The Panasonic AF-100 is getting a lot of buzz as a possible HDSLR killer. We used it in the real world in place of an HDSLR, and now we know. And soon, so will you. Read on…
The two cameras that get the most buzz at the moment are the Panasonic AF-100 and the Sony F3. In particular, the AF-100 seems to be Panasonic’s response to the HDSLR craze, and for that reason it has been widely anticipated: the industry wants 35mm depth of field for the price of an HDSLR but in the form factor of a traditional video camera. HDSLRs have been great tools for the price, but as they aren’t designed to be video cameras they fall short in a number of areas.
There’s a lot of money riding on the projects that we shoot, and traditional video cameras acknowledge that fact. They offer us tools with which to judge focus and exposure, and they allow us to tweak the camera so that it responds optimally to the shooting environment and reflects the look we want our footage to have. HDSLRs have, over time, come to offer some of those options, but they don’t do any of them particularly quickly or well. The industry has been eagerly awaiting cameras that offer the HDSLR look but with video camera speed and functionality.
The AF-100 does all that. It’s basically an HVX-200 with a larger sensor, which is both good and bad.
Recently director Ian McCamey landed a spot about which I can say nothing as it’s not finished yet. (I hope to show the completed piece in a week or so when it’s been cut and approved.) The budget was not a healthy one, and initially there was talk of shooting with a 5D or 7D. While I can make very pretty pictures with those cameras they do slow me down a bit, and the location we shot at offered limited prospect in daylight. Speed was of the essence, and we managed to get a brand new AF-100, from Shooting Star Video, on the job, along with a brand new Arri Alura 18-80 T2.6 zoom.
PVC’s Adam Wilt gets focus marks as director Ian McCamey hits his stride.
The AF-100 can be configured with a number of different lens mounts. Jeff Regan (owner of Shooting Star Video) opted for a PL mount in order to show off his new Arri Alura zoom, a “low cost” lens for 35mm sensor cameras. (He also offers the camera with Nikon mount and primes.) Although I’ve heard reports of pin cushioning from one person, I haven’t checked the lens on a chart to confirm or deny whether that issue exists and I didn’t notice anything during filming. It handles very smoothly and has a nice solid feel to it, and we had zero issues with back focus. (The Alura, like most film-style lenses, does not have a user operated back focus control.)
While the AF-100 can be configured for use with still lenses, those lenses aren’t very camera assistant friendly. The focus markings aren’t accurate and the distance markings are too close, so if the assistant wanted to quickly throw focus to 8’9″ they couldn’t find the proper spot on the lens, and even if they could find it the focus wouldn’t fall at 8’9″. The Alura is a proper film-style lens with a big lens barrel and large, nicely spaced and accurate markings that’s great for action and drama, where we’re constantly following people and objects around. Still lenses are great for interviews and doc-style projects where the operator has to find their own focus, but that wasn’t the kind of project we were shooting.
While I can’t show you moving images from the spot until it’s finished (except for one short clip) and I can’t tell you what the concept is, I can show you stills from the shoot and give you a rough idea of the story. I hope to be able to publish the final spot within the next couple of weeks.
Let’s take a look at some images, both in front of and behind the camera, on the next page…
Behind the scenes photos are provided courtesy of gaffer Luke Seerveld.
This is the opening sequence of the piece, and it very quickly revealed the character of the camera. During prep I discovered that the AF-100 has about three stops of overexposure latitude before it clips, and the clip isn’t very clean. Most cameras work hard to make the clipped values look as filmic as possible, which typically means the clipped areas don’t turn into an odd electronic white with sharp edges. The Arri Alexa and RED ONE do a very nice job with clipped highlights, and Panasonic camcorders do a good job in Film Rec mode, but the smaller cameras like the Sony EX1/EX3 and Panasonic HVX-200/HPX-170 don’t handle clipped highlights very well at all. Sadly the AF-100 looks very much like a large sensor version of the HVX-200 in this regard.
The shoot location was in the Sea Cliff area of San Francisco, and there was one major problem that presented itself on the shoot day (we didn’t have the money for a scout): next door there’s a HUGE palm tree that blocks most, but not all, of the sun from the front yard of our hero house. We didn’t have the firepower to bring the shadows up in value, so whenever possible we brought the sunlight down.
