Panasonic AG-AF101 HD Camcorder - Full Review
Please note that this review is based on a pre-production Panasonic AG-AF101, that was only 75% finished. I make reference to this on occasion throughout this review.
After spending four days shooting with this camera, I've decided that the Panasonic AG-AF101 film-like HD camcorder is absolutely, unequivocally the all-new independent low-budget filmmakers weapon of choice; itís the camcorder filmmakers have been waiting on for 20 years. In fact itís the camcorder weíve ALL been waiting for; read on and Iíll explain why everyone including independent filmmakers, video production companies, music video producers, corporate video producers, wedding videographers and freelance lighting cameraman, can benefit from using this amazing new film-like HD camcorder from Panasonic.
For years now independent low-budget filmmakers have been forced to shoot their movies on VHS, Hi8, MiniDV, DVCAM, HDV and the like, with a few favorites such as Panasonicís own DVX100b because of itís 25p progressive shooting mode. However, all these camcorders have one thing in common, tiny little sensors, which made achieving narrow depth of field next door to impossible, crippling any attempt at getting artistic shots; until now! Enter Panasonicís all-new AG-AF101 film-like HD camcorder.
Panasonicís AG-AF101 is revolutionary, is the first ever portable HD camcorder in the world to feature a large film-size sensor, so for the first time in digital history filmmakers, video producers and lighting cameraman alike can now achieve a shallow depth of field, throwing that background out of focus.
But what about the Canon EOS 5D MK2 DSLR? I hear you shout. As Samuel L Jackson said in the movie Pulp Fiction ďwell, allow me to retort!Ē Please read the following three paragraphs.
WHY DSLR's ARE NO GOOD FOR HD VIDEO:
Many of you will know that I am one of the few people in the world of video who has not had anything good to say about the so-called Digital SLR revolution for HD video. Iíve used and tried some of them, including Canonís EOS 5D MK2 and for video, it is next door to useless. It would appear that the world jumped on the 5D MK2 for video for one reason and one reason only; shallow depth-of-field; thatís it.
Although not strictly a digital video format, digital SLRs have made serious in-roads into the world of video since the launch of the EOS 5D MK2 in 2008. However, there are no DSLRs currently on the market that can produce the quality of video that could be considered for any serious applications. Due to the 'line-skipping' down-converting methods of cameras like Canon's EOS 5D MK2 where the method of downscaling to get a HD video picture size of 1920x1080 is achieved by simply deleting (skipping) lines on the large sensor. This, and other limitations such as a lack of decent low-pass video filtering, means that DSLRs like the 5D MK2 suffer from chronic aliasing, compression artifacts, bayer-type patterning, stepping and other retarded picture degrading phenomena. However, for soft rounded objects such as people's faces, with hard backgrounds thrown way out-of-focus by use of narrow depth-of-field, and little (or preferably no) movement in the picture, it is possible to achieve some interestingly artsy results. Hopefully, in the future, DSLR manufacturers will strive to fix the serious gremlins that the current first crop of DSLRs are riddled with. But even if they do, we will still be stuck with a tiny impossible to use form-factor digital SLR that is designed to be gripped in the palm of ones hand to enable taking of stills pictures, as for video work; forget it, even if you spend thousands of pounds more on clumsy rail systems and ridiculous add-ons and other expensive, unrealistic and unusual paraphernalia, DSLRs are simply useless for serious HD video work.
The world has gone shallow depth-of-field mad, everyone wants to throw that background right out of focus, in fact, people want to throw it so far out of focus that it positively knocks it back in time a few hundred years to a time before that background was even there. We all know that throwing the background out of focus will make the main subject stand out, there is more definition between subject and background. Using a shallow depth-of-field can also yield some very artsy shots. But more importantly, controlling the depth-of-field allows you to work cinematically by directing the viewerís eye with clever use of depth-of-field. A camcorder with a large sensor also makes pull-focus shots more obvious and easier to achieve. We have wanted a camcorder that can do this for 20 years or so, but because there is no such camcorder (unless you can afford to hire a Panavision 35mm film camera), we have been forced to use camcorders with tiny sensors, or more recently and worse still, DSLRS; until now that is!
