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A TV cameraman's thoughts on the Panasonic AG-AF100 camcorder

By Al Jazeera’s Matthew Allard

There has been a lot of hype online recently over the impending release of Panasonic’s new AG-AF100 micro 4/3 camcorder. From my perspective as a broadcast cameraman Panasonic calling it a professional camera is a bit of a stretch. It is hardly in the same class as proper professional cameras like the RED One and the Arri Alexa. I have used just about every camera you can think of through out my career (BVU, Betacam, Betacam SP, SX, Digibeta, P2, XDCAM, EX, Z1 and so on) and i’m always interested to try out anything that is new. Almost every camera no matter how cheap or expensive it is has good and bad points. In the end its the user who frames the picture, chooses the settings and hits record, not the camera. Knowing the limitations and how to use your camera is the key to capturing great footage.

So what about the Panasonic AG-AF100. The image quality is recorded at 24Mb/s, it has two XLR inputs featuring 48-kHz/16-bit two-channel digital audio recording and supports LPCM/Dolby-AC3, it also has USB 2.0, HD-SDI and HDMI outputs, a built-in stereo mic and time code recording. To someone who has been shooting with the new generation of DSLR’s these all sound like the features everybody has been calling for. What you have to remember is this is a video camera, it’s not a stills camera that can shoot video, nor is it a video camera that can take photos…..it is a VIDEO camera. For those expecting an image quality that is on par with a 7D or 5D think again. A 4/3″ sensor is a lot smaller than that of a 7D or 5DmkII. The reason a 7D looks better than a 550D and the reason a 5DmkII looks better than 7D is due to the size of the sensor.  What this boils down to is the bigger the sensor the more information the camera is looking at regardless of the compression. As we all know the larger the sensor the shallow the depth of field. To get lovely shallow DOF you will need incredibly fast glass on the AG-AF100. It will certainly have its own unique look.  Having said that the AG-AF100 seems to have lower noise levels at higher ISO’s (better than a 7D but probably not as good as a 5DmkII or 1DmkIV). Even with this all said it is an exciting time in the industry with a lot of new cameras and different companies joining the mix which can only be good for the end user.

While the AG-AF100 seems capable of capturing very nice pictures, the 24Mb/s AVCHD codec is still about the same as Sony’s recently launched NEX-VG10 consumer camcorder which actually has a larger sensor than the Panasonic (about the same as the 7D). What you also have to remember is the 4/3 system has a 2x crop factor. There are a few 4/3 inch wide lenses but if you throw on a Canon 16-35mm f2.8 it will quickly become 32-70mm, just something to keep in mind.

I have had a chance to play with the Sony and to be honest it didn’t impress me that much. The lack of progressive recording (although it is actually recording 1080p wrapped it into a 1080i container), poor audio imputs and rather cheap build quality were a let down. On the positive side it was rather easy to use and the image quality wasn’t too bad.

Of course the Sony camera is only $2000US while the Panasonic AG-AF100 is $5000US. Why the big difference in price? Well the Panasonic is fully Progressive, has variable frame rates, proper XLR inputs and full HDMI out and HDSDI out. For those who may not know what HDSDI is; SDI stands for Serial Digital Interface. It is basically the professional TV industry standard for transfer of HD material. It is normally only found in professional equipment. So why is this a good thing on a $5000 camcorder? Well it enables you to take the very best image available from your camera by sending an uncompressed output to be recorded by a HDSDI recorder like the Convergent Design Nanoflash or Aja KiPro at much higher bitrates. Instead of recording internally on the camera at 24Mb/s you can record it as high as 280Mb/s on the Nano Flash. In plain English this means you can record the vision at more than 10 times the bit rate that the internal codec does in the camera. This makes a huge difference to the image quality but it comes at a cost. Your $5000 camera just became a $8000 camera with the addition of a Nano flash. This is an interesting camera and is capable of producing very nice images at a high bit rate (with addition on a 3rd party recorder). With proper audio, viewfinder, no record time limits and far less rolling shutter and moire there are a lot of things to like. There is a reasonable selection of pretty good lenses and lots of adaptors to enable you to run Leica, Nikon and Zeiss lenses. There are also adapters for Canon EF mount but they don’t have an electronic connection to the Panasonic mount so you would be stuck with a fixed aperture (eg. a Canon 16-35mm f2.8 lens when used on this camera would be locked at f2.8). There are to my knowledge a couple of manufacturers working on an electronic adaptor mount that will fix this problem.

