THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS | A PRO PHOTO & VIDEO BLOG

Panasonic AF100 vs. Sony FS100

Posted in Equipment, Video by tonmanprod on October 20, 2011

In a previous post, I extolled the virtues of the Panasonic AF100, hailing it as a gift to independent filmmaking and the DPs who work so hard to make art with as little as possible. At the time, I  hadn’t shot anything with the since-released Sony FS100, their answer to Panasonic’s AF100. While the Sony F3 inhabits the tier above the AF100, boasting higher recording bitrates and the S-Log upgrade option, the FS100 meets the AF100 eye-to-eye on price, codec, recording media, and size. So it seems only natural that when I spend two weeks shooting a TV show with the FS100, I would have to write another post comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the two “DSLR killers” against each other.

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The Image

Sony FS100 rig

Sony FS100 rig

The FS100’s image is less noisy than the AF100’s. There, I said it. We usually shot at 0db gain (ISO 500), with an expanded dynamic range picture profile, but when we bumped to 6db (ISO 1000), there was no visible change in the image; it remained very clean. Conversely, pushing the AF100 past ISO 640 introduces definite noise. It’s not terrible looking, but it’s there. Oddly enough, a lot of this noise isn’t visible when the AF100 is projected from Blu-Ray.

While the FS100 excels in lower light, the AF100 is the king in daylight. Its three levels of internal ND (plus clear) mean that exteriors have never been easier to shoot with a camera this small. Futzing around with filters and screwing fader NDs onto the FS100’s lenses brought me to muttering back to the DSLR days. If you’re going to be outside and you have to adjust exposure quickly, the AF100 is a better choice.

Sony FS100 shoulder rig

Sony FS100 shoulder rig

I’m sure we’re all sick of having “crop factor” beaten like a dead horse, but it’s something to consider. The FS100 sees about 10% wider than the AF100, and gives a little shallower depth of field as a result. The DOF isn’t noticeably different to the eye; the field of view is. After two weeks with the FS100, I had to re-adjust to the AF100’s smaller sensor size. We used Nikon AF lenses with a Novoflex adapter on the FS100, which yielded some really nice clean results (although the tiny iris barrel range of the adapter and the inability to determine or lock off actual F-stop was somewhat frustrating). When the Birger Canon EF adapter is released for both cameras, it will make this issue a bit easier to deal with.

The FS100, true to Sony form, renders skin tones well, but tends to give most images a somewhat sterile cast, compared to the AF100. It cannot match the vibrancy of Panasonic’s in-camera image processing. But it handled highlights well, and was overall detailed and well-rounded. I’d say that if there’s an area where the FS100 has an edge, it’s the image in many situations.

The Form Factor

Panasonic AF100 steadicam rig

Panasonic AF100 steadicam rig

Fortunately for the sake of my comparison, both my AF100 rig and the production company’s FS100 rig used the same gear: Zacuto universal baseplate and follow focus, 15mm rods, and a rods-mounted Anton Bauer gold mount plate on the back. Couldn’t have asked for a more level playing field.

These cameras were released on the bleeding edge of the prosumer market, and as a result, both feel a little off. For the AF100, it’s the viewfinder; there’s no real reason for it to be there. I almost never use it, preferring to use an onboard monitor or Cineroid EVF. Obviously it’s a leftover from the HVX200, used to help support the top handle and the menu buttons. On the bright side, the AF100’s top handle is very sturdy and I have no qualms about picking up my rig and throwing its weight around. Sony tried something new with their topside LCD with loupe viewfinder, but didn’t quite hit the mark. I used the LCD when it was convenient or absolutely necessary (two or three times over the course of two weeks), and never even took the loupe out of the case, sticking mostly to the onboard monitor. Unfortunately for the FS100, the LCD’s position makes it difficult to place a top handle in a useful spot…and the Sony top handle is a pitiful, vestigial piece of plastic. We supplemented with Letus articulating handgrips, but the FS100’s 1/4-20 tapped screwholes actually loosened themselves from the camera body, so we resorted to a Redrock handle mounted directly to the rods (which had to be on the back of the rig, making it an impractical solution for balanced carrying). Zacuto has just released an FS100 handgrip, which looks like a decent solution, but the loose screwholes are still worrisome.

The upside of the FS100’s design is that it can build very small and flat if necessary. With no top handle and no EVF, the Sony stands roughly 2/3 as high as the Panasonic, which means a slightly lower center of gravity and less hitting of overhead obstacles (useful for me, at 6’4″). The button placement on the AF100 and FS100 is about the same, and while Sony lacks the easy frame rate dial of the Panasonic, the rest of its functions are easily accessible. The one downside is that the Sony’s buttons are easier to press with your cheek or ear, and the front Record button is a little hard to find with your finger. After two weeks, there was still a bit of fumbling, and the button itself seems slightly too small.

The two cameras are based on the same concept (larger chip and interchangeable lenses), but ended up very different, physically; the AF100 would be better on its own, with the removable handgrip on the side; the FS100 requires a rig, so be sure to budget for accessories. And with the same support gear, the AF100 can build smaller than the FS100, for a more compact profile. But ultimately, both need another generation of tweaking before they feel totally comfortable.

