PANASONIC DVX100 Camcorder

November 2002

by Steven Trent Smith

Way back in 1995, Panasonic introduced an amazing camcorder, the miniDV-format, three-chip EZ-1. I tested it late that year and was very impressed by its image quality. I’d never seen such great-looking pictures from a camera so small. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the DV digital format. Now, we’ve seen a quantum leap with the introduction of Panasonic’s DVX100.

This is not just another miniDV camcorder. Sure, it has all the features we’ve come to expect in three-chip cameras, but the DVX is unique. It will record both normal interlaced video, and progressive scan as well. Let me explain.

“Normal” video in the U.S. has, until recently, meant 525 interlaced lines scanned at the rate of 30 frames a second, each frame being made up of two fields, therefore, 60 fields per second. A number of those scanning lines are used for “blanking”­ the black frame around the picture. The actual number used for picture information turns out to be 480. In today’s digital world, what we used to call just plain “five-two-five,” is now known as (or 60i for short).

Still with me? What makes the Panasonic DVX100 so different is that it will record in two other modes: 480p/30 and 480p/24. The “p” stands for progressive scanning, which means that the image is written one complete frame at a time, not interlaced. And the 30 and 24 stand for the frames per second rate. Thirty is already familiar to us, but 24? Ah. Twenty-four is the rate at which motion pictures are shot and projected (at least in the United States). So what Panasonic has done is to introduce a miniDV camcorder capable of recording at 24 frames per second. Why, you might ask? If you shoot video at that frame rate the resulting image, even when played back at 30fps, will look a lot like film. And to a large number of people in the world, that matters.

You probably won’t want to shoot news at 24p, but what about a documentary? To shoot a one hour 16mm film would cost a small fortune. But what if you could shoot miniDV tapes, at five bucks a pop, and have the end product come out looking like 16mm? That’s a pretty cool trick. And that’s just what the DVX100 does.

So, let’s run down some of the specs.

The DVX weighs in at 4.2 pounds. That’s about two pounds less than its Canon rival, the XL1S, but a pound heavier than Sony’s contender, the PD150. While the Panasonic looks sleek in the advertising photos, it is in fact a bit chunky. The right-side handgrip is comfortable at first, but I did notice some palm strain after prolonged use.

The DVX100 has native progressive scan 410,000 pixel chips. In comparison, the XL1S has 270k chips and the PD150 has 380k. In low-light, the Panasonic claims 3 lux, while the PD150 says 2 lux (as does the XL1S, but that’s at 1/8th shutter speed setting).

Like most miniDV cameras, the DVX has controls and features stuck all over the place. Let’s start on the left side. There is a very bright, sharp 3.5” swing-out LCD viewscreen. Underneath the screen are several buttons, including counter set and reset, mode check, zebra control and optical image stabilization on/off. The zebras are a neat feature. Like many “big” cameras, the DVX has two zebra settings, both of which can be set independently at increments from 80% to 100%. I like to set one at 80%, for faces, and the other at 100%, for all highlights. Think of the zebras as your exposure meters. The Optical Image Stabilization is good, and will smooth out some of the high frequency bumps and shakes.

Above the LCD is the all-important menu selector. Tap the Menu button and either the “Camera” or “VCR function” menus appear on the LCD or in the viewfinder. To adjust the menus, there is a small joystick-like selector that moves up/down, right/left. You use that to navigate the menus, and when you make a selection, you push the little controller down. I won’t get into the menus just now, but suffice it to say, they are very extensive. When the camera is in the VCR mode, the joystick is used to control tape play, fast-forward and rewind.

Close by is the speed selection button. Standard shutter is 1/60th. You can also choose 1/100th through 1/500th or Synchro Scan, which allows you to synchronize the DVX100 to computer monitors, in tenth of a second increments. It’s too bad that the camera does not have a lower speed range. The blurry effect you get when working at 1/8th-1/15th on other cameras can look pretty cool.

