Love the shallow depth of field you get from DSLRs, but miss all the video-oriented features those still cameras lack? Panasonic’s AF-100 merges a big DSLR-style sensor with all the video camera features you’ve taken for granted over the years. See how this cocktail turns out...
Panasonic AG-AF100 Micro Four Thirds Video Camera
DSLR cameras, particularly Canon models, have become hot items for video shooters over the last couple of years, but their benefits -- the shallow depth of field, the affordable lens selection, and the small size also came with a bunch of headaches that conventional video cameras solved years ago.
Panasonic AG-AF100. Click on image above for larger view.
So I was very interested when Panasonic started shipping the AG-AF100
($4,995), which is the first video camera that offers a large-DSLR-like sensor and interchangeable lenses, but married with many video-camera functions that shooters expect, such as:
- The ability to attach two XLR mics (two channels total), monitor them through headphones, and see level bars during recording.
- A built-in ND filter wheel (3 stage) for quickly getting you to the f-stop you want.
- Zebra patterns for highlighting key IRE levels in your viewfinder or LCD.
- Virtually unlimited clip lengths (as opposed to a Canon DSLR's 12 minute limit per clip).
- High-res rotating, swiveling LCD viewscreen so you can see what you're shooting no matter where you hold the camera.
- The ability to send an 1080 HD signal to outputs like HDMI or HD-SDI, so you can see what you're shooting on a bigger monitor (the Canon 7D can monitor up to 720p, but the 5D and 60D only monitor in SD resolution).
- Metadata to pre-name clips (for instance, "Interview_Jack_Black"), or insert show title, producer names, and other information which can help editorial stay organized.
- The ability to insert markers in footage for important moments, to help producers/editors find highlights quickly once they get the footage.
I had a couple of weeks to play with an AF100 and here are my impressions…
The AF100 records video to the AVCHD format, in either 1080 (24p, 25p, 30p, 50i, 60i) or 720 (24p, 25p, 30p, 50p, 60p). Either resolution looks noticeably crisper than you'd get from a Panasonic HPX170 or an HPX500. Panasonic says the AF100 has 800 TVL (TV Lines) and I've seen an independent test that suggested it was closer to 680 TVL, but it still feels squarely in the "HD" camp, versus a camera like the HVX200/HPX170, which often felt soft by HD standards (especially on wide shots).
Panasonic AG-AF100 side view. Click on image above for larger view.
The AF100 uses a maximum bandwidth of 24 Mbps, with 4:2:0 color sub-sampling, and 8 bits of color depth. You can also under or overcrank your frame rate, in 20 increments, from 12 fps to 60 fps. Off-speed recording is nothing new for a camera like this, but what is new is that you can shoot offspeed in 1080p, instead of having to drop down to 720 like the vast majority of cameras insist you do.
You can find formats like DVCPRO HD or AVC-Intra that have more latitude for color correction or keying. You can find formats that have higher data rates, like the 48 Mbps MPEG4 used in Canon DSLRs. But the AVCHD format is a surprisingly good and well-rounded option that does the AF100 justice. It delivers a very crisp, clean image that suffered from none of the macroblocking you would see in an older prosumer codec like HDV. I also intentionally shot footage with the wrong white balance, and underexposed by a stop or even two, and found enough latitude to color-correct or stylize footage without it breaking down. One thing's for sure: AVCHD is far better than HDV, which is still used to shoot a lot of shows you see on broadcast networks like Investigation Discovery. AVCHD has twice the data rate of HDV, and also uses a far more efficient codec (H.264 vs the ancient MPEG2), and a higher resolution (1920x1080 vs 1440x1080). Hopefully, the AF100 will help finally retire a lot of Sony Z1 and Z7Us out there.
AF100 main controls. Click on image above for larger view.
The AF100 uses a MOS sensor, which is supposed to combine the high sensitivity/low noise traits of conventional CCD sensors, along with the low-power consumption of CMOS chips. In the real world, most shooters know that any chip with "MOS" in its name can suffer from unfortunate image quirks--for instance, warping vertical lines when you quickly pan the camera. One of the worst examples I've seen of this so-called "jello" effect came from Panasonic's old HPX300 camera, which also used a MOS sensor. If you quickly panned the camera across a downtown skyline, you'd see skyscrapers bending as if they were doing side-stretches. The AF100 is far better behaved than that -- quick pans do show slight jello warping, but it won't be glaring for the vast majority of situations.