The Google Maps view of the location. The palm tree just below and to the right of the “A” is the main culprit. This image was taken in the summer; our sun was much lower, it being January, and was actually hidden from the driveway until about noon.
In this case, however, since the background was in full sun, we had to pop the driver with a shiny board double bounce. The car is in the shadow of the tree, while one shiny board is on the near sidewalk (just off frame left) aimed at another shiny board in front of the car. I lit the driver as frontal as possible as we didn’t have the time or resources to execute both a key and a fill, and an off-center key would have left some really dark shadows. The frontal light is very flattering to her face, and I’m all about lighting faces.
I let her go dark as she exits the car. By that time we’re supposed to be watching the guy in the background, so letting her drop off into darkness helped direct attention to him. I’ve discovered over time that cheats like this can work nicely to direct attention, and it’s also generally good practice to avoid over lighting a shot.
As the actor runs across the street the side of his face clips due to the open sun. The far side of the street is exposed as brightly as possible without clipping (the sidewalk was close to 100% on the AF-100’s built-in waveform) in order to open up the car interior as much as possible, and the camera looks really nice as long as it doesn’t clip.
I should point out that PVC’s Adam Wilt was my camera assistant and did a very nice job on focus, especially as I tended to shoot close to wide open (T2.6) to reduce the depth of field. (Sorry, Adam!)
This is the reverse shot, and we did this toward the end of the day when the sun went behind some buildings to the west. The mixture of sun and shade was too much for this camera to handle so we had to wait for all of the sun to go away.
Here’s my biggest complaint about clipping on the AF-100:
When I saw the brake lights I just had to roll some footage.
Those brake lights aren’t supposed to be orange. They’re an orange red, and while most other cameras would render them as clipped red this camera seems to say to itself, “I see a clipped red channel and a clipped green channel, so I’m just going to mix those two clipped values together.” When you mix red and green you get orange. It’s not an attractive look.
The Panasonic Varicams have a feature called highlight or knee saturation which pumps a lot of color into highlights. It’s not an attractive look because the clips turn a weird over-saturated version of whatever color, or colors, are clipped or close to clipping. During prep we aimed the camera out Shooting Star’s loading door at a car covered with a blue tarp, and when the tarp’s exposure clipped it turned a bright featureless cyan. It was really, really ugly.
I also noticed that, at the default setting, bright colored objects are chroma clipped long before they are luma clipped, so on subsequent projects I’ve reduced the camera’s saturation level by a couple of notches to reduce this effect.
It seems as if this camera uses highlight saturation ALL THE TIME. It would be really nice to be able to turn this off or desaturate and remove detail from the highlights, but this is a consistent problem with low-end Panasonic cameras from the HVX-200 up. Even the HPX-500 does this.
It’s too bad, because under controlled lighting this camera is really gorgeous.
We did this moving shot on a Dana dolly. I hadn’t heard of this nifty little invention until very recently. It’s a ball mount on a small platform equipped with skateboard wheels, and it uses common speed rail as its track. It comes with a couple of spacers that hold two rails at the proper width and it works with just about any length of speed rail.
Operating the Dana Dolly with Adam Wilt’s C-stand arm extension.
There are two things to know about this rig:
(1) It doesn’t lock, so if you walk away from it make sure someone is watching it so it doesn’t roll down the track.
(2) It’s not locked to the rails so it is possible for it to tip over. I’ve not had a problem with that but it is possible.
As a low cost dolly, though, it can’t be beat.
It was pretty difficult to do a fast yet smooth move hunched over such a low track, so Adam suggested attaching a C-stand arm to the front of the Dana dolly in order to exert constant force along the center line of the dolly. Adam set the focus and I watched his monitor to operate the shot.
Here our character starts to scratch a design into the hood of the car with a key. The garage is in shadow but he isn’t, so he’s covered by a 12×12 silk that gives him a nice soft sidelight.
Large sensors are all about shots like these. Adam racked from the actor’s face to the key and back again. I didn’t notice the Alura breathing at all.
The hood of the car was protected by a plastic shield. The AF-100’s large sensor makes this a gorgeous shot. This could be done on a Canon 5D but there’s always the danger of moire, not to mention that it’s nearly impossible to tell if something is in focus on the 5D’s tiny standard def LCD screen–especially if it’s in motion. This wasn’t a problem when viewing the AF-100’s built-in LCD screen.
