By Neil Bennett | on April 03, 2003
Price: £2,700 plus VAT (street price)
When the DVX100 was announced in April 2002, it was heralded as the greatest leap forward since Canon’s XL1. Launched under the banner of DV Cinema, the DVX100 was designed to revolutionize the way independent films were made, providing capture in 24p format at a cost far below conventional digital cinema kit – and equivalent to the standards of the medium, such as the XL1. 24p runs at the same rate as film – 24fps – so lending materials the film-style look that all indie filmmakers crave. One year on, and six months since the actual release of the camcorder in the US, the DVX100 has finally arrived in the UK – minus the 24p function. However, this is for a good reason, and the camera does offer a truly exciting feature set marred a little by some irritating flaws. 24p is a big deal over in the US for two main reasons. The film-style 24fps rate of 24p has different enough characteristics from the 30fps of NTSC that it makes a real distinction when you’re going for that ‘film look’. PAL’s 25fps rate offers less of a difference. What really counts is that film and 24p are progressive, where as traditional PAL or NTSC are interlaced. The UK DVX100 adds a new format to the mix – 25p, though it can also capture to conventional interlaced 50i if you like. 25p is progressive, but runs at 25fps, and has major advantages over 24p for the majority of users. 24p may be great if your final output is to film for theatrical performance, but it requires specialist editing tools or add-ons (such as Apple’s £700 Cinema Tools for Final Cut Pro), and can’t be edited in real time. 25p is constructed like conventional interlaced footage (see below), and so can be edited using any DV-editing system. As well as delivering a film-style look, its progressive nature makes it ideal for footage designed for other forms of progressive output, such as Web streaming. Functionality issues Using 25p on the DVX100 reduces some of its functionality, though. There’s no auto-focus when you use 25p, nor gain control. Colour bars are also out of the picture. If you’re going for the film look, you shouldn’t use auto-focus anyway, but users looking to the format for better streaming output won’t be happy – and the lack of a gain control will annoy everyone. Panasonic claims that the increased processing power required for progressive capture proscribes these functions – though they may appear in future models – but it’s still irritating. Video also doesn’t look like film because the media have different colour characteristics. The DVX100 allows users to change the camera’s gamma curve to a very good approximation of film. Due to the compression used in creating DV footage, this sounds unlikely – but our captured footage in this mode had a subtle ‘film look’ without going overboard and looking like the over-saturated, grainy flashbacks in Boomtown. Of course, the lack of grain is a bit of a giveaway – but adding this in post makes no difference to the output, whereas having the correct gamma curve in the camera avoids the out-of-range dropoff that can sometimes happen there. The DVX100 also offers three other gamma curves for quick access to certain looks. Norm is the standard video gamma, Low has a strong black contrast, and High is designed to provide bright images with soft contrast and detailed dark areas. These provide a good start for different circumstances, and can even be used as-is if you’re in a hurry. A dial offers quick access to six presets, one of which is the standard set-up. Out of the box, these modes optimize the DVX100 for indoor shooting under fluorescent lights or bringing out the dark areas in sunsets, or create a wedding-style that brings out subjects in a clichéd, but often-requested, way. There are two progressive modes, both of which use 25p and the ‘cine-like gamma’, but with different detail levels. You can create your own presets. Even if the DVX100 was lacking the film-style features that made its name, it would still be an excellent handheld camcorder. The three 1/3-inch, 470,000-pixel CCDs may be smaller than conventional broadcast 1/2-inch units, but they still capture sharp, correctly coloured footage with a bare minimum of artifacts. Much of this is due to the exceptional Leica Dicomar lens. It fully lives up to its impressive specs – 15 lens elements in 11 groups, three aspherical lenses, and Leica multi-coating – and delivers the best looking footage we’ve ever seen from a handheld. Lens and zoom The 10x zoom capacity (equivalent to 32.5-325mm in 35mm speak) is short, but offers an impressive wide-angle function without requiring a specialist lens – though one is available if you wish. Considering how this camcorder is likely to be used, this is more of a bonus than a long zoom. We also liked the cam- driven manual zoom ring, so the zoom can be controlled either using a rocker, or manually for more precise control. The lens has built-in optical image stabilization that worked well but, to our eyes, the output was slightly less flat than Sony’s SuperSteadyShot system.The auto-focus is less impressive, however: it’s a little sluggish, especially as the zoom extends. It should be adequate for the majority of situations where auto-focus is required, though. Other features that made us wish Panasonic didn’t need the loan camera back quite so quickly include two ND filters (1/8 ND and 1/64 ND), gain controls up to 18dB, shutter speeds from 1/50 to 1/2000 seconds (1/25 to 1/1000 in 25p mode), and dual XLR audio inputs. The flip-out LCD screen is bright and detailed, though the viewfinder was much less so. The DVX100’s high quality even extends to minor features, such as the end-search button. This automatically finds the end of the footage on the inserted tape, ready for further recording. Anyone who’s ever found that they didn’t bring enough tapes on a shoot will find this immeasurably useful. The automated white-balance controls include single-button setting of white and black balance, with a lever for switching between three settings – one preset and two user-definable. ATW (auto-tracking white balance) offers real-time changes that are automatically calculated. It isn’t perfect, but it could be extremely useful if you’re caught in rapidly changing lighting conditions. The DVX100’s main competitors are Canon’s XL1s and Sony’s PDX10. The XL1s is the traditional indie-cam, but while its frame mode offers something similar to 25p, it doesn’t offer film-style gamma. Its component-based system is still its best facet, but the output quality of its footage just can’t compare to that from the DVX100. The PDX10 is smaller and has a much less impressive lens than the DVX100. However, it uses megapixel CCDs to deliver true widescreen recording – whereas the DVX100 uses the old trick of chopping the top and bottom off the picture. The bastard child of all three cameras would be something earth-shattering – component-based with the DVX100’s CCDs and lens as standard, plus true 16:9 recording – but currently, the output quality of the DVX100 places way ahead of its competition.