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Barry_Green
01-05-2012, 11:59 AM
http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/Boat-Sunset.jpg



Recently I went on a location scouting trip for a potential new project, and I brought along the AF100, a few lenses, and a couple of new items for the trip. In this article I'll discuss how I found the products to perform in the field. No charts or pixel peeps this time; I've lost all interest in pixel peeping and in endless comparisons, nowadays I find myself far more focused on getting the job done and seeing how the products I'm using lend themselves to getting the job done. To me, today's cameras are good enough, now it's more about what you actually do with what you've got.

The location was the Caribbean paradise of Belize, specifically on St. George's Caye, one of the many islands off the shore of mainland Belize in Central America. In December it's pleasant temperatures, but bright and sunny, with lots of walking and hiking and boating to remote areas. I wanted to bring along gear that was high quality, small, compact, lightweight, and convenient. For this trip my choice of gear was the AF100 with an assortment of Lumix zoom lenses, a Boda bag to carry the lenses, batteries and memory cards, and a SteddiePod to serve as a tripod and handheld stabilizer.



The AF100

http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/AF100-pic.jpg
First things first, let's start with the Panasonic AG-AF100. The AF100 is my favorite low-cost camera right now; I love the fact that I've got in my hands a digital cinema camera in a (comparatively) tiny package for around $4,000. It's just crazily good for that price. A couple of years ago we would have killed for a camera like this at $20,000.

There are many things about the AF100 that put it to the forefront of my list, not the least of which is that it's a small, lightweight camera that packs all the features and usability options of a full-sized camera. I debated a couple of others – a servo-zoom unit like my HMC150 would have been a bit more convenient perhaps, but wouldn't have had the detail or shallow DOF. The GH2 would have been smaller, but with no zebras, no waveform, no ND filters, it just wasn't the right camera for this job. The AF100 on the other hand gave me exactly what I needed. The image controls are detailed and wide-ranging; I normally stuck with my standard recipe (detail settings at -4, chroma level +2, cine-D gamma and NORM2 matrix) but occasionally ventured into DRS and variable frame rates, and made constant use of the zebras and the waveform monitor. The ND filters were a blessing, and the camera's light weight (just three pounds) made it easy to trek through the rainforest and haul up the Mayan pyramids.

Operationally, it was pretty much effortless; I know where every button is and can execute shots quickly and confidently without having to pop into menus to change things repeatedly; having instant access to the waveform meant spot-on exposure with no blown highlights, and the red focus assist really worked well. I was initially not really a fan of the red focus assist; I complained about the lack of magnified focus assist, but I have to say that I relied heavily on the red focus assist and in reviewing the footage focus really wasn't ever a problem. In fact the red focus assist really worked well in some cases I wasn't expecting, such as tracking along with plover birds as they scoured the shoreline. The fine detail of the sand would get highlighted with red in a narrow band and as you racked focus that band would move throughout the frame so it made it effortless to keep the bird in crystal clear focus, just by keeping the band of sand he was occupying in sharp focus with red highlights. For maximal use of the red focus assist I strongly recommend turning the viewfinder to black & white.

And the viewfinder: man, I lived on that. I've heard some people complain about the viewfinder, to which I can only say: whatever. The viewfinder is sharp, it's clear, I can focus it perfectly to my eyesight, the zebras tell me what's properly exposed and the focus-in-red tells me what's sharp. I relied heavily on the viewfinder and it absolutely delivered. The LCD gets washed out in bright light conditions, but the viewfinder was always reliable and sharp and clear. I still like using an external monitor for the pixel-to-pixel functionality, but this trip a monitor wasn't a practical accessory. And sure, a big ol' Zacuto Z-Finder stuck on a 3” Canon LCD will give you a bigger magnified image, but for functionality I was quite confident in what the viewfinder was showing me and found it to be completely up to the task. This is the first time I've really taken the AF100 out of a studio setting and lived in the field with it as a primarily stripped-down handheld camera, and I'm quite happy with how it did, especially with how effective the viewfinder was.

