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Hands on with the ambitious Panasonic DVX200 - Part One

7 minute read

PanasonicThe Panasonic DVX200: An ambitious camera with a stunning lens

Roland Denning takes a hands-on look at the new $4000 Panasonic DVX200 and finds an ambitious unit with some great features for the price, notably an amazing Leica built-in 4K zoom.

The DVX200 is a 4K hand-held camera with a Micro4/3 (MFT) sensor and a built-in Leica 13 to 1 zoom, list-priced at around £3000 + VAT in the UK (around $4000 in the US). It is not quite like any other video camera currently on the market and when offered a chance to review one, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

We all know that the trend in the last decade has been towards large sensor cameras to enable shallow depth of field, high sensitivity and high resolution, spurred on by the DSLR revolution. I have argued on these pages a few times that shallow depth of field is not always desirable, particularly when you are making documentaries. Although my preference would be for a sensor closer to Super 16mm in size, the MFT sensor, which is still more than four times the size of that in a traditional 2/3” broadcast camera, is a good compromise, enabling backgrounds to go soft when you want it (typically for interviews) yet to retain enough DoF when you are shooting on the run and want more than the tip of someone’s noise to be in focus.

The 4K sensor has been compared to that in the Panasonic GH4 stills camera but I reckon it is closer to that in the 20 megapixel sensor in the GX8. Panasonic claims about 12 stops of dynamic range. Will it look like that in practice?

Hand-held vs shoulder-mounted

My preference is for shoulder-mounted cameras - I have been raised on them, having owned and operated an ArriSR, an Aaton XTR, a Betacam BVW300 and DVCam DSR300 and numerous smaller cameras. However, I currently own a Panasonic HPX250 for my personal use - a camera with a very similar form factor to the DVX200.

The hand-held format for professional use came in with DV cameras back in the 1990s, followed by Sony’s HDV range and cameras like Panasonic’s P2-based HVX200. Many cameras in the hand-held category are now rather heavy to be supported by a hand for long so it’s good to see the BlackMagic Ursa Mini buck this trend by putting a viewfinder on the side rather than the back of the camera.

Of course, shoulder-mounted broadcast cameras with large zoom lenses never went away, but DV cameras and the video-capable stills cameras that followed in the wake have opened up a market for smaller cameras capable of broadcast quality pictures but at a fraction of broadcast-standard prices. The market for these are indie filmmakers, documentarists who work on their own or travel light, videographers and all those who want to own their own gear but do not have regular broadcast-level budgets. There is clearly a need for manufacturers to maintain their traditional high-end broadcast market and yet not undercut it with the larger market of those with less money but who want high quality pictures - and this might explain the segmentation between hand-held and (higher priced) shoulder-mount cameras.

A day's shoot on two cards

The DVX200 records on to two SDXC cards. In 8-bit 4:2:0. Some will immediately gasp in horror - yes, that is not going to get, in theory, past the technical threshold for most broadcasters. But there is a reason for this: Panasonic decided this camera should be able to record an average day’s shoot in UHD or 4K on a couple of inexpensive SD cards. And it can. A 128GB SDXC card costs around £45 and gives you 110 minutes of UHD recording at 60fps (or 160 minutes of 4k at 24fps). In comparison, the Ursa Mini will record around 48 minutes of UHD ProRes 422 on a similar capacity CFast 2 card costing around 8 times that. It’s clearly a compromise, but 8-bit 4:2:0 can look very good - it is, after all, the format used for BluRay and all HD TV transmissions. Broadcast standards aside, if you are not shooting chromakey or going for complex grading or effects, do you really need 4:2:2?

The good news is the DVX200 does output 4K 10-bit 4:2:2 through its HDMI port so, if you need that extra quality and flexibility, you can rent in or buy a separate recorder.

Moreover, you can shoot in UHD 4:2:0 and downscale to 4:2:2 HD in post - a solution which, in principle, should satisfy broadcasters (although there is still some debate as to whether that downscaling-to-4:2:2 notion is valid). In-camera recording of UHD or 4K is restricted to 4:2:0 but, to be frank, if you are delivering in UHD to one of the very few TV channels who demand it, then you can afford a much grander camera than this. Having said all that, it is still a pity that you can not record 4:2:2 HD in camera.

The astounding Leica zoom

So far so good, but what makes the DVX200 special is the lens. This is a non-detachable 13 to 1, Leica-branded 4K zoom lens with a maximum stop of f2.8. Some bloggers have decried this move, saying it is a retrograde step, an insult to the indie filmmakers who have been building up a collection of prime lenses. I think this misses the point: it’s really impossible to say what the lens would be worth on it own as there is simply nothing else like it on the market; the nearest thing to it are high-end B4 or PL mount zooms costing many, many times the price of this camera. In the MFT world the closest you get are zooms made for stills cameras, like the Lumix 12-35mm f2.8 - less than 3 to 1 and inappropriate in many ways for video use (like lacking a manual aperture or power zoom). As in many Panasonic products, it is Leica-approved rather then Leica-manufactured, but I have yet to see that esteemed German company allow its name to be used on anything but a high quality product.