The camera also exhibits very little to none of the aliasing or shifting moire patterns that you commonly see on Canon DSLRs when shooting small elements that are close together.
Dynamic range seemed to be about what you get from an HPX170 or HVX200A, but a little prone to blow out highlights a bit sooner than expected. A Panasonic rep told me that this is just a matter of setting gamma controls differently, but I did notice that when I simultaneously recorded footage in AVCHD (to SD cards) and a Ki Pro Mini
field recorder, that the Ki Pro's footage seemed to handle the highlights smoother (see below for more about recording to external units). As for low light performance, it was good but not astonishing like a Canon 5D. At the camera's default ISO (400), I could see some light noise in blacks -- again, about where I've seen lower-end P2 cameras. But kicking up the ISO (aka Gain) on the AF100 held up a lot better than those older cameras could manage. I was shooting indoors on a slow f/5.8 lens and found myself about 2 stops underexposed. I upped the camera's ISO from 800 and then to 1600, and was surprised to see how well the footage held up, especially in the blacks, once I was able to look at it on a 25" monitor. It was a little rougher than the 400 ISO footage, but not that much.
So technically, the AF100 produces respectable imagery for a $5K camera. It also gives you tremendous control over the image, with different gamma modes, color matrixes, and other settings such as master pedestal, detail level, detail coring, chroma level, chroma phase and skin tone detail (along with scene files to quickly switch between them). That's the mark of a robust imaging system.
Aesthetically, I found the AF100 to produce a good-looking image, but one that looked a little "digital" to my eye, especially right out of the box. Personally, I've always gravitated towards Panasonic cameras because of their filmic, cinematic look. Cameras like the HVX200 or the Varicam didn't duplicate film, but they could feel like they were "inspired" by film. The AF100 doesn't quite deliver the same filmic look, in my experience. I would use words like "bright" or "poppy" to describe the camera's out-of-the-box aesthetics, but it's certainly not as "cinematic" or "filmic" as other Panasonic cameras (or perhaps even a Canon 5D). This is especially true for scenes in bright light. You can get better results by tweaking the camera's gamma, matrix and detail settings. Sure enough, if you browse a lot of the AF100 footage on a site like Vimeo
, you'll often see filmmakers citing their highly-customized settings. I've seen some footage that approaches the more "cinematic" look I prefer, but still think the camera leans towards a more "digital video" look.
The other thing I noticed with the AF100 is that handheld movement suffered a bit from subtle micro-jitters, the same way many other "MOS" cameras seem to (Canon DSLRs included). I'm not talking about the typical strobe effect you get when panning at 24fps. Instead, it's a weird little jitter effect that you can see in hand-held footage. You don't always notice it when watching video in a small window on Vimeo, but it gets more noticeable when the footage is played at larger sizes.
Using a wide angle lens can help reduce the jitter, turning off optical image stabilization on your lens is also a good idea, and mounting the camera on a bigger, heavier rig also helps. But in my tests using both the AF100 and an HVX200 I had handy, it was clear that the HVX200 felt smoother as I panned it around handheld (using the same shutter settings).
Anyway, the AF100's slightly less-cinematic image, and the slight micro jitters I tend to see in handheld movement are hardly deal-killers. Many people simply won't see them, or care, given their projects.
Ki Pro Mini. Click on image above for larger view.
One more thing: unlike all the DSLR cameras I'm aware of, you can connect the AF100 to an external recorder via HDMI or HD-SDI, and record video in a much better codec than AVCHD. Before returning the AF100 to Panasonic, I was able to test it with AJA's new Ki Pro Mini
recorder, which, along with the nanoFlash
, are two small, great options for using with the AF100. What I noticed was this: the Ki Pro footage, using Apple's ProRes codec, had more detail in highlights, such as sun on someone's face. You'll also get some more flexibility in color grading and keying, thanks to the 4:2:2 color sub-sampling. Unfortunately, the AF100 only sends 8 bit color via its outputs, rather than the 10 bits typically found on uncompressed outputs. That means subtle gradients won't be rendered as nicely as they might in 10 bit color. On the other hand, plenty of beautiful-looking material has been shot in 8 bit color, like Planet Earth
. Being able to use a $5K camera to record at 200+ mbps video, with 4:2:2 color sampling, is still pretty impressive.