Other things to love:

The two card slots with the relay record. Never had to worry about card space or running out, I usually had a couple of 16GB cards loaded and those two got me through most shooting days without even having to consider using another card.T
The clean ISO range: I shot some stuff at 200, most at 400, and even a starfield at 1600 ISO, and it's all clear and basically noise free.
Overall image quality: Clean, sharp, clear footage with no distracting noise, no moire patterns, no hassles, just good footage – exactly what you should want and expect from a camera.
Light weight: At just three pounds, it's lightweight enough to be effortless, especially with something like the tiny Lumix 20mm lens on it.
1080p slow-mo: Totally adds drama and gravitas to your shots, and also helps smooth out any wobble or jitter, with no loss of quality by dropping down to 720p.
And I do have to say I just love how tapeless recording lets you swap over to playback and see your slow-mo footage instantly, that's never gonna get old. It's so reassuring to know that you've got the shot, in the field, over and done and no worries.
As for lenses, I took a bunch of Lumix lenses. Now, glass is a serious subject to me; I've got a lot of glass, including a complete set of Duclos-cine-modded Zeiss ZF's and a complete set of Compact Primes, but for this job there was no question or even a second thought: I wanted the flexibility of zooms, and the small size of the Lumix lineup made them easy to pack. In not much more space that a single Compact Prime would take up in the luggage, I was able to bring along the workhorse 14-140, as well as my favorite super-wide-angle 7-14, and I was also able to fit in the long-tele 100-300, and I also threw in the 20mm/1.7 pancake for potential low light shots. Those four lenses, as well as four spare batteries and several spare memory cards, all easily fit in my Boda bag (more on that later). But man, was it ever convenient to have a zoom range from 7mm all the way up to 300mm (14mm to 600mm in 35mm full frame equivalent) in just three lenses! Super-hyper-wide-angle establishing shots, and mega-tele close-ups, all in just three lenses. And, when high speed and shallow DOF were more important, the tiny little pancake 20mm lens remains one of my favorites. I thought about bringing along the Voigtlander 25mm, but it's almost as big as one of the zooms and entirely manual, and in the environment I was in I thought the pancake was the better choice.

I found I used the 14-140 about 80% of the time. This lens gets griped about for its shortcomings (losing focus during zooming and clunky iris changes, for example) and fairly so... I think we all have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, but man, it does so many things at such a low price, I think it gets a bad rap. It's a pretty decent lens. Sharp, good zoom action, great autofocus, and a really great range. 14mm is a nice very usable wide angle, and 140mm is a pretty good telephoto. I probably could have done this whole gig with just that one lens and the pancake; I'm glad I had the others along for variety but the 14-140, if you could only have one lens, is the one I'd go with. It does everything; maybe it doesn't do each and every thing as well as some other lens (it's not as wide or as fast as a Tokina 11-16, it doesn't have a physical hard-stop focus ring, it loses focus during zooming, etc) but considering the price, the zoom range, the autofocus and the excellent image stabilization, I think it's a well-rounded package and definitely one of the most versatile lenses you can have. I had a few choices among what I brought and could have brought, but the 14-140 really proved itself to be the most versatile in the widest range of shooting conditions.

I just love the 7-14 zoom, it's one of my favorite lenses and it lets you get shots you just can't get any other way. Really exotic distortions when you get super-close or when you pan around a lot, and hyper-wide when you lock it down, and getting stable moving shots is easier when you have a wider lens. It's a special-purpose lens but it's one of my favorites. But man, don't point it directly in the sun or towards a really bright light, because it can really pick up some flare. Great for pointing away from the sun, not so good for pointing directly into the sun... you'll see some wicked flaring in the video on the stabilizer shot walking through the ruins.

The 100-300 is not quite as frequently used as the other two. This is a lens that gives pleasant surprises as frequently as it disappoints. Sometimes it's a little irritating, but then other times it saves the day. The zoom action on it is rough and clunky. Idon't really care for the focus ring action, it's rougher than the 14-140. But the range is pretty good, the 300mm is a great long telephoto, and the OIS is really good. And where else are you going to get a 300mm (600mm full-frame equivalent) with image stabilization for $500? Especially one that's this small and portable? I don't use this lens a lot for anything other than nature photography, but when it shines it really shines. I got one shot of some howler monkeys so high up in a tree that we couldn't even see that there was a baby monkey with them, but the 300mm range of the 100-300 let me see it clearly in the viewfinder. Admittedly this isn't a very good shot, it was setting the Steddiepod on the rocky ground and trying to follow a tiny monkey a hundred feet up in a tree, but – hey, atleast I did get a shot.

