Bridging The Gap

In 2010, HD DSLRs graduated from weapon of choice for no-budget indie filmmakers to an option that almost everyone seemed to be experimenting with. Then came the commercials, music videos, even an episode of FOX’s House, all shot with HD DSLRs by accomplished professionals. The big draw of the HD DSLR is the almost magic combination of extreme low-light sensitivity and shallow depth of field provided by a large sensor, paired with the ability to use different lenses.

In actuality, though, HD DSLRs represent a huge compromise when used for video production. Their large CMOS sensors, optimized for still photography, tend toward rolling-shutter artifacts, moiré and aliasing when shooting video. The highly compressed codecs used in HD DSLRs result in a limited color-space signal that can’t stand up to heavy postprocessing or generational loss. Poor-sounding audio circuitry and a lack of XLR connections or phantom power options mean that the audio is basically unusable in professional-level productions. In short, HD DSLRs are simply still cameras that happen to be able to shoot good-looking video, but with a large compromise.

The Panasonic AG-AF100 has a Four Thirds CMOS sensor and a Micro Four Thirds lens mount. One of the advantages the camcorder has over the current crop of HD DSLRs is the inclusion of single-system professional sound recording (below).

At NAB 2010, Panasonic displayed a prototype of what everyone had been hoping for, a large-sensor video camera that accepted removable lenses. The new camera would feature the AVCCAM codec, recorded to SDHC or SDXC memory cards. With considerable buzz surrounding the prototype at NAB, Panasonic announced that this new camera would be shipping in December 2010 and that it would be known as the AG-AF100 for the North American market.

The sensor in the AG-AF100 is a Four Thirds CMOS with a Micro Four Thirds mount (aka M 4/3). The physical size of the M 4/3 sensor in the AG-AF100 is 17.8mm wide by 10mm tall, almost four times as large as the ubiquitous 2/3-inch sensors used in shoulder-mounted broadcast video cameras. Almost any lens on the market can be used easily with the AG-AF100 because of the Micro Four Thirds shallow flange-back depth. PL-mount cinema lenses, still-camera lenses from almost every manufacturer, you name it—with an adapter, the AG-AF100 probably can use it. The AG-AF100 sensor actually compares quite nicely with 35mm motion-picture field of view with a 1.25x crop factor when comparing the M 4/3 sensor with a 35mm motion-picture-sized image.

"Overall, the images from the AG-AF100 are beautiful, a great combination of the typical Panasonic look, only sharper, paired with the possibility of shallower depth of field and low-light capability that used to be possible only with an HD DSLR."

Although the AG-AF100 is sold without a lens, the review unit I was sent included what will become known as the “standard lens” for the AG-AF100, the Panasonic Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm F4.0-5.8 ASPH/MEGA O.I.S. (quite a mouthful). This is the only M 4/3 lens shipping at the moment that features full autofocus with the AG-AF100, along with optical image stabilization and an electronically linked iris that’s quiet enough for video work. Other lenses will have varying degrees of functionality, depending on the type of lens and mount. There are no lenses available for the AG-AF100 with a servo zoom control. If you want to zoom a lens when using the AG-AF100, you do it manually, just as you do on an HD DSLR, or use a Micro Force Controller on a cinema-style zoom lens.

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