The VariZoom VZ-Rock Remote Lens Controller
a review by Ken Tanaka
from Varizoom Lens Controls, retail price: $349; street price: $300
As the pioneer and long-time leader in the field of professional remote lens and camera controllers, Varizoom is the 900 lb. gorilla in this market segment. It would be hard to find a professional videography operation that does not have at least one Varizoom controller. Varizoom’s controllers have a well-deserved reputation for durability and reliability, essential characteristics for any professional equipment.
Varizoom’s legacy controllers are, however, also rather large. Smaller, sleeker designs by other companies have caught the attentions of prosumer camera users looking to minimize the bulk of their gear. Varizoom’s “StealthZoom” controllers represented their first product line responding to this demand. The StealthZoom’s small profile, variable-speed throttle control and lower price point made it quite popular with consumers and prosumer users.
The VZ-Rock controller represents Varizoom’s second compact controller product line. The VZ-Rock shares some of the StealthZoom’s design characteristics but features an extended set of controls. It also features a variable-speed rocker control for zoom, a first for Varizoom’s products.
The VZ-Rock has a sturdy, rugged feel suggesting that it can withstand the inevitable bumps and drops of practical field use. I tested the “Limited Edition” of the VZ-Rock which has the same brushed aluminum look of its big brothers. In fact, the top casing of the VZ-Rock is machined from a solid block of aluminum. The ABS lower casing is grooved, as is the yoke bar, to enable a better grip on a pan handle and presents less scratching hazard to the pan bar on which its mounted. (I’d still recommend wrapping a piece of gaffer tape around the pan bar before mounting the controller).
Unlike many of the VZ-Rock’s larger cousins, the yoke bar is not slotted to swing away from the attachment bolts. The brass knurled bolts must be removed to completely open the yoke. This can be inconvenient if your pan bar’s handle is too thick to allow the VZ-Rock from being loosened and simply slipped off. The knurled bolts are just too easy to drop and lose while in the field.
The VZ-Rock’s buttons are rubber and have a soft tactile feedback when pressed. This gives the controller a more confident feeling during “blind” use, the most common manner of use for any such controller. The buttons are also arranged and shaped to make blind thumb navigation easy. The “R” (record) button at the upper right is also a bit lower than the other buttons to help prevent inadvertent activation.
The VZ-Rock’s LANC cable features a right-angle connection to minimize its protrusion, and break-off hazard, from the camera’s body while connected. It’s a nice detail.
The VZ-Rock’s Functions
The VZ-Rock features eight control functions, more than any controller that I’ve used, including my Varizoom VZ-Pro-L. I tested the VZ-Rock with my Canon XL1S and GL2. It is worth noting that although LANC has long been an industry-standard control protocol Canon cameras do not seem to be 100% compliant. No Canon camera I’ve used, past or present, has responded perfectly to any controller I’ve tried. So it came as no surprise that the VZ-Rock also presented some incompatibilities on these cameras.
The VZ-Rock’s variable speed zoom rocker has a perfect level of resistance for my taste. Not too stiff, not too soft, no excessive play, no intermediate click-bumps. Completely smooth variable speed zooms on prosumer lenses are basically impossible. Unlike professional lenses with true variable servos, prosumer lenses have stepped-speed servos. So the best that any controller can do is to faithfully replicate the motion possible from the camera’s main zoom rocker. The VZ-Rock had no problem doing so on either camera. It was also easy to master the feeling of the rocker to get smooth results quickly.
This control is meant to switch the camera between auto-focus and manual focus modes. This operated correctly on the GL2. However, since auto and manual focus modes on the XL1S are operated by mechanical switches on the lenses, this control is ignored by the XL1S.
The VZ-Rock’s dedicated focus control rocker is very nice to have and is well located on the controller’s panel. It operated the XL1S’ 16x IS II and 3x Wide lenses flawlessly (logically, the lenses did need to be switched to manual focus mode). It also operated the GL2’s lens correctly.
F+ and F-
These buttons move the tape forward / backward while in record pause mode. Pressing one of these buttons once will move the tape by one frame. Pressing and holding a button acts like a shuttle control, continuously moving the tape a frame at a time in the desired direction. Although these controls operated correctly on both the XL1S and GL2 I’m not sure how handy they will really be for most shooters.
This button is meant to toggle the camera’s data displays on and off. Unfortunately, it’s only partially compatible with Canon cameras, where it only toggles the data displays on an external monitor that might be attached to the camera. It had no effect on the internal displays (i.e. lcd screen or viewfinder) of the XL1S or GL2. (I am told that it does control the viewfinder displays on Sony cameras).
The On button is designed to wake a camera up from power-down standby mode. Unfortunately it has no function on either the XL1S or GL2. The GL2’s standby mode is activated and deactivated by a mechanical lever rather than an electronic switch. Curiously, the XL1S’ “Standby” button does not function at all while any LANC controller is connected to the camera. Pressing the button merely cycles the camera back to a full-power pause state. Standby functionality on the XL1S can only be restored by disconnecting the controller.
The R (Record) button operated correctly on both cameras. A red light on the VZ-Rock glows when the camera is recording.
The VZ-Rock is the best compact variable speed rocker-style controller I’ve used. It’s a sturdy, well-engineered, professional-caliber device with an impressive menu of control functionality. Overall, it offers good value for its price. Anyone looking for such a controller would be well served considering the VZ-Rock.
- Compact, easy to pack.
- Sturdy professional-grade design.
- Buttons feature tactile feedback, easy to blindly locate and operate.
- Rocker tension and response is perfect and fatigue-free.
- Right-angle LANC cable connection minimizes camera protrusions.
- A slotted swing-away yoke bar would make mounting more convenient for thick-handle pan bars.
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