The 20mm pancake lens is one of those guilty pleasures, and it shouldn't be, I should be used to it by now, but man, it's so tiny and it lowers your expectations and then you see the footage and you just say “wow, this came from that tiny lens?” It's really sharp, and really small. It's decently fast at f/1.7. It can't really autofocus, the iris changes are slow, but other than that it's a really good lens. This one hadn't seen much action since I got the Voigtlander 25mm, but I'm glad I brought it along and it really made me appreciate itall the more after using it again. I used it at ISO 1600 to get some moving starfield shots with time lapse, combined with 1/2-second shutter and f/1.7 the result is crystal clear, noiseless, and bright pinpoints of starlight.

I don't have many complaints about the AF100. I wish it had magnified focus assist, but other than that, it's a pretty complete package. It's not an F3, but it's 1/3 the price. The small size and featherweight body along with the robust feature set makes it a reliable solidperformer, and the images have a lush rich feeling to them. It did exactly what I asked of it, and delivered great footage in a wide variety of conditions, with all the image controls and monitoring tools I could ask for to ensure that the shots turned out great. TheAF100 is a solid camera at a great price point.

Here's a bit of video from the trip. It's not meant to be great cinematography, it's just shots I got during the scouting trip.


http://vimeo.com/34617057

Steddiepod

http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/Steddiepod.jpg
(and no, I'm not proud of the hat, but hey -- a week in the sun and not a hint of sunburn, so yeah, I'll put up with looking like a goofus because of the hat...)

I hate handheld footage. Especially for something like a scouting trip. Before heading out, I decided that this venture could not tolerate the horribleness of handheld footage. And I hate lugging a heavy tripod around. And monopods, yech... never really got the hang of those things, they seem to promise a lot but they deliver so little, and they sway and bob and weave too much. So I went looking for a decent, low-cost, lightweight stabilization system. I've got a full-sized CineSaddle which might have been okay for some shots, but it was too big to pack and wouldn't have been versatile enough for the terrain I was covering. I shopped around a while and came across two products that looked most interesting – the Manfrotto monopods with a three-legged base (like the 682B), or the Barber Technologies Steddiepod. The Manfrottos had gotten good reviews, and were cheaper, but as an ex-event shooter I really liked what I was seeing with the Steddiepod. More expensive, but it also can work as a monopod, a tripod, a handheld stabilizer, and it came with a fluid head, and it's light, so … I bit the bullet and went with the Steddiepod. And man, am I glad I did. Now, understand, this is going to be perhaps the most schizophrenic part of the whole article here, but bear with me. The Steddiepod isn't some miraculous do-everything tool, and yet... it kind of is. I love this thing... but it isn't the greatest tripod, it's not the greatest handheld stabilizer, it's certainly not the greatest jib arm, and the fluid head on it isn't really anything special. So why do I love it so? Because it's a pretty good tripod, it's a pretty good stabilizer, it does a great job as a monopod, and it can even be pressed into emulating a jib arm to some degree, and it's so compact and light that it's something you can always have with you – and because it's so compact and light, I will ALWAYS have this thing with me from now on. I mean, before going on this trip I considered taking my current “lightweight” tripod, a Bogen 755B set of sticks with a 501 head. I have no love for the 501 head, it's a fake fluid head, but I've had it for a decade and it's small. I like the 755B sticks a lot, I've had them for many years, but when I got them I cheaped out and got the aluminum instead of the carbon fiber legs, and I've regretted that decision ever since. I bought the cheaper version, and I really wish I'd had the motto back then that I cling to now: “Buy the best, and you only cry once.” So I'm stuck with the heavier legs and as such I frequently just don't bother to bring it, and then I don't have a tripod, and then the footage suffers. Not anymore. The Steddiepod clocks in at less than five pounds and includes a carrying case with shoulder strap. It's a featherweight. My 501 head/755B legs combo weighs over 9 pounds, and as any backpacker would tell you, four pounds makes a difference. The Bogen is a better tripod than the Steddiepod, sure, but the best tripod is the one that you actually have with you. And in that case, the Steddiepod will always be with me now, and so – hey, anyone wanna buy a 755B with a 501 head?

