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As many of you know, I tend to not promote specific pieces of gear. Most of the things in the toolbox have a purpose and come with their own set of advantages and liabilities. That goes for microphones, tripods, cameras and anything else. No matter how much you spend on something, it is rarely the "perfect" piece of gear for every situation, budget and production.
I also can't stress enough that the type of gear you use is not nearly is important as how you use it.
The "this or that" debate comes up a lot with cameras. As someone who has worked on productions using everything from a RED with lenses that cost more than my first house, to a lowly Canon ZR-20, I stick to the philosophy that different tools have different applications.
With that in mind I just want to share a little about my brief experience with the new Panasonic AG-AF100 micro 4/3 interchangeable lens camera. The camera's sensor is slightly smaller than 35mm motion picture film stock, with full raster 1080p imaging. That makes it about 2.5 times bigger than 16mm film and about 5 times larger than a 1/3" imaging camera like the HVX. That's important because a larger sensor has the potential to give you a shallower depth of field- the very thing that began the trend towards using DSLR's for video.
First of all it's a Panasonic. That means that the camera is going to give you a certain "look" that Panasonic has built into their cameras for years. It's a look I like. Not everyone does. There are lots of ways to adjust the look of the image in camera, but if that Panasonic image appeals to you, you get it right out of the box.
Aside from the larger sensor, there is one major difference between this and nearly any other camera that I am aware of in this price range. It is an interchangeable lens body. That gives you nearly limitless choices over your glass. For someone like me who has primarily shot on fixed lens cameras, that can be a little intimidating. But after a couple of weeks of playing with it, first using the Panasonic Lumix lens, which behaves close to how you would expect a fixed lens camera would regarding things like focus and exposure, and more recently with some manual Canon FD lenses borrowed from my good friend Ken Hendricks, it's been simpler than I thought.
The Lumix has limitations, especially around its maximum aperture, which is 4.0. But I did a light sensitivity test, comparing it to the original HVX, and they are pretty close. So if you are used to something like the HVX, and need something that can behave close to a fixed-lens camera, it's a good choice.
The FD lenses require an adapter to mount. (and it should be pointed out that there are a variety of adapters available to put nearly any type of lens on this camera). I decided to hedge my bets and get something I knew I could count on, so I went with the Novatron which cost about 200 bucks. Once I got that squared away, and I overcome my paranoia about the actual act of changing lenses (thanks Ken), I started seeing why this camera was going to be a big deal. This is not designed to be a comprehensive technical review. I just think it's relevant to point out that this combination of sensor size and lens capability will give many indie filmmakers the ability to get a cinematic look (including control over their DOF), without the low-light compromises of 35mm adapters adapters, or the form factor, audio, moire and overheating compromises of DSLRs. Putting a 50mm f/1.4 lens on the AF100 gives you the exact look that most of us have been looking for. This camera delivers you that package at a price that is very reasonable considering the features.
There has been some grumbling about the codec, which is AVCCAM as opposed to the hoped for DVCRO HD, but this incarnation of that codec seems to be more robust than previous ones. I haven't done any serious grading with it, but I have long been a fan of "Light it right and do less in post" anyway. At any rate, people with more experience than i in post production have been pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up.
The other issue for some is that the AF100 uses a CMOS sensor instead of a CCD. That's not a bad thing, and high-end cameras like the RED and the Arri Alexa also use them. But if you are used to a camera that uses CCDs, you need to be aware of some of the wobble, skew and banding issue that can arise under certain conditions.
In the end, a camera is just a tool. If you have a lousy script, bad acting, or don't know how to light a scene, it doesn't really matter what camera you use. But if you are looking for a reasonably priced camera that can give you all of the elements that you need to create something that looks like a "real movie" and has all of the capabilities of a true video camera, like 2 channels of audio, ND filters, plus a waveform monitor and verctorscope, this isn't just a good choice. It's really the only choice...at least for now.
For what it's worth there have been two films I have worked on recently where I wish we had this camera. One used an HVX with a 35mm adapter, where getting enough light became a major issue. The other used an HVX with no adapter, where the DOF is so deep that it looks more like TV sitcom than a movie. Both would have benefitted from this piece of gear. I have a feeling I'm going to be using this one for a while.
If any of you have questions, or have used this camera, feel free to post your thoughts.