In a previous post, I extolled the virtues of the Panasonic AF100, hailing it as a gift to independent filmmaking and the DPs who work so hard to make art with as little as possible. At the time, I hadn’t shot anything with the since-released Sony FS100, their answer to Panasonic’s AF100. While the Sony F3 inhabits the tier above the AF100, boasting higher recording bitrates and the S-Log upgrade option, the FS100 meets the AF100 eye-to-eye on price, codec, recording media, and size. So it seems only natural that when I spend two weeks shooting a TV show with the FS100, I would have to write another post comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the two “DSLR killers” against each other.
Sony FS100 rig
The FS100′s image is less noisy than the AF100′s. There, I said it. We usually shot at 0db gain (ISO 500), with an expanded dynamic range picture profile, but when we bumped to 6db (ISO 1000), there was no visible change in the image; it remained very clean. Conversely, pushing the AF100 past ISO 640 introduces definite noise. It’s not terrible looking, but it’s there. Oddly enough, a lot of this noise isn’t visible when the AF100 is projected from Blu-Ray.
While the FS100 excels in lower light, the AF100 is the king in daylight. Its three levels of internal ND (plus clear) mean that exteriors have never been easier to shoot with a camera this small. Futzing around with filters and screwing fader NDs onto the FS100′s lenses brought me to muttering back to the DSLR days. If you’re going to be outside and you have to adjust exposure quickly, the AF100 is a better choice.
Sony FS100 shoulder rig
I’m sure we’re all sick of having “crop factor” beaten like a dead horse, but it’s something to consider. The FS100 sees about 10% wider than the AF100, and gives a little shallower depth of field as a result. The DOF isn’t noticeably different to the eye; the field of view is. After two weeks with the FS100, I had to re-adjust to the AF100′s smaller sensor size. We used Nikon AF lenses with a Novoflex adapter on the FS100, which yielded some really nice clean results (although the tiny iris barrel range of the adapter and the inability to determine or lock off actual F-stop was somewhat frustrating). When the Birger Canon EF adapter is released for both cameras, it will make this issue a bit easier to deal with.
The FS100, true to Sony form, renders skin tones well, but tends to give most images a somewhat sterile cast, compared to the AF100. It cannot match the vibrancy of Panasonic’s in-camera image processing. But it handled highlights well, and was overall detailed and well-rounded. I’d say that if there’s an area where the FS100 has an edge, it’s the image in many situations.
The Form Factor
Panasonic AF100 steadicam rig
Fortunately for the sake of my comparison, both my AF100 rig and the production company’s FS100 rig used the same gear: Zacuto universal baseplate and follow focus, 15mm rods, and a rods-mounted Anton Bauer gold mount plate on the back. Couldn’t have asked for a more level playing field.
These cameras were released on the bleeding edge of the prosumer market, and as a result, both feel a little off. For the AF100, it’s the viewfinder; there’s no real reason for it to be there. I almost never use it, preferring to use an onboard monitor or Cineroid EVF. Obviously it’s a leftover from the HVX200, used to help support the top handle and the menu buttons. On the bright side, the AF100′s top handle is very sturdy and I have no qualms about picking up my rig and throwing its weight around. Sony tried something new with their topside LCD with loupe viewfinder, but didn’t quite hit the mark. I used the LCD when it was convenient or absolutely necessary (two or three times over the course of two weeks), and never even took the loupe out of the case, sticking mostly to the onboard monitor. Unfortunately for the FS100, the LCD’s position makes it difficult to place a top handle in a useful spot…and the Sony top handle is a pitiful, vestigial piece of plastic. We supplemented with Letus articulating handgrips, but the FS100′s 1/4-20 tapped screwholes actually loosened themselves from the camera body, so we resorted to a Redrock handle mounted directly to the rods (which had to be on the back of the rig, making it an impractical solution for balanced carrying). Zacuto has just released an FS100 handgrip, which looks like a decent solution, but the loose screwholes are still worrisome.
The upside of the FS100′s design is that it can build very small and flat if necessary. With no top handle and no EVF, the Sony stands roughly 2/3 as high as the Panasonic, which means a slightly lower center of gravity and less hitting of overhead obstacles (useful for me, at 6’4″). The button placement on the AF100 and FS100 is about the same, and while Sony lacks the easy frame rate dial of the Panasonic, the rest of its functions are easily accessible. The one downside is that the Sony’s buttons are easier to press with your cheek or ear, and the front Record button is a little hard to find with your finger. After two weeks, there was still a bit of fumbling, and the button itself seems slightly too small.
The two cameras are based on the same concept (larger chip and interchangeable lenses), but ended up very different, physically; the AF100 would be better on its own, with the removable handgrip on the side; the FS100 requires a rig, so be sure to budget for accessories. And with the same support gear, the AF100 can build smaller than the FS100, for a more compact profile. But ultimately, both need another generation of tweaking before they feel totally comfortable.
Panasonic AF100 rig on tripod
Both cameras record 8-bit 4:2:0 AVCHD 1080p to SD cards. However, the AF100 provides many more options for transmitting and viewing that signal, as well as having two SD card slots compared to the FS100′s one. The FS100′s only output is HDMI, and although it’s a full-size port (not the Mini-HDMI of DSLR infamy), it’s still not as secure as a locking BNC port for SDI. The AF100, on the other hand, offers HD-SDI, HDMI, and Composite SD video, simultaneously. The combinations of outputs is numerous, and allow flexibility while managing signals on steadicam, jib, dolly, handheld, whatever. No matter what the situation, there’s going to be a video output for everyone with the AF100.
Of course, anyone migrating from DSLR to the FS100 would be likely to have the converter boxes necessary to make the video signal work…but these cameras are supposed to be a step forward. No one wants to continue the days of mounting, powering, and managing dicey ports on a BlackMagic or AJA box. Our saving grace for the TV show was the TVLogic VFM-056WP monitor. It’s lightweight, takes powertap or battery power, and best of all, converts HDMI to SDI inside the monitor (as well as accepting, and passing through, an SDI signal). The 720p image is nice and sharp too, and its peaking and waveform are well-realized. I wish it had a false color filter, but I learned to live without it. The only downside of the TVLogic was its $1400 price tag, but if I had to buy a monitor to cover all my needs, this would be the one.
To sum up, the FS100′s chip is a nice piece of work, taken straight out of its big brother, the F3. The rest of the camera leaves something to be desired. The outputs, build quality, and form factor are inferior to that of the AF100. So choosing between these two cameras boils down to what you’re shooting. Day exterior? AF100 is quicker. Night exterior? FS100 is cleaner. Run and gun? Use the AF100 by itself, or FS100 with a few accessories. As always, you pick the right tool for the job. I’m still happy I chose the Panasonic AF100, and I’d make the same choice again…but for someone else, FS100 may be a better fit. I’d love to hear your stories about which camera you chose, and why. Leave them in the comments below!
Clayton Combe is a cinematographer based in New York City. For more on the AF100 and the work he does with it, visit his website and follow him on Twitter.