Recently I attended DV Expo West in Los Angeles, where I spoke to Panasonic's Jan Crittenden Livingston about the company's new AG-AF100 camcorder, which made our 2010 Winner's Circle list when it was still under glass at NAB 2010 in April, and is scheduled to ship in late December.
At $4,995 without any lens, the AG-AF100 seeks to give some added capability and performance to people who may be shooting video with a DSLR or thinking about it. It's been touted as the first sub-$5,000 product in a traditional camcorder body to deliver image quality and low-light performance on par with DSLRs, along with comparable lens interchangeability and depth-of-field control. The camera can accept a whole array of 35mm still and motion picture lenses with the help of adapters if necessary. Behind the lens is a newly designed single 4/3" MOS sensor.
Around the sensor, Panasonic has built a camcorder to take advantage of its huge imager. The AG-AF100 has a large 4" flipout LCD on the left side, two XLR inputs for audio on the right, a handle on top, and two SDHC/SDXC slots in back to record the high-bitrate AVCCAM footage. Below the slots are the battery receptacle, and jacks for SDI, HDMI, and a host of other outputs. Above the battery is a viewfinder, an most importantly on the right side is a handgrip, where you'd expect it, sans the zoom rocker.
The first question I asked Crittenden was, "Do you see the AG-AF100 as the HD-DSLR killer?" To my surprise, she said "no." According to Crittenden, there will always be people who go the cheaper route of getting the DSLR with a couple of lenses and start shooting for half the price of the AF100. But she maintains that they would be losing image quality, though, as the AF100 won't have the moire issues the DSLRs that aren't optimized for video have.
The way I see it, the AG-AF100 may save you money over a DSLR in the short term. DSLRs are built, physically, for taking still photos. Their continuous record times max out at 12 minutes. The typical demands of videography work such as holding the camera for prolonged periods of video recording, and capturing pro-quality audio are issues that will cost you a few more dollars in accessories. While many AF100 users may find themselves opting for a Zacuto-type rig for shooting, it is probably less necessary for the AF100, as its body was designed for video shooting. These rigs may range from $500 and to around $3,000, depending on what you need. If you want rails and a follow focus it will cost you the same for either camera.
For run-and-gun handheld work, the AF100 has an edge. A lot of that has to do with audio. The DSLRs audio is generally good for nothing but a reference track with which to sync audio from an external recorder (such as the recently reviewed Tascam DR100) that can cost $300–$500. Not to mention that the audio recorder is sometimes attached to the rig, giving a lone shooter two things to monitor, or requiring a second person to monitor audio. The AF100 has built-in professional audio circuitry with professional XLR connectors, a headphone out, and manual audio levels. If you're already accustomed to doing audio and video at the same time, the AF100 will probably work well for you. I can see the AF100 needing fewer accessories to acclimate it to video use, evening out the cost with DSLRs.
The AG-AF100 also allows you to capture still photos when the camera is in REC and REC/PAUSE modes. Because this camera is optimized for motion recording, the Still picture quality is the same quality as the camera's highest video quality capabilities (1920x1080 or about 2 MP). The "Capture" function can be assigned to one of the camera's three User Buttons, which are located next to the hand grip. Obviously, this is no replacement for a state-of-the-art professional digital still camera, or even a contemporary consumer model, so those of you for whom DSLRs have brought photography into your arsenals will find no "DSLR killer" here.
In the end, it was great to get a close look at this camera at DV Expo. I've been quite impressed with the AF100 samples I've seen online and would really like to try shooting with it when it is available. DSLRs have piqued my interest, and I know many event shooters who have made the transition to DSLRs and swear they'll never go back. But for me, as a 20+ year veteran of video cameras, the AF100 looks like something I could adjust to much more quickly.