Adam and I shooting a high angle.
We shot some other angles on this character doing his deed, including one that “looks through” the hood of the car. Ian came up with this idea on the day and we improvised with a sheet of clear acrylic. The scratches are a little hard to see but maybe Ian can enhance that in post. (He’s doing the actual etching of the hood in post as well; the budget didn’t include repainting a car.) Next time I’ll try to do some testing to see if there’s a lighting angle that brings out the scratches.
Uncorrected sunset light.
You’ll notice that this angle is very warm. That’s because we shot this at magic hour and the sun was rapidly disappearing. (We had to start shooting in early afternoon to allow the sun to move around that big palm tree next door.)
Shooting through the “hood.” The black duvetine eliminates reflections from the front surface of the acrylic sheet.
The light on the actor’s face is a 1’x1′ tungsten LitePanel provided by gaffer Luke Seerveld. I did a rough color correction pass to see what happens when the excess warmth is removed:
Quick and easy correction in Final Cut Pro shows that this shot can be easily graded to match the others. (Just not by me.)
This was done quickly using the three-way color corrector in Final Cut Pro. I used the white picker to white balance on the window frames in the background. We’ll do a much more careful pass later with a real colorist.
Ooops–one of our characters caught the other. While the guy is still lit from the sunlit silk off frame right, the woman is lit with a shiny board pushing sunlight through a frame of Lee 250 just off frame right. There’s another shiny board raking the bushes and spilling onto the fence in the background.
She looks beautiful but the skin tones are just on the edge of clipping. I tend to overexpose flesh tones a little to make them “pop” and while the camera isn’t anywhere close to clipping luma it’s on the verge of clipping chroma, which is just as bad. Still, as long as you don’t cross that threshold, the camera looks great. And, as I mentioned earlier, dialing the chroma down a little reduces the odds that you’ll inadvertently clip a color.
You can’t see the subtleties of chroma clipping on the camera’s LCD monitor. Our DIT, Jeff Regan of Shooting Star Video, kept a sharp eye on our “critical” monitor, a 17″ Flanders Scientific LCD.
The Flanders is my new favorite inexpensive LCD monitor. Supposedly it uses the same panel as the Panasonic 17″ model that everyone knows and loves, but instead of trending toward green, the way the Panasonic does, it trends slightly magenta. It does take a little mental correction to properly interpret color, but a slight magenta cast on flesh tone looks a lot better than a slight green cast. I find I don’t fall into the trap of correcting something that looks too green but really isn’t, as I occasionally do when I see someone with an olive complexion on a 1700 or 1710 Panasonic LCD monitor.
(Side note: in the real world there is no magenta light in the spectrum: it’s simply the absence of green. Apparently it’s very difficult to render green properly on that panel, so instead of adding slightly too much green Flanders apparently opted for slightly too little.)
Here we had enough 12×12 coverage to silk the character and his exit path (he walks sheepishly away around the back of the car) and not quite enough to do the entire background. The setting sun helps us a little but there’s still some leaf clipping in the background. We’ll probably track that and remove it in post.
The AF-100 is a contrasty camera. I had to hide a bounce card behind the actress in the shot above, just to get it close enough to fill the actor properly. (Ian will use either the previous shot or this one in the edit, so the mismatch in background lighting won’t be a problem. That’s what you do on a budget.)
You’ve been very patient so far, and I want to reward you for it. On the next page you’ll find not only my summary, along with some rough color correction tips, but a little idiosyncrasy that may bite you when using the AF-100 with a large lens. It’s nothing to worry about, and it’s easy to fix and prevent, but you definitely need to know about it in case it happens. You’ll never guess what it is.
The AF-100 has a lot of potential, and I’d definitely go with it when the alternative is an HDSLR. Its layout and controls are familiar and it’s designed to do what it does, so it’s much faster and easier to program, judge focus and expose than an HDSLR. It also doesn’t moire like an HDSLR will.
