As the proud owner of a brand-new Panasonic AF100, here’s my take on how it compares to the Canon 5D Mark II.
[UPDATE: If you’d like to see similar projects I’ve shot with the 5D2 and the AF100, click here.]
The AF100, with its (removable) handle and shotgun mic mount, hand-strap and fairly traditional compact camcorder profile is, by design, far more well suited to motion picture work than and DSLR. With that said, the plastic body of the AF100 feels a little flimsy after 18 months of man-handling the metal-clad 5D2.
Perhaps because I had a traditional film-school education, I quite enjoy working with still-photo lenses. The fact that the AF100’s Micro 4/3 mount accommodates a huge array of third-party lenses really appeals to me. After purchasing a few adapters (mostly in the $50 range from China-based merchants on eBay), not only can I use all my EOS glass on the AF100, but also my Canon FD (manual aperture) prime lenses, the Peleng 8mm that I bought years ago to use with a Krasnogorsk 16mm film camera, and even a couple of antique Leica lenses that I happen to have tucked in my closet.
The downside, of course, is that the Micro 4/3 crop factor is severe: the field of view of any given lens is just about half what it is on a full-frame sensor. My 20mm prime worked beautifully on the 5D2 for hand-held work and cramped interior locations. Now, when attached to the AF100, it has the field of view of a 40mm lens, but retains the depth of field of a 20mm lens. The most convenient lens I have for the AF100 is a Sigma 12-24, which looks like a 24-50 on the AF100. The problem with that lens is that I bought it for architectural interiors, and it only opens up to 4.0. Fine for sunny, outdoor shoots, but a challenge for available-light interiors.
On the plus side, I finally get to use my Peleng 8mm. An 8mm lens is ridiculously fisheye-distorted on a full-frame sensor, but on the AF100, it looks like a pretty cool ultra-wide lens. It has a tad more distortion than I care for, but until I find a good substitute for my 20mm, this will be my go-to wide-angle lens on the Panny. UPDATE: The diffraction in the 8mm lens renders the image unacceptably soft. The lens also catches a ridiculous amount of flare in virtually every situation. The Sigma 12-24 is a much better bet.
It’s very possible to get shallow depth of field shots with the AF100. A 50mm lens at f1/4 still delivers razor-thin DOF, just with more of a closeup feel than I’m used to. Ditto a 135mm lens wide open at f/2.5.
Under The Hood
I’m very pleased to see that one of my favorite geeky functions on the 5D2 – manual white-balance – has been incorporated into the AF-100 (where its called “Variable White Balance”). Panasonic actually made it extremely convenient to access too, which is a pleasant surprise.
After being able to easily dial in the various scene setting components (contrast, saturation, etc.) in the 5D2, I do find the AF-100 profile settings a little limiting. I’m going to have to do some experimenting to see which of the various gamma curves is most useful in real-world settings, and I’m not sure I have much control over anything else.
Anything besides framerate, that is! The ability to effortlessly dial in any framerate up to 60 fps on the AF-100 feels like a decadent luxury. I can’t wait to shoot some slo-mo!
Since the 5D2 is a still camera, the shutter speed controls are front and center. Many’s the time I’ve inadvertently tweaked the shutter speed off of 1/50 or 1/60 without realizing it. On the AF-100, shutter speed is more of a “set it and forget it” function. You can either set it manually (e.g. to 1/50), or select the “180 degree” function, and then never worry about it again, secure in the knowledge that no cinema purist will be able to criticize your motion blur, regardless of your framerate.
I’ve more or less gotten used to looking at the 5D2’s histogram to check my exposure, but I’ve gotta say that the waveform pop-up on the AF-100 was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, I can actually expose a shot with confidence!
With that said, I will say that the Cinelike-D gamma that the AF100 offers will take some getting used to. Given the same scene at the same exposure (see test footage video above), the 5D2 tended to lose detail in the shadows and retain it in the highlights, while the AF100 did the opposite. Mental note: if it glows, it blows … So err on the side of underexposure! UPDATE: I have tweaked the AF100 scene settings to my taste, with excellent results. See this post.
One of the biggest complaints I had about the 5D2 was the horrible aliasing it created on textures like pinstriped or ribbed clothing, brick walls, fences, etc. Panasonic claims that their camera is far superior, but honestly, I’ve been a little disappointed in my preliminary tests. Shooting a scene with a bunch of fences and air grates, the 5D2 delivered the usual vibrating-verticals that we’ve come to know and hate, but – kinda – so did the AF100. I will say that, at 100% on my studio monitor, the AF100 footage IS cleaner and has less aliasing. But by the time it gets to web resolution, it’s fairly hard to see a clear advantage.
One of my other big complaints about the 5D2 was the footage hassle. Working on Final Cut Pro, I had to either transcode or re-render everything I shot. Panasonic’s AVCHD codec might not be perfect, but at least I won’t have to transcode the files. UPDATE: Unfortunately, with Final Cut Studio, I STILL have to transcode the files to ProRes!
Based on my preliminary tests, it looks like the AF100 footage looks, overall, a little softer than the 5D2 footage, but it’s also largely free of the noise and artifacts that I’ve come to expect from the 5D2. So, in my opinion, it’s darn good video, any way you slice it. UPDATE: The softness in the footage I initially observed was due to the diffraction effect of shooting at apertures above f/16. Shooting through the “best part of the lens” – f/5.6, f/8 – the AF100 actually looks sharper than the 5D.
On this subject, there’s absolutely no comparison. Dealing with audio on the 5D2 is always a pain in the butt. Even when everything works perfectly – either with dual-system sound, an onboard microphone, or an external mixer – there’s always the stress of being unable to monitor the audio with headphones, or even to keep an eye on the levels while recording. The AF-100 is a real video camera, with XLR inputs, a headphone jack, and built-in phantom power. I was a little surprised to see that it doesn’t have an auto-levels feature. I know the audio geeks hate auto-levels, but many’s the time on hectic shoots when I’ve been glad that my Sony HDV cameras offered that option. When you’re shooting b-roll in some unpredictable environment, the knowledge that your camera is getting audio that is at the very least usable is very comforting. On the plus side, the AF100’s on-screen levels are fairly prominent, so it’s easy to tell if something is going way low or way high.
The big caveat to that, however, is that in “VFR” (Variable Frame Rate) mode, the AF100 will give you audio levels and headphone output, but not record anything to the card. That’s a big issue, since you could be shooting at a standard framerate (e.g. 24fps or 30fps), while in VFR mode, thinking that you’re in fixed 24p or 30p, and get home only to find that you have no audio. Panasonic should either disable the audio confidence monitors in VFR, or put some kind of display on the viewfinder. Right now, without pushing the “Dial Select” button, you can’t tell if you’re in VFR mode or not. UPDATE: Panasonic released a firmware update that puts a small “no audio” icon in the viewfinder. Problem solved.
As I shoot more with the Panasonic AF100AF100, I’m sure I’ll find plenty of things that bug me. Certainly dealing with multiple lens adapters is not something I’m looking forward to. And, when I need oodles of shallow depth-of-field goodness, the 5D2 will always be the go-to tool. However, for day-to-day video work, I can’t wait to stop worrying about dual-system sound and crazy aliasing, and start using my AF100!