Below the LCD screen are the two manual audio pots. They are protected from accidental bumping, which is a nice feature. I would not try to ride audio with these while rolling tape. Preset them and you should do just fine.

Moving along the left side, we come to the lens controls. The Iris button switches between manual and auto iris. Next to it is the Iris dial. As you turn it, you’ll see the f-stops change on the screen/viewfinder.

Forward of those is the three-position Gain switch: L, M, H. Each of these can be set in the menus, from 0dB to +12dB. The higher gains do not add much noise­ a nice feature. In this cluster pf buttons is the White Balance switch. You have a choice of two user settings, A and B, or the preset (3200K or 5600K). This dual setup helps when you have move from, say, outdoors to indoors. You can change the color temp with the flick of the button. You could also use the Auto Tracking White, but I generally stick with a fixed balance for consistency sake. The Auto White Balance set button is on the front of the camera.

Nearby is the neutral density switch. The DVX100 has three settings, Off, 1/8th and 1/64th.

Above those is the Focus switch, letting you hop back and forth between auto and manual focus. To my taste, the auto focus is a bit slow. And the manual focus is, in common with all cameras of this class, hard to use accurately. Panasonic has added a “focus information display,” ostensibly to help you manually focus. But instead of displaying something useful like feet or meters, it gives you a percentage from infinity (99) to macro close (00). I still wish somebody would reinstate the system Sony used in the VX-1000, with a pair of triangles and a circle. The former indicated whether you were too close or too far, and when the latter went solid, you were in perfect focus. Ah well.

User1 and User2 buttons permit you to preset up to nine different functions, to personalize the settings.

Let’s move on to the back of the camera. On the right is the power on/off switch and integral record start/stop button. Above that is the Eject button, which will do its thing even with the power off. When you flip up the viewfinder, you’ll find the battery compartment and a separate 7.9v DC input. To the left, on the bottom, is the Camera/VCR button. This thing scares me a bit. When you hit it, the DVX switches from camera mode to playback mode. And it’s pretty easy to hit accidentally. I wish Panasonic had put some sort of protective surround around the button to prevent dumb things from happening.

Above that is the Scene Selector Dial. This is a pretty cool control. It allows you to just dial in preset shooting modes. The six positions have factory-set defaults, but you can go in and change them if you like. Four of the settings are for shooting 60i, and two are for shooting 24p. The final control on the rear is the End Search button. There is also a covered connector panel, with jacks for LANC and headsets.

Let’s go to the viewfinder. I like it. It’s quite large, and has a substantial rubber eyecup. It will swing up to ninety degrees vertical. There is a diopter ring on the bottom for personal eyesight adjustments. The viewfinder employs a color LCD, with control only over the brightness level. I wish you could adjust the color level too. The viewfinder is bright and sharp, though I’d have to say the swing out LCD viewscreen looks sharper.

At the back of the camera’s handle is a rear tally light and rear remote control sensor. On top of the handle are controls for the zoom and start/stop. There is a plain (not hot) accessory shoe and a decent quality stereo microphone that works well for picking up ambient sounds.

On the right side of the DVX100 you’ll find the cassette loading door. This does not seem as robust as it might. Above that is the main zoom control rocker and the Rec Check button, which lets you playback the last few seconds. The Panasonic also features manual zoom (the button is under the lens). You’ll need a deft touch to make it smooth. Both finder and viewscreen have zoom range indicators. Unfortunately, they do not show focal lengths, but, like the focus scale, show the position in percentages. Make a note that above 70% the macro close-focusing does not work.

That about does it for controls, though I’m sure I’ve left out something.

Let’s talk about the menus.

The DVX100's menu system is extensive and curiously intuitive to use. The first menu to appear, when the DVX is in Camera mode, includes basic setup items: Scene File, Camera Setup, SW Mode, Auto SW, Recording Setup, Display Setup and Other Functions.

