Review: Panasonic AG-DVX200 Offers 4-K Capable Camcorder for Doc-Makers

Excellent for run-and-gun scenarios


The Panasonic AG-DVX200 is an excellent 4K-capable camcorder for documentary, offering perhaps the best value for money of any camera in its class. The AG-DVX200 is suited to documentary filmmakers who want some of the benefits of a large sensor camera without the impracticality and limitations of DSLRs/mirrorless cameras, which are particularly problematic for run-and-gun vérité filming.

ERGONOMICS/APPEARANCE

Don’t underestimate the camera based on its appearance: though its flashy red metallic panel makes it look more like a prosumer product than a professional tool, the AG-DVX200 is in fact a fully featured professional video camera.

At ~7lbs, the DVX200 is similar to other cameras in its class. In the majority of filming scenarios, users will find this camera to be relatively compact and lightweight, considering its depth of features.

Much thought has been put into the layout and accessibility of controls. All the standard controls are in the standard places, and a number of additional user-programmable buttons allows each user to customize the camera controls to include easy access to the most frequently accessed functions.


I especially appreciate the “push auto” function. Even for experienced camera people, who are typically shooting all-manual, the ability to establish sharp focus and accurate exposure instantly in a changing scene, and then immediately revert back to manual shooting, is an essential feature, and conveniently accessible on this camera with a dedicated button.

Bolstering the camera’s usability are threaded holes on top of the camera (both 1/4’ and 3/8’), which allow you to attach accessories like an external monitor, and its variable servo zoom, which is highly responsive to subtle pressure differences applied on the rocker, and thus capable of extremely slow zooms.

A few things do take getting used to. The flip-out side panel encloses controls, like audio controls, that some might prefer immediate access to. Likewise, the battery compartment at the back of the camera has a click-closed door that, while tidier from a design perspective, seems unnecessary. And rather strangely, and unlike any other camera I’ve ever seen, the two audio inputs are not placed together at the front of the camera: one input is now located at the back right side of the camera. The camera’s menu navigation is also a little clumsy.

Overall, the camera is well designed and new users will quickly grow comfortable operating it with ease.

LENS

The lens has a range of 12.8mm to 167mm (full-frame 35mm equivalents: 29.5mm–384.9 mm in 4K (4096 × 2160), and 28mm–365.3 mm in Full HD (1920×1080)). Personally, I’d sacrifice some focal length on the zoom range to have better wide-angle capability.

4/3” SENSOR

The DVX200’s sensor is an upgraded version of the 4/3” sensor from Panasonic’s highly esteemed GH4 mirrorless camera. As such, it comes close to some of the same aesthetic qualities, namely shallow depth of field (DOF) and exceptional low light performance. Note, however, that the DVX200’s built in lens’ limited aperture—f2.8 at the wide end of the lens, and an even smaller f4.5 for the entire focal range of 85mm–167mm—imposes an upper ceiling on both of these aesthetic properties.

12-STOP DYNAMIC RANGE & V-LOG L COLOUR PROFILE

The AG-DVX200 camera offers an incredible 12 stops of dynamic range when filming in its V-Log L colour profile. Combining the 4/3” sensor with the versatility of the V-Log L colour profile means the images can be colour-graded to limitless different looks. The camera also offers eight different internal looks accessible as easily selectable SCENE files.

What is perhaps more salient to the doc maker who is usually more interested in achieving realism than such stylized looks, is the way a flat profile will allow some latitude for “fixing” their imperfect footage. A flat colour profile provides some insurance against user error, slight over- or underexposure, or white balance inaccuracies.

On that note, the DVX200 features an admirable range of white balance functions. The standard 3200K & 5600K options do not occupy the programmable WB settings on the physical WB switch, leaving them available to be programmed to other white balance settings yielding four quickly accessible white balance presets in addition to the custom option, VAR, which allows one to punch in their specific Kelvin value.

NB: This camera’s sensor has the capability to capture a high-quality 4K, 10-bit 4:2:2 image, but the camera is not set up to record this file internally, where the internal codecs are all limited to recording 8-bit 4:2:0 files, compressing the file’s colour information. The higher quality file is desirable if one wants to full exploit the power of the V-Log L profile. The workaround for those wanting to record higher quality images is using the HDMI output terminal, outputting the image as it is captured at the sensor, allowing uncompressed recording of 10-bit 4:2:2 image by external recorders. This necessitates a separate piece of hardware, which can be a nuisance ergonomically and in set-up.

IMAGE STABILIZATION (OIS)

The DVX200 combines stabilization at both the lens and the sensor, resulting in handheld images that are substantially smoother and more forgiving of camera shake than the norm. In fact, I believe it to be the most effective stabilization I have ever seen from any lens/camera combination, making it very attractive to documentarians interested in shooting handheld vérité.

FOCUS: LCD MONITOR/EYECUP & FOCUS-ASSIST

The LCD monitor—well protected within a compartment at the front of the camera, giving the camera its characteristic “hammer head” appearance—is large and extremely high in pixel density (1.77 million dots), which is essential for achieving sharp focus in 4K. Still, no monitor of such a small size can have resolution sufficiently high for judging tack sharp focus of a 4K image, making the camera’s extensive focus-assist functions essential. The camera’s FOCUS ASSIST button can be programmed to trigger either focus peaking, magnifying (EXPAND), or both simultaneously, while the adjacent programmable USER allow independent control of both functions.

The camera also has a very helpful auto focus feature called “area function” which can track a moving subject. The ability to identify one’s subject and then track focus on that subject wherever they move in the frame is very useful, particularly in 4K, where even a veteran DP will struggle to retain tack sharp manual focus on a moving subject.

