Panasonic HC-X1000 and Sony FDR AX-100

Is A Proper Camcorder The Better Solution?

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Background

As a longtime journalist in the “imaging” world, it has always been important for me to keep in mind that my readership is highly varied. In the case of The Luminous Landscape we have about 1 million readers each month from more than 100 countries. Their (your) interests cover every aspect of image making imaginable, from still photography to video making, and from hardware to software, to techniques and locations.

I learned long ago that it is impossible to cover everything. There are simply too many new products and techniques appearing too often, and by trying to cover all of them, one ends up doing nothing well. So what I have done (and now Kevin does as well) is to focus on those products that personally interest us the most.

As regular readers know we have for the past 15 years published a great many videos about photography, imaging, locations and techniques. Some are part of a subscription service, while others are simply included as part of our reviews and reports. You can find out more about our subscription videos here.

 For producing these videos we have used a range of cameras and formats over the years… DV tape, HD and now 4K. Cameras have included those from Canon, Sony and Panasonic. For the past year or so Chris Sanderson, our video producer / director has been shooting our travel and tutorial videos with a couple of Panasonic GH4’s, an AF100 and a range of MFT lenses.

I, on the other hand, am not so convinced that hybrid stills / video cameras such as the GH4 are the preferred solution. I have always been partial to the ENG style camcorder format. I find this to be more usable, more flexible and better suited to the run-and-gun shooting style which I use for my personal video projects.

Video DSLRs are just fine for set-up shots as well as interviews. But are not at all suited to so-called run-and-gun style shooting. They are also missing a huge number of necessary features and niceties needed for versatile film making.

The Scam

Put bluntly, I believe that many still photographers wanting to branch into film production of various sorts have been scammed by camera makers. Or maybe “sold a bill of goods” is a gentler and more politic way of saying this.

The way I see it, just because a stills camera can shoot video doesn’t mean that it should be used for such. Frankly, the only reason that video DSLRs and CILCs have been adopted by many is for their shallow depth of field, due to the use of large sensors (large, relative to those used in even professional movie making gear).

We associate shallow DOF with Hollywood films. In a narrative drama being able to isolate characters visually helps the story telling, and mostly that’s a good thing. On the other hand we associate the shallow DOF of sensors smaller than about 1″ with documentary, news, amateur productions and such, where deep DOF is the consequence of small sensors and their associated short focal lengths.

But in exchange for “film-like” shallow DOF some people have ignored the deficiencies of their cameras and bought into the Hollywood cinematographer fantasy.

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The image above shows a typical “rig” for a DSLR…. rail system, follow focus, external monitor, matte box, articulated arms, carry handle and cables…often numerous cables.

For some would-be cinematographers this type of set-up causes sweaty palms. Not me. Been there done that. If you’re shooting a staged drama, a commercial production, or in an interview setting– fine. But for anything else, while it looks sexy, set-up, operation and tear-down are tedious. An assistant or two is almost a must. To my mind, for the single person production an appropriate camcorder is much more convenient, not to mention productive.

Why 4K is a Must

Before discussing the two camcorders currently on the market (mid-2015) which I consider to be the best value for the money, I want to stress why I think shooting in 4K is a must.

It is not because you’re likely to ever show, or even view your footage in 4K. It is because 4K makes for much better HD video if it is placed on an HD timeline in your editor. This will allow you to freely crop your frame and reposition, do Ken Burns type moves within the frame, and also use more effective editor-based stabilization. All of this without any degradation in quality. Indeed, because the image will be scaled down you will also end up with greater colour depth (4:2:2) instead of 4:2:0 in many cases.

The above clip of photographers Art Wolfe and Fletcher Christian mugging for the cameras was taken in Antartica at Kevin and Debra Raber’s wedding ceremony, while surrounded by LuLa workshop members and several hundred penguins. It briefly illustrates what can be done with 4K footage on an HD timeline. (Shot with a 4K Panasonic LS100).


The Camcorder Alternative

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Panasonic HC X1000

This will be neither a lesson in camcorder design nor a laundry list of features. Your can read-up on the Panasonic HC X1000, its features and specs (B&H Link), as well as the Sony FDR-AX100 (B&H Link) at the links provided.

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Sony FDR AX100

The Panasonic X1000 and Sony AX100 are the two current camcorders which I feel best meet the needs of the casual video maker who needs more control and shooting flexibility than is provided by smaller less expensive handycams. Some of these can produce quite decent image quality, but the compromises in control are, for me at least, too great for them to be considered seriously, unless price is an overriding concern.