The camera takes any Micro Four Thirds
lenses natively, but you can use adapters to attach standard Four Thirds lenses, Nikon lenses, Canon lenses, and PL lenses. Since the camera's imager uses a Micro Four Thirds mount, you should double any lens' focal length to get the still image 35mm equivalent of how it will behave on the AF100. That means a 50mm lens on the AF100 will give you the same framing of a 100mm lens on a 35mm still camera (such as the Canon 5D Mark II). A 24mm wide angle lens on the AF100 suddenly looks more like a 48mm lens would on a still 35mm camera.
This 2x "crop factor" is bigger than what you'll find in the DSLR world. A Canon 5D has a 1X crop factor (a 50mm lens really behaves like a 50mm lens) and a Canon 7D and 60D have a 1.6x crop factor, turning a 24mm lens into more like a 38mm. If you shoot wildlife or sports, where you're far from your subject, then the AF100's crop factor can be very useful, since it gives your lenses extra reach. For example: you'd need a whopping 400mm lens on a full-frame camera to get the same framing of a 200mm lens on an AF100.
On the other hand, when you go to use a wide-angle lens on the AF100, you'll find the AF100's 2x crop factor to be a real limitation, since so many wide angles lose their effect (a 17mm - 35mm Nikon zoom now becomes 34-70mm). If you want to work with wide angles, your best bet is to use a lens designed for the Four Thirds or Micro Four Thirds format (they have the same framing). For instance, you can get a 7-14mm f/4 Four Thirds
lens from Olympus, which gives you an equivalent 14-28mm focal range on a 35mm camera. Panasonic also makes some wide Micro Four Thirds
zooms, along with a couple of primes, such as a 8mm fish eye and a 14mm f/2.5.
One more thing about the AF100's crop factor, which relates to achieving a shallow depth-of-field. Even though the AF100 effectively doubles the focal length of any lens you put on it, you're not going to get the same shallow depth-of-field you would associate with a lens at that doubled focal length. Here's what I mean: if you put a 100mm lens on a full-frame Canon 5D, step back several feet, and frame a talking-head interview, you'll get a very shallow depth-of-field which puts the background nicely out of focus (assuming you're using a low f-stop...a shallow depth of field comes from using a longer rather than shorter focal length, and a lower rather than higher f-stop). But that doesn't mean you can put a 50mm lens on an AF100, and expect to get the same shallow depth-of-field that you get with a 100mm lens on a Canon 5D. You'll get the same framing, but the AF100's depth-of-field will be what you get from a 50mm lens, not a 100mm one.
That's something to keep in mind if you're, say, planning to shoot in tight spaces, but still want to get the background nicely out-of-focus. You'll have much more flexibility with a full-frame Canon 5D, or even a 1.6x crop-factor Canon 7D/60D/etc. On the other hand, you can try to maximize shallow DOP by using very fast (low f-stop) lenses with the AF100. One great lens would be Olympus' fantastic 14-35mm f/2 Zukio zoom lens
(the downside is that the lens costs well over $2000). And you can get 1.8 and 1.4 f-stops by going to prime lenses as well. But shooting in tight spaces with a typical f/2.8 lens will probably be disappointing.
Panasonic's Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm Lens
I had a chance to use the AF100 with Panasonic's 14-140mm f/4-5.8 zoom lens
($849.95), which you can see attached to the camera in my pictures (and which many of AF100 owners seem to be buying). The lens has a great zoom range. At its widest, you can still get a decent wide angle effect, and then zoom out to an extreme telephoto. Plus, the lens has an optical stabilizer that you can manually switch on or off. If you're doing handheld panning, I wouldn't recommend using the stabilizer, since it often gives motion a little stutter. But the stabilizer is very effective when you zoom way in on a subject, and want to keep the image steady.
Panasonic's 14-140mm f/4-5.8 zoom lens. Click on image above for larger view.
