Panasonic’s desire to offer the new handheld 4K AG-DVX200PJ with an integrated lens system may seem a step backward in HD evolution, at first glance, but a closer look reveals that the sleekly designed camcorder has merit for a variety of professional uses. Upon its release, the first question asked was probably the most obvious: Why no interchangeable-lens system? It’s an apt question in light of numerous DSLR and 4K manufacturers falling over themselves to offer us swappable lens systems at affordable prices. I also had my own trepidations over the new 4K offering before attending Panasonic’s hands-on demonstration in Los Angeles last November, but came away satisfied that the DVX200 has a very significant place in a large segment of the semipro and professional markets.
First, an overview: The DVX200 is Panasonic’s next generation of large-sensor, multi-format professional camcorders capable of capturing 4K/UHD, HD and SD footage with cinematic DCI 4K 4096×2160. A suite of top-end features includes 4K/24p and 1080/60p recording with V-Log L gamma, giving a full 12-plus stops of dynamic range, a function emulating the natural grayscale of the V-Log L gamma found in Panasonic’s professional-level VariCam 35. This allows for a comparable filmic tonality with natural, subtle skin tones approaching around 85% of the latitude available on the versatile VariCam.
Barry Green, Emmy®-award-winning producer and writer, who has authored a number of books on Panasonic professional camcorders, and is a respected technical moderator at DVXuser.com, opened Panasonic’s presentation by clearing up some misunderstandings regarding the design of the fixed-lens 4K offering.
“A lot of people wanted to see a next-generation Panasonic AG-AF100 interchangeable-lens cinema camera,” outlines Green on consumer sentiment. “But while other manufacturers are busy making interchangeable-lens cameras for filmmakers, this is a 4K camcorder for everyone else shooting industrials, reality television, documentary, event production, and, sure, occasionally film. This isn’t what everyone else is doing, and unique because of that.”
The camcorder has a solid build, with the demo unit handling nicely at the event. It’s not light, but very well balanced, with design touches such as a run/stop button located on the top handle with a sliding cover so as not to be pressed accidentally. The focus has a fast and accurate response, and there are two viewfinders—an eye-level finder, plus a bright touch-screen LCD that hides away when not in use. The LCD is bright, with a resolution of 2.76 million pixels and a diagonal size of 4.3”. When your eye goes to the EVF, a sensor turns off the LCD. ND filters offer 1/4, 1/16 or 1/64 exposure, while other user-assignable buttons, as well as the focus assist button, are also on the body.
Examine the optics closer, and it’s clear that Panasonic continues its commitment to offering top-quality glass. A newly developed ƒ/2.8 Leica Dicomar 13x zoom sits on the camcorder, offering a healthy zoom range in all formats. The lens (in 35mm equivalents) at 4K/24p is 29.5mm to 384.9mm, and at HD, 28mm to 365.3mm. There’s also a feature that zooms in 1.5x on the sensor when shooting at 1080p resolution, a cool touch that effectively makes it a 19x lens with no loss in resolution.
Overall, there’s a nice retro feel to the DVX200 that recalls its distant relative, the AG-DVX100, and if history is anything to go by, then this 4K iteration should be a huge success. You may recall how the DVX100 was scoffed at by advanced shooters when released, only to become one of the most sought-after camcorders in the marketplace. Back in the days of the Hi8 and MiniDV revolution, owners fell over themselves purchasing the DVX100 for its 24p look and cine-like gamma, capturing in progressive mode to emulate the look of film that was, at the time, the Holy Grail of filmmaking. It finally meant there was no need to crush those blacks before de-interlacing and frame blending to acquire a cinematic look.
In many ways, the DVX200 is the same beast, only now at 4K! The 4/3” type sensor is gigantic, not quite that of Super35mm or full-frame sensors, but still 16 times larger than the original DVX100. It’s a sensor size allowing for nice depth of field, helping to isolate subjects while creating beautiful bokeh effects.
Recording modes at 4K do restrict the camera to 24p, but UHD fares better with up to 60p (including 25p and 50p frame rates for the PAL market); 120 fps is also offered in HD mode, with 200 Mbps capture available in low-compression Intraframe HD, .MOV or MP4 format. AVCHD is also available.
Interestingly, shooting 4K for HD creates a notable increase in color resolution and bit depth by down-converting image capture to 1920×1080, neatly done by merging 2×2 pixels together to convert 3840×2160, 8-bit 4:2:0 into 1920×1080, 10-bit 4:4:4 footage in post.
Each 2×2 block ends up summing together luma and chroma information to create a single 1×1 pixel, interpolating an image with smoother gradations and reduced noise, plus increased color resolution and bit depth. 8-bit 4:2:0 contains all the luma samples and half the chroma samples in both directions, so dropping pixels gives you 4:4:4 at half the resolution. Remember, 8-bit recognizes only 256 shades per pixel, while 10-bit allows for 1,024 shades.
While the camcorder is optimized toward long recording times at an internal recording of 8-bit 4:2:0, the recognition that higher-quality capture may be required is addressed with full 10-bit 4:2:2 available via HDMI 2.0 output to an external recorder (8-bit 4:2:2 also can be chosen). This is the recommended method of capture for the widest dynamic range using the aforementioned V-Log L gamma setting. Internal recordings at 8-bit 4:2:0 will need one of eight other Log styles available on the menu.
Additionally, using the two provided card slots allows simultaneous backup and relay recording with standard SD cards. The ease of flawlessly dragging and dropping footage onto the Final Cut timeline is another nice touch here. Other features include a 5-axis stabilizer, an improvement compared to the previous image stabilizer found in the Panasonic AG-AC160A. This is only available in HD mode, however, not in 4K and UHD recording modes.
While this new AG-DVX200 should appeal to a large demographic, ENG shooters probably will most appreciate the 4/3”-sized sensor with options to manually override auto controls whenever time permits. Meanwhile, capturing important footage in more automated modes makes it an attractive choice. Come to think of it, if you find yourself with a fancy camera system using interchangeable lenses, yet use a trusty zoom most of the time, the AG-DVX200 camcorder should be a worthy replacement, or companion, to your current setup.
Panasonic is offering a free downloadable firmware upgrade that adds the following: a fast scan mode to the menu options for 4K/24p, UHD/29.97p, UHD/23.98p and UHD/25p recording modes to minimize potential skewing; color reproduction at higher brightness levels, improved to accommodate a wider range of skin tones; the potential for black dot noise in 4K/UHD has been reduced; playback image aspect ratio has been corrected, so imagery is properly displayed in 16:9 when a 480i/576i squeeze video is played; and, finally, the ISO gain value display in high-sensitivity mode has been improved. The AG-DVX200 has a suggested list price of $4,695.
Speaking of useful tools, a zoom, focus and iris remote is available for the DVX200, the VariZoom rock-style Zoom & Focus/Iris Lens Control, a device offering precise control over these camera functions (varizoom.com/product-p/vzsrock-zfi.htm).
Learn more about the AG-DVX200PJ at panasonic.com/broadcast.