Price

Before taking a look at what these two cameras have to offer, a word on price. Both cameras have seen price reductions during the past few months (Q2 2015). The Panasonic now sells for about USD $2,950 while the Sony is some $1,700.

Obviously the Sony AX100 is close to just half the price of the Panasonic X1000. But is it half the camera?

As we will see there are some major differences, including a 20X zoom on the Panasonic and only a 12X lens on the Sony. But, the Sony has a much larger sensor, which means (in both theory and practice) shallower DOF and also better low light performance.

On the other hand the Panasonic has dual built-in XLR audio inputs and an audio mixer, which many people will find to be superior to the proprietary Sony Multi-Interface shoe connection of the Sony. The X1000 also can shoot in 60P (useful for slo-mo on a 24P timeline); and so on it goes. Pros and cons both ways.

Let’s see how they stack up in the real world.


Panasonic X1000

While wanting to avoid a laundry list of features, here are the more salient ones in my opinion.

– A 20X Leica power zoom lens. 4.08 – 81.6 mm actual focal length with 30.8 – 626 mm equivalence. Remember though that DOF is based on the actual focal length, not the 35mm full frame equivalence. This is a small sensor, deep DOF camera.

– This lens has a maximum aperture of F1.8 to F3.6, depending on focal length, but it is parfocal – which means that zooming does not lose focus.

– There are zoom levers on the hand grip as well as the top of the camera, and zooming speed is variable. There is also a second shutter release button on the top handle.

– There is a built-in lens shade with integrated cover.

– The sensor is a 1/2.3″ MOS, back side illuminated. This is what allows the huge zoom range and generally fast aperture, but the trade-off is deep depth of field and relatively poor low light capability.

– The X1000 shoots 4K video. This has become a must these days, not because you’ll likely ever see 4K anywhere except your own home screen with your own footage, but because it offers huge advantages when editing. Putting 4K footage on an HD timeline means being able to crop and move on a shot in post production.

– This is a “world camera” able to shoot at European as well as North American frame rates. On my side of the Atlantic the camera can shoot 24P and 30P at 100Mbps and 60P at 150 Mbps. To my knowledge this is the only camera in its price range to offer 60P in 4K. Cinema 4K – 4096 x 2160p / 24 fps (100 Mbps) is offered as well as various HD modes and speeds (including intra-frame recoding in HD at 1920 x 1080p / 59.94 fps (200 Mbps)).

– The camera has what Panasonic calls Power OIS (Optical Image Stabilization) when shooting 4K, and 5-axis Hybrid O.I.S.+ Active Mode when shooting in HD mode.

– The user is able to shoot 8MP stills simultaneous with filming, but saving to card takes a long time. Stills taken when the camera is not rolling save much more quickly. It seems to me, that as long as the shutter speed is high enough for the subject and camera motion, extracting an 8MP still after the fact on ones NLE timeline is a more efficient approach.

– There is a four position mechanical ND filter switch. Having built-in neutral density filters is one of the great advantages of shooting with a camcorder, because it is impossible to shoot properly outdoors without one on a DSLR and simultaneous maintain a proper shutter speed.

– The camera has Peaking as well as Zebras as well as a wide range of user configurable imaging settings.

– There are dual SD card slots. These provide great flexibility, including dual simultaneous recording, and continuous background recording on the second card, while the user starts and stops shooting to the main card. There is also pre-roll recording, so that the beginning of action is never missed, and  time lapse recording with a built-in intervalometer.

There are far too many other features to list here, but anyone interested in this camera should download the user manual to get an idea of its capabilities. Anyone familiar with high-end camcorders of any brand will feel right at home with the X1000. There is little in the way of controls or features that have been left out. There is also a fully Auto mode for those that want to use the camera in point-and-shoot mode.


Sony FDR AX-100

– A 12X Zeiss power zoom lens. 9.3 to 111.6 mm actual focal length, with 29 to 348mm equivalence. The camera’s 1″ sensor allows for a decent compromise between focal length and sensitivity, not to mention camera and lens size.

– This lens has a maximum aperture of F2.8 to F4.5, depending on focal length.

– There is one zoom lever on top of the camera body where ones forefinger naturally falls

– The camera comes with a detachable lens shade and separate lens cap.