Video Signal

Panasonic AF100 rig on tripod

Panasonic AF100 rig on tripod

Both cameras record 8-bit 4:2:0 AVCHD 1080p to SD cards. However, the AF100 provides many more options for transmitting and viewing that signal, as well as having two SD card slots compared to the FS100’s one. The FS100’s only output is HDMI, and although it’s a full-size port (not the Mini-HDMI of DSLR infamy), it’s still not as secure as a locking BNC port for SDI. The AF100, on the other hand, offers HD-SDI, HDMI, and Composite SD video, simultaneously. The combinations of outputs is numerous, and allow flexibility while managing signals on steadicam, jib, dolly, handheld, whatever. No matter what the situation, there’s going to be a video output for everyone with the AF100.

Of course, anyone migrating from DSLR to the FS100 would be likely to have the converter boxes necessary to make the video signal work…but these cameras are supposed to be a step forward. No one wants to continue the days of mounting, powering, and managing dicey ports on a BlackMagic or AJA box. Our saving grace for the TV show was the TVLogic VFM-056WP monitor. It’s lightweight, takes powertap or battery power, and best of all, converts HDMI to SDI inside the monitor (as well as accepting, and passing through, an SDI signal). The 720p image is nice and sharp too, and its peaking and waveform are well-realized. I wish it had a false color filter, but I learned to live without it. The only downside of the TVLogic was its $1400 price tag, but if I had to buy a monitor to cover all my needs, this would be the one.

Conclusion

To sum up, the FS100’s chip is a nice piece of work, taken straight out of its big brother, the F3. The rest of the camera leaves something to be desired. The outputs, build quality, and form factor are inferior to that of the AF100. So choosing between these two cameras boils down to what you’re shooting. Day exterior? AF100 is quicker. Night exterior? FS100 is cleaner. Run and gun? Use the AF100 by itself, or FS100 with a few accessories. As always, you pick the right tool for the job. I’m still happy I chose the Panasonic AF100, and I’d make the same choice again…but for someone else, FS100 may be a better fit. I’d love to hear your stories about which camera you chose, and why. Leave them in the comments below!

——

Clayton Combe is a cinematographer based in New York City. For more on the AF100 and the work he does with it, visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

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24 Responses

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  1. Kyle said, on October 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Great article. As a FS100 owner, I agree with your assessment. After having this same AF100 v FS100 debate I eventually decided that I could always add rig accessories to the FS100 but I could never add low light ability to the AF100.

  2. Cas said, on October 20, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I completely agree with your assessment; however, I made the opposite decision for a couple of reasons. Even though I’m a news schooter, which makes the ease of AF100’s design appealing, I bought the FS100. While it has one of the most unusual physical designs, the minimal corp factor and sensor quality really made the difference for me. My test with the AF100 suggested that it would need prime lenses to get a decent look out of the 4/3 censor. With the FS100, I use a variety of zooms, which aren’t particularly fast, and get great DOF and low light performance. I have my FS100 rigged with a Zacuto EVF and handle grip on the side. It kind of looks like an old 16mm and functions very well.

  3. tam said, on October 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Just a quick correction on FS100 outputs: Next to the HDMI out connector you’ll find component out and composite A/V…

  4. [...] an Sony NEX-7 pre-production model; Clayton Combe compares his extensive experiences with both the Sony FS100 and Panasonic AF100 and compares the strengths and weaknesses of the two entry level digital cinema cameras; we cover [...]

  5. Steve said, on November 7, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for posting this very nice article. What shoulder rig is pictured for the FS100? I like the idea of having the shoulder piece directly below the camera.

    Thanks.

    • Clayton Combe said, on November 8, 2011 at 10:59 am

      Steve,

      The shoulder rig is Zacuto’s original gear, before they started trying to get all fancy with their DSLR specialyty stuff. It’s a Universal Baseplate, 15mm rods, and a Shoulder Pad with a Q-Release, which allows you to mount the shoulder pad directly underneath your tripod plate (and make the changeover in a matter of seconds). That point, of course, is the balance point of the rig.

      So many rigs I’ve seen are terribly front-heavy, which puts tremendous strain on the operator’s back, even if the whole thing weighs less than 10 pounds. Your shots will be much smoother and you’ll be able to operate much longer if you balance your rig properly. To do that, I suggest a lightweight monitor or EVF, the shoulder pad directly underneath the camera, and a battery on the back as counterbalance (if you can power the whole rig off the battery, that’s even better). And you can always add a CamWave or whatever to the back, and shift your shoulder pad backwards to maintain balance.

      Good catch on a very important point, Steve!

  6. Steve said, on November 8, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Thank you very much Clayton!

  7. LamProductions said, on November 12, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Hi,
    very nice comparison and thoughts.

    I have an AF100,and i used the Sony in a Dealer saloon. After months of AF100 use i must say that its low light performance depends by lenses.
    If you use a fast lens,the AF is virtually noise free at gain 0 (ISO400). The Nokton f0,95 provides remarkable image quality and no noise. Also the classic Pancake f1.7 is a good performer. Of course,if you use gain steps,there is a limit before the noise become noticeable and footage maybe useless…FS100 is more gain boost-oriented for cleaner image,but AF100 is still a good performer and a good global choice in a good price range.