ENTER THE PANASONIC AG-AF101:
Enter Panasonicís all-new AG-AF101 film-like digital camcorder. The AG-AF101 is a serious digital SLR killer. It is a PROPER HD camcorder. The big deal (and this is a very big deal) is that the AG-AF101 uses a full size 35mm MOS sensor, well almost 35mm size. It is in fact a 4/3Ē sensor, which is virtually the same size as a 35mm Hollywood film camera. Unlike Digital SLRs, Panasonic have put all the right technology into the AG-AF101camcorder to utilize this large sensor and the amazing shallow depth-of-field that can be achieved from it by using correct optical low-pass video filtering and proper downscaling technology, eliminating any aliasing and other nasty gremlins that DSLRs are riddled with.
The result, a proper HD video camcorder that works like a proper video camcorder with all the usual camcorder features like white-balance, zebra stripes, cine-gamma settings, time code recording, balanced XLR inputs with Phantom Power, 48-kHz/16-bit two-channel audio recording, HD-SDI out, HDMI out, headphone out for monitoring your audio, a Built in optical ND (natural density) filter wheel with 2, 4 and 6 stop so you donít have to mess around dropping ND filters into a matte box anymore. You can shoot in bright conditions and use these ND filters to get the lens open for depth of field control with no need to change the shutter speed. You also have all the other usual video socketry and features, but on top of all that, you can achieve very shallow depth-of-field because of the large sensor. If you havenít figured it out yet, the Panasonic AG-AF101 takes interchangeable lenses, in fact just about any interchangeable lens. Simply buy the adaptor you require and stick on your Canon EOS EF-S series lens, your Nikon AIS lens, your Olympus lens, your PL-mount lens, 35mm prime lenses; pretty much anything you like. Then go on out there and shoot proper HD video with none of the digital SLR gremlins or form-factor issues, but with all of the depth-of-field control you require, be it shallow or deep. Thatís right, remember you donít always have to open up that aperture to F1.4 to get a shallow depth-of-field of just a few inches. Sometimes (just like in Hollywood movies) the shot might require a deeper depth-of-field with much more of a shot in focus. You can still shoot regular video with a reasonable amount of depth-of-field by shooting at F8 or F16 for example; you donít always want or need to throw everything out of focus, but at least we now have the choice; for the first time in the history of digital HD camcorders.
The nice people at Panasonic UK were kind enough to send me one of two preproduction prototypes of the all-new AG-AF101 HD camcorder. Iíve spent four solid days shooting with this camera and seeing what it is capable of.
To say Iím impressed by the AG-AF101 would be a gross understatement; the AG-AF101 is quite simply one of the best HD camcorders Iíve seen in many years. Everything this camcorder stands for is incredible; it is totally revolutionary, the large sensor, the HD viewfinder and LCD screen, uncompressed audio recording, interchangeable lenses, solid-state recording to low-cost SD/HC and SD/XC media, over-crank and under-crank at full 1920x1080p up to 60 fps, time-lapse, the list is endless; and all for £4,295 plus vat; it is expected that the AG-AF101 will ship with a budget lens, this remains to be seen. What is there not to like; this camcorder is totally freaking awesome. Oh, and the picture quality, well that certainly has the Ďwowí factor too!
OPENING THE BOXES:
I eagerly unpacked the two boxes that arrived from Panasonic UK. One contained the AG-AF101 camcorder itself, while the other contained two lenses, an Olympus lens and a Panasonic lens, a lens adapter, batteries, charger, and various leads etc. My first impressions of the camcorder body itself were very good, it felt tough enough and all the switches, dials and controls are logically laid out, easy to get to and chunky enough to be able to operate while wearing gloves. I instantly fell in love with the oversized handle on top and the chunky handgrip to the side; both of which are removable via two large screws, allowing you to strip the camera down to a small body size. Once the two handles have been removed they reveal hot shoes underneath, which not only aid in holding the handle and side grip in place, but you can also add accessories to them.
The HD viewfinder is also reassuringly large and chunky, making for easier viewing. To the side of the viewfinder at the top are the two balanced audio XLR inputs with LINE/MIC select switches. The only other functions on the right side of the camcorder is a START/STOP record button and a USER-3 button. On the other side of the viewfinder youíll find the MENU button, another START/STOP record button, controls for AUDIO volume monitoring and playback controls for when you want to preview the thumbnail video clips.
