Just before the turn of the calendar year, Panasonic released the much-anticipated AF100 camcorder, featuring a large 4/3″ 3MOS image sensor, interchangeable lenses, plus all of the pro-video features that come standard on Panasonic professional camcorders. Many heralded the arrival of the AF100 as an answer to those DSLR enthusiasts who bemoaned the various issues associated with DSLR shooting — image wobbling due to the rolling shutter, moire effects, no support for critical audio controls and monitoring, etc. Digital cinematographers wanted the beautiful images and sexy shallow depth of field that the DSLRs offered, but they missed actual professional video features too.
Last Wednesday, VCAM staff and other video pros in the area were treated to a demonstration of the AF100 here in the VCAM studio. Bill Kennedy, Panasonic’s New England sales manager, kindly brought the camera up from Albany to show off for us. So what did we think? Is it a “DSLR killer?”
Well, no. Not really. But maybe sort of, depending on the sort of work you’re doing. Let’s break it down:
Image sensor: the micro 4/3″ image sensor on the AF100 is larger than image sensors you’ll find on other Panasonic video cameras (like VCAM’s HMC150 and HVX200) and there is a corresponding ease with getting a shallow depth of field, as you’d expect. But a 4/3″ sensor is only about 50% of the size of the full-frame 35mm sensor on the Canon 5DmkII, resulting in a 2x crop factor where lens focal lengths are concerned (by contrast, the Canon T2i’s APS-C image sensor yields a 1.6x crop factor). So a 50mm lens on the 5D will act like 100mm lens on the AF100. That’s a pretty big jump. And getting a shallow depth of field (if that’s your bag) out of the AF100 is easier than it is on, say, the HMC150, but it’s not the crazy-beautiful shallow focus of the 5D.
Lenses: Of course, depth of field isn’t just about the image sensor size — f-stop and lens focal length have a lot to do with it too, so being able to swap lenses is a really important feature on any camera that’s going to be used for cinema-style shooting. The lens mount on the AF100 is a “micro 4/3″ mount (I know, I’d never heard of it before either). The bad news is that there are at present, precious few micro 4/3 lenses out there on the market. The good news is that lens manufacturers are selling adapters for just about any kind of lens you might already have. We have a lovely set of Carl Zeiss f-mount primes that go with our HVX200/Letus adapter rig and we were able to throw those onto the AF100 on Wednesday (using the f-mount adapter that Bill K. brought up with him) and they looked great. Bill had brought a Lumix 14-140mm micro 4/3 zoom with him as a basic lens for the camera, but it was slow and didn’t really show off the camera’s ability to produce nice images. Once we threw our Zeiss lenses on, the camera really started to shine.
Here’s the tricky part for people who own their own glass and are considering the AF100: lots of basic video camera features, like iris control, auto-focus, optical image stabilization, etc., require a data connection between the lens and the camera. Unless the lens was made with the AF100 specifically in mind, that data connection won’t exist and all of those things will have to be handled manually. That’s not such a big surprise, but if you want to use, for example, your Canon EOS lenses, you’re in trouble. EOS lenses don’t have manually-adjustable aperture controls on the lens. You can put the lens on the AF100 (with the proper lens adapter), but you won’t be able to change your f-stop.
Other stuff: as video camera functionality goes, the AF100 is pretty great — XLR audio inputs, built-in waveform monitor and vectorscope, ND filters, adjustable shutter speeds, various focus assist gizmos, adjustable ISO/gain, a host of progressive and interlaced frame rates and the important ability to take a video feed straight off the chip set via an SDI-out on the back of the camera (for those who want to avoid compressing via the AVCHD video codec on the SD cards). This is a professional tool that offers the user a lot of manual control.
Conclusions: Don’t think of the AF100 as a “DSLR killer.” Think of it as a halfway point between a DSLR and an HMC150. It tries to give you the best of both those worlds and it actually comes pretty close. Right now, if I have to go out and shoot a spot for VCAM (like this Access 101 piece or this Fit & Healthy Kids PSA, for example — both shot by me on these cameras), I bring both the 5D and the HMC150 to give me a wide range of shooting options. Perhaps with the AF100, I could just bring the one camera and get everything I need.
In terms of depth of field, I actually want a middle ground. For years I shot with the DVX100, HVX200 and HMC150 and constantly stayed at the longest end of the lens and wide open on the aperture in order to force the camera to give me some shallow focus. With the 5D I have the opposite problem. Sometimes I need to have more focus options other than “super shallow,” and I don’t want to have to travel around with a 5-ton grip truck to get the shots I want. The AF100 might just be the Goldilocks camera I’ve been waiting for.