On the negative side, though, it’s still basically an HVX-200 with a larger sensor. It clips roughly the same way, which is not a good look in a large sensor camera, and it’s noisy too. The odd thing about the noise, though, is that it’s consistent throughout the exposure range: there’s no discernible change in noise between EI 200 and EI 800, and the exposure latitude doesn’t seem to be affected either. Typically you’d have more underexposure latitude and less overexposure headroom at EI 200, and the reverse at EI 800, but I couldn’t see any difference at all when I tested this camera during prep. At EI 1600 you can see that Panasonic is doing some noise reduction: Adam says the noise gets a little blocker, and there’s some odd motion blur that implies that they may be averaging noise across multiple frames in order to reduce it. Still, the camera is very usable at high EI’s and I’m not afraid to rate it at EI 800. In fact, for another project shot mostly under available light in a church, that’s exactly what I’m doing. (I rated the camera at EI 400 for this project.)
There are some differences between this camera and its predecessors when it comes to gamma settings. CineLike V has, in the past, been the all-around winner in the HVX-200 and HPX-170 as it rolls off fairly pleasantly at the upper and lower portions of the gamma curve and is pleasing on flesh tones. On the AF-100, though, CineLike V is very crunchy and does unpleasant things to flesh tones, causing them to chroma clip much too soon. As I mentioned before, I like to slightly overexpose flesh tones in certain situations and CineLike V doesn’t allow me to do that.
After a bit of testing I settled on “Low” gamma, which seems to push middle gray down the gamma curve and results in slightly crushed shadows but pleasantly stretched highlights. (Crushing highlights can make them look clipped sooner than they really are, so pulling gamma down opens up that highlight range and allows for a greater range of bright skin tones.) This is similar to what I do when working with a Sony EX1 or EX3: I use the CineLike 4 curve (which is a great all-around gamma curve) and then set overall gamma somewhere between -10 and -40, depending on the situation. This crushes the shadows a little but makes the highlights a lot smoother.
Speaking of highlights, I did a little testing on my own to determine whether I could return some detail to clipped highlights in post.
This picture is a still from the original footage, uncorrected. The shiny portions of the actress’s skin are getting into that compressed-highlight portion of the gamma curve where they start to look a bit electronic and unrealistic.
This is what happened when I went into Final Cut Pro and applied Tiffen DFX2’s Halo filter. Halo is my all-time favorite digital filter as it emulates the filter-in-the-telecine look: in days of old (this was popular in the late 1980s) there was a trend of putting a glass diffusion filter in the telecine path when transferring film negative, which had the effect of adding a glow to the shadows instead of a glow to the highlights. It also added a softening effect and desaturated the image as well. I’ve backed way off on that look, adjusting the filter so that most of the effect is desaturation with a touch of diffusion thrown in, and the results aren’t bad. I’ve probably gone a little too far in softening and desaturating, but you can see how the flesh tones look a little more filmic and pleasant without being overly saturated.
This next shot was a little more difficult:
What I wanted to do was to smooth and spread out that highlight so that the edges looked a little less electronic. I ran into a bit of a roadblock, though:
This is interesting but it’s not there yet. I used the Halo filter again and combined it with a filter that’s not in Tiffen DFX2: Skin Smoother. This filter places an adjustable mask over skin tone and then gives it an isolated blur. It’s a start but I’ll have to see this image in motion to see if it really works. (The Skin Smoother filter is part of an old filter package called 55mm, which evolved into the Tiffen DFX filter package.)
What jumps out at me is that I can see a weird cartoony effect in the skin tone highlights that looks to be an artifact of 8-bit compression. Yes, that’s right–the AF-100 records 8-bit AVCHD. As an experiment Jeff Regan brought a KiPro along and we recorded in ProRes as well, but unlike the Sony EX1 and EX3 cameras the HD-SDI output of the camera is NOT 10-bit.
Recording 10-bit out of an EX1/EX3 is a great solution when shooting green screens because the 8-bit internal long-GOP XDCAM codec does really horrible things to motion blur, making keying and rotoscoping very difficult. Recording the camera output to ProRes, however, results in a VERY clean signal that is great for visual effects work.
Not so with the AF-100. The HD-SDI output is 8-bit as well, and I question how good this camera will be for green screen work. We tend to need greater depth of field for green screen work anyway, so I’m always talking producers out of shooting green screen with an HDSLR in favor of an EX1/EX3 so we don’t have to worry about focus. (On larger shoots with Alexas and RED ONEs we tend to have the budget to light for a deeper stop.) It would be nice to have another option for low-budget green screen, but sadly the AF-100 is probably not it.
