23 Mar 2016

Review: Panasonic DVX 200

4K, Kit No Comments

I last tested a Panasonic 4k camera about a year ago. That one (the HCX 1000) wasn’t really a full-blown pro camera – more pro-sumer.  Basically it was too small to work with gloves, looked a little too fragile, was difficult to put in full manual and didn’t really deliver the bit rates necessary for full 4K broadcast.

This one answers all those criticisms and more.  It’s full 4K and has useful bit rates. It’s a decent size and in theory the lens, the advanced stabilization and a whole lot more  is just what’s needed for run’n’gun. But the question is, does it also pose more questions – questions that we really hadn’t thought of before now?

Panasonic position this camera as a world-first.  Not in 4K … but for the (possibly spurious) reason of being the world’s first camera with a micro four-thirds sensor and a fixed, non-interchangeable lens. Admittedly that IS unusual and seeing as the lens goes from about 30 mm all the way up to 385 mm you’d need to cart around a lot of DSLR glass to compete.

Would this be the camera’s saving grace or its downfall?  This what I set out to find…

My thanks to Panasonic’s distributors Holdan who lent me this camera for a couple of weeks.  It came equipped with a spare battery (something I only needed once such is the battery life on every Panny camera it seems) as well as a couple of high speed SDXC cards.  Apart from their full broadcast cameras it seems that Panasonic have ditched the unloved P2 cards – a real saving.  And where the new Micro P2 cards are still used (for example in the broadcast PX270) these cameras can now take MicroP2 or SD cards in the same slot. Hopefully other manufacturers will see the light as well, although Canon still need CFast 2 cards for their XC10 when shooting 4K (but SD cards will work when shooting HD.  Really? Until what software revision will that be, do you suppose?)

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An aside here:  One of my first cars was a Mk III Ford Cortina.  A 1600 XL.  So it had the nicer vinyl seats and real plastic wood on the dash.  I was reminded of this when I got hold of this camera. It was delivered in what seemed to be the world’s biggest Peli. You reach in and take it out and two things strike you:  1)  It’s quite weighty – of which more below and 2) quite a lot of the body is in plastic with a ‘carbon fibre’ look.  And about as convincing as the plastic wood on my Cortina.  The bits of the body that aren’t ‘carbon fibre’ look, are mainly metallic red.  Now metallic red when it’s precision-anodized wicked-expensive Zacuto stuff looks cool. But metallic red plastic on a camera body – and in a particularly nasty pink-ish shade too – just doesn’t.  It’s lame.

I have this mental picture of one of Panasonic’s young designers, perhaps driving along the Suzuka Skyline highway in one of those be-spoilered Jap customs that you see in the Fast & Furious movies thinking how cool it would be to design a camera that looks like the inside of his car. Apart from the NoX boost buttons, it probably does …

Anyway, back to the first thing that struck me.  This camera is suitably weighty to make it a lot easier to shoot handheld.  It has some foibles as we’ll see but its weight, the spacing of the controls and their positions (with some surprising Sony-like WB and gain toggle switches) meant that it’s just about the right size. Well to me at least, it feels good and is pretty much the same as an EX3 – still something I’d compare a lot of cameras to in terms of ease of use and handling – especially wearing gloves.

I did mention EX3 just then and if you put them side by side you’ll notice a definite difference in feel though.  I think Sony still bead or sand-blast their injection mouldings.  Panasonic obviously don’t.  So the feel of a Sony is different – more quality, in a way. It’s just the noise that your hand makes as you handle the camera.  With the Sony it’s quieter, smoother and more refined.  With Panasonic it’s a little more abrasive.  Little things, I know….  But that has to be tempered by the price of course.

And although I can safely say that Panasonic cameras are pretty tough (mine has come off the sticks more than once and lived to shoot another day) to me they never give the impression that they are – whereas Sony cameras do.  I’m sure they break just as easily though!

OK that’s the beauty contest over with and on now to the good stuff.

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If you’ve ever used a Panasonic camera before there will be no surprises here.  Mainly, it operates in  the way that you’d expect it to and a few operational differences are easily worked through using the comprehensive manual.  Panasonic also suggest you read a very helpful e-book written by Barry Green that goes through a whole lot more stuff about the camera.

