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Tuesday, 21 February 2012 15:01

Panasonic AF100 and Applied Accessories

Written by  David Hurd
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If you’re shooting with a Panasonic AG-HVX200 or a DSLR, you might want to take a look at Panasonic’s HD camcorder, the AG-AF100. The AF100 is the first professional micro 4/3-inch video camcorder optimized for high-definition video recording, and it has some real advantages over the HVX200 or a DSLR.

nov2_varizoom_vzrockpzfi_sfwIf you already have the HVX200, you’ll be used to a lot of the features offered by the AF100. The AF100 and HVX200 have about the same body size and other similarities, such as menus, timecode recording, built-in ND filtering, built-in stereo microphone, presets and color balance. The two XLR inputs with +48V Phantom Power capability and 48-kHz/16-bit two-channel digital audio recording are also about the same, except that the AF100 supports LPCM/Dolby-AC3 audio. There’s also built-in iris control, and if you have a VariZoom controller left over from your HVX200, the iris, focus and record buttons will work on the AF100 as well. However, since there’s no servo zoom on the camera, the zoom control has no job to do (and can take the day off).

What excites me about the AF100 is that it’s very flexible. The first cool thing is that you can change its lenses. The 14–140mm zoom works pretty well for most applications, but you can use older SLR lenses that have an iris control on them, or even primes for cine work. I tried a 20mm f1.4 lens, which worked well indoors with available light. Since old SLR lenses are inexpensive, I also tried a Dot Line Corp. micro 4:3 adapter and Nikon Nikkor AI lenses to get a really nice look for not a lot of money.

If you’re a DSLR owner, the reason to upgrade to the AF100 is for its micro 4/3-inch, 16:9 MOS imager. With dramatically reduced video aliasing, the AF100 delivers the shallow depth of field and wider field of view of a DSLR large imager, with professional HDMI and HD-SDI output that can connect to external recorders or monitors. This camcorder 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 (maximum 24Mbps) codec. Additionally, it is 60Hz and 50Hz switchable for use worldwide.
Part of the AF100’s charm is its vast recording ability. The built-in AVCHD recorder can record a full native 1080/24p or 720/24p recording (at variable frame rates) with professional audio capabilities to SDHC and SDXC media (which supports memory capacities above 32GB up to 2TB). And with two SD slots, the AF100 can record up to 12 hours on two 64GB SDXC cards in PH mode. The built-in recorder is fine, and very handy, but the true capabilities of this camera are found in external recorders.

The Atomos Ninja recorder for Apple ProRes recording is a10-bit production weapon for HDMI-equipped cameras like the AF100. Ninja preserves the pristine uncompressed video quality from the AF100’s camera sensor by encoding it directly into the ProRes format in 422, LT or HQ. Then it goes straight to the timeline of your NLE. It’s a fast, high-quality workflow with just a few simple steps.

First, connect the Ninja Docking Station (which is included in the kit) to your Apple Mac using the FireWire 800 port (USB 2.0 will also work). Insert the Ninja Master Caddy containing the solid-state drive (SSD) with your footage into the Docking Station, and you will see the drive appear in your finder window. Start FCP and open your project (or start a new one), then go to the file menu and select “Import>Folder” so that FCP will show you a “Browse” window. Look for the Ninja drive and click on it so you can see the folders inside.

Select the folder containing the footage you want to import and click on “Choose,” and go back to your FCP project window. Your “Scene, Shot and Take” folders now appear in the project window ready for use in your FCP project. With your Ninja loaded with an SSD, you have instant, random (“Non-Linear”) access to your material, eliminating the need for log-and-capture using a standard capture card. Keep in mind that HDMI can’t support 24fps, so the Ninja will record at 60fps, and you can convert the footage on the way into your editing system.

You can edit right from the SSD drive in the Docking Station and export a finished movie. However, be aware that the media is still only on your SSD, so you’ll want to copy your files to another drive before erasing your SSD. My goal is to have my footage archived in at least three places. My Thermaltake BlacX 5G Duet Docking Station will accept two 2.5 or 3.5 hard drives, so it’s easy to pop in a couple of raw drives (no case needed) and make two copies of my data. Another way is to pop in the SSD and a second drive and make a copy of the SSD. In addition, there’s my Seagate SAS RAID and G-Technology G-SPEED Q RAID for additional backups. With the AF100, the bad news is that you have to keep track of your data. The good news is that you don’t have to purchase or deal with videotape.