Anyway, as a tripod the Steddiepod isn't the greatest, but it's serviceable. It's best at low heights and on stable flat ground; when extended high it can certainly start to sway some, and it doesn't really have extendable legs to balance onto uneven terrain. It's not really designed to be a tripod, it's designed to be a handheld stabilizer that can be pressed into service as a tripod when necessary, and when viewed in that context I think it makes an excellent tripod substitute. And that's why I said this portion of the review would be kind of schizophrenic: it isn't really a very good tripod in and of itself, certainly not a substitute for a real tripod (something like a Cartoni Focus or above), but it's a million times better than handheld. I have one shot of tracking a spider monkey as it's swinging through the trees approaching our boat, footage that's actually taken from the boat itself, and the Steddiepod gave good solid stability while its decent fluid head gave me the tools I needed to accurately track with the monkey for quite a ways. It really acquitted itself well.

Of course, as said before, it's not really meant to be a tripod, it's really a handheld stabilizer and the tripod function is more of a kind of a bonus side effect. So as a stabilizer how does it perform? Well, let's put it in context: I have a GlideCam 4000 Pro for sale now. Is the Steddiepod that much better? No, not really, but it is that much simpler. I never really used the GlideCam because it was such a tedious chore to balance it and account for every minor little change in camera configuration: if you changed the battery to a smaller battery, you had to re-balance, etc. And with an interchangeable lens camera like the AF100, you'd have to re-balance every time you change lenses, etc. Blech. Whereas with the Steddiepod, balancing is literally a thirty-second maneuver. And the stabilization is, again, pretty good. Could a talented operator get better results with the GlideCam? Probably. Could a talented operator get better results out of a good Steadicam rig? Of course. But I got as good results from the Steddiepod as I ever got from the GlideCam, within five minutes of picking it up. I climbed the steps of Mayan temple ruins, steps that were probably 14” or 16” high, and the Steddiepod gives a pretty nice glide right up the temple. Walking shots in the jungle look like they're gliding along. What more do you really need? That's a question for you and your wallet – there are better stabilizers out there, certainly at a higher cost you'll find products that do a better job, but for someone who wants a simple, easy-to-use, grab-it-and-go solution, the Steddiepod did the job admirably well with minimum hassle and minimum fuss. I'm sure I could get really good results if I dedicated the time to practice with it and hone my skills, I mean, my shots do still have a little bit of “seasickness wobble” back and forth, but compared to how a handheld shot would have looked in the same situations I'm impressed with how easy it was to get serviceable results from this brand-new just-delivered product minutes after opening the package. Of course, you do have to watch your feet – I managed to kick the lower arms a couple of times, ruining shots. If you rotate the stabilizer so that one leg is pointing straight forward away from you, you can minimize or eliminate that little irritation!

As a jib arm, my results were less impressive. I tried to do moves like I'd seen on the website demo or in the printed instructions, and the results were mediocre. Put a wide-enough lens on and yeah you can pull off a reasonable simulation of a panning boom shot. You can't control the camera head from the extended position though so craning up or panning while booming really aren't options. So, after a couple of minutes I decided that yeah, as a substitute jib arm it's really a case of “not so much,” but I was delighted enough by its stabilizer and tripod performance to call the Steddiepod a big win anyway. And I did use it in extended boom mode to get some shots that I just couldn't have gotten any other way, so – kudos to it for that. But the happiest moment was getting a 180-degree pan from the top of a 190-foot Mayan pyramid, using the smooth fluid head. That shot would have been fairly awful hand-held, but the Steddiepod delivered a usably smooth shot even in the windy conditions and being carefully positioned on an uneven surface. Climbing up that pyramid with a five-pound tripod/stabilizer combo was a breeze, and it's another reason why the Steddiepod is one of my new favorite pieces of kit.

http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/Steddiepod-crab-shot.jpg

It wasn't all roses, of course; the slight sway of the tripod, and the head seemed to want to unscrew itself if I tried panning when the friction screw was tightened down, and there isn't really any provision for balancing backwards/forwards or left/right (well, at least, not without getting some manner of additional tripod plate). But hey, the tripod plate with it comes with a fold-out hand-tightening screw knob – how convenient is that? No need to chase down someone with a nickel or a quarter to tighten or untighten the tripod plate when you forgot your screwdriver. And the plate locks on securely with zero wobble back and forth, unlike some of my other tripod plates. All in all, the SteddiePod really does work like it was designed by a veteran camera operator, and it shows.