The only way a high quality 4K capable lens can be made at this price is to design the camera around it so that flaws in the lens - like chromatic aberration and barrel distortion - can be compensated for digitally. The downside of built-in lens is, obviously, that you can’t make use of the excellent MFT prime lenses that are now available.

To me, this is what makes the camera stand out from the crowd. I have argued many times that to shoot ‘real’ documentaries - that is, shooting life as it happens - a zoom lens is a necessity, not a convenience; the real world doesn’t stop for you to change lenses. Unless you are shooting a doc consisting of interviews and G.V.s (and, yes, I know some great docs have been made that way) you need to able to re-frame as you shoot, cover wide shots and pick up details as you go.

The DVX200 in practice

In principle, that Leica zoom sounds great - but just what is it like in practice?

To answer that and all the other questions raised I decided to shoot a short doc with the camera. If you are looking for lots of test charts and measurements I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed; I’m much more interested in how the camera works in the field and the programmes you can make with it.

Just a word on 4K - without a doubt, 4K/UHD is with us whether we need it or not. Consumers want to buy 4K TVs since they are there in the shops, and producers want 4K cameras not only to future-proof their productions but for the increased quality, even if they are going to deliver in HD, plus the ability to re-frame shots for HD and maintaining resolution. Apart from cinemas, where 4K will become the norm, I believe HD will remain the dominant form of delivery for the few next years. A good HD source upscaled to UHD will satisfy most consumers unless they watch with their noses pressed up against the screen. For this reason, most of my test filming for this camera will be shot in UHD and recorded on the internal cards but downscaled to HD for editing and distribution - just as it is likely to be in the real world.

The initial unboxing is, perhaps, underwhelming. It’s well made enough, but I personally think that some elements of the look and the feel trend more towards the consumer end of the spectrum: I don’t like the fact buttons and sockets (including the headphone socket) are covered by rigid, hinged plastic doors that I doubt will last long in day-to-day professional use, for example. But as soon as you switch it on things get better quickly.

The OLED viewfinder is good and the LCD screen is sharp and looks great. Menus can be operated either by touchscreen or jog wheel but menu design, as in many Japanese cameras, leaves something to be desired. 

Huge range of options

There is a huge range of options to set-up the ‘look’ the camera can deliver via 23 separate parameters that can be saved to Scene Files. It is at this point that that the DVX200 ceases to look like a consumer camera. Six pre-set Scene Files are provided although, sadly, there is only the briefest description of what these looks actually are.

There are 12 user-set buttons (8 on the camera and 4 on the touchscreen) but you will soon wish there are more. There are HDMI, SDI, TC in/out ports and Panasonic’s standard minijack sockets for remote zoom, focus and iris.

An enormous range of formats are on offer: 4K, UHD, HD and SD in .mp4, .mov, and AVCHD. All standard frame rates are offered except for 4K which is 24p only. Bit rates peak at 200Mbps (that’s for HD using the all-Intra codec - UHD bitrate maxes out at 150). You can also record in V-Log L for extended latitude but I have been advised this is only really worth doing if you are outputting to 10-bit. Variable speed shooting up to 120fps is available on HD, 60fps on UHD.

There are two regular XLR audio inputs but one is at the top of the camera, near to where you would put an on-board mic and the other is, more conventionally, at the side of the camera towards the rear. There is a certain logic to this but also an assumption that you are unlikely to be working with a separate 2-channel mixer or a stereo mic, and sound recordists are likely to feel rejected.

An automatic sensor switches between the flip-out screen and the viewfinder as you put your eye to the latter. There’s a useful level indicator in the viewfinder and an excellent focus assist: it red-lines peaks and/or gives you an expanded section within your screen - and degree of magnification, position and size are adjustable. Having good focus assist is, of course, essential with UHD. Waveform, vectorscope and zebra displays are also on offer. There is 5-axis stabilisation in HD but only 3-axis in UHD and 4K.

The two SD-card slots (SDXC UHS Class 3 cards up to 128GB) which you can use this sequentially or simultaneously - in the latter mode, as back-up or to record in two formats simultaneously. You can download directly from the SD cards to a USB 3 drive without needing a computer.

In building a low-cost, high-performance camera like this, certain compromises have to be made. As well as the internal recording capabilities being limited to 8-bit 4:2:0, there are limitations relating to the sensor crop. There are excellent papers by Barry Green on this and other technical factors of the camera on the Panasonic site, but suffice to say, owing to constraints in processing the number of pixels 4K requires, the sensor is cropped differently in different modes and this affects the field of view: in HD the widest angle is equivalent to 28mm (in 35mm full-frame terms), in UHD 25/30p this is 30.6mm and in UHD 50/60p it is reduced to 37mm. However I think these are minor limitations on a camera as ambitious as this.

My report on how what this camera is actually like to operate and the results it produces will be in the second part of this review but, as a teaser, I will leave you with some tests I did to see to whether that Leica lens ‘breathes’ (zooms when you pull focus). I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Tags: Production