On the other side of the camcorder is a fold-out HD LCD screen, again, with a reassuringly solid feel to it. Located behind the LCD screen and buttons for: BARS, ZEBRA, OIS (optical image stabilizer), EVF DTL (electronic viewfinder detail), WFM (waveform monitor), COUNTER, TC SET, and audio controls for CH1 SEL, CH2 SEL, INPUT 1 and INPUT 2. Below the LCD screen youíll find the usual controls for PUSH AUTO-FOCUS, a FUNCTION mini joystick, USER 1, DISP/MODE CHECK, POWER ON/OFF, CAMERA/MEDIA MODE, IRIS with a dial wheel, GAIN, WHITE BALANCE, USER 2, AUDIO CH1 and CH2 level wheels.
Around the back of the camera is where the removable battery is housed, just above this youíll find two slots for SD/HC or SD/XC solid-state cards with a neat cover. To the left of the battery is a SLOT SELECT button, a DIAL SELECT button and a SHUTR/F.RATE dial allowing you to change the frame-rate, shutter speed for over/undercrank right on the camera without having to dig around in the menus; nice one Panasonic. To the right side of the battery are inputs/outputs for AV OUT, USB 2.0, HDMI, INDEX, CAMERA REMOTE, HEADPHONES, HD/SDI.
On the front of the camera just below the lens you will find a button for setting the white balance, and just above this there is a button for releasing the lens, and above this an ND filter wheel with four strengths.
Just above the ND wheel on top of the camera is a very ingenious feature indeed; independent filmmakers who employ a focus puller will love this. At first glance it looks like a metal hook to attach a camcorder strap, but no, it is in fact a hook for focus pullers to attach their tape measures to; this is further indicated by the small Ďsensor is hereí icon next to it.
In the second box there were two lenses, one Olympus F2.8 zoom lens with an adaptor and one Panasonic Lumix zoom lens, which needed no adaptor as the AG-AF101 has the same 4/3rd micro lens mount. So with battery charged, camcorder and two lenses in hand, and obligatory tripod, it was time to go out and put the AG-AF101 to the test.
Using the AG-AF101 was an absolute pleasure. Although I spent four days shooting in various locations with this camera, I instantly felt at one with it. Although the camera is brand-new and it was the first time I picked one up, it somehow felt familiar; kind of like a long lost brother. All the knobs, levers, and dials are all logically laid out, easily identified with commonly used video terms in bald white lettering next to the dials. They were also surprisingly chunky with all the switches having a reassuring and positive feel to them; up to a point they can even be operated with gloves on. Handholding the camera using the side grip is somewhat tiresome due to the physical dimensions and weight; though this is no more awkward than other similar size/weight camcorders from other makers. However, with heavier and longer lenses it would become very front-heavy. For lower shots, holding the camera by the top handle is much easier, with a nice balance and feel to it. However, I would imagine this camera would spend most of its time mounted on a tripod. Balancing the camera on the Vinton Vision Blue tripod required the tripod plate to be mounted towards the front of the camera, with the camera then set quite far back in the tripod head; this was due to the heavy glass lens I had mounted on the front, but perfect balance was still easily achievable.
The foldout LCD screen is a relatively standard affair, giving good visibility outdoors in bright light. The 3.45-inch LCD screen has very good definition with vibrant colours making it easy for setting white balance and other basic colour adjustments. The foldout HD LCD screen also displays a very cool waveform monitor for exposure tools with the usual two levels of zebras, coloured peaking focus assist with red/blue outline, and if that isnít enough, there is also a spot meter, and a vector-scope. This makes achieving perfect focus and exposure a breeze. The waveform and vectorscopes are absolutely fantastic, this makes judging exposure so much easier; and it still has zebras too. The 1,1cm (0,45") viewfinder was not that great, but it is still in the pre-production stage and it will be considerably improved by the time it is released in December; it will certainly come in useful for those days when the sun is just too bright to clearly view the LCD screen.
The AG-AF101 has a whole string of very cool tricks up its sleeve, many of which have never been seen before on a digital HD camcorder. One such feature is the automatic focus tracking. The AG-AF101 can automatically track somebodyís face and constantly adjust the focus on them as that person moves around the scene or moves towards the camera. This is achieved by setting the camera to recognize the subjects face using the small joystick on the side of the camera (or should I say thumb-pad-stick as it is quite small), then shifting the small spot meter box on the LCD screen and positioning it over the subjectís face; one set, simply hit the record button and step back in amazement as the camera tracks focus on the personís face as they walked towards the camera. Of course it goes without saying that you have to have an autofocus lens for this feature to work. I never got to test the Facial tracking system as that is part of the 25% that is missing, so too is white balance so I was stuck with auto-white-trace.