As a pure tripod, the SteddiePod may not be the greatest... But as a do-it-all device that has you pretty much prepared for any shooting scenario, it does quite well, and the reasonable cost and extreme light weight are bonuses.


The Boda Bag
http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/Boda-contents.jpg


I had heard photographers say good things about the Boda Bag, and now I can join in with them. I picked up the smaller Boda Bag, the V3 JR, as a gear bag for carrying lenses and batteries. Its designed by photographers to be useful and handy in the field, and it definitely was. It's rugged, weatherproof, and it just seems to hold everything. There are pockets and flaps and pouches all over it. I easily crammed four lenses, four batteries, a lens-cleaning cloth and six SDHC memory cards in the Boda bag, and that was the smaller bag! Another thing I really liked about the Boda is that it came with a belt strap in addition to the traditional shoulder strap (that was a special, I don't know if they still come with that belt strap, but – get it). The belt strap was awesome, it let me hang the bag from my waist instead of weighing down my back with more weight and yet another shoulder strap; the camera and SteddiePod were already taking up my two shoulders so the Boda on the belt was out of the way and yet instantly accessible.

http://dvxuser.com/barry/AF100/Boda.jpg

It sits perfectly positioned for quick lens changes while otherwise staying out of your way when you're scaling architectural ruins, it protects your lenses from the ocean spray as you're blasting along on a boat, and it is like a bottomless pit of storage, it just holds everything. I haven't compared it to any other bags, but I can say I'm really pleased with how the Boda Bag performed. Five stars out of five.


Disclosure: every piece of equipment mentioned here was bought either from authorized dealers or through the DVXUser Marketplace. No manufacturer was involved in this review, no manufacturer gave or loaned equipment, no manufacturer was even aware of this trip, all equipment and travel and all other expenses were funded through Fiercely Independent Films Inc. I am an employee of Fiercely Independent Films Inc., and Fiercely Independent Films does publish a book and training DVD on the AF100, “The AF100 Book” and “The AF100 DVD” and Panasonic USA is a customer of F.I.F., they buy books that they package with some of their camcorders.

David W. Jones
01-05-2012, 12:55 PM
Very nice Berry! My wife wanted to move to Belize at one point, but the lack of 100% power and fast Internet was unfortunate for me doing voice work from there so it was X'ed off the list. Otherwise a very beautiful place.

dcloud
01-05-2012, 01:52 PM
that steady cam shot looks very servicable!

groveChuck
01-07-2012, 08:25 PM
Nice writeup, Barry- the SteddiePod looks intriguing (I'd like to see a BTS on it) and the Boda Bag looks very useful!

I believe I shot those same ruins, after the winding (high-speed blind corners with my boatman) river trip.
Then the sounds of the howler monkeys and cicadas while walking the trail to the ruins (which are much more reconstructed now than when I was there in '01). That and the cave tubing-not to be missed (and the diving, of course).

What a great place to take your stripped down AF on her first wild shoot! :happy:
Wish you'd used a bit of jungle nat sound... and I thought we were going to be treated to a starfield!

I wish you luck on your project (details?), and thanks for the review, the video and the full disclosure!
Cheers!

tazza
01-12-2012, 07:36 AM
Great article Barry - and thank you again for singing the praises of the AF100, sweet price point, great images and lense heaven.
Love your line "Buy the best and only cry once" so so true.

Darren Levine
01-12-2012, 08:25 AM
hmm, spidermonnkey

Melvin Harris
01-13-2012, 06:09 AM
Pulled the trigger on the SteddiePod as a result of this article. I'd been looking at it, but I needed corroboration, thanks Barry.
Went through the 7 steps of being indie:

1. Ripped open the package, lost the packing slip and receipt, found it, put it away, can't remember where.
2. Ignored the Instruction Booklet
3. Spent 2 minutes with it, it performed no magic, declared it trash and put it in a corner.
4. Seethed.
5. Got on computer to flame it into oblivion, dvxuser.com popped up, saw the article again, read it again, watched the video, felt like a douchebag.
6. Opened up the Instruction Booklet and figured out what was wrong, went to the website, watched the tutorials.
7. Began to get it right, told everyone how easy it was, took credit although a lot more practice is needed, let everyone praise me.

Another piece of gear completely conquered! :Drogar-Happy(DBG):

Great write up, Barry. Thanks

_JD_
01-17-2012, 10:31 AM
Nice writeup- thanks for posting.