On the flip side, the f/4-5.8 lens is very slow, which means it's a challenge to get good exposure indoors or in other low-light situations. It's also hard to get the background out of focus when shooting interviews in even large rooms. I shot a simulated interview in a large room, with strong-but-indirect sunlight coming in through multiple windows. After getting the AF100 comfortably away from my subject, I zoomed to about 100mm on the lens, and found myself at f/5.6. The background was about 8 feet behind my subject, but wasn't as soft as I'd get if I used my Varicam with a good ENG lens. I was also about 2 stops underexposed.
In the end, I could deal with the underexposure by kicking up the AF100's ISO (Gain) to 1600, and as I've said elsewhere, visible noise at that level was acceptable. But that background was still too sharp, given that a big part of this camera's purpose is to conveniently get your background out-of-focus.
The moral of the story is that the AF100 needs faster glass to really sing if you're using it in tight spaces. Personally, the slowest lens I'd want to use with the camera would be f/2.8, preferably f/2. I'd also ideally choose a lens that had a consistent f-stop through its entire zoom range. Using the AF100 in manual exposure mode, I had to constantly readjust my exposure as I zoomed in and out with the Lumix lens. Had the lens had a consistent f-stop, I would not have had to correct exposure as I zoomed.
I've gotten used to working with a shoulder-mount camera for the last few years, and I love it. Nothing beats an ENG-style body for shooting handheld while keeping things reasonably smooth and steady, and having quick control of zoom and focus.
Obviously, the boxy little AF100 isn't a shoulder-mount camera, and I would not choose it for reality or non-fiction work where you're often going handheld and have to capture unpredictable events in real-time. Without a zoom rocker on its lenses, the AF100 is clumsy to zoom while you're shooting. And then you have to move your hand again to find focus. Also, remember my comments above in the IMAGE QUALITY section about a subtle "jitter" I perceived in certain handheld footage.
On the bright side, I was really pleased with the AF100's flip-out 3.5" LCD screen (920K pixels), which is definitely sharp enough to quickly find focus in most situations. Watching my test footage on a 25" monitor, I was always impressed with how I found sharp focus using nothing but the AF100's little LCD. Keep in mind, of course, that my testing was done on Panasonic's 14-140mm lens and some f/2.8 lenses. Using a faster lens, at f/2 or f/1.8 or faster, would have been a little more challenging, but the AF100 also has a focus-in-red feature, which uses red pixels on the LCD image to indicate what's in focus.
Panasonic's AG-AF100 LCD. Click on image above for larger view.
Also, you can always attach an external monitor via HDMI or HD-SDI. Since the AF100 sends up to a 1080 signal through its outputs, you'll have no problem judging focus or anything else when working with another monitor. That's a very nice departure from Canon DSLRs like the 5d or 60d, which monitor in standard def as soon as you start recording, making focus-finding a challenge even if you have an external monitor.
One thing to note about the AF100's size: It's a smaller camera, but not nearly as small as a DSLR. When you're walking around in public, it's obvious you've got a real video camera, which makes it harder to be discreet or steal shots. Weight-wise, the AF100 is about 4 pounds in its standard configuration, which is twice the weight of Canon's 5D. But the AF100's top grip handle definitely helps in managing the weight of the camera, and if you want to drop further weight, or build a cinematic rig (rods, handles, follow focus, etc.), you can also remove the AF100's top handle and its hand grip, which should get you closer to 3 pounds.
But generally, the camera is still light enough to use with the growing number of low-weight, low-cost sliders, jibs, cranes and steady-cam rigs made for DSLRs. That's a big advantage. Apart from the shallow depth-of-field this camera can deliver, you use it with all sorts of other production-value-enhancing "accessories", and still not have to hire more crew or watch your shipping budget baloon.
Panasonic's AG-AF100. Click on image above for larger view.
- The AF100 lets you bake-much of the same metadata supported by the P2 format (user clip names, program titles, producer titles, etc., though there are no text or shot markers). You can use Panasonic's P2 CMS app to set up that metadata, and then save it to an SD card.