The Ninja arrives as a complete system, so you don’t have to add anything except a 2.5-inch SSD and some cables to suit your setup like HDMI. (All other parts necessary to use the Ninja are included in a very nice carrying case.) Disk-drive data rates tend to be given in megabytes (MBps) per second and codec data rates are normally given in megabits (Mbps) per second. All you have to do to convert megabits to megabytes is divide by eight. So if you set the Ninja to record at 220 megabits per second, instead of the AF100’s AVCHD highest-quality PH mode (maximum 24Mbps), that’s going to result in 220/8 megabytes per second, which is 27.5 megabytes per second. This takes up some memory.

Luckily, SSD drives are flash memory devices that come in the same form-factor as 2½-inch disk drives, and they’re fully supported by the Ninja. The Crucial SSD that I use records 512MB, which is much more space than the 112MB that are available inside the camera using two 64GB cards. When you have filled up an SSD, you simply pop it out and plug in another one, much like a giant P2 card. The reason that you use SSDs instead of regular 2½-inch hard-disk drives (HHDs) is that regular drives are particularly sensitive to motion. If you move too quickly while the drive is spinning, you may get a small gap in your recording. While 90 percent of your production work will most likely be OK on a standard drive, SSDs are the way to go while working in a challenging environment.

The Ninja mounts in the hot shoe on top of the camera, and provides a monitor for viewing and playing back your recordings. The touch-screen controls are very handy and easy to navigate. Changing codecs is as easy at touching the icon on the screen. This product absolutely rocks on the AF100 camera. It’s lightweight, portable, has built-in SSD formatting and the ability to plug the Ninja directly into your computer for editing. The touch-screen monitor is easy to use and recording is rock solid. Add in the fact that this device is less expensive than other similar ProRes HQ recorders, and you end up with a great value for your money. The Ninja’s standard one-year warranty on all parts and accessories is upgraded to three years on the Main Ninja Unit alone (excluding TFT/LCD) by registering your Ninja online.

If you like working in uncompressed, and have a RAID big and fast enough to handle the format, the Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle is for you. It can also improve the quality of the AF100. This time the uncompressed signal from the AF100 is not compressed into AVCHD (24Mbps) in the camera or ProRes HQ (220Mbps) in the Ninja, but rather is recorded in uncompressed 10-bit HD (1280Mbps) in the HyperDeck Shuttle. It’s an 8-bit camera, so there’s a bit of waste recording at 10 bits — but, hey, it’s uncompressed.

Compression always destroys some image quality, so this is a great option if you need to get the most dynamic color range for color correction and perfect, clean keying without jagged edges. The downside is finding storage space. My Crucial 512GB SSD will only hold about an hour’s worth of data. The HyperDeck Shuttle bypasses your camera’s compression and records from SDI or HDMI in the universally compatible, uncompressed QuickTime files. These files can be used with all popular software packages, like Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, DaVinci Resolve and Apple Color.

Like the Ninja, you can edit directly from the SSD media itself, the difference is that you’ll need to pop the SSD out of the HyperDeck Shuttle and use your own Docking Station to connect to your editing computer. My Thermaltake BlacX 5G Docking Station works with all standard 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch SATA/SSD to USB 3.0 for transfer rates up to 5Gbps. It’s compatible with SATA I/II/III and SSD HDDs. I use the latest Mac OS X, but it’s also compatible with Microsoft Windows 7/Vista/XP/2003/2000. This model holds one drive at a time, so I can edit on this docking station while its brother, the Duet 5G, makes backup copies.

The HyperDeck Shuttle has standard deck-style function buttons (clearly marked and easily accessible along one side) as well as LEDs that indicate recording status, battery status and input signal lock. I find it very easy to use. It’s like operating a VTR. Since this device has no built-in monitor, you’ll need to buy a pair of SDI or HDMI cables. One cable will go from the AF100 into the HyperDeck Shuttle, and the other will feed the signal out of the HyperDeck Shuttle to your monitor.