While Iím on the subject of focus, focus pullers or DoPs who hire them will totally love the AG-AF101 for many reasons, but one such reason is the nifty little hook that Panasonic have positioned on top of the camera for focus-pullers to attach their tape measures to; this focus-pullers hook has a Ďsensor hereí icon next to it, confirming this is what it is for.
Independent filmmakers will also love the fact that this camera has under-crank and over-crank, and unlike pretty much every other camcorder out there, the AG-AF101 does over-crank (slow-motion) in full 1920x1080p from 12fps up to 60fps in NTSC or 50fps in PAL, with most other camcorders out there the resolution drops to 720p. From what I can gather this is a first! I could record 1080p 25p at 50FPS or 60FPS in 24p mode! Wonderful, no more limited to 720p mode here!
The AG-AF101 also has a time-lapse function, however it can only record single frames at preset intervals as opposed to multiple frames. For me personally this doesnít create a problem, as when I shoot time-lapse I only ever record single frames at preset intervals anyway as Iíve never found a use for recording several frames together at predefined intervals.
I particularly like the SHUTTER/FRAME-RATE wheel on the back of the camera, this allows you to change your shutter speed and frame rate, and other functions, right there on the camera using the dial and the DIAL SELECT button, as opposed to having to dig around in the menus.
If thatís not enough, the AG-AF101 also has a pre-record cache function of 3-seconds. This means that when this function is turned on, the camera is always recording a 3-second loop, then when you press the record button (either by hand or using the included remote control) the AF101 will put the 3-seconds preceding the moment you pressed the record button at the head of the clip that is being recorded post pressing the record button; how cool is that!
Overall, I found using the Panasonic AG-AF101 very easy, I felt at home with this camera straight away. Is comfortable in the hand, especially using the large handle on top, and all the buttons, knobs, and dials are logically laid out and feel good to the touch. All the various inputs and outputs on the back of the camera are easily accessible and clearly marked.
The Natural Density filter wheel on the front of the camera is a necessity considering the large sensor and interchangeable lenses. That ND filter wheel is a big help when it comes to controlling depth-of-field i.e. if you want a shallow depth-of-field with a wide aperture, you can prevent overexposure by dialing in one of the four ND filters on the wheel.
The menus are logically written and it is easy to navigate around them to find the various options and settings. There is a multitude of settings for adjusting picture parameters, including Panasonicís famous Cine-like gamma curves. In the menu is where you assign various functions to the assign buttons on the camcorder body. Setting the recording quality, format and all the usual zebra, pre-set white balance and the many other options are self-explanatory. But there is another really cool menu option that digital filmmakers from a celluloid background will absolutely love. In the menu you can switch from VIDEO CAM mode to FILM CAM mode. In VIDEO CAM mode your gain is viewed in the usual db i.e. 16db gain, and shutter speeds are laid out in the usual 1/50th for example. But switch over into FILM CAM mode and the entire menu system turns to film, so your shutter speed is now displayed in degrees and your gain is now displayed in ISO i.e. 200 ISO for example; how cool is that. Another advantage of this is in FILM CAM mode you an set the shutter to 180 degrees, which will give you perfect film motion, and even if you change the frame rate, the shutter remains at 180 degrees regardless; nice!
The AG-AF101 has a beautiful large 4/3rd MOS sensor that is virtually the same size as a 35mm film camera; this should mean the picture quality produced by it should be absolutely breathtaking, however, weíve all seen the images produced by the Canon EOS 5D MK2 complete with aliasing, artifacts, and other gremlins due to its nasty line skipping and other hideous attempts at downscaling to a 1920x1080 HD image. But the Panasonic does no such thing, instead the AG-AF101 implements the correct optical low-pass video filtering that eliminates alienating, as well as proper built-in software implementation and other hardware electronics; all of which add up to a superb 1920x1080 HD image that is free of aliasing, artifacts and other gremlins.
During the four days I had the AG-AF101, I shot numerous objects including buildings, swarms on a pond, landscapes and foliage, cars, and various mid-shots and close-up shots of general objects indoors; All of which I shot both locked-off on a tripod, as well as moving shots with a combination of pans and tilts. I also filmed the obligatory Chroma Du Monde CamAlign res-chart. Although Panasonic UK made it clear to me that the camera I had was in fact a preproduction unit and it was not 100% complete i.e. there are still a few tweaks to be made. I told Panasonic UK that I would not publish my technical findings from the Chroma Du Monde CamAlign res-chart. However, the results are so good Iím going to share them with you now.
