The Ultimate Compact 4K Camcorder
There are shooters for whom the DVX200 holds little appeal. These folks — and maybe you’re one of them — are adamant and will only consider a 4K camcorder fitted with an interchangeable lens. And for these shooters I can safely say there is a long list of cameras to choose from, including the Sony FS5 and FS7, the AJA Cion, and the Blackmagic Ursa.
So why look at the Panasonic DVX200 with its non-interchangeable lens? Because unless you are shooting primarily for digital cinema, professional sports, or wildlife, and are willing to invest in a top-of-the-line camera with precision optics, Panasonic’s DVX200 with an integrated 13x zoom makes a helluva lot more sense.
Some 90% of us (our hopes and dreams notwithstanding) earn our living in the nonfiction arena, shooting corporate and industrial programs, news, documentaries, legal and educational programs, weddings and events. For these types of productions — the ones that actually earn us a living — the DVX200 lens is very well suited. It's able to shoot macro close-ups of machinery in a factory one minute, and then a shallow-depth-of-field interview with the company president the next.
Most feature films demand a higher class of camera, like Panasonic’s flagship VariCam 35. But at a mere $4,695 MSRP the DVX200 performs much better, produces sharper pictures, and is more versatile than any other 4K camcorder (or DSLR) on the market in roughly the same price range.
Panasonic's AG-DVX200 is the most powerful mid-range camera the company has ever produced. Upgrading DSLR shooters will no doubt marvel at the DVX200's vast high-end capabilities — and be confounded by them.
Despite this logic, many shooters will nevertheless demand a camcorder with the flexibility to mount long, short, wide, or whatever optics they please, as the need and job arises.
The premise seems reasonable, yet we know from research that only a small percentage of shooters actually take advantage of their camera’s interchangeable lens capability, and when they do they simply replace one cheap lens for another. For many shooters in the documentary and nonfiction realm the ability to swap lenses is hardly worth it, given the practical and very real performance compromises that go with it.
Most modern camcorders with fixed lenses perform better than similar-class camcorders with interchangeable optics. Panasonic was the first major camera manufacturer to offer chromatic aberration compensation (CAC), an onboard lens optimization strategy implemented via software to reduce the visibility of chromatic aberrations in certain interchangeable lenses. Chromatic aberrations are the main reason low-cost lenses look cheap.
The DVX200 features an integrated 13x zoom lens. Such relatively high magnification is unusual in a large-format 4K camcorder.
The DVX200’s 13x F2.8–4.5 integrated zoom is unique in a compact handheld 4K camcorder. The permanently mounted lens system produces very sharp images free of obvious defects even when fully zoomed in at maximum resolution and magnification. The breathing of focus, barrel distortion, tracking errors, and chromatic aberrations that we would normally expect to see in an economical lens are digitally mapped out and corrected in-camera. The result is very clean, sharp pictures, and not at all what you would expect in a relatively low-priced camcorder.
Beyond the on-board correction afforded by the camera software, a servo-controlled floating rear lens group allows enhanced functionality, including the capability to focus literally up to the front element of the lens. This kind of versatility is simply not achievable in a low- or mid-level camcorder fitted with interchangeable optics.
Latest Generation 4K/5K Sensor
For travel programs and documentaries, the DVX200 is ideal. Its 4K (actually 5K) sensor is unique to the camera. It is not simply repurposed or borrowed from the Lumix GH4.
The DVX200 serves up some of the lowest-noise 4K images yet in a $4000 camcorder. This is due in no small part to the camera’s new 4K (actually 5K) sensor, which is inherently low in noise owing to the large and correspondingly more light-sensitive pixels. The 4/3-type MOS sensor is unique to the DVX200 camera and not, despite rumors to the contrary, repurposed from the Lumix GH4 or earlier generation still cameras.
While the initial units shipped this fall were said to produce relatively noisy images, that is no longer the case with the release of firmware v1.25. The camera now applies edge enhancement in a much more intelligent manner, with the improved shadow integrity contributing to a very low noise floor.
The DVX200's initial noise issues have been significantly ameliorated in the latest firmware, v1.25. Original purchasers of the camera should be sure to apply the update. Today the camera is easily one of the quietest mid-range camcorders on the market, especially in HD.
Fast Scan Mode
Like the Lumix GH4, the DVX200 records true 4K (4096×2160). To achieve this frame, the camera’s native 13.5Mpx sensor captures a 5022px horizontal sample that is subsequently downscaled to 4K, producing images that are wickedly sharp with a nice reduction in noise realized in the process.