Who can I see buying this camera? This is an interesting question. I have no doubt they will sell like hotcakes. For people who are not getting paid to shoot, $5000US is a lot of money to spend on a camera and if you want to record at the higher bit rates you will be forking out more like $8000US. This camera I imagine will become very popular with indie film makers who maybe once used a EX-1 or Sony Z1 with 35mm adapters like the Letus Ultimate. There will also be a lot of people who will run out and buy this camera just because they can and because its the first camera to come out with all the features that HDDSLR owners are craving. This camera is certainly not the death of the HDDSLR and I’m sure there will be plenty of similar products coming out in the next 12 months. The question as to whether you buy this camera comes down to what you need your camera to do and what your budget is. It is very important to remember this is a video camera not a DSLR and you should look at it in this way.

Be very careful watching videos that have been put up on the web from this camera as you don’t know in some cases whether the vision was reordered at 24Mb/s a second or 280Mb/s. Some videos will tell you what bit rate they used but others won’t. Doing your research online is a good start when buying anything but the only way to judge a camera is to physically go and look at it, play with it and make your own conclusions. Would I buy one? The jury is still out. I’m holding out at the moment for something more high end.

About Matthew Allard, Aljazeera Senior Field Cameraman, Kuala Lumpur:
Matt has been a Camera/Editor in TV news for 20 years, previously working for both Channel 9 and Channel 10 in Australia. Twice Network Ten Australia’s cameraman of the year as well as being a Walkley Finalist for outstanding camerawork in 2006 (for coverage of the Cronulla Race Riots) and a Logie Finalist for outstanding news coverage 2006 (Bali 9). He has covered news events in more than 30 countries, from major sporting events to terrorist bombings. Based out of the Kuala Lumpur broadcast centre in Malaysia he is an avid user and follower of new technology, shooting stories on HD broadcast cameras as well as new Canon DSLR’s.

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Posted on October 25th, 2010 by Matthew Allard | Category: DSLR video news, Panasonic cameras |

15 responses to "A TV cameraman's thoughts on the Panasonic AG-AF100 camcorder"

  1. JD90 Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 8:44 am

    “It is hardly in the same class as proper professional cameras like the RED One and the Arri Alexa.”

    Who suggested it was? Professional tools have many subclasses, to suggest the expectation is that all “pro” gear is equal in some way is silly.

    Also, if you’re a news shooter, aren’t those two cameras inappropriate for that use? I’d think that there are different types of pro users, not all pro equipment is appropriate for all pro uses.

  2. Philippe Delgardo Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 8:57 am

    “The reason a 7D looks better than a 550D … is due to the size of the sensor.”

    ???7D and 550D have different sensor sizes???
    THATS really a news for me!

  3. Will Frost Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 10:02 am

    It’s worth mentioning that the smaller sensor size is 17.3mm×13mm, so not far from the 3-perf fim (22×14, more or less) or standard 4-perf film (22×18, more or less), so for some purposes the depth of field is really, really similar.* This could be really handy for matching (I mean, coming close to) existing 35mm stock footage, particularly considering that many (most?) 35mm cine lenses have the right flange-back distance to be mounted on a 4/3 sensor camera.

    Sorry for all the caveats, this isn’t my area of expertise.

    *you know, except for the parts that aren’t, and I’m not really sure what happens when you try to compare anamorphic to non-anamorphic formats.

  4. Kuban Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Matthew
    I have to echo previous comments…
    Have yo actually used an Arri Alexia, how on earth would you put this panasonic in the same category, and as a user of a canon 550D, where did you get that it has a smaller senson than the 7D, I appreciate what you and other notable cameramen say, but there has been a trend recently where wild and exaggerated statements are being made, which to most here who know, and absolutely without qualification, seriously I’m loosing all faith in a lot of blogs where I had hoped to learn.

  5. Johnnie Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Matthew.

    I love your work and thanking you for dedicating time contributing to the community.
    Unfortunately in this article there are few misleading facts.
    Hope you will take the time to revise.

    Thank you!

    Johnnie

  6. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Hi JD90,

    When the current crop of HD DSLR’s were released everybody was comparing them to 35mm film (see the Great Zacuto Shoot Out) so is it unfair to compare the Panasonic to the RED or the Alexa? In Panasonic’s own press releases they call the camera professional (“A professional camera, the AG-AF100 will set a new benchmark for digital cinematography. Targeted at the video and film production communities.” Not once has Panasonic labelled this camera Prosumer. Even Sony to there credit labels the EX-1 has Prosumer. As far as the RED and Alexa being inappropriate for news use, well it depends on what the job is. I shoot stories sometimes on the 7D or 5D is that inappropriate? They are harder to use in real terms than a RED or an Alexa for news purposes (no audio monitoring, limited record time, rolling shutter etc. Panasonic has also targeted this camera to Journalists or rather VJ’s.

