Sep 25, 2011

Panasonic AF100: HD-DSLR Killer, or not?

Ever since the AF100 hit the market there seems to have been only two kinds of people relevant to it's existence:  Those who love it, or hate it.  In fact there was for a time a handful of people who seemed to enjoy slamming the new camera with baseless rhetoric on one particular forum to the point that the forum owner took down that category since the posts seemed to go out of control.

Perps with just too much time on their hands or a calculated - and paid for - back-door slander campaign from Sony?

I can tell you from personal experience that it wouldn't be the first time that Sony used the public to spread unsubstantiated lies about their competitors.  Think corporate sabotage happens only in dark rooms with shady players?  Sometimes it's all done right out in the open; people never expect subversive behavior to be going on right in front of them.  But that's a post for another time and place...

But what about the topic of this post?  Even before the first retail unit of the AF100 was available to the public it was being deemed the, "DSLR Killer".  So, is it?  That depends on your point of view and, your budget!

Recently, Zacuto released a series of very expensive and well-produced short series of videos called, "The Great Camera Shootout", which featured all the current players of high-quality HD video cameras from the 7D all the way up to the ARRI Alexa and RED and compared them to traditional film cameras.  If you haven't watched it yet I highly recommend it.

In it you'll find that in all the tests, there was very little difference in image quality between the Sony F3, Panny AF100 and the two Canon bodies, the 5D MkII and 7D.  (Interestingly enough, I found that the 7D seemed to outperform the 5DMkII just slightly in several areas).

Now that may come as a big surprise, that the DSLR's weren't "terrible" up against real video cameras.  But ironically, the AF100 and F3 were also not night-and-day better than the Canons!  That being the case, why bother with an AF100 then?  Good question!

The big thing filmmakers have always wanted from their video cameras was the film-like depth-of-field that true film cameras have; the AF100, F3 and the Canon DSLR's all have this look.  But that's only half the equation.

The other half is having real video-camera type controls over things like shutter, iris (aperture), frame-rate, audio, timecode, internal ND filters and external monitoring.  These are all attributes that are either slightly wonky to accomplish in a DSLR or just isn't possible at all.  Yet.

But all these things ARE possible in the AF100.  But yet again, with exception to timecode coming from the camera, there are a plethora of workarounds and third-party add-ons to get all these things from a DSLR.  So we're back to the original question:  Is the AF100 the HD-DSLR killer?  Yes, and no.  Huh?

OK, let's look at it from two perspectives:  One from the no-budget one-man-band type producer who needs the film-look but needs to spend the least amount of cash as possible.  That usually means a DSLR.  A bare-bones DSLR rig would amount to the camera body, a decent zoom lens (such as Canon's 24-105mm f/4 L), and an external audio recorder and mic.  All that would set you back roughly $3500... or so depending on what other accessories you needed like a decent video tripod/head, stands etc.

A bare-bones AF100 such as the kit Panny sells with the 14-140mm lens and battery sells for just under $5000.  So from a bare-bones cash perspective you could save around $1500 with a DSLR.

BUT, the story doesn't end there because the 7D can't do all the things the AF100 can such as:

  • In-Camera VFR (variable frame-rate recording, which means slow or fast motion)
  • In-Camera two-channel XLR audio
  • Built-in 3-stage ND filters
  • Black & White mode (yes, it really shoots B&W in-camera)
  • The ability to change advanced camera settings such as gamma curves, pedestal, chroma phase, vertical detail, etc.
  • In-camera timecode in and out
  • True 8-bit HD-SDI out allowing 4:2:2 color space recording
  • In-camera audio monitoring
...and a host of other features too long to list.

Most of what's listed above the 5DMkII nor 7D - nor any DSLR for that matter is capable of, period.  And you shouldn't ever expect them to be able to... since they're STILLS cameras, not dedicated video cameras.

So is there anything the 7D can do better than the AF100?  Yes, take still photos!  That's what it's been optimized to do.

Listen, I've shot with both the 5D MkII and the 7D and I like them both.  They've both been used in countless features, commercials and indie films.  In fact Philip Bloom recently used his 5D MkII on a feature for LucasFilm and I've used the 5DMkII for my own commercial work as well.  But at the end of the day, a DSLR isn't as easy, as fast to setup and use nor as versatile for real filming than a dedicated video camera.

So for me, given a choice I'll always reach for an AF100 before a DSLR everytime.

UPDATE:  One thing I forgot to mention, is that getting critical focus from the built-in rear LCD on any DSLR is almost impossible, and damned frustrating at best.  So that means you'd need to use a loupe-style viewer of some sort - such as the EVF Pro from Zacuto - to really be able to see what you're doing.  That setup costs around $1200, which for the most part negates any savings you might have hoped for using a DSLR-type rig.

So why bother and just get an AF100!  Trust me, you'll be glad you did.  That is, unless Canon's November 3rd "historical event" is going to give us another game-changing *real* video camera.


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