  8. okami22 said, on November 18, 2011 at 9:58 am

    I really needed this article. I have been looking at both cameras for months now trying to decide on what to get. I normally shoot short action films but have no been incorparating other genres with my small start up production team. I watched countless videos online (reviews and shorts) and was still stuck. I love the images out of the FS100 but I feel like I should go for the AF100 because of the ND Filters built in. Something about shooting fast action should imply the setup to film should be fast as well. Just knowing I would need a matte box for the FS100 bums me out a bit since I prefer the images it produces over the AF100 (slightly). Still stuck, will make my decision soon enough though and will most likely read this article another 10 times

  9. station44025 said, on November 18, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Rented an FS100 for a job that required a lot of run-and-gun shooting in low light situations, and was blown away by the results in those situations. With a little noise-killing in post, we were able to use takes that were shot in near darkness. The stuff we had to shoot in direct sunlight earlier in the day, however, was extremely frustrating without ND filters. (Also, the stock lens creates sort of a crummy looking flare with lots of internal reflections compared to most DSLR lenses, if you’re looking for that kind of stylistic effect) It looked ok, but not spectacular. The placement of the LCD on top of the camera renders it useless if you’re holding it overhead for a high angle shot, and the fact that the handgrip has to be partially unscrewed to adjust position also seemed like an unnecessary limitation.

  10. Jeremy Wilker (@TWEAK) said, on November 18, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    “I’d say that if there’s an area where the FS100 has an edge, it’s the image in many situations.” Isn’t that why we buy cameras, mainly? ;-) I highly recommend the Berkey System top plate and handle for the FS100 and the Novoflex Nikon adapter for a flexible FS100 kit.

    • tonmanprod said, on November 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

      Absolutely! But it’s a very slight edge the FS100 has, and for some people the usability trade offs aren’t worth it.

      I’m definitely seeing a variety of FS100 accessories springing up. One kit that has stood out for me is from Solid Camera (solidcamera.com).

      Clayton Combe 718.288.4673 http://www.tonmanproductions.com

  11. john skalicky said, on December 28, 2011 at 5:40 am

    thanks for an excellent review. Really appreciated the pictures. I rented the Panavision and like the images. The Sony feels more comfortable to hold. I do not understand why Sony did not include ND filters. For me 5,000 is alot of money. Why can’t someone make a camera with all the features that are needed? Is that really too much too ask?

  12. Rob said, on February 16, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I have rented both cameras for various shoots, and I am almost ready to buy one of the two, I have to say that I hear alot of fs100 owners claiming extremely superior image quality, which I did not find to be the case, it is a little better with skin tones, but not that much. I also found that the fs100 feels a little choppy when the shutter speed goes a little higher than what you would normally use, not so with the af100. I also found that when I wanted to pull it out of the bag quickly to shoot something unexpected, it was not possible with the fs100 because of the form factor and nd issue. BUT since it’s now almost the middle of 2012 I am almost thinking I should wait for the next hddlsr or gen2 of these cameras before I pull the trigger. Why cant someone just make the perfect camera and put us all to rest???

  13. Ken Steiger said, on March 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I agree with Rob. Why can’t somebody just make a perfect camera and sell it to us for 2 grand, huh?

  14. John Doe said, on May 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    It’s a sellers market. No one is going to make the perfect camera, they purposely leave better stuff out and put other stuff in. It’s frustrating but hey, I don’t make a habit of updating my camera body, just the lenses. Myself, I am going to go with the AF100, it has what I need and I don’t have to buy as many accessories along with it.

  15. Kent said, on July 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Very nice article and it convinced me that the AF100 is the right choice for our studio. I would be curious what lenses you have found to work best with your AF100? We are budget minded and looking for user friendliness. We are a Photographic studio expanding our services. Mostly small table top work with sliders and static product demos.

    Thanks,

    • tonmanprod said, on July 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      For the mainly narrative work I do, I love my Canon FDs, Zeiss ZF primes, and Zeiss CP.2s, all of which have manual iris. You could make Canon L glass work in a studio environment where you can control lighting, though, and the zoom ability sounds like it would be helpful. Just be aware that you can’t control the iris except by remove the lens and using a DSLR.

      Clayton Combe 718.288.4673 http://www.claytoncombe.com

      • pixure said, on July 23, 2012 at 2:33 pm

        Thank you Clayton,

        I am looking at the CP.2s mostly. However, between our studios, we have a mixture of Canon and Nikon glass as well for which I am considering the use of Adapters. Regarding the control of Iris with Canon glass, this would not be an issue for the studios with Nikon glass since aperture rings are still present on Nikkors, correct?

      • tonmanprod said, on August 2, 2012 at 12:59 pm

        The CP.2s play very nicely with both cameras. And yes, any lens with its own manual iris will be just fine.

        Clayton Combe 718.288.4673 http://www.claytoncombe.com

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