While the DVX normally exhibits little shutter skew, especially in FHD (1920×1080), the v1.25 firmware nevertheless included a Fast Scan recording option. The thinking behind the feature is that some skewing or jello effect may still be visible in certain critical applications, like shooting out of helicopters and out the side of moving cars, given the camera’s large sensor and 4K resolution. Keep in mind that Fast Scan is only applicable to UHD recordings at 24, 30, and 60fps, and the benefit is most apparent at 24fps because any skewing at higher frame rates is less noticeable due to the sensor's high read speeds.
Also note that Fast Scan utilizes a reduced 9 Megapixel (UHD) scan, so images are not quite as sharp as the 5K native sensor recording DCI-compliant 4K at 4096px.
Clearance for the matte box. Thank you. The camera's thoughtful design is reflected in the top microphone housing, which allows for easy mounting of a professional matte box.
Referring to a standard DSC reference chart, the DVX200 can legitimately claim to capture 12 stops of latitude when shooting log, aka V-LOG-LITE. Many shooters will prefer to shoot in log to get maximum resolution and picture detail, but understand that most imaging functions like black pedestal and gamma are not accessible and noise reduction is not applied in camera. The proper black level and contrast settings, along with any noise suppression, must be applied later in post-production.
Impressively, the DVX200 V-LOG-L follows a response curve nearly identical to the log function in the VariCam 35. However, the DVX’s less sophisticated sensor runs out of steam at 12 stops while the VariCam extends the curve much further out, to 15 stops or more. So while the log functions of the two cameras are identical, the LUT table applied in the VariCam will not produce the same results in the DVX200, which realizes only eight stops of exposure latitude on the dark side and four at the top end.
After much training and conditioning, many DVX200 shooters will want to apply the age-old credo of ETTR — exposing to the right. The idea of course is to better control the rolloff of highlights to prevent clipping, and thus avoid a distinctively nasty amateur look. However, given the camera's relatively high compression, one or more color channels may be clipping even if the brightness or luminance of a pixel is not. Luminance is seldom if ever compressed in digital media formats but the color often is and heavily so. Thus it is important, as we move into the 4K realm and record internally to the SD card, not to place undue emphasis on the highlights but rather the individual color channels, Most of all, the idea is to avoid blown-out flesh tones, which can be a challenge at higher resolutions and compression ratios.
The camera's heavy-duty handle inspires confidence with multiple drillings to support a light, small monitor and/or mic suspension support.
Low-Cost SD Media
The DVX200 features two SD card slots. Recording 4K internally many users will find the low-cost SDXC media very compelling as spare cards may be readily obtained at Walmart, Costco, or a neighborhood drug store. Unlike Panasonic’s venerable P2 cameras, the DVX200 does not require serial-arrayed proprietary media.
Appealing to schools in particular, the DVX200 does not record in a proprietary format. One simply chooses .mov or .mp4 (or AVCHD) and that’s it. Shooters requiring a fast turnaround, say for weddings and events, can take solace in the camera’s simple workflow, which requires no transcoding or deciphering of cryptic MXF files.
Of course, given the SD recording media there is a trade-off in performance. The 4K recorded internally is 8-bit long-GOP at 4:2:0 resolution. While that may make purists uncomfortable, bear in mind that the DVX200 actually sells for less, in constant dollars, than the DVX100 camera did in 2002. (Thank you, Barry Green, for this insight.) Realistically, the heavy data load emanating from the 5K/4K sensor must be attenuated in one way or another to accommodate the low-cost SD media. Reduced bit depth and color resolution are the inevitable trade-offs for the increased economy.
Still, the camera has enough horsepower to record 4K at 24p at a relatively generous 100Mbps variable bit rate. This integral frame rate seems rather odd at this point in history. We’ve seen it for years of course, in the GH4, in early series Canon 5D cameras, and in film cameras since the late 1920s. While it ensures the best DCI compatibility (as well as frame-accurate film transfers, if you’re still into that sort of thing) the capture of video images at 24fps does present potential pitfalls. The mathematical complexity of converting 24.000 video to 23.976 can lead to artifacts and a significant loss of quality. The trailing audio must also be slowed down, a less traumatic process, perhaps, but nonetheless an additional step.