  7. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Hi Philippe,

    Thank you for pulling me up on that. I’m happy to be corrected on anything that is misleading or incorrect. Thats why this is a discussion blog :) Yes the 550D and 7D have almost identical sensors. The 7D has 19 total Megapixels while the 550D has 18.7 total Megapixels but both have the same effective sensor resolution of 18 Megapixels. Using the 550D to the 7D comparison was probably the wrong thing to do (I should of just stuck with the 7D to 5D comparison). My whole point was to try and put into plain English with out getting too technical the reason for the difference in most cameras.

  8. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Hi Kuban,

    Thanks for your comments. I have used both the RED One and the Arri Alexa. As i said in one of the previous comments, when the HD DSLR’s came out everyone was comparing the 5D etc. to 35mm film cameras. Panasonic is targeting this camera to the professional market. Is it unfair to compare this camera against a RED or Alexa? They shoot motion pictures on a RED and they also use the Sony F35, the Panavision Genesis, the Thomson Viper. These cameras are all compared to a RED. The RED is less than a quarter of the price of most of these cameras. My point is the Panasonic is $5000 a 7D is around $1300. Its not the cost of the camera it is where in the market place this camera fits. By Panasonic’s own admission this is a “Professional” camera. They aren’t targeting amateur users, although i’m sure a lot of non professionals will still buy this camera. The great Zacuto shootout pitched cameras that were $1000 against cameras that were more than a 100 times more expensive…no one said why? The used a 5D on the season ender of HOUSE… no one said why? With the advent of new technology a camera that cost basically twice as much as a 5D should be getting compared to more expensive cameras.

  9. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 25th, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Hi Kuban,

    I completely get where you are coming from about losing faith. There is an awful lot of information on the web that differs greatly. I still haven’t used the Panasonic camera so this is just my initial opinions based on what i’ve read and seen. It’s just MY opinion about this camera and not a review. I have been in discussions with Dan about opening up an advice section on this blog that is more to do with how to shoot things, what equipment to use etc. I’m not a technical expert by any means but i would be more than happy to offer advice on lens choice, suitable equipment and how to shoot tips.

  10. Kuban Says:
    October 27th, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Hi Matthew
    I think it is unfair to compare the Pana with the Red and Arri. simply on image res and price point, it would simply be chalk and cheese, as for the Zacuto shoot out, it was an interesting comparison and one that we all wanted to see, the 5/7D where making inroads into independent film and it wasn’t a huge surprise when someone came up with the idea to compare image to image. yes, there is a huge marketing angle to it, but we did want to see the images from the crop of HDSLR’s and Film (stock), if they were to stick the red and arri in there, then it would have been unfair for similar reasons, they are a category in their own.
    much respect

  11. Frank@Coffs Says:
    October 28th, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Matthew.
    Thanks heaps for your comments on the AF-100.
    I was particularly interested on your view coming from a news shooters POV.
    I have been shooting stills freelance for years and got involved with video as News Ltd and Fairfax Media started running multimedia and it all wend crazy for me once the 5DII was released because of the ability to shoot nice looking video.
    I was almost laughed out of some jobs by guys from Prime TV and NBN TV when I would hand my 5DII next to their ENG Sony’s at Pressers and Crime Scenes. But I’m sure you had similar reactions at first.
    I have since been stringing for 7, 9, 10 and ABC using the 5DII, doing voxes, interviews and crime scene stuff, a lot of it in shocking low light . I also have a 7D which is a great stills/video source in it’s own right and shoots great video with the EF-S 10-22 in tight spots (don’t laugh I know it’s not L glass)
    Now these same news guys from Prime and NBN have seen what the 5DII & 7D can do and have started taking notice.
    So I was quite excited when I heard about the AF-100 but also disappointed when I heard the sensor is so small compared to the 5DII and that it only shoots video.
    l have a JVC HM-100 but I hardly use it because of the great look of the 5DII vision and the fact that I can pull excellent stills off the video or shoot terrific. still between video clips, all in one camera – amazing!.
    I would dearly love the next model Canon (the 5DIII?) to have 50i, external audio monitoring with audio levels and adjustments while recording, full clean HDMI out and HDSDI out and the ISO of the 1DMKIV and also AF off the sensor when needed. XLR’s would be nice too but I’m probably already pushing it.
    But these are wish list things which was why I was hoping the AF-100 might be the answer.
    To me though after reading Philip Blooms thoughts etc, the AF-100 might be a good replacement for my JVC-HM100 but I’m thinking I’ll battle on with the 5DII, maybe get a better shoulder rig and tripod/follow focus and Zacuto EVF and wait to see what Canon release next year.
    What are your thoughts on the best 5DII “run and gun” rig for news work, what lens as a one size fits all application where there is no time to swap. I have the Senhheiser G3 wireless mic news kit with the Rode NTG-2.
    Thanks for your time Matthew.

