Editors' note: Ratings have been updated to reflect the current market. (March 23, 2004)
Panasonic brings 24P to the masses. If you're a low-budget producer of narrative features for theatrical distribution, why shoot PAL when the AG-DVX100 delivers professional features--excepting interchangeable lenses--in a MiniDV camcorder that provides both interlaced and 24fps progressive modes?
The DVX100 follows design conventions established by Sony's PD150A that have since (with the release of Canon's GL series) become standard in compact professional cameras. Such conventions include an overhead handle supporting a microphone and a secondary zoom control; a primary zoom control and a cassette hatch on the right side; a rear battery well that accommodates cells of varying capacities; a flip-out, color LCD and image-quality controls on the left side; and manual focus and zoom rings on a fixed lens with a removable hood.
The viewfinder features a large eyecup, and since it's placed at the center of the camera, you can use it with either eye.
At 3.5 inches diagonal, the DVX100's LCD allows for easy viewing of the camera's images, greatly facilitating handheld work with a model that's somewhat heavy for its class. The DVX100 weighs in at approximately four pounds with the standard battery and a cassette loaded. The viewfinder eyecup is capacious, although the color viewfinder offers lower resolution than the flip-out screen, which can make focusing a challenge. Status displays on the shooting screen are the most complete that we've seen and are configurable, so you can eliminate status displays that you don't want to monitor.
The cassette hatch consolidates the two-step closing mechanisms usually found in other cameras into one simple action--just press the exterior cover closed.
The many professional features available on the DVX100 necessitate numerous controls, but they are nonetheless well organized and easily accessible. Separate switches keep the most often-used settings--such as autofocus, iris, gain, white balance, and neutral density filter--discrete and easy to change. A rear-mounted dial lets you select from six combinations of image settings for different shooting situations. Panasonic supplies commonly used presets, each of which you can reconfigure to suit your own scenes. However, you can't download and share those settings among multiple cameras, as you can with some higher-end units.
that you've heard so much about in reference to this camera stands for 24-frame Progressive
mode. That means this camera can capture 24 frames per second (fps)--the same rate as a 16mm or 35mm movie camera running at normal speed--and that each of those frames is captured as a complete image (rather than as two interlaced fields, each with only half the available horizontal lines).
After the release of Stars Wars Episode II,
which was filmed in 24P, this mode caught on with digital filmmakers because it lets them begin with a digital medium, move footage seamlessly into digital postproduction, then transfer it to 16mm or 35mm film for theatrical distribution with even less fuss than using a PAL camera requires. The DVX100 is the only camera in its price range to offer true progressive capture at 24fps; it can also shoot 30fps progressive or 60fps interlaced video.
Behind the flip-out LCD, you'll find audio controls and other useful features.
Reflecting its broadcast-division heritage, the DVX100 brings a remarkable array of professional features to its price category. Among those features are selectable gamma curves for adjusting the tonal characteristics of your image; XLR inputs for connecting professional microphones; phantom microphone power so that you won't need battery-driven mikes; two-channel audio-level controls and monitors; scene files to store customized settings for up to six different shooting situations; SMPTE color bars to reference for subsequent color correction (in interlaced mode only); variable white and black settings to adapt to different lighting types; changeable pedestals to set the brightness level that triggers zebra-stripe overexposure indicators; and shutter-speed selections to eliminate the rolling horizontal bands that otherwise mar shots with TVs or computer monitors in them.
A wealth of shooting adjustments are easily accessible through physical controls.
Other cameras, such as Sony's PD150 and VX2000
, as well as Canon's GL2
, have some of these features, but the DVX100 simply has more options, including onscreen focus zoom reference numbers. This Panasonic even covers finer points such as a choice of how mirroring works on the flip-out LCD.
The only feature that we missed was the ability to boost the gain in progressive mode to lighten a dark shot while retaining the depth of field that we wanted. Gain adjustments can be made in interlaced mode only. There is no digital zoom, and you won't find a flash-media option for capturing high-quality stills, but we don't think that this camera's audience will miss those features much.
Although the DVX100 lets you connect professional microphones, it comes equipped with a top-mounted onboard stereo mike as well. Unfortunately, noise from both the zoom motor and the autofocus mechanism were significant enough to be recorded through that onboard mike. We've never encountered such a noisy autofocus in a high-end camera. When we used the autofocus and the zoom servo, we had to resort to attaching a shotgun microphone pointed at a recording angle narrow enough to exclude such unwanted noise.
You can attach pro-audio equipment via the XLR ports and select servo-controlled or cam-driven manual zoom by flipping the switch under the lens.
Panasonic put an optically stabilized Leica Dicomar fixed lens on the DVX100. It offers a relatively short 10X zoom range and limits framing flexibility on the telephoto end, although the zoom's wide-angle capability is quite good, with a maximum of 32.5mm (35mm camera equivalent). Panasonic also has plans to sell wide and 16:9 conversion lenses for the camera. Although noisy, the zoom and the autofocus otherwise work well, producing pleasingly smooth transitions in field of view and corresponding focal changes. We wished for a tad more damping on the lens-mounted zoom ring--it takes practice to avoid jerky changes in hand-actuated zooming speed. However, the cam-driven manual-zoom option is yet another feature that sets this model apart from competitors that offer servo-controlled zoom only.
The color viewfinder and the large LCD display two-digit reference numbers reflecting zoom and focus settings that you can note during rehearsal, then return to during your shoot for rapid, accurate zoom and focal changes. That's especially important since there's no autofocus available in progressive mode. This system is not as good as having focus marks on the lens barrel, but it's better than competitive offerings from Canon and Sony. The DVX100 produces pleasing images, some of which we saw blown up to 35mm to stunning effect. But even if you opt to distribute your material on video, the camera's extensive image controls and 24fps capture rate can still imbue your work with a filmic look. The Leica Dicomar lens, mated to three 1/3-inch CCDs, gives good color reproduction, yet images suffer from significant moiré artifacting in areas of high contrast, such as where bands of dissimilar colors intersect.
The camera captures ample detail in both highlights and shadow areas. Image shown at 50 percent.
As we noted in the Features section, this Panasonic's progressive mode lacks gain adjustment, which results in darker images when there's insufficient light to obtain a clear image with the aperture fully open. To counteract this problem, you'll be forced to open the aperture more than your depth-of-field preferences would otherwise dictate. We also encountered a difference in the performance of the auto-iris in progressive mode, even without a change in gain: it consistently closed down the iris one-half to two f-stops more in 24-frame progressive mode than in 60fps interlaced mode.
White balance and black-point settings are both adjustable. The default white setting yielded a somewhat warm image, in the vein popularized by Canon's XL1 and carried over to the XL1S
and the GL2. Gain up to 18dB is available in interlaced mode only, and, as expected, boosting it produces a moderate degree of noise in dark colors and blacks.