“Find a niche and fill it,” the old saying goes, “and you will succeed.” Panasonic’s professional/industrial division had something like this in mind when it released the Panasonic AG-DVX100 digital camcorder about a year ago. The niche: a growing number of low-budget filmmakers–yes, that’s right, film, not video–using digital video equipment to shoot and edit their works. Panasonic, along with a handful of other manufacturers, saw this opportunity and created a camera around the needs and wishes of low-budget digital filmmakers. Chief among these was a set of CCDs and a recording system capable of shooting directly to tape in a way that makes it easy to transfer directly to film without any loss of quality -24 frames per second, progressive scan, as opposed to 60 fields per second interlaced (the norm for NTSC video). Add in audio level controls, a very nice Leica lens, dual XLR inputs and various other fancy features, and you’ve got a camera that’s ready to compete with the Sony VX-2100 and the Canon XL1S on both video and film.
After releasing the camera to the marketplace, a host of very picky cinematographers and videographers made some very precise suggestions to improve the next Panasonic digital camcorder. To the company’s credit, it has addressed a number of these concerns in a recent re-release of the camera. As a result, we now have the AG-DVX100A Panasonic digital camcorder, the new and improved version of this popular, powerful niche-filler. In this review, we’re going to focus on those things that Panasonic’s professional/industrial division enhanced in the newer version of the camera, and refer you to the April 2003 issue of Videomaker for our original review.
Film vs. Video
Some of the main complaints that filmmakers lodged about the Panasonic DVX100 camcorder were simply unfair, comparing the capabilities of video to that of film–the range of contrast, for example, or the subtleties of motion blur and depth of field effects. The bottom line here is of course that video is not film, and until video technology takes a few giant leaps beyond the capabilities of Mini DV, a film camera will always be better at this sort of thing. Nonetheless, Panasonic valiantly attempted to address these concerns with this digital camcorder, offering improvements to the CCDs themselves to deliver better color quality, higher resolution and what the company calls “cinema-like gamma curves.” Also provided in the new camera is what the company calls high F11 sensitivity, an attempt to cure some of the “contrasty” problems of video-to-film conversion. While the new sensitivity of the CCDs does aid in low-light situations, it unfortunately doesn’t do much for the contrast problem, which is simply an inherent limitation of video. Judging whether this new version of the camera actually delivers a more film-like picture than the earlier one is a difficult proposition. We can say, however, that the quality of the DVX100A’s picture is fantastic–slightly better than the earlier version of the camera, and probably approaching the upper limits of the capability of the Mini DV format.
Aside from the film vs. video problems, some complaints of the filmmaking crowd were well justified, and Panasonic addressed most of these in the newer version of the camera. Filmmakers, for example, don’t like to be limited to the 4:3 aspect ratio of television, and the first version of this camera offered the black-bar-on-top-and-bottom approach to 16:9, which is fine for showing letterbox-style video on an ordinary television but totally unacceptable for shooting wide-format film. Filmmakers also like to have access to slower shutter speeds for motion blur; the DVX100A addresses this with a new slow-shutter mode that’s capable of some impressive visual effects. Still problematic, however, are the camera’s color viewfinder and flip-out LCD monitor, which do not provide a picture as sharp as the black and white CRTs you find on many professional cameras.
Good Job, Panasonic on the DVX100A Digital Camcorder
One thing we like to see at Videomaker is a manufacturer that responds well to the needs of its customers, and for this Panasonic’s professional/industrial division is to be commended for its rapid response to the concerns of the digital-film crowd. Within a year of the release of the VX100, we now have the VX100A, and the only issues brought up by its user base that Panasonic didn’t deal with are those that are simply not within the scope of Mini DV’s capacity. Let’s not forget, however, that this camera is intended for video as well as video-to-film capabilities, and its main strengths–audio level controls, crisp 3-CCD color resolution, built-in XLR mic/line inputs, user and scene presets, manual exposure control with zebra-stripes in the viewfinder, built-in ND filter, etc.–are sufficient to up the ante within its class of high-quality prosumer camcorders before you even consider its filmic qualities. Bottom line: Canon, Sony and JVC, the other members of this prestigious class of 3-chip prosumer camcorder manufacturers, have a serious contender in their midst, and would do well to follow Panasonic’s lead in listening closely to their customer’s needs.
Joe McCleskey is an instructional media specialist.
- Horizontal Resolution: 490 lines
- Field of View (4:3): 35-degrees
- Field of View (16:9): 40-degrees
Format: Mini DV
Lens: Leica DICOMAR F/1.6, 10:1 optical zoom, 72mm filter diameter
Image Sensor: 3 1/3-inch CCDs, 410,000 pixels each
Viewfinder: 0.44-inch color LCD, 180,000 pixels
LCD Monitor: 3.5-inch color, 200,000 pixels
Focus: auto, manual focus ring
Anamorphic 16:9: yes
Image stabilization: optical
Exposure: auto, manual
Minimum shutter speed: 1/4 (60i, 30p); 1/6 (24p)
Maximum shutter speed: 1/2000 (60i), 1/1000 (30p, 24p)
Gain: low, medium, high
White balance: auto, manual, presets
Audio: 12-bit, 16-bit; audio dub mode available
Microphone input: XLR x2, switchable to line input
Headphone output: 1/8-inch stereo mini plug
Inputs: FireWire, S-video, RCA-style composite video, stereo audio
Outputs: FireWire, S-video, RCA-style composite video, stereo audio
Edit interface: FireWire, 2.5-inch wired remote
Other features: 60i, 30p and 24p record modes, user presets, scene presets, audio level meters, hot shoe, built-in lens shade, stereo on-camera microphone, zebra stripes, internal speaker
Dimensions (wxhxd): 5 1/2 by 6 1/3 by 14 1/2 inches
Weight: 3.7 lb (sans tape and battery)
- Excellent picture and sound quality
- 24p recording
- Good response to customer feedback
- Low-res color viewfinder
- Some controls poorly placed
A serious contender in the 3-chip prosumer camcorder market.