We’re going to compare the AVCHD and ProRes footage later on and see if there’s a noticeable difference between the two.
As you’ve read this far, you deserve a bit of a reward. The AF-100 did something really odd on this shoot, and while it hasn’t happened to me again I think you should know that it is possible. Watch this clip:
That’s the camera’s internal capping shutter spontaneously engaging.
Black balancing is recommended every time the camera EI is changed, probably because black balancing plays a part in noise reduction. You black balance by holding the white balance button down for a couple of seconds, at which point the camera caps itself internally and does its thing.
This problem seems directly related to having a heavy lens on the camera. As we were the first to use the AF-100 locally, and we were desperate to give it a try instead of using an HDSLR, Shooting Star Video provided a commonly available lens support setup with the full expectation that it would work properly with the AF-100 and the Alura.. Apparently the lens support bracket allowed the lens to sag slightly on occasion. When that happened the capping shutter engaged, sometimes for only a moment but occasionally it stayed closed until we smacked the lens or adjusted the lens support bracket. (Smacking tended to happen during takes, of which only two were ruined.)
I’ve since used this same camera with Shooting Star’s new bracket specifically made to support this lens and it’s worked flawlessly. The current theory is that the lens shifted in the mount in such a way that it pressed against a couple of contacts and triggered the internal capping shutter, but we don’t know for sure what was going on. Just know that a heavy lens like the Alura must be properly supported (and that’s a good idea on any camera).
If this happens to you with an Alura please feel free to smack the lens. It can take it, and it feels good after the surprise of suddenly seeing black through the viewfinder. Then re-seat the lens and check the support bracket.
The great reveal: words scratched into a hood, to be added in post. At magic hour, under low contrast illumination, the AF-100 is beautiful.
Shooting with the last of the day’s light.
I have to admit that under controlled lighting this camera looks great.
Lower end cameras that exhibit a lot of contrast are like slide, or transparency, film: it doesn’t handle extreme contrast well at all, but under controlled circumstances it can yield very pretty pictures indeed. This is true of all the small camcorders, but it is especially true of the AF-100. The limited contrast, the horrible clipping and the inability to record 10-bit from the HD-SDI spigot hold this camera back from being, by far, the best in its class. But given the choice between this camera and an HDSLR–and if small size and form factor aren’t a concern–I’ll pick this camera every time. The combination of reduced depth of field, video camera controls and focus and exposure feedback win over the HDSLR any time.
And I have been picking this camera regularly over HDSLRs. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been shooting a charity project in a church and getting wonderful results under available and slightly augmented lighting conditions, and I’ve got a corporate talking head shoot later this week where this camera is the perfect choice for the space we’re shooting in and the budget we’re working with.
Every tool has its purpose, but I wish this tool was just a little more versatile. Then again, if it was it would quickly cut into Varicam sales… and we can’t have that. Or Panasonic can’t. (I wouldn’t mind a bit.)
But one has to wonder if a future software upgrade that made clipped highlights more pleasing wouldn’t add a lot of life to this product.
The Shooting Star Video list of reasons to choose the AF-100 over an HDSLR:
(1) Built-in ND’s (a first for a single chip camera)
(2) Time code/external time code (not available in HDSLRs)
(3) XLR audio with manual control, phantom power, headphones, speaker, uncompressed audio recording
(4) Waveform/vectorscope, zebras
(5) False color focus assist
(6) HD-SDI, HDMI and composite video monitoring
(7) Wide variety of lens mounts, allowing for the use of a wide variety of lenses (including PL mount) without modifying the camera
(8) Half the rolling shutter skew of an HDSLR
(9) No aliasing/moire worth noting
(10) The ability to undercrank & overcrank at 1080/60p over 24p or 30p
(11) Extensive menu control of camera parameters (not offered in HDSLRs)
UPDATE: I just finished using the same AF-100/Alura combo from Shooting Star Video today and I carried it all over the place–upstairs, downstairs, indoors and out–for a small charity project I’m helping director Ian with. I had no problems with the internal capping shutter at all.
Disclosure: The Tiffen DFX2 filter package referenced in this article is a review copy sent to me by Tiffen at no charge.
Art Adams is a pretty sharp guy, though his background is often out of focus. His website is at www.artadamsdp.com.