Panasonic’s specs for the camera are:

  • Newly developed F2.8 LEICA DICOMAR 4K lens
  • 13x zoom, 4K (4096 x 2160) 24p: 29.5 mm – 384.9 mm
  • FHD: 28mm – 365.3 mm (35 mm film equivalent)
  • 5 axis Hybrid Image Stabilizer
  • Intelligent Auto Focus system
  • ND filters (1/4, 1/16, 1/64)
  • Beautiful Bokeh effects from a 4/3-type, large-format sensor
  • 12 stops of imager latitude faithfully recorded by new V-Log L gamma curve
  • 60p images (MP4/MOV) with 4K (UHD: 3840 x 2160) resolution are recorded onto SD cards (Use SDXC/SDHC Memory Card compatible with UHS Speed Class 3 (U3) when using high bitrate video recording mode of 100 Mbps or greater)
  • Variable Frame Rate with a maximum of 120 fps (in FHD resolution)
  • Simultaneous, backup, and relay recording using two card slots

In addition here are some more important facts you should know:

  • Weight: 2.7kg – it’s nearly 2kg lighter than a Sony FS7 with the kit F4 28-135 lens (which admittedly can get heavy!)
  • V-Log Lite easily copes with skin tones in full sun, delivers great shadow and reveals excellent detail in blacks. Just be careful you don’t over-expose….
  • The OLED viewfinder has over 2 million dots in total with 1.77 million used for the video area. The flip out touchscreen is huge, bright and full HD.
  • Slow Motion: the DVX can shoot variable framerate at up to 120fps in HD mode. To be honest I didn’t get a chance to try this.
  • Macro Mode: the zoom lens also has a Macro Mode which goes down to 10cm.
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With a recent software update and the use of a cheap USB dongle, it’s also possible to remotely control the camera using an iPad.  However I didn’t have a chance to test this, although looking at the app, it appears that just about everything can be controlled from it, making it useful if the camera is remotely-mounted, like on a jib or crane.  However it seems penny-pinching not to include this wireless capability as standard, especially when so many cameras (for instance my tiny Panasonic G7) have that ability as standard. Holdan say in Panasonic’s defence here that the dongle is only £20 and has a far better range than anything in-built. However the dongle (at least 4 inches long) sticks out a fair way and could get in the way in some studio applications, so not completely satisfactory….

I had a chance to try the camera out on two different shoots – both indoors but in very different circumstances.

The first was a music gig and the second was some pieces to camera. Both were shot 4K at 100 Mbps and the quality on reviewing the rushes was excellent.  Recently I’ve been shooting with a Sony FS7 using primes.  Whilst not up to that standard (inevitably fifty grand’s worth of primes and a more expensive camera head does have to make a visible difference) the results looked great and although I’m not technical, so can’t tell you about signal to noise or anything like that, I think the pictures are excellent.  Sharp, good colour rendition and really quite clean considering the low light on one of the shoots. White balance though is just as frustrating for me to set up as with all Panasonics.

At the music gig I used the camera hand-held for most of the time and this is where the new 5 x axis stabilization really came into its own.  Once you got round the slight lag through the viewfinder as the camera processed everything, (least noticeable at 4K/50p I learnt) it was great to use and resulted in many smooth and usable shots that would not have been do-able on other cameras.  In addition the autofocus (yes, I used it for this….) was fairly quick and accurate, so no complaints there either.  Battery life as noted above was excellent.  Really you wouldn’t need more than two or three batteries for a solid day of shooting. Quite unlike other cameras I could mention ….

Working with the camera hand-held it became clear that its weight has been carefully chosen. It’s well-balanced and although true ‘on the shoulder’ is not possible with a camera of this fairly short length, it was still pretty comfortable to use for extended periods.  And it looks like an easy job to attach a proper shoulder mount too.

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The next shoot was interviews, all on the sticks, which I lit. Here I noticed that things look slightly less exposed in the viewfinder than they were when I got them into the edit suite.  However the 12 stops of latitude allowed me to grade these effectively with little noise added.  Again the camera performed really well and the 4K pictures looked pretty stunning afterwards.

Throughout I used Gobe high speed cards – it’s not worth using anything else at the cost!

On both shoots I was unable to get a real ‘super-bokeh’ type shot to prove to myself whether this camera could really back up what Panasonic have been saying about the 4/3 sensor, although I understand it’s easier to get that effect to a greater degree when the lens is in macro. Anyway, it’s comparing apples with oranges to compare the DVX 200 to carrying round (say) a GH4 and a box of primes. They are still two different beasts and I don’t think you’d buy this camera to create the wort of thing you’d use a DSLR type camera for.  (Although look on Vimeo and I’m sure to be proved wrong!)

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For 95% of a regular videographer’s work – and assuming you do have a DSLR or mirrorless SLR for the odd time you need it – this really does answer most people’s needs, today and into tomorrow. Almost all of the time.  So having a fixed lens was neither its saving grace OR its downfall.  I think I was asking the wrong question!

In conclusion, this is a first-rate true 4K camera for a very reasonable cost. Good enough for broadcast but cost-effective enough to use for everything you do every day. The cheap-to-buy media, the intuitive controls and the excellent stabilization are bonuses too.

If you’re buying, it’s worth shopping around for the best discounts and then using the money you’ll save to buy some more batteries and high speed cards – perhaps even a shoulder mount.  Or even better, a rain cover (which you could keep on all the time ….)  If you can live with the ‘Fast & Furious’ appearance it’ll make an excellent workhorse camera for many years to come. Highly recommended.

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Pictures by Tee McAteer.

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