– The sensor is a 1″ BSI CMOS. Low light sensitivity is very good for a camera with a sensor of this size.

– The AX100 shoots 4K video at 100Mbps. This is with a recent firmware upgrade, which is downloadable at no charge.

– This is not a “world camera”. European and North American versions are different, offering different frame rates based on power line frequency.

– The camera has Optical Image Stabilization as well as a so-called Active mode for greater stability.

– The user is able to shoot 8MP stills simultaneous with filming, but saving to card takes a long time. Stills taken when the camera is not rolling save much more quickly. It seems to me, that as long as the shutter speed is high enough for the subject and camera motion, extracting an 8MP still after the fact on ones NLE timeline is a more efficient approach.

– There is a four position mechanical ND filter switch. Having built-in neutral density filters is one of the great advantages of shooting with a camcorder, because it is impossible to shoot properly outdoors without one on a DSLR, and to simultaneous maintain a proper shutter speed.

– The camera has Peaking as well as Zebras. There are only a few user configurable imaging settings.

– There is only one SD card slot.

The AX100 is a somewhat quirky camera, as are many Sony models. For example, the SD card slot is located behind the articulated LCD, which powers on the camera when it is opened. This means that inserting and removing the card leads to turning the camera on and off.

On the other hand, pulling out the EVF also turns on the camera, and so with either of these actions the camera is ready for shooting quickly, turning this negative into a some-time plus.

This camera is mainly touch-screen operated. This works quite well, except that it will only work with either the LCD or EVF active, and so quite a few settings are inaccessible when the camera is being used at eye level with the EVF and the LCD closed.

There are far too many features to list here, but anyone interested in this camera should download the user manual to get an idea of its capabilities. Behind this camera’s simple appearance lie quite a few advanced features, and lots of manual controls, though there is a fully Auto mode for those that want to use it in point-and-shoot mode.


Comparing The Two

In many ways a comparison between the X100o and the AX100 seems foolish. They are such different cameras in terms of price, and also in terms of features and capabilities. But nevertheless, there are as many similarities as there are differences.

A brief comparison of the cameras showing zoom range as well as minimum zoom speed.

Here are the major pros and cons of each as I see them.

3 Rings vs 1. The Panasonic X100o has three separate lens rings for adjusting zoom, focus and aperture. The Sony AX100 has just one ring, which can only be used for either manual zoom or focus by selecting a two position switch; not both at the same time. There is a separate knurled wheel for controlling multiple functions, including Aperture if desired.

Consequently, the Panasonic provides much more ready access to these functions, though with some familiarity it is quite possible to operate the three controls manually on the Sony without much delay or bother.

Size and Weight. The two cameras have quite similar heft in hand, but the Panasonic is larger. This is because of its built in top handle which houses the XLR mic inputs and mixer, which the Sony doesn’t have

In terms of build quality the Sony appears to be made mostly of metal, and it therefore feels more robust. The Panasonic is all plastic and therefore feels…well… plasticky and less sold.

Sensor Size. This lies at the heart of the difference between these two cameras. The Sony has a relatively large 1″ sensor, which in video terms provides a reasonable compromise between size and sensitivity, as well as control of DOF.

The Panasonic has a quite small 1/2.33″ sensor, which in daylight provides decent performance, but which becomes quite noisy as the Gain (ISO) needs to be increased. Use of a noise reduction plug-in such as Neat Video can help, but ultimately a smaller sensor will almost always lose the noise battle to a larger one.

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Left – Sony AX100                         Right – Panasonic X1000

Resolution. This is another area where the Sony tops the Panasonic. Whether this is attributed to sensor or lens, or some combination of the two, looking at footage on-screen shows this to be the case. The above are crops of 8MP screen captures at full size. The Sony clearly produces higher resolution and image clarity.

Noise

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Left – Sony AX100 @ 24db gain             Right – Panasonic X1000 @ 24 db gain

Comparing noise characteristics of video cameras is complicated by the fact that base ISO is not usually published and so one doesn’t really know what the Gain numbers refer to. Gain from what base?

The above stills were taken from cameras clips taken at night with both cameras set so that the 100% Zebra just showed on the rim of the lamp. I know that the Sony image looks a bit brighter, but there you are. These tests are always fraught with inconsistencies.

Nevertheless the relative noise-free nature of the AX100 can easily be seen, while the noise characteristic of the X1000 are clear. Shooting in a dimly lit living room with the Sony at +24db produces a usable image. With the Panasonic it does not.