Let’s say you want to set time code. Open the menu. Use the joystick to scroll down to Recording Setup, click the button. Now you are presented with a second level of menus items. Scroll down to TC Preset, click that. You can then enter the time code number you’d like to start with. You also have the luxury of entering User Bits (like dates and times that you don’t want to burn into the image). If you’d like to change one of the Scene Files, go into that menu and you’re presented with thirteen items, among them: Detail Level, Master Pedestal, Gamma, and Progressive or Interlaced mode.

Interval Recording for timelapse work is available through the menus, and bringing up color bars requires just a click, a scroll and a click. The menus seem daunting at first, but once you get the hang of them, setting or resetting moves briskly.

The lens on the DVX100 is a Leica Dicomar 4.5-45mm, f1.6 zoom. The 10x range seems a bit limiting­ the PD150 has 12x and the XL1S has 16x. But what the Dicomar lacks in range it more than makes up for in sharpness. I was very impressed at how well this lens resolves at all focal lengths, and with minimum distortion. Panasonic calls it a “wide-angle” zoom, and to an extent, that’s true. Canon’s 16x starts at 5.5mm, and the PD150 at 6mm, so the DVX100 is, indeed “wide.” Still, Panasonic will be bringing out a wide angle adapter in the next few weeks (as well as an 16:9 aspect conversion lens). The front ring on the Dicomar is an impressive 72mm.

The audio features on the DVX100 are well thought out. You can easily switch back and forth between manual and auto. The Audio Limiting Circuit is not one of the annoying hunt-and-seek types, but seems to be a true limiter. There are a pair of XLR connectors at the front of the camera. These are mounted too close together, so it’s hard to get plugs into them. The best solution we found was to use one right-angle XLR and one straight XLR. Phantom powering (48v) is available to each input. Audio level is shown on both the screens, in two colors no less. Remember­ when recording digital audio you want to set your levels to -20dB, because any time you go into the red, your sound will distort and there’s no way to recover it.

Panasonic includes a microphone mount with the camera. It fits onto the right side of the handle. You can install most any mic you want (my preference is always the Sennheiser ME-66 short shotgun). But there is one problem. Both the onboard camera mic, and the external mic sitting in the Panasonic mount, pick up the noise from what has to be the loudest zoom motor in this genre of cameras. Your best bet is to move the external microphone away from the camera (stick it on a bracket, like Videosmith’s Mini-Rover).

Ya wanna shoot filmstyle, eh? Okey-dokey. Here we go.

Rotate the Scene File dial to position F5. The camera will think about that for a few seconds, then reconfigure itself. When the viewfinder comes back up you’re going to see a darker picture than the one you just left, and you’ll see flickering. That’s because the camera is set to record at 24 frames per second in progressive mode. When you play the tape back, an internal 2:3 circuit adds six frames and converts the image to 60i. FYI­ DVX100 tapes recorded at 24p can be played back on any miniDV machine.

There are some limitations when shooting with the DVX100 in progressive mode. You cannot display color bars. You cannot increase the gain setting for low light situations. You cannot auto focus.

When played back, the images at the 24p setting do look film-like, but there is an annoying jerkiness to the picture. The mode I like better is reached through the F6 setting on the Scene File dial. This puts the DVX100 into what Panasonic calls 24p Advance Mode. The conversion system works differently, seeming to smooth the motion out, and make the resulting image look remarkably like 16mm film. Unfortunately, the instruction book does not go into sufficient detail about the differences between these modes for me to explain them better. Sorry.

The DVX100 has all the usual inputs/outputs, including IEEE 1394 (Firewire). It does not have a still photo mode.

To be quite honest, I’ve never been a big Panasonic fan. But they’ve outdone themselves with the DVX100, and they’ve converted me. I’m very happy with this camera, and so, too, are our clients. Videosmith has one in rental, and a second coming in a couple of weeks. The DVX100 is quite an achievement, and will become the new benchmark among three-chip miniDV camcorders. If you’re in the market for a top-quality camera, do give this one a close going over.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.

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