Focus Assist functions: PEAKING and EXPAND


There are, unfortunately, a couple usability issues relating to the LCD. While other cameras allow the viewfinder to move forwards or backwards, this camera limits it to a perpendicular position. The perpendicular display is optimal for shooting from immediately behind the camera, but being able to bend the monitor forward or backwards can be necessary in documentary shooting, where one is often shooting in tight spaces. This camera does not allow it.

Another minor annoyance is the light-sensitive sensor built into the eyecup (EVF), which, when covered, turns off the LCD screen. Unfortunately, it gets covered inadvertently all the time, so the screen is constantly shutting off. There is an imperfect workaround in the menu: one can choose to activate either the LCD screen or EVF to display the image. By selecting the LCD, it will remain active 100% of the time. But the menu option is either/or: it is not possible to have both the EVF and the LCD screen function simultaneously.

STORAGE MEDIA & MEDIA MANAGEMENT

Following the trend of other professional cameras, the DVX200 records to consumer media, which are relatively affordable. This camera offers direct backup to hard drives without an intermediary computer—an excellent feature, especially for off-the-beaten-path doc shoots.

Another great feature for media management is dual-slot media recording, which records two versions of the footage simultaneously to both SD cards using two different codecs, allowing one to finish the shoot day with both their online and offline versions of the footage ready.

The camera sets an upper bit rate limit of 100 Mbps for 4K, and 150 Mbps for UHD. It’s unfortunate that it does not max out the bit rate for its 4K codec at 200Mbps instead of just 100 Mbps

SPECIAL FEATURES

ZOOM

Recording in 4K allows one to emulate a second camera by cropping a full-HD close-up image for intercutting with the wider 4K shot when one is delivering in FHD and does not require the full 4K resolution for their final output.


Recording in 4K allows one to emulate a second camera by cropping a full-HD close-up image for intercutting with the wider 4K shot when one is delivering in FHD and does not require the full 4K resolution for their final output.

A fabulous new feature in this camera is i.zoom (intelligent zoom). This feature extends the 13X optical zoom with an effectively lossless digital zoom by cropping a portion of the 4K sensor image to capture a full-resolution 1080p HD image—effectively extending the zoom range of the camera from 13x to 20x when shooting in HD.

VARIABLE FRAME RATE RECORDING

The camera features variable frame rate HD recording settings, recording anything from 2-120 fps, with the ability to create a time-lapse effect at one end of the range and a slow motion effect at the other. The ability to record at high frame rates has been one of the most attractive features of cameras several times the price of this camera and is rather extraordinary to see here. At the highest frame rates it is not possible to record 4K, and it sacrifices some focal range at the wide end. Nonetheless, 120fps HD recording is a very impressive feature for a camera at this price point.

PRE-RECORD FUNCTION

The PRE-RECORD function, when engaged, constantly caches approximately four seconds of video and audio data in MOV/MP4 format, or approximately three seconds in AVCHD format, prior to Rec Start, so the footage can be recovered in case there is a delay in pressing Rec Start. In doc shooting, those additional three seconds can make all the difference between catching the moment and missing it. This feature will surely prove a lifesaver!

RACK FOCUS

The DVX200’s automated rack focus function pulls off the difficult manoeuvre flawlessly: the user can simply tap the focus points on the screen and have the camera automatically rack focus between touch points, allowing the amateur to achieve highly cinematic aesthetics.

MACRO MODE

This camera has a macro mode for shooting objects at extreme proximity to the camera lens—as close as 10cm from the lens. The macro function achieves an impressive bokeh effect in the image, due to the large size sensor.

NIGHT VISION

The camera’s night vision function relies on infrared light emitted by the camera and reflected by objects in front of the camera, so is very effective at close proximity; in larger spaces, or when subjects are more than a few metres from the camera lens, the use of additional infrared light is necessary to expose an image.

CONCLUSION

For the budget-conscious documentary maker looking for a 4K-capable documentary camera, the DVX200 offers excellent value. It is a fully featured camera, with a number of new innovative features not seen on other cameras. Its image stabilization, focus-assist features, storage media, variable frame rate recording capability, pre-record function, and 12-stop dynamic range combined with the V-Log L colour profile are very attractive features, especially for a relatively lightweight and inexpensive camera.

Issues include the rigid LCD screen and its tendency to shut off; the inability to capture the camera’s 4-K, 4:2:2 10-bit images in camera, necessitating a burdensome and expensive external hard disk recorder; the limitations of the lens, which is not fast enough to fully capitalize on the power of the large image sensor; and thus, the compromised depth of field and low-light capability that result.

Nevertheless, in a run-and-gun filming scenario, the DVX200 is an excellent choice of camera. Its drawbacks are worthy trade-offs considering all the essential features this camera provides. Incorporating the DVX200 into a more complete 4K-capable documentary filming kit, the sensible accompaniment would be the Panasonic GH4 mirrorless camera for low light shooting and static interviews when one is seeking shallower DOF (bokeh). One would also want a couple of fast prime lenses in order to fully exploit the power of the GH4’s 4/3” sensor and achieve both of these aesthetic qualities. The GH4 is small and relatively affordable, offering similar value as the DVX200.

Please visit Panasonic for more information on the DVX200.

Jason O’Hara is head of Seven Generations, a Toronto-based documentary production company. His work as cinematographer and sound recorder has been featured on the CBC’s The Nature of Things and The Fifth Estate, TVO’s Why Poverty? series, in a number of theatrical documentaries, and on television news in Brazil, Venezuela and the U.S. O’Hara is currently in the final days of a crowdfunding campaign to complete State of Exception, a documentary about families facing forced evictions in Rio de Janeiro before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. O’Hara teaches documentary directing and production in Ryerson’s documentary media MFA programme. Jason Is currently in the final days of a crowdfunding campaign, seeking to raise a post-production budget to complete State of Exception.

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