Having said all this, the DVX200 records all-I-frame UHD (3840×2160) at 23.976 and 29.976 at bit rates of 100Mps and 150Mbps. The non-proprietary all-I-frame option should not be confused with Panasonic’s P2 AVC-Intra format that requires the much higher-speed P2 cards.
Many doc shooters shooting FHD will almost certainly opt to record using the camera’s highest bit-rate setting: all-I-frame 200Mbps. Keep in mind that this setting is very processor intensive, which is why some shooters claim to see better image quality at 100Mbps utilizing long-GOP. It seems counterintuitive to see better results at a lower bit rate (in long GOP no less), but the lower bit rate recording does not incur as heavy a data load and thus less prone to playback anomalies. For DVX200 shooters working primarily in UHD and 4K, the higher data loads may point to the need for a faster computer and NLE platform. It may also be a reason to convert to ProRes for smoother, more hassle-free playback, depending on the editing platform.
The camera can record .mov/mp4 FHD to the secondary recorder as 50Mbps or 8Mbps proxies. AVCHD FHD recording is supported at a wide range of bit rates up to 28Mbps in addition to standard definition. Oh, man — there are just too many choices.
And therein lies a possible rub. Many new shooters or former DSLR users with little prior experience in professional video may feel lost wading through the bewildering number of options. Given the range of choices for basic operation, frame rates, scene files, and compression offerings, a solid grasp of the camera’s prodigious capabilities is imperative in order to take full advantage of it. Thankfully we have Barry Green’s comprehensive, God-given tome as the ultimate guide, and it's available as a free download. In the end, we shooters must consider what we want the camera to do — because the camera can pretty much do it all.
As an example, consider a kooky new feature in the DVX called Background Recording. Not seen previously in a professional camcorder, it works something like this: When the camera is powered up, card #2 automatically goes into record as card #1 subsequently records clips in the usual way. Panasonic opines that Background Recording is ideal for events like weddings where distracted (or possibly inebriated) shooters might potentially miss critical action. The obvious question becomes then: Isn’t this what Pre-Record is for?’ And, yes, the camera offers a Pre-Record capability too, about 3 seconds in HD. (There is no Pre-Record option at higher resolutions — the camera does have its limits.)
Operationally, the camera is very fast acting, which is critical for many documentary shooters. Pull the DVX from a shoulder bag or small travel case and you’re ready to roll without a lot of fuss or fumbling or unnecessary intrigue. Before the DVX200, this level of ease of operation was simply not available in a handheld compact 4K camcorder, regardless of price.
Ergonomically, the DVX200 is extremely well balanced, owing in no small part to the camera’s new base plate, which can serve as a stabilizing wedge when pressed firmly against the operator’s body. The camera is quite lightweight, so at a mere 6.8 lbs (3.1 kg) it is unlikely to serve well as a lead sinker and is thus not suitable for ballast when encountering hostile weather at sea.
Along these lines, when shooting handheld or in unsteady conditions the DVX200 features a very effective image-stabilization system. For reality TV shooters working in unscripted environments the camera’s hybrid optical image stabilization (OIS) may obviate the need for a tripod. The hybrid optical-digital system is applied along five axes in HD; horizontal rolling is cancelled out optically while vertical shake, i.e. sliding up and down, is offset digitally. In 4K/UHD, only the optical stabilization applies, owing to the raster’s much finer pixels that must be reconciled. This means that DVX200 shooters may want to consider some post-camera stabilization options and frame a bit wider in 4K to allow for cropping and stabilizing later. The additional pixels from the wider frame can help reduce the amount of interpolation required in Adobe’s Warp Stabilizer, for example, producing better results.
In addition, the OIS blur and frequency parameters are also settable so doc shooters positioned on a riser at a Flaming Lips concert can tweak the resonating frequency underfoot and remove the vibration. Obviously the DVX200 is no ordinary camera!
Main and Sub Recorders
From an operational and workflow perspective the dual recorder system is probably the camera’s most compelling feature. Borrowed from VariCam 35, it allows the DVX200 to record two different codecs, frame rates, and resolutions simultaneously to separate SD cards. A typical configuration might be to record 4K/UHD to card 1 while capturing FHD at 50Mbps or 8Mbps proxy to card 2. The FHD .mov or .mp4 subordinate recording is very clean and may be a viable backup in a pinch.
The dual-encoding system offers other workflow advantages. The 4K recording may be captured in log, for example, while the parallel version in HD Rec. 709 can reflect normal color and contrast for viewing and dailies purposes. The audio department can also begin working immediately with the PCM tracks without worrying about the potential playback snafus of heavy data loads associated with 4K playback.
