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October / 2003

Reviewing the Panasonic DVX100 Mini-DV Camera
“Some serious shortcomings” but “it does Deliver an exceptionally nice image”

By Christopher Ball csc

I recently used the Panasonic AG-DVX100 progressive scan digital video camera on the Halifax production of the CBC teen music series Rock Camp. Although this widely acclaimed mini-DV camcorder delivers a significantly improved image over most other “pro-sumer” video cameras, there are, in my opinion, some serious shortcomings that make it less of a “pro” camera than has been reported.

CHRISTOPHER BALL csc using the Panasonic DVX100 with a home-made, remote viewfinder prototype.
CHRISTOPHER BALL csc using the Panasonic DVX100 with a home-made, remote viewfinder prototype.


(After an extensive Canada-wide search among hundreds of applicants, 18 aspiring young Canadian rock musicians, aged 14 to 18, were chosen by Collideascope Digital Productions Inc. to spend three weeks at Rock Camp. , an “exciting and edgy” music documentary series, produced in association with the CBC, that was shot in Halifax in August. Rock Camp. will broadcast in spring 2004.)

The DVX100 provides the choice of operating in interlaced 30 fps, progressive 30 fps or progressive 24 fps. We were using the DVX at 30 fps progressive for this production.

In all progressive modes, several functions of the camera are inexplicably shut down, including the colour bar generator, the gain control and the auto focus. There is some sort of automatic gain that kicks in, although as a result it means you never really know what your gain levels are.

The disabled auto-focus would not normally be a problem, except for the fact that the worst design element of the camera is the focusing system. It has (as do many “home/amateur” cameras) a digital focusing system that is frustrating to use and would make it virtually impossible in a drama situation. There is no optical focus in the lens of this camera, so that the focusing is happening internally, perhaps at the pickup or electronically. Whatever the method, it is a failure, and they should abandon the concept and go back to the tried and true optical approach!

(Electronic designers often forget the fact that there are over 100 years of design and development in optics and camera design that they are free to use, but they seem to want to change things.)

The focus ring turns continuously and there are no markings on the barrel. The viewfinder has an arbitrary read-out from 00 to 99, which is supposed to indicate where you are on the focal range, but it does not correspond to feet and inches and it has very rough accuracy. If you focus at, say 67, re-focus somewhere else and come back to 67, the original object is no longer in focus.

Essentially, you are 100-per-cent dependent on eye focus, but the internal viewfinder is of little help for this because it is an LCD rather than a CCD. (When viewed through the eyepiece lens, the thicker lines of an LCD are magnified and give soft edges, as opposed to a sharper CCD screen, which is essentially a miniature television). The internal viewfinder is also very dim and the brightness adjustment does little to improve it. The only way to judge focus is with the much higher quality flip-out viewfinder on the side, which is hard to see outdoors in bright conditions, and would be impractical in the winter (due to the tendency of LCD screens to freeze up in the cold). If the auto-focus could be enabled, at least you could rough in your focus marks with that. If you were to use this camera for a project that you intend to blow up to film, be prepared for a lot of soft shots!

Aside from the focus, a significant oversight on these cameras is the fact that you cannot jam timecode. The camera does generate real, useable timecode, which is great except that there is no way to jam it with other cameras or with a DAT recorder. We did not use the internal timecode, but had to “waste” one of the sound channels to record external timecode and strap a heavy timecode generator to each camera. (Since we were recording live music, we needed to be in sync with several DAT and DA88 machines as well as with other cameras). Again, this leaves the internal timecode with little useful function, especially in a drama situation where you would be recording separate sound.

The record roll-up time is frustratingly long (even from standby). Having just shot a documentary on film, where about one-quarter of a second is used in the roll-up, this camera was extremely annoying when it took anywhere from three to six seconds to engage the record head. Regular professional cameras, such as Betacams, have a standby mode that reduces that roll-up period to about one second. The DVX has two choices, the very slow-to-roll “standby” mode or a shutdown mode, where the camera just shuts off after a few minutes. What it needs is a real standby mode. For a documentary project, this is a huge setback as it was impossible to catch those sudden spontaneous moments. You can imagine how agonizing it was to watch a great moment go by while the REC light is flashing “standby.”

The iris control on the camera is placed in a spot where it often gets “bumped” inadvertently when operating the camera hand-held. It is also very difficult to locate if you want to do an unexpected iris pull within the shot. Although the iris control works well, the iris ring should be a thumb wheel located behind the hand-holding strap or in the good old-fashioned spot … on a lens ring!

Some smaller annoyances include the motorized zoom control that is a bit dodgy (sudden start and stop), so I just used in on manual mode; the long end of the lens was not very “long” so a telephoto adapter of some sort might be necessary for some projects; and the “end search” never worked, so I always cued up manually.

On the plus side, the camera is pretty comfortable to operate and, as you will see on Rock Camp. , it does deliver an exceptionally nice image once you get past the frustrations of operating it. The menu system is easy to navigate and there are a lot of options within the menus, such as good control of colour temp, gamma, master ped level, etc. If Panasonic were to add a real optical focus (interchangeable lenses might be an idea, too), allow full functionality in the progressive mode, add a CCD viewfinder, add a timecode port, and improve the roll-up time, they could deliver a high-end “pro” camera for the next version.

(Editor’s note: For an earlier evaluation of the DVX100, by Richard Stringer csc, see the March, 2003, issue of the CSC News, available on line at www.csc.ca/news/archives.asp

Christopher Ball csc is an award-winning cinematographer based in Halifax.

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