The HyperDeck Shuttle works well for a quick on-set QC or client preview. I either use my Plura Broadcast PBM-070X 7-inch on-camera monitor, with its built-in Waveform and Vectorscope, or my 2s2 17-inch monitor. Connected to the HyperDeck Shuttle via HDMI or SDI cables, the uncompressed signal looks awesome. The Plura PBM-070X is great for indoors or camera-mounted work, and the 2s2 monitor can be seen from 6 feet away with no hood, even when outdoors in full sunlight. The HyperDeck Shuttle is compact and battery powered so it’s perfect as a field recorder. If you’re looking for an affordable uncompressed 10-bit recorder, look no further.
Here are some other helpful accessories that you might find useful.

nov_zacuto-evf-filmmaker-kit_sfwThe AF100’s ability allows you to choose a focus point within your depth of field. The problem is that you must see what you’re shooting very clearly to make good focus decisions. I had a hard time with fine focus using the built-in viewfinder, so I tried something else. I used a Zacuto EVF Flip, which is a 3.2-inch high-resolution monitor connected to a Z-Finder (an eyepiece with magnification). The result is a perfectly clear view of what the camera sees. When mounted to a 15mm rod system, you can move this viewfinder where it’s most comfortable for you to use. You can also use an arm for low-mode shooting or a long cable when detached from your rig for dolly, crane or car shots.

The EVF is compatible with all cameras that have an HDMI output, including the Panasonic AF100, Sony F3, RED ONE, RED SCARLET and RED EPIC. The EVF Flip has a Z-Finder frame built into the unit that can be flipped open to 180 degrees. You just flip up the Z-Finder eyepiece to show a producer or director the shot without needing to get their eye on your viewfinder. Zacuto gear is the Roll Royce of support systems. They may cost more but they’re made to last and have a solid feel to them. The EVF Rod Mount arm that connects the EVF Flip to the rods is so strong that it stays in place when you push against the viewfinder — there’s nothing cheesy here. The Zacuto EVF Flip with a Z-Finder is just an amazing addition to the AF100.

I also tried the EVF Filmmaker Kit (pictured left) with great results. With the Z-Focus follow-focus system, a single knob allows you to disengage the gears when you change lenses, making the job painless. You could probably pound nails with the Baseplate but it securely holds your camera on the top, and it has a separate, sliding mount on the bottom for your tripod plate to aid in balancing your rig.

Zacuto’s ZipGear Prime Lens Kit (a set of lens gears) lets you easily wrap the focus rings on your lenses with a strip of gear material to use with the follow focus. The two Zgrips Beefy handles are infinitely adjustable so that you can set the grip length and position to where you feel most comfortable for a stable and balanced AF100 rig. The Zwiss Plate cheese plate on the back of the rig allows you to mount virtually anything with the provided 1/4 20-inch and 3/8 16-inch holes (including batteries). You also get your choice of a V-Mount or 3-Stud battery plate, allowing you to mount your pro batteries for counterbalance. True to its name, the EVF Filmmaker Kit gives you the tools that you need to turn the AF100 into a very usable film-style camera.

The Litepanels MicroPro Hybrid on-camera light works well with the AF100. Six AA batteries can power it for hours, and it has enough power to add fill or become a key light for an interview. Since the AF100 does so well in low light with a fast lens, you can even take the MicroPro Hybrid off the camera and use it like a studio light. Being a Hybrid, it also works as a flash for your DSLR. LitePanels’ MicroPro Hybrid is a great little addition to your rig.
I’m not one to trust something as delicate as an AF100 to the baggage monkeys that seem to inhabit most airports, so I prefer to use a carry-on case for my cameras. SKB makes the 3I-1914-8B-D, which is a perfect little case for the AF100. It is military-standard injection molded with a foam liner and adjustable panels. The movable panels make it easy to reconfigure as you add new gear. The cool part is that it comes with wheels and a pull-out handle, so it looks like an ordinary carry-on, yet it has military-grade strength and it’s waterproof. This SKB case will make sure that your camera arrives alive.

I find it amazing that the AF100 can go from web video to ProRes to high-end, uncompressed 1080p by simply using external recorders to leverage its pristine micro 4/3-inch sensor. The same holds true for lenses. With adaptors, you can mount anything from old $50 SLR lenses to $12,000 primes. The AF100 is truly a shining example of an adaptable camera whose time has come.
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