“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
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
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
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
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
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
© 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.