For reference, Panasonicís own HMC151 produces 600 lines resolution with moderate signs of aliasing. Sonyís EX1 produces 800 lines with breakup showing in the 1000 lines area with very little visible aliasing. Sonyís NX5 produces 800 lines with breakup showing in the 1000 lines area with obvious signs of aliasing. Panasonicís 301 produces 600 lines with breakup showing in the 800 lines area with no visible signs of aliasing. JVCís 700 produces 600 lines with breakup showing in the 800 lines area with obvious signs of aliasing. Canonís EOS 5D MK2 DSLR produces a very retarded 600 and 800 line area, with a nightmare of rainbow moirť at 800 lines with so much aliasing it is difficult to even see that there is a resolution chart there at all; it is hideous. Now for the good bit. Panasonicís all-new AG-AF101 film-like HD camcorder with itís 4/3rd MOS sensor produced 680 lines of resolution with a little breakup in the 1000 line area with only a small amount of aliasing and absolutely zero rainbow moirť effects. Considering this is a pre-production prototype that is still being worked on, this is quite incredible for a HD camcorder of this price range with such a large sensor. If Panasonic are still tweaking and working on the AG-AF101 I canít wait to see the improvements as Iím totally blown away with these results as the camcorder stands in itís current state. It is also worth noting that these results varied considerably depending on whether I had the Panasonic Lumix zoom, or the Olympus zoom, and at which aperture and focal range; neither of these lenses are what I would call high quality. I'm confident that better quality prime lenses will resolve closer to 1000 lines of resolution and improve other areas also.
In the real world, all the footage I shot indoors and outdoors looked very vibrant with punchy colours, yet very smooth and film-like images with beautiful tonal ranges with a huge dynamic range of about 10 stops.
Itís possible to totally customize the picture with Panasonicís famous Cine-like gamma curves. There are various pre-sets that you can chose, and once chosen, you can dig into the menu and tweak and customize them even further as you see fit.
For those interested in the AG-AF101's low-light capabilities, I shot some stuff with the ISO (gain) cranked right up to 3200. The ISO ranges from 200 to 3200. Footage shot at 3200 ISO looked incredible with hardly any noise at all. Panasonic UK told me that the 3200 setting was in fact 2000 as it is a pre-production unit; 3200 will be working on the final product. When in FILM CAM mode, the gain switch on the camera switches to have LOW GAIN ISO200, MID GAIN ISO800 and HIGH GAIN ISO3200. This would be 0db, 8db, 32db of gain in VIDEO CAM mode; these settings can be customised to different ISO/db values.
Another thing worth noting is that the AG-AF101 has a 'black & white' shooting mode. If you shoot in this mode the picture quality is increased as all that data that is been saved from the colour channels is pushed into the black & white. The codec doesn't have to work or be so aggressive as there is no colour for it to churn through. So if you are shooting an artsy black & white movie, or intend to do some post-production sepia toning work, shoot in the AG-AF101's black & white mode to get even better picture quality.
The AG-AF101 just gets better and better. Instead of using the nasty 348Mbps compressed-to-hell audio codec that HDV uses, the AG-AF101 uses uncompressed linear PCM 16-bit audio, which is the same quality as DAT (digital audio tape) and CD. Independent filmmakers will love this as there sound recordists can now go straight into the camera via their monitoring mixer, instead of to a separate DAT machine, which leads to tiresome syncing up issues in post-production. Being something of an audiophile myself, I put audio quality higher than the video images, so the AG-AF101 with itís uncompressed audio gets a massive thumbs up from me. The great thing about the Linear PCM uncompressed 16-bit audio is that it does not interfere with the quality of the video when it is set to AVCHD 24Mbps variable maximum data-rate. The PCM audio has it's own track, thus it is separate to the video.
The AG-AF101 has all the inputs and outputs you are ever likely to need on a camcorder like this. Apart from the usual A/V in/outs, twin balanced XLR inputs, headphone input, lanc remote input, USB 2 socket, the AG-AF101 has two other outputs that will get you very excited. One of which is a HDMI output, this is superb as it means you can pop out and buy a low-cost HDMI monitor (or TV) of any size you want (personally a nice 18-inch is good) and use it for monitoring. No longer to you have to spend a £995 on a tiny little 7-inch Marshall or Teletest. Instead, think big, and spend £150 on a 18-inch LCD HDMI TV from Argos. Your Director can now view your production from the touchline on a big monitor. Or you could even buy an 8-inch or so and mount it on the handle of the AG-AF101 and use the camera TV pedestal style.
