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posted by - Wednesday, 05 January 2011
Topics Panasonic

In this exclusive 3-part online series, indie filmmaker Noah Kadner takes a first look at Panasonic’s revolutionary AF100, the first professional camera to combine the interchangeable lenses of a digital SLR still camera with the ergonomics of a camcorder.

Part 1 – Introduction & Pre-Production

Part 2 – Production

With arrangements set for the loan of an AF100 camera from Panasonic and an assortment of lenses and support gear from Abel Cine Tech, I looked forward to the imminent FedEx truck. The gear arrived on a Friday afternoon, and by then I had at least one and possibly two projects lined up to shoot with the camera. The first project turned out to be shooting a documentary at my day job. I can’t say much about the subject matter or the participants because that would get me in trouble, but I can tell you about the workflow and my camera handling experiences.

One thing you’ll notice right off the bat with the AF100 is that it’s one of the most versatile camera bodies in the professional world. If you’re used to fixed lens camcorders you know what I’m talking about – everything is one piece and you attach additional accessories to what comes from the factory. But with the AF100, you start with a camera body free of a lens and even that can be further disassembled, with the top mounted carrying handle and right-hand grip removable with hex screws. You can strip this camera down to a tiny little box, ready to mount into existing film-style matteboxes, remote heads, motion control systems, you name it.

I started out simply and mounted up my favorite focal length – a 50mm T2.0 Zeiss Compact Prime lens. This happened to be a prototype Abel had scored from Zeiss with a new, native micro 4/3 lens mount, meaning I could attach it directly to the AF100 without needing any adapters. I also had some Olympus Micro 4/3 zooms and Zeiss ZF.2s with Nikon F-Mounts along with a Novoflex adapter. I noticed no issues in terms of light loss or optical quality with the adapter. These adapters are also available in Canon FD mount, PL mount and others. The only real drawback they bring is one more (small) piece of gear to keep track of. But if you sit back for a moment and contemplate the vast array of still and motion picture lens choices the adapters open up for this camera, you quickly begin to appreciate the true optical ‘Swiss Army knife’ potential of the AF100.

If you’re the type of shooter who likes to work with auto-focus and auto-aperture active at all times, the AF100 is definitely not the camera for you. However, if you’re that kind of shooter, you probably wouldn’t have read this far anyway. I found it a total pleasure working fully manual with the Zeiss Compact Primes CP.2s. I was quickly taken back to my film school days shooting with ARRI SR2 16mm cameras, where you had to set focus and aperture using nice, clear mechanical markings along the side of your lens. With the AF100, I constantly had one hand on the grip holding the camera and the other on the barrel of the lens. One finger rode focus and the other aperture as I operated the camera handheld for hours on end. What a pleasure.

Another nice aspect compared to a DSLR camera, in terms of handling, was that the AF100 actually gives you enough feedback with its onboard monitor to make accurate manual focus and exposure possible and easy. The onboard flip-out monitor is high definition and a lot sharper and brighter than any other I’ve seen in its size. I set up my zebras at 70 and 100 percent, which enabled me to always know exactly where I was exposure-wise. You won’t need an external monitor or bolt-on viewfinder to get good shots with this camera, on the other hand those are pretty much a necessity on DSLR cameras. With fast lenses like the Compact Primes and the AF100‘s very nice 4-stage built-in mechanical ND filter wheel (and fairly low-noise gain), you can shoot in just about any lighting level at whatever stop you desire. In other words, you can use the camera as a creative tool to get the exact shot you want rather than having to settle on less than optimal images due to your camera’s limitations.

The AF100 gives you a built-in focus assist mode, which marks sharp focus with a red outline that doesn’t get recorded. That makes it very simple to find your own focus manually (and you’ll get really good at it with a little practice). Since I was riding focus and aperture with my own fingers using a mechanical grip and clear lens markings, my focus pulls and aperture changes were smooth and natural in the sort of way I could never achieve with auto-focus and auto-exposure.

