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Review: Panasonic AG-DVX200

As a longtime user of the Panasonic GH4 DSLR, and the founder/moderator of the now-10,000+ member GH4 Technical Group on Facebook, I know there has been plenty of talk about making the GH4 into a successor to Panasonic's AF100 Micro 4/3 Camcorder. When Panasonic announced the DVX200, the bar was set quite high. Reportedly, based on the GH4, the DVX200 is all that, and a lot more, but what did it give up to get there?

Back in the age of standard-definition video, Panasonic carved out a niche for itself with the DVX100 (Figure 1, below), which was the first MiniDV camcorder that recorded true 24 fps. There were other camcorders that touted 24p, but they most often embedded the 24p in a standard 29.97 interlaced stream, requiring additional "pull-down removal" in post to get back to 24p.

Figure 1. The 24p-capable Panasonic DVX100, introduced in 2002.

Panasonic evolved that camcorder years later into a model that continued to shoot 24p SD onto MiniDV but also recorded HD onto (then) quite expensive P2 flash memory cards. Moreover, the format was DVCPRO HD, which was both pixel subsampled and color subsampled, so it lacked full resolution either way. Despite that, DVCPRO was a well-liked and very editable codec. It became the early standard for Final Cut Pro's transition to HD.

Soon after the introduction of the GH1 removable-lens camcorder with a "focus" on video, Panasonic developed the AF100, giving users traditional camcorder controls and connections, but still limited by the GH1’s sensor and recording issues. While some have managed to make that camera produce good work, the AF100 was not revised with new technology as Panasonic made dramatic improvements to the DSLR line with the GH2, GH3, and the GH4--each about two years apart. So that was quite a long time.

The GH4 (Figure 2, below) blasted onto the scene with high-quality 4K UHD and DCI, pulled off the sensor with a 1:1 pixel readout, delivering a stellar image with little to no moiré or aliasing. Incredible sharpness rivaled RED cameras and blew away the Canon 5D at the top of the DLSR production throne. But it lacked the full-frame or Super35-sized sensor that gave shooters that very shallow Depth of Field (DoF) that they craved.

Figure 2. The 4K-ready DMC-GH4

Nevertheless, producers started picking up this immensely capable and affordable 4K workhorse and pressured Panasonic to imbue it with new capabilities. Responding to user demands, Panasonic subsequently delivered a free firmware update enabling a 4K "Photo" mode, an Anamorphic mode recorded 4K differently to make the most of widescreen anamorphic lenses. Then Panasonic released a paid update that unlocked LOG recording to be able to record another stop or two of latitude, as well as give more flexibility in color grading in post.

As the GH4 gained traction, shooters clamored for a camcorder based on the GH4. The removable-lens AF100 was getting quite long in the tooth, and Panasonic's new VariCam flagship was made (and priced) for feature filmmaking. Now Panasonic has introduced the DVX200, an evolution of both the GH4 and the DVX100 prosumer camcorder that filmmakers loved. Panasonic sent me a review unit of HVX200 for a few weeks to give it a workout to see what it can, and can't do.

The Camcorder

Panasonic offers numerous prosumer camcorders, and has already had a 4K camcorder--the HC-X1000--on the market for quite some time now. So what makes the DVX200 special? It's the large (4/3) sensor inside the camcorder.

The value of the large sensor is typically touted as a shallower DoF than small-sensor prosumer camcorders offer. Also, the large sensor can gather more light. Lastly, the camcorder form allows the user to more easily connect microphones, other audio, monitors, and accessories to the camcorder and potentially even leave them connected when they put the camcorder in a camera bag.

All this means that the camcorder is functionally much faster and easier to use than a similar DSLR that needs to be “rigged up” to provide the operator all the same features--manual audio control, bigger LCD, mounting point for shotgun and wireless microphones and lights, and so forth. In essence, a camcorder lets you move from bag to “Go” in seconds, as opposed to taking all that time to assemble and disassemble a DSLR-based kit.

The DVX200 is a bit chunkier than comparable camcorders (Figure 3, below). It’s based on a larger sensor and needs a larger lens. Moreover, the DVX200 builds on the GH4’s capabilities. So where the GH4 can record UHDp30, the DVX200 can record up to UHDp60. You get two recording slots instead of one. You can record in two different formats, such as HD and UHD, at the same time. It features a 13x optically stabilized lens as opposed to a 10x. The DVX200 features a 5-axis hybrid stabilization in HD, and more. This additional processing horsepower requires cooling, so there's an air pathway and a small fan to keep the internals cool.

Figure 3. The DVX200 is a bit larger than some comparable camcorders, with a bigger sensor and a sizeable LCD, two recording slots, and more. Click the image to see it at full size.

The grip is very comfortable--one of the most comfortable grips I’ve used. The handle on top has two each of 1/4-20 and 3/8" mounting holes drilled right into the super rigid magnesium frame for users to mount accessories. The underside of the handle has a rubber grip. While the side grip looks to have the same texture, it's just plastic with the same pattern, and not rubberized.

The big, carbon-fiber-like lens hood (there is no actual carbon fiber used on the camcorder) projects authority, and also has integrated lens cover doors, something I have liked since my days of shooting with a Sony FX1 HDV camcorder. There are dedicated dials for focus, zoom, and iris. There’s also a three-step (1/4, 1/16, 1/64) internal ND filter to help you keep the iris low in bright locations. This is actually important because, as you approach f/11, lens diffraction starts to make the image considerably softer.

The DVX200 also has an internal battery compartment--something I have never liked. If you aren't using a big battery, it's just wasted space. Also, it makes checking the battery status via the battery's own LED meter somewhere between annoying and useless (Figure 4, below). Changing batteries also takes additional steps and requires additional space for the big battery door to swing open out back. I've never found a good reason for it unless a device is designed for underwater/hazardous use, which this camcorder is not.

Figure 4. The internal battery compartment makes it hard to check the battery level. Click the image to see it at full size.

The 4.3" LCD on top looks bigger than it is as there’s a sizable bezel around it. The camcorder features stereo front-facing microphones, as well as two XLRs, so you can use an internal mic, and a wireless, or two external inputs, etc. One XLR jack is conveniently placed up where the front directional mic attachment can be added. The second input is on the back corner of the camcorder (Figure 5, below). This makes sense. However, given the size of the port doors, and the rear heat vent, there's not really a lot of space you can just velcro a wireless receiver to.

Figure 5. One XLR input is on the back corner of the DVX200.

There are two USB 3.0 ports on the camcorder. This is also compatible with USB 2.0, but USB 3.0 is much faster. The Device port allows you to connect your computer to the camcorder and use the camcorder as your media reader. This is fairly common. However, the Host port allows you to use the camcorder as a media-wrangling computer to copy footage directly from the cards to a connected USB 3.0 HDD. I've written about media wrangling in the field previously. For freelance owner/ops, this is a very convenient solution to copying your footage to a client's HDD without any extra hardware.

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