It's Not All Peaches and Cream
The DVX200 is certainly a remarkable camera, providing the best value in a mid-level 4K camcorder available today. But its high degree of sophistication and versatility poses some challenges.
Beyond the inability to mount interchangeable lenses, there is another notable downside to the camera’s integrated optics. The focus, iris, and zoom (FIZ) are effectively computer controlled. For example, the focus ring spins continuously, allowing the servo-controlled back element of the lens to ‘float’ and thus maintain critical sharpness throughout the zoom range. Unfortunately, this system precludes the setting of repeatable focus marks on the lens barrel, a potential drawback for some users.
The DVX200 touchscreen offers a broad choice of resolutions and frame rates in addition to fine control of gamma, color-correction, matrix and other professional parameters.
The DVX200 addresses the problem via an automated follow-focus system. Rather than mark the lens barrel in a traditional way, shooters enter the focus points via the viewfinder touchscreen, also inputting the desired speed of the focus change before assigning the pre-programmed task to a user button. If the button press produces an objectionable shake, a delay in execution may be programmed as well. No doubt an assistant turning a simple focus knob at the side of the camera is preferable and more efficient, but such trade-offs are to be expected in a high-performance but still very economical 4K camcorder.
The implication of the Auto-Manual slide switch at the side of the DVX200 should be self-evident, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Zooming in on a bright interior window in manual mode will nevertheless produce a change in exposure if the Auto Shutter is set to ON. This can be especially frustrating since the Auto Shutter status is not indicated in the viewfinder. Baffled shooters seeking to troubleshoot the issue would likely have no idea no idea where to begin. DVX200 shooters should be sure to verify the shutter status in the camera’s LCD. If the status is not displayed, then the auto shutter is enabled and the camera will attempt to maintain constant exposure — even in Manual mode. This anomaly with respect to displayed status should be corrected in a future version of the camera.
The OLED EVF is bright and clear, but the light cap designed to protect it provokes consternation instead. The light cap is too sensitive to the presence of a camera operator or other body in the general vicinity and unpredictably shuts down the LCD!
The slide-out LCD viewfinder generally performs well indoors but is fairly useless outside under bright sun and when facing high-gain reflections. The crisp, brilliant images of the OLED EVF certainly help a great deal, but its behavior can only be described as frustrating. Apparently the manufacturer has researched and found a need to power down the OLED when not in use to save power and extend the life of the panel. (An OLED's longevity is said to be less on average than a comparable-size LCD screen.) The OLED is also said to be highly susceptible to damage from the sun and other strong light sources, which may be further intensified after passing through the EVF's magnifier diopter. So Panasonic designed a sensor to cap the EVF when the operator's eye is removed from the camera. This is fine, in theory. Trouble is, the sensor is too sensitiv. Standing behind or anywhere near the camera will open the EVF light cap, which shuts off the flip-out LCD, leaving the operator blind and in potentially dire straits.
A workaround when operating outdoors may be to simply turn the EVF skyward to force the LCD to remain on. Or turn the OLED off completely in the menus. Neither is a great solution.
Then there is the robo-red metallic finish that gets many professionals nervous. Frankly there are lots of things that get professionals nervous, which is why cameras are usually finished in black: They are less likely to reflect negatively onto a scene or set, and they don’t attract undue attention from thieves and other miscreants.
Of course some shooters and producers may like the bright red finish. The camera can be instantly recognized in a teeming crowd so shooters daring to take a bathroom break, can be readily observed by the higher powers and promptly castigated. For most professional shooters, undue attention is an anathema and can be distracting from the task at hand. Many cameramen and women will no doubt try to cover the red finish with black paper tape to reduce the camera's visibility.
The sliding plastic doors are another negative in my opinion. They are inherently fragile, prone to breakage, and awkward to manipulate especially when shooting in winter with thick gloves. This is one of my long-standing pet peeves.
The Panasonic AG-DVX200 is a high-horsepower machine that is nearly perfect for most nonfiction, news, and documentary programs. It is not optimally designed for digital cinema, professional sports, and most wildlife applications, for which longer interchangeable lenses are required and a smaller sensor with greater depth of field is more practical.
Still, with the ability to operate, frame, and focus quickly even at 4K resolution, the DVX200 is tantamount to a revolution in a box. For the money, it is indisputably the best compact 4K camcorder on the market today.