The next big deal is the HD/SDI BNC-socket output. If you are one of those cameramen/women who are constantly Ďpixel-peepingí screen grabs from your footage in Photoshop and wondering how you can improve the image quality slightly over the standard AVCHD codec, well now you can. Simply attach an external recording device like the NanoFlash (£2,700) and plug it into the HD/SDI output on the AG-AF101 and record at a superior 50 or 100Mbps codec in 4:2:2 colour space. Or use Panasonicís own AG-HPG20 and record AVC-Intra. For your information, you can record out of the HD-SDI, HDMI digital outputs simultaneously. The SDI outputs 1080/60i, 1080/50i, 1080/30p, 1080//24p, 1080/25p, 720/60p, 720/50p and even 1080/24pSF (Segmented Frame).
Although the HD/SDI only outputs 8-bit, who cares. You can only see the difference between 8-bit and 10-bit if you put your production through several (3 or more) Ďdigital washesí i.e. transcode into a different codec during import, then transcode again, then again before authoring to DVD. Most of us will simply import and keep the same codec from camcorder-to-computer, then the only digital wash we will do is when we down-convert to standard-definition and MPEG for DVD; thatís it. So 8-bit is just fine for me thank you. If you are a very serious filmmaker you might want to invest in a NanoFlash as it will improve the image over the standard AVCHD codec used when recording to SD/HC cards in-camera. Most people wontí see much difference between the AG-AF101ís built in superb AVCHD codec when compared to recording to a better codec via an add-on recorder, especially if you only do 1 digital washes with minimal post-production grading. AVCHD falls down when it comes to colour grading and pushing and pulling the picture all over the place. For me, good quality glass on the front and good lighting and camerawork are much more important than trying to faff around fine tuning a mediocre picture shot under mediocre lighting conditions by a mediocre cameraman; and itís usually these guys who spend all day pixel-peeping; professionals donít concern themselves too much.
THE SENSOR (ITíS BIG):
The sensor in the Panasonic AG-AF101 is a very big deal; in fact the sensor is what this camcorder is all about. There is a massive 4/3rd inch MOS sensor inside the AG-AF101, and it is this massive sensor that will allow you to control your depth-of-field like never before. Itís four times bigger than a 2/3rd inch sensor. Independent low-budget filmmakers will know what Iím talking about here. In the past filmmakers have had to suffer the tiny little 1/4th, 1/3rd, Ĺ and 2/3rd imagers of yesterdays camcorders such as High-8, Mini-DV, DVCAM, HDV and the like. Achieving depth-of-field can be done with a little thought on the larger 2/3rd inch cameras, such as DigiBeta, but it was next door to impossible to achieve a shallow depth-of-field with Mini-DV and HDV, with the latter pretty much everything from 3 metres to infinity was sharper than Johnny Depp; well, maybe not quite that sharp, but sharp. A few years ago Canon started the shallow depth-of-field revolution with their infamous EOS 5D MK2 digital SLR. This essentially a stills camera, had a last minute thought HD video recording capability, which means with that massive 35mm sensor, video makers could achieve a shallow depth-of-field if they liked; and they liked. But, the image quality was/is absolutely hideous, full of aliasing, artefacts and other retarded gremlins due to the line-skipping technology (and a bloody crude technology it is too) and lack of optical video low-pass filtering. Did I mention the unusable Ďform factorí of DSLRs yet? Hmmm. Hardly shoulder-mount camcorders are they. But now, thanks to Panasonicís amazing AG-AF101 HD ĎCAMCORDER!!!í the days of DSLRs are well and truly over as the AG-AF101 is not riddled with those DSLR gremlins. The AG-AF101 has proper optical low-pass video filtering and decent down-conversion software and electronics, all of which do the massive 4/3rd inch sensor total and beautifully glorious HD video justice. But donít worry, if you where one of those who bought a Canon EOS 5D MK2, you can still use it as it does take a lovely stills photograph.