- You can bring in AVCHD footage into all major editors. Adobe's Production Suite (Premiere, After Effects, etc.) works with AVCHD footage natively, with no transcoding to another format. Avid's Media Composer transcodes AVCHD into its DNxHD format, and Final Cut transcodes AVCHD into ProRes. However, as I was finishing up this piece, Panasonic announced a new Apple QuickTime plug-in that lets QuickTime-supported apps (like Final Cut) import AVCHD footage natively. That means you should be able to import AF100 footage into Final Cut without doing a Log and Transfer conversion into QuickTime. Panasonic's plug-in is scheduled to ship in "summer", so we'll see how it works then.
- The camera records to SDHC cards instead of P2 or CF cards, which makes the AF100 the first pro-ish video camera where you don't have to wring your hands over the high cost of solid-state media. I was able to start shooting immediately by using a cheapo 4GB SD card (class 6) I bought 2 years ago in some Paris convenience store (you'll need class 6 or 10 cards to shoot slow motion in 1080). And a 64GB Class 10 card costs about $150, while recording 12 hours of footage on the AF100's highest quality setting. In other words, media costs are no longer an issue. And one more bonus: there's no need for proprietary card readers that cost hundreds of dollars. I used a $10 card reader to Log and Transfer my footage into Final Cut.
- The AF100 also includes a waveform display. That's a great tool for judging exposure, and Panasonic's $30K cameras don't have it.
- A little annoying: the AF100's battery (which lasts about 2-3 hours, and costs about $170 on the street) looks just like the batteries used by the HVX200 and HPX170. And yet, it's ever-so-slightly-different enough to prevent you from using your old HVX/HPX batteries with the camera. On the plus side, the AF100 will take batteries from Panasonic's HMC150 and other AVCCAM cameras.
- If you're shooting interviews or action that can benefit from two or more cameras, you might consider getting Panasonic's newish DMC-GH2 as your second body ($999.95). It has a similar look to the AF100 (it actually appears a little sharper), also records in AVCHD, uses the same lenses, and supports full-res HDMI out, so you can monitor it in HD. With the AF100 handling audio duty, the GH2 can give you a lot of bang for the buck as a B/C camera.
The AF100 is an exciting camera. With the right lens, it can give you a shallow depth-of-field. It works with a ton of lenses available in all sorts of mounts (Four Thirds, Nikon, PL, etc.). It's small and light enough to pack two bodies and two or more lenses in a case that used to fit only one of each. And its small size lets you downsize other useful gear, like sliders, jibs, motorized motion control, etc. Your budget also gets a break thanks to the AF100's use of inexpensive SD cards, but it leaves you the option of using a field recorder to improve its codec (as long as you're okay with 8-bit color). And, of course, the 100 is a real video camera, so it fixes most if not all of the hassles that DSLR shooters have put up with the last couple of years.
Its weaknesses are handheld footage that sometimes seems a bit jittery, and a look that, in my opinion, leans a bit away from filmic towards digital. Also, the camera's ergonomics aren't a great fit for certain kinds of non-fiction shooting (a camera with a zoom rocker, much less an ENG-style body, will be far quicker and convenient).
Is the AF100 the obvious replacement for a DSLR? For some, it certainly will be. On the other hand, DSLR users and manufacturers have come up with some good solutions to their cameras' limitations over the last couple of years. Don't have built-in ND filters? Well, then get an inexpensive, multi-stop Fader ND filter
for each of your lenses. Need to record top-tier audio and synch it to video? Well, buy a Zoom H4n
recorder and then use Plural Eyes
software to automatically match its audio to picture (including multiple pictures from multi-camera shoots). Your camera doesn't display zebra stripes or a waveform? Well, you can use a small on-board monitor from Marshall
, or SmallHD
which use color overlays to show you different levels of exposure in a shot. These kinds of solutions do indeed work, and let you continue shooting with camera bodies that can achieve shallower depth-of-field than the AF100, are a fraction of its price, and are smaller/lighter.
Of course, if all of these "solutions" sound more like hacks and compromises, then that's a good sign that the AF100 is meant for you. No question, it's well-suited for everything from indie films to lower-end broadcast to the ever-growing body of internet video out there. And while Canon and Sony
are sure to bring out their own DSLR-inspired cameras, it's the AF100 that's shipping here and now.
REVIEW RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 COWS
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary & reality cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com