Indie filmakers rejoice! Panasonic's AG-AF101 takes on DSLRs

IBO is a globally-important video and content creation show held in Amsterdam each year. It’s where trends emerge and this year it delivered irrefutable proof that the advent of Digital SLRs such as Canon's 5D Mk II has influenced the design of the video camera. The biggest benefit of the huge DSLR sensor is the narrow native depth of field that allows the videographer to isolate a subject. It’s the control which film and TV creatives want, and has seen the 5D spawn an entire industry of gear which turns the still camera into a ripping video camera – in just two years. So successful has the DSLR become as a full-frame video camera, that manufacturers are responding with cameras that take all the DSLR's strengths and add in the features videographers want and/or need. The belle of the ball is undoubtedly Panasonic's EUR 5000 (US$6500) AG-AF101, so Gizmag's Noel McKeegan went to see what all the fuss was about.
The Canon 5D Mark II turned video on its head in 2008 with its ability to shoot beautiful shallow depth, cinematic style footage in 1080p resolution at a fraction of the price (and size) of a production camera rig.
It hit the headlines when used to shoot the TV series House, it's being used to shoot entire feature films and a raft of accessories and software mods (including Canon firmware upgrades) have swarmed to improve the 5D's performance as a video camera.
The secret of the 5D is the size of its CMOS image sensor which offers full frame shooting – the 36 mm x 24 mm, 5616 x 3744 has beautiful low light characteristics and the camera shoots in 24p, offering the look and depth of field of a 35mm movie camera, at a fraction of the cost and in a lightweight, very portable unit by comparison.
The 5D has shown us what great video a big sensor can make, but it's not a video camera. All the bits wrapped around it are designed for taking still photos.
This gives rise to a number of audio, focusing and control issues which make it very difficult for particularly video professionals to work with. The normal controls on a video camera are not all there. For example there's no peaking or zebra functions, no video style eye-piece and no built in ND filtering. Some ingenious third party solutions plus some crude kludges have been found to skirt around most of these issues, but some of the fixes – like ND filters or add-on optical viewfinders – don't come cheap.

Panasonic AG-AF101

Canon perhaps hadn’t realized how quickly the competition would recognize the trend, and prepare MUCH better competitors targeted at the indie film-maker market.
Panasonic is first to the plate with its AG-AF101 due out in December. This camera, of which a 70% complete prototype was on display at IBC, offers a big sensor and normal video controls, so it can be expected to significantly slow the 5D Mk II Canon’s momentum.
The AG-AF101 uses a micro-four thirds lens mount and a 4/3-inch, 16:9 MOS imager. There are some quite inexpensive, high quality 4/3 lenses on the market and a mount adapter can be used for almost any 35 mm lens including those from Canon and Nikon.
We may be witnessing the final democratization of the film industry with dedicated video cameras that cost several orders of magnitude less than the systems they are replacing.
The AF101 records 1080/60i, 50i, 30p, 25p and 24p (native) and 720/60p, 50p, 30p, 25p and 24p (native) in AVCHD’s highest-quality PH mode (24Mbps).
It’s the sort of wish list that had made many a 5D fan cry. It can be run at 60Hz or 50Hz so it is relevant everywhere on planet earth and it has time code recording (glory be). Instead of ignoring audio, the AF101 has a built-in stereo microphone recording two-channels of 48-kHz/16-bit digital audio with two XLR inputs with +48V Phantom Power. It has HD-SDI output, built-in ND filtering and overcomes all of the 5D’s moiré and aliasing issues.
With its two SD slots, the AF101 can record up to 12 hours on two 64GB SDXC cards in PH mode or 48 hours in HE mode ... a 4GB file limit means the Canon 5D spits its dummy at roughly 12 minutes of continuous recording – quite some improvement.
All at a price and in a package that – while not quite as small as a high-end DSLR – will no doubt have independent filmakers scrambling.
Sony also showed a prototype of a "more affordable" 35 mm camera at IBC that will be aiming at a similar market when it's released next year.