From the footage I shot I found the Panasonic MOS sensor (CMOS technology basically, as apposed to CCD) performed incredibly with no visible artefacts, rainbow moirť or stepping. The images where very clean and film-like in quality. On pans, both gentle and vigorous there was minimal Ďjelly wobbleí off the MOS sensor, nothing worth mentioning anyway and no worse than anything produced by Sony with CMOS sensors. Unfortunately any MOS/CMOS sensor suffers from jelly-wobble; it is just a case of how much or how little. This baby inside the AG-AF101 is as minimal as I have seen and about as good as you will get. I donít hear people complaining about Sonyís superb EX1R and EX3 so I donít expect anyone to complain in the Panasonic Pub either. Iím not sure what the heat situation is from this MOS sensor, but the AG-AF101 is so quiet I donít even know if it has a fan inside; I couldnít hear anything anyway. Either way, the technology inside the AG-AF101 is incredibly innovative and state-of-the-art. This large 4/3rd MOS sensor is what gives us this new depth-of-field control and a field of view reminiscent to that of a 35mm film camera like those used to shoot Hollywood movies i.e. Panavision.
Some people think that the 4/3rd imager in the AG-AF101 is exactly the same imager as the one in Panasonic's stills camera the GH1, fact is, it is not; it is a bran new sensor. Although the AG-AF101 uses a CMOS sensor (MOS), there is no 'skew' (jelly wobble effect/rolling shutter) as it scans the chip incredibly fast. I tried really hard to get the AG-AF101 to skew with various pans, both fast and slow and I found it virtually impossible to get it to skew. Although there is still flash-banding (all CMOS sensors suffer from this no matter who makes them), as usual, it can be fixed in post. But if you are a filmmaker, you will be in control of that anyway so it doesn't really matter; simply donít allow anyone to fire off a flash-gun on set. Wedding guys will have to fix those frames in post, no big deal.
Just to visually clarify any confusion over the size of the AG-AF101's sensor and that of a 35mm movie frame, or stills photographic sensor, see the three diagrams below.
If you donít know by now, the Panasonic AG-AF101 has a 4/3rd Bayonet Micro Mount for interchangeable lenses. This is a digital photographic stills camera standard lens mount established by Panasonic and Olympus. This 4/3rd mount is the same one found on digital SLR stills cameras such as Panasonicís own Lumix models. This means that you can attach virtually any lens to the AG-AF101 you like. Chose from any of Panasonicís Lumix 4/3rd mount lenses; they just bayonet right on. Or if you have a stack of Nikon AIS or Canon FD lenses from the 1980s, just buy an adaptor (literally a mechanical adaptor with no optics so no loss in quality) and use those. Or any modern digital SLR auto-focus lens from Nikon, Leica, Olympus, Pentax or Canon and buy the appropriate adapter and away you go. Canon EOS users with a bunch of EOS EF-S lenses will be happy as you can buy an adaptor that retains all electronics from the lens, the aperture is controlled using the scroll wheel just to the bottom/front of the AG-AF101ís body, and get this, the focal length and aperture appear on the AG-AF101ís fold-out LCD screen and in the viewfinder; how cool is that for knowing where you stand.
35mm filmmakers will be glad to know that you can also fit C-mount Cinema lenses and Professional PL mount lenses and other 35mm primes to the AG-AF101; again, with the use of an optic-free adaptor. So as you can see, the world is your oyster when it comes to lenses and the AG-AF101. Just imagine the possibilities. Sure, independent feature filmmakers will love the depth-of-field control, but so can everybody else. Corporate video producers can simply attach a 1980ís Nikon AIS 105mm F2.8 and film that interview of the CEO at there desk and achieve beautiful portrait-style footage with that background thrown nicely out of focus.
There is no doubt that to take full advantage of the super shallow depth-of-field that the AG-AF101 has to offer, you will have to buy some fast prime lenses or a very fast zoom, as regular zooms along the lines of a 70-210 F4.5 won't give you a shallower depth-of-field over a regular 2/3rd inch sensor camcorder. Something along the lines of a 105mm F2.5 prime or a 50mm F1.4 prime would be much better. The Canon EF-S or Nikon AF 70-210 F2.8 will be great as they are F2.8 throughout the focal range i.e. fast at 70mm and still F2.8 at 210mm also; these latter two lenses cost just under £1,000 each, but remember the crop factor so the focal length will become 140-420mm.
If you use stills photographic lens that have full auto-focus, you will have full auto-focus and auto-iris when using them on the AG-AF101; all auto features are retained as the adaptors and the AG-AF101 have all the recognized electronic contacts.
One issue I found with photographic lenses in auto-aperture mode is that the on-board microphone pics up the mechanical/electronic noise made by the aperture as it opens up and closes down. Unlike professional video lenses, photographic lenses open up and stop down in half-stop or one-stop increments so there is a definitive click between each stop. Because of this you can hear the iris continuously clicking in auto-iris mode. This could be a problem if you are using the built in microphone, or an on-camera microphone. Personally I rarely if ever use auto iris so it would not be an issue for me, or others who work in manual iris mode all the time.