Focus assist is assigned by default to one of three user assignable buttons on the camera. This gives you a lot of added flexibility to set up the camera to your own personal style of working. All your settings can be saved to the SD card for sharing with other users or achieving parity among a group of cameras, as needed for more complex projects. One of the really nice things you can do with the camera in the Pre-Set White Balance mode is to set it to VAR(variable), and then, using the Function joy stick, toggle through the white balance range incrementally 100 degrees at a time, from 2400 up to 9900K.

I didn’t notice much in the way of moire, anti-aliasing or rolling shutter skew, especially compared to most DSLR cameras I’ve shot video with. I’m not prepared to say they aren’t there at all on the AF100, because I didn’t shoot with it long enough to answer definitively. But they were greatly minimized coming from the other end of the spectrum, and that’s a truly welcome development.

Panasonic has had many years to perfect numerous other helpful tapeless camera features, and they’re not shy about filtering them down from their higher end models. In addition to the variety of frame rates, you also get useful features like interval recording and continuous buffering. Say you’re waiting for a specific action to occur (like a one-time stunt or an interviewee to emerge from a courthouse) but you’re not sure when it will happen. You can just set the camera to continuously buffer the image indefinitely and then trigger recording after the event has already begun. The camera will start recording what was in the buffer up to three seconds before the push of the record button. The intuitive playback mode of the camera is also a nicely refined version of the indexing system that will be familiar to users of the HVX200/170 and HMC150/40 classes of Panasonic cameras. Another nice feature is the ability to see gain expressed as video style dB or as film style ISO, a small touch but a totally appreciated way to appease folks coming from either video or film backgrounds. This difference between Video Mode or Film Mode also gives you Fractions or Shutter Degrees when choosing shutter speeds. However, only in Film Mode can you can address Variable Frame Rates.

The onboard battery easily lasted two plus hours of continuous shooting, and I also had the ability to shoot up to 12 hours of the highest quality recording time with the maximum of two 64 GB SDXC memory cards loaded. That’s just stellar for a documentary (and pretty much any other) workflow. Instead of worrying about running out of recording space or battery power, you’re just enjoying the pure pleasure of shooting. The camera starts to feel like a logical extension of your eye, and I haven’t had this much fun operating a camera in years. You can’t get closer to the experience of shooting with a film camera for anywhere near the price of the AF100.

In addition to the Compact Primes, I also tried the Zeiss ZF.2 primes. These are not as mechanically optimized to working with remote follow focus gears, but their optical quality is quite good and you get amazing bang for your buck in terms of image sharpness and cinematic depth of field. The Olympus Micro 4/3 zooms were easier to work with, as some of them had image stabilization as well as autofocus capabilities, but the trade-offs were less shallow depth of field and image sharpness that wasn’t quite as crisp as the primes. As an aside, an interchangeable lens camera like the AF100 lets you make long-term investments in optics that you can reuse on other cameras as the technology continues to evolve.

I used a 13” MacBook Air, which just happens to have an SD card slot, as my field downloading station. With a USB hard drive attached, the ability to manage cards, view dailies and even edit with Final Cut Pro was simply awesome, and I got all this in a very compact package. This is what I’ve been waiting for since the whole digital revolution started so long ago. Finally, with one carry-on camera case and one backpack, I can shoot footage that will get past the quality control gatekeepers and in front of the eyes that want to see my story, without any distracting camera-induced artifacts.

In addition to the documentary project, I also used the AF100 to shoot my son’s school play. Again the camera was a pleasure to work with, even as the other parents shooting video with their iPhones and Androids gave me some funny looks. Additionally, I drove around the Bay Area a bit in the rain and shot out of my car. You can check out a gallery of stills below. While all of the week’s projects were shot off-the-cuff and represented real-world experiences, I look forward to shooting with the AF100 in a more high-end production mode to see what it’s capable of given more time for professional-level lighting.

With production in the can, we were ready to move onto post.

Coming Up Next – Part 3: Working with the AF100 in Post-Production.

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