  12. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 29th, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Hi Frank,

    Good to hear you have been using DSLR’s. I can well understand your thoughts about getting looked at in a strange way by people in the TV industry when you start shooting with a DSLR. I get the same looks sometimes. I have shot heads of state and stories that get broadcast around the world entirely on a DSLR. As for wanting all those features in a 5D Mark III well it wont happen. Big corporations want to protect their professional line ups. If they put full HDMI out, full audio monitoring, and XLR inputs no one would buy their more expensive cameras.
    As for your advice on camera gear. I’m not a big fan of shoulder mounts. The best thing you can get is a good tripod. I don’t own or use a shoulder mount. If i have to do hand held work i have a Stedycam Merlin. As for what lens that is a hard one. There really isn’t just one lens you can go with. If i was to go with two i would choose the 24-70 and the 70-200 and buy a 1.4x extender. I have a Canon 35-350 , but it is the push/pull type so it is not ideal to use. I imagine if you are doing a lot of crime scene work that you would need a decent, fast long lens. Unfortunately the 70-200 isn’t really that long on a 5D but if you put it on a 7D with a 1.4 x extender you get pretty good range. So my advice would be to run that combo on a 7D and keep a 24-70 for wider stuff on your 5D. Hope this helps.

  13. Frank@Coffs Says:
    October 30th, 2010 at 4:46 am

    Hi Matthew.

    Mate thanks for your comments.
    Yes I agree that it’s unlikely Canon will incorporate more high end pro features on to the DSLR’s, sad but probably true.
    This is where the Panasonic AF-100 is so interesting,

    Panasonic saw the DSLR market and have taken a gamble designing a kind of answer to the 5DII, that is, a larger sensor than an ENG camera, like a DSLR but with pro features (Sound, Focus, ND, proper outputs) so in theory it should be a cracker, however the sensor is still small compared to the 5DII and the crop factor is 1:2.

    You mentioned Canon would probably NOT bring pro features to their DSLR’s buy why not? I realize Canon may have internal politics and possible jeopardizing of other traditional video cameras but can’t Canon get a grip and concentrate on getting more sales rather than dictating to the market? Is the recipe in the 5DII THAT good?
    Why can’t both departments, Pro and EOS collaborate like Panasonic did and release a ‘hybrid’ and pitch it as a ‘Pro Camera’ Even if it was RRP $8K if it was worth it I know I would buy it.

    Hopefully Canon are listening and watching and have a fresh model update with a few surprises, they must know the market expects it and if Canon fail to deliver to expectation many shooters might switch temporally to someone else, meaning lost Canon sales.

    We have the EOS 1DS MKIV to come then the 5DIII or perhaps other new models so please might we get something outstanding.

    Anyway as I said I guess I’ll leave the new models and the wish list to Canon and concentrate on what is already here.

    Re a lens I have been trailing the Tamron 28-300 VR lens for ‘all in one’ work. The Is is great and all together it’s a nice lens, not as sharp as Canon glass but ok to use.

    I considered the Canon L 28-300 but it’s a bit of a monster, have you tried it?

    Thanks again for your time and Viva the DSLR revolution!

  14. Matthew Allard Says:
    October 30th, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Hi Frank,

    For every guy who wants full HDMI output, XLR audio inputs etc there is 50 guys who don’t want this stuff. The DSLR video crowd forgets that this is a STILLS camera and that what the majority of people who buy these cameras use it for. The majority of the people who use these cameras couldn’t care less about the video features. Yes canon should do something similar to Panasonic and maybe they will. I have used the Tamron 28-300 and it is not a bad lens, but no where near the quality of most Canon glass. The Canon 28-300 is fairly similar to the 35-350 that I have….big and heavy.

  15. Kuban Says:
    October 30th, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Hi
    Sorry to disagree again with you here, but heck yeah do they buy DSLR for video, it’s become a major point when buying one of these. The Nikon crowd including myself, made the move to Canon in frustration at Nikon’s no response to Canons frame rate features, I don’t know if any surveys are out there, but my guess is video is a big selling point, and there are a lot of small companies doing well from interim solutions to audio and XLR issues.
    peace

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