The AG-AF101 also does face detection auto-focus; the camera will track somebodyís face as they walk towards the camera, maintaining and automatically pulling focus at all times.
The 4/3rd sensor size means that 35mm lens are a bit on the telephoto size; with a 2x crop from a full frame 35mm sensor. So a regular 50mm lens will give you a field of view of 100mm. On the other hand if you are a wildlife videographer, that 300mm F2.8 will become a 600mm lens. For regular wide work, simply buy a standard 4/3rd lens like one of Panasonic's Lumix lenses for example.
The Panasonic AG-AF101 is a solid-state HD camcorder, recording to solid-state memory cards. On the back of the camcorder are two card slots for SD/HC or the newer SD/XC cards. SD/HC cards are available in capacities up to 32GB, which currently cost around £50. 16GB cost around £30.
The recording capacity of the AG-AF101 in full 1920x1080 HD resolution at the highest recording quality mode (PH mode) of 24Mbps variable is 90 minutes onto a single 16GB SD/HC card, or 3 hours onto a single 32GB SD/HC card. So you can achieve 6 hours of continuous recording with two 32GB SD/HC cards in the camcorder (they are also hot-swappable).
The latest SD/XC cards are available in 32GB and 64GB, with1TB and 2TB (terabyte) becoming available in the future. A 64GB SD/XC card currently cost around £195 for a Sandisk Ultra, on which you can record 6 hours, thatís 12 hours continuous onto two 64GB SD/XC cards. As for the 2TB cards that will become available; Iíll let you do the math, but I suspect if you have two 2TB (thatís 2000GB in total) SD/XC cards in the AG-AF101 you will be able to lock your camcorder off on a tripod, point it at a suitable subject, then hit the record button and hop on a plane to Bayreuth to enjoy Wagnerís Ring Cycle, fly back and still have time to spare to read Gone With The Wind out of the 94 hours recording time that you would have. For all you wedding videographers, you need never worry about those boring best man speeches running over 60 minutes of tape again.
Here is the low-down on the recording formats that the AG-AF101 supports:
1080/50i, 1080/25p, 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 1080/24p, 720/50p, 720/25p, 720/60p, 720/30p, 720//24p
AVCHD recording options: PH (21 Mbps - Max. 24Mbps), HA (17Mbps), HE (6Mbps), HA, HE only for 1080/60i and 1080/50i
Be aware that you an only shoot one format on any one card. If you switch between say 50 and 59.97 Htz, you will need to use one card for 50 and another card for 59.97.
The Panasonic AG-AF101 is quite simply revolutionary. It is unequivocally and without a doubt the new and first kid on the block with such incredible capabilities at such an incredibly low price. It is the HD camcorder that independent filmmakers, as well as every other video producer and lighting cameraman has been waiting on for 20 odd years or so. At £4,295 plus vat, what is there not to like. The AG-AF101 takes all goodness of DSLRs i.e. depth-of-field and light sensitivity, but gets rid of all the bad stuff such as aliasing, rainbow moirť and other workflow issues, and all encapsulated in a perfectly formed professional video camcorder.
There is nothing like the Panaasonic AG-AF101; it is a brand new concept. Those who have got used to shooting HD video on DSLRs and having to piece together clumsy workarounds, been forced to use a Zacuto Z-finder because DSLRs donít have a viewfinder need not worry anymore as the AG-AF101 has a HD viewfinder built in, as well as a fold-out HD LCD screen. Or if you had to use a separate sound recorder because you could not get good audio from your EOS 5D MK2, worry no more as the AG-AF101 has two built in professional balanced XLR inputs with uncompressed Linear PCM 16-bit audio.
The Panasonic AG-AF101 is the most promising camcorder to arrive in over twenty years. It is very exciting times for cinema shooters and independent filmmakers.
In a nutshell the Panasonic AG-AF101 is a professional HD video camcorder just like many others such as Panasonicís own HPX171 or Sonyís EX1R, but the AG-AF101 now gives us that last missing piece of the jigsaw; total depth-of-field control combined with interchangeable lenses, with that cinematic look that we have all been waiting for.
With the price in mind I simply have to give the AG-AF101 a massive recommendation with 5 out of 5 stars.
©2010 Nigel Cooper