The Panasonic AF100: The Right Camera at the Right Time
Panasonic AF100 review by guest author Clayton Combe.
My history of camera ownership since 2003 speaks for itself: Panasonic DVX100, HVX200A, HPX170…and Canon 7D and 5D mkII. Like many others, I couldn’t resist the allure of the DSLR, but I’m a Panasonic guy. I always shoot ENG with Varicam, if I have the choice. My TV is Panasonic. So is my Blu-Ray player. So is my electric razor. So when the AF100 – a Micro 4/3 pro camcorder from Panasonic – was announced, I immediately put myself on the waiting list. Eight months later (3 weeks ago), it was here.
The benefits of a small, cheap camera with a large sensor have been demonstrated with the DSLR movement, but the AF100 promised something we’ve jumped through hoops to achieve with DSLRs: real video functionality. I can’t say specifically that it’s a “DSLR Killer,” since I still use my 7D now and then, but for most applications, the AF100 is a much better choice.
My first impression as I lifted it out of the box: damn, this is light. The camera body itself weighs about the same as a 5D. While it’s not quite as compact as a DSLR, it’s definitely small enough to fit in some tight spots. It’s also very thoughtfully designed, with lots of mounting points and a surprisingly strong carry handle. I knew Panasonic was beginning to listen when the HPX170 featured the focus-lock switch (for DOF adapters), and the design improvements of the AF100 prove they have continued to do so. My favorite little touch: a second cold shoe mount underneath the removable side handle. And one of many advantages of the AF100 over DSLRs: connectivity without the need for various converter boxes, such as simultaneous HD/SDI and HDMI output.
When I turned the camera on, I immediately noticed a sharper LCD and the updated settings display. But the exciting part was how Panasonic have adapted their physical controls to fit the camera’s new functions. You can assign ISO values to the three positions of the familiar Gain switch, and you can set white balance, frame rate, and shutter angle (or shutter speed) without ever entering a menu.
There are two other features that trump DSLRs in a big way: the built-in ND filter wheel (never waste a stage in your mattebox), and 1080/24p overcrank to 60fps. Or 48. Or 32. Or undercrank to 12. You have complete control without ever changing your resolution. Being constrained to 720p to shoot above 30fps has always been a major annoyance, and I’m so glad to leave that behind, along with the 4gb (12-minute) clip limit and frequent overheating. Sound recording is back to normal as well; all the options from the HVX have returned.
When it came to building my rig, I stuck to what I knew: Zacuto. I’ve had Zacuto camera support since my 200A/Letus Elite kit, and it has always proved robust and versatile. I started with the Universal Baseplate, Z-focus and Z-grips, my Chrosziel mattebox, and Marshall 7” HD/SDI monitor.
For this particular rig, I did something new: instead of underslinging the Anton Bauer battery mount over my shoulder, I decided to mount it upright on the back, like an ENG camera. This choice has made a huge difference in keeping the rig compact; in fact, I’ve built it smaller than my previous 7D rig. It’s amazing how simple things become when there’s not a sea of cables drowning your camera.
Then, it’s come to that crucial juncture: lenses. I’ve been using my trusty set of Canon FD primes since the Letus Elite days, and I’d almost forgotten how beautiful they really were. With the 7D and 5D mkII, I had to use an optical mount adapter that forced me to shoot closed down a stop, to avoid heavy blooming; this prompted me to start investing in Canon L-series glass.
Panasonic have made a genius move with the AF100, and it’s called Micro Four Thirds. MFT has the shortest flange depth of almost any lens mount, which means any other lens you’d buy would have to be farther away from the sensor than the MFT mount would place it. This leaves room for a mount adapter, so no glass needs to get between your lens and the sensor. MFT mount adapters are cheap and plentiful, so you can mount Nikon, Canon, PL cine lenses… anything. This adds to the camera’s appeal by encouraging users to invest in whatever glass they like, rather than forcing the purchase of some proprietary mount; and odds are, if you have lenses, they’ll mount. And when it’s time to move on to another camera, the lenses will work with that too. It’s a trend that I only hope continues; while DSLRs need to be irreversibly modified (and hamstrung for stills) to mount a PL lens, the AF100 can switch among different mounts in a matter of seconds.
My Canon L-series lenses present a temporary problem: no manual iris control. The AF100’s MFT mount is active, but no adapter exists that can pass communication between these lenses and the camera. However, Birger Engineering are likely to unveil one at NAB this year. In the meantime, I’ve settled for a “cold” Canon EF adapter. While my FDs are great for a more cinematic look, the L series lenses excel in green screen or interview situations, where crispness is the most important factor (and the versatility of a zoom is beneficial). I know there are many out there who have invested in L glass, and they should know: it’ll pay off with the AF100.
The image itself is fantastic. Low noise all the way up to ISO 800, very little wobble from the rolling shutter. And I challenge you: try to make this camera moiré. After a year and a half of DSLR shooting, it’s difficult to let go and shoot brick buildings and patterned shirts again. The smaller Four-Thirds format size means you can’t get as wide as you could with a 5D, but it’s actually closer than the 5D to motion picture 35. I happen to think the unnaturally shallow DOF 5D look has become gimmicky anyway.
Media is also a lot cheaper; you can buy a 16gb SD card for thirty bucks. They don’t record great color space (8-bit 4:2:0, like a DSLR), but the AVCHD codec compares favorably to AVC-Intra, and shows a good deal fewer artifacts than H.264. And if you need more information, the AF100 outputs 8-bit 4:2:2 through HD/SDI, making the use of an external recorder practical. I do wish the output was 10-bit, but maybe a future firmware update could change that. In the meantime, the clips can be ingested without any hassle by Final Cut Pro, Avid, or Premier.
The AF100 is most certainly a one-of-a-kind camera. The specific combination of features and price make its closest competition a DSLR, but its form factor suggests more of a Sony F3 or Red comparison. This is a mistake; it doesn’t record as much data as either of those, but it’s so far ahead of DSLRs in its functionality that it doesn’t really fall into that category either. I believe that Panasonic will take the next step with a “big brother” camera, which will sport a larger sensor and 10-bit AVC-Intra recording (please?), but for now, the AF100 is a huge step in the right direction. It’s a gateway camera. It behaves like any professional camera, takes any lens, and achieves stunning images with zero pain-in-the-ass factor, and this makes it a perfect choice for low-budget production or anything with a fast turnaround. I’ve been awaiting the arrival of a camera like this since I first shot with the 5D mkII, and I couldn’t be happier that it came from Panasonic. It’s exactly what it needed to be.