight getting magnified and damaging the LCD screen.

The VARY-i is somewhat “modular”: you first attach a proprietary baseplate to the bottom of the camera, as seen in the above pictures from several angles (click each to enlarge). You’ll notice a molded simple lens mount on the surface, which might further stabilize but actually can cause a bit of trouble: you’ll see in the last picture that it can skew everything off-perpendicular (I moved the set screw as far as I could), but that small amount didn’t cause any problem. Moreover, it’s not an adjustable height, so you may have lenses (like the one you’ll see in these pictures) with a wider lens barrel, fitting differently than any slimmer barrel. That said, the main purpose of the baseplate is to slide your camera into position onto the loupe’s bottom bracket fitting into the slot you see, then lock it there using the red thumbscrew (which is a little hard to turn with any lens in-place, butting right up against the barrel, but it has a flat-head screwdriver slot for tightening too. You’ll see in the picture at right that the baseplate includes both 1/4″-20 and 3/8″ threaded sockets for mounting options, so that you can leave the VARY-i attached while using a tripod.

As seen at left, the rear LCD screen slides into a protective sleeve, and once everything’s in place, it’s surprisingly sturdy.  There’s one more thumb screw (seen at right) to tighten, further reinforcing the bracket’s connection.

 

 

 

 

The below pictures give a wider view from below of how the VARY-i hooks onto your camera.

One of the great features of the GH3 and GH4 is its articulating LCD screen, which means that it can flip out and turn in all directions (compared to, for example, the Sony a7 series which is comparatively limited). The VARY-i takes advantage of this by also letting you adjust the angle of the viewfinder loupe, as seen below. You can pivot it up, to look down while pointing forward, or pivot it down, to look up while pointing forward, as you’ll choose whatever gives you the best leverage for different shooting conditions. The knob seen at right tightens the angle.

 

And finally, another great feature is the latch built into the VARY-i that lets you flip up the loupe, revealing a direct view of the LCD screen (seen below).  Come to think of it, that’s necessary:  unlike other cameras such as the Sony a7 series, we’re talking about touchscreens here!  It’s a bit of a stretch, poking fingers into that box to reach the surface of the screen, but it’s short enough for any adult-sized fingers to reach it comfortably.

Summing up, having a good viewfinder often gets taken for granted.  You’ll always find them on old-school shoulder-cams, positioned just right, while the bad wrap against digital cinematography using a photo-camera body is that it’s hard to nail critical focus and other adjustments when you’re fighting against the sun and peeking into a tiny hole.  Investing in a viewfinder can be expensive, and the VARY-i is not a small investment.  But with the GH3 and GH4 having more life left in them, and that GH5 looking hazy on the horizon (while maybe even compatible with the VARY-i if its body dimensions stay the same), this thing can really pay off.  Blowing focus or framing can lose you a priceless shot, but a good viewfinder has got your back.  This is the best one you can get for the GH3 and GH4.