Do note though that outdoors in decent light the X1000 does produce a relatively noise free image at 0db gain.

Features. This is where the Panasonic trumps the Sony. The X1000 with its XLR audio inputs and sound mixer, dual card slots, and an intervalometer has valuable features that are lacking on the Sony. The ability to shoot 4K in 60P is also a valuable capability because it produces better footage when shooting fast action (sports), and also allows for good looking slow-mo when placed on a 24P or 30P timeline.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot to like about the Panasonic X1000. It certainly has a full suite of features, matching those of cameras costing quite a bit more. But ultimately image quality is compromised, as is low light capability as a consequence of using such a small sensor.

The build quality also seems on the plasticky side, though this is one of the ways in which this camera has been made lighter than it otherwise might be. Certainly lighter than some other cameras of similar size.

The Sony AX100 is not as well endowed in terms of features as the Panasonic, but its larger sensor and Zeiss lens end up allowing it to create quite impressive image quality. The camera’s mostly metal body create an impression, at least, of great solidity.

Incidentally, the AX100 was used to shoot my recent video about Nick Devlin and performed very well in the low light of his basement darkroom, requiring no auxiliary lighting or noise reduction. Most of that segment’s indoor footage was at +12db, which turned out to have quite acceptable noise, as seen in the above test images.


What Else, and What’s Next?

There are a few current competitors to these two cameras. Sony’s PWX-70 is about to get a firmware upgrade to 4K, which will raise its price to about $2,500. But the data rate will only be 60 Mbps, which many regard as inadequate, and which is the lowest in the industry. A great HD camera, but likely a fail in 4K.

JVC, the Rodney Dangerfield of camcorders (“I don’t get no respect…”), has two competitive models, the GY-HM170 at $1,900 and the GY HM200 at $2,700. These both look like contenders, but both, as with the Panasonic X1000, suffer from having a small 1/2.33″ sensor, which constrains their low light capability and has DOF issues for some users and uses. (If JVC is interested in having their cameras reviewed – they just have to call. Till now no one from JVC has ever returned my calls.)

Canon has woken from its slumbers and is about to ship the XC-10, at $2,500 their first 4K offering in this size and price range. An interesting camera to be sure, with a largish 1″ sensor (like the Sony AX100) offering 24P and 30P recording at an astonishing 305 Mbps. But, it requires the use of more expensive Cfast cards rather than SD, and its 10X zoom lens is a bit on the slow side at f/2.8 to f/5.6.

The AX100 at f2.8 – f/4.5 is 1.5 stops faster at the long end, which is only 273 mm equivalent, while the AX100 offers 348mm at its longest. Quite a difference in speed and reach given that they both have the same sized sensor. Also, the XC10 has a tilt-only rear LCD, and no EVF. A magnifier eyecup on the LCD is used in its stead. Initially at least it’s therefore hard to understand the Canon XC10’s almost $1000 premium over the Sony AX100.

But, I’ll reserve judgement on the XC10 until I actually have one in hand, though it seems to offer quite a few compromises for the price, with only 1 built-in ND filter and no XLR audio feature for the price.


 

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Panasonic's Upcoming DVX200

There is one camera coming though that really has my ears perked up, and that’s the Panasonic DVX 200. It was announced at the 2015 NAB this spring and apparently will ship in the September time frame for about $5,000. Yes, it’s more expensive than the cameras we’ve been considering, but look at what it offers…

– 4/3 sized image sensor (huge compared to the other cameras discussed here)

– An F2.8 Leica lens; 13x zoom, 29.5 mm – 384.9 mm equivalent

– 5 axis Hybrid Image Stabilizer.

– 12 stops of imager latitude recorded with its V-Log L gamma curve.

– 24P, 30P and 60P onto SD cards

– Variable Frame Rate with a maximum of 120 fps (in FHD resolution).

– Simultaneous, backup, and relay recording using two card slots.

For run-and-gun style shooting this camera has all of the boxes checked. It is styled similarly to the Panasonic X1000 but is somewhat larger due to the use of a 4/3 sensor. It’s construction is apparently largely carbon fibre, which should make it very robust.

I’m eagerly awaiting a chance to test out the DVX-200. If it performs to expectation I will likely buy one to use to document a major shoot to Ethiopia in December.

Michael Reichmann
May, 2015