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The AG-AF100 Revolution

To document the violent uprising in Libya, a veteran shooter selects Panasonic’s latest camera.

By Mickey Grant

It was only about four days prior to my trip to Libya to document the popular uprising going on there — a non-stop flight to London and then to Cairo — when my Panasonic AG-AF100 arrived by UPS on a Saturday morning. I was shocked how small it was. I had so much work to prepare for the trip to the war zone, one of many I’ve been to in my life, that I was swamped. I had decided to sell my old trusty Sony HVRZ1 — which probably had gone around the world with me at least five times. I hated to sell it as it had been so good to me. Not once had it malfunctioned, but HDV is HDV, an outdated format.  When I first got the Z1 there was the rumor in high-class edit rooms that it was outdated when it arrived. I never felt that way, in fact, I recently completed a one-hour documentary which I converted to HDCAM (at Chicago HD) from HDV and it looked just fine on the scopes.

On Tuesday, UPS delivered two Panasonic 64GB SCXC cards, a Lumix 14-42mm zoom and a Lumix fixed 20mm lens. I kept looking at the pile of my new equipment and doing my 18-hour-a-day preparation with my training on the camera becoming something for onboard the aircraft. The airlines have been really cracking down on carry-on bags, so I started exploring camera backpacks that I could carry the AF100, audio cables, my shotgun and my laptop loaded Avid Media Composer. My flight was Friday at 4:55pm and it was already 1:15pm in the afternoon. My living room was covered in different stacks of items that were needed for the trip. Besides my camera gear, I was taking several boxes of emergency medical supplies for Libyan frontline hospitals. My phone was ringing off the hook with Libyans who were helping coordinate my trip. The logistics of getting from Cairo in the middle of the night into Libya were very complicated. With a friend’s help, we managed to get everything packed by 2:00pm and out of my house on the way to the airport. Listening to NPR on the way was not a positive experience. Fighting was intensifying at an alarming rate. As it turned out, I was too fried to read my copy of The AF100 Book by Barry Green as I traveled.

Eventually, I arrived in Cairo and made the mistake in customs when asked where I was traveling to of saying “Libya.” They immediately wanted to confiscate my camera and medical supplies and about 20 copies of the film I’d previously made in Libya called Injection. Well, I quickly lied and said there must have been a mistake, I was giving the medical supplies to a Libyan to take to Libya. Lots of bearded men had gathered to discuss me and suddenly one of the younger ones came to me and said it was okay. As I was leaving, I turned around and he was smiling at me and I got to smile back. I think he actually supported me going to Libya. I met my Egyptian contact in the parking lot (it was 10:00pm) and we immediately started driving at 150km per hour toward Libya.

After about five hours we got to a border town that was divided in two by armored personal carriers and tanks. They put me in a Motel Minus Six. I came downstairs and found my driver with the tank crew in the lobby and was immediately introduced to the tank commander, who very proudly reached out and shook my hand and said, “So you want to go to Libya?” He said it like he was proud of me.

I gradually made my way deep into Libya. At first I shot some sit-down interviews in Derna, which is a sea coast town about half way to Benghazi. The subjects were people whose relatives had disappeared in the middle of the night over the past years due to the secret police of the Qaddafi regime. The AF100 functioned perfectly even though had I barely used it before. Its auto focus is extremely reactive compared to my old Z1, and I learned I had to use the auto focus button rather than leave auto on — that’s one thing that’s so nice about the Z1, even an idiot could get good video if they left it on “auto.”

Now I headed to Benghazi on a rainy day. I soon wished I’d bought the AF100 rain coat that I’d seen in the B&H catalog. After arriving, I quickly set up my recharges, etc. in my hotel room. When I travel, I always wear the blue cameraman vest with large pockets and one of those I always carry my 200-watt professional power converter I purchased for about $60 at Fry’s Electronics. This is a critical device on an international trip, along with a regular power bar with its own protection.

Right off the bat I ended up in a large demonstration and I had to learn the camera fast. The worst problem I discovered was the ergonomics of the AF100’s volume controls. They are small and the access to control them is very flat. I may need to grow the fingernail on my left hand index finger long in order to be able to quickly control the little volume wheels. There is an electronic sound limiter but it’s not nearly as functional as the auto setting I had on my Z1, which worked like a champ in volatile situations such as the demonstration. People next to me were even firing AK47s into the air, which is something that will really peak your meters.

I had just read in the manual what the OIS [Optical Image Stabilizing] setting was for getting rid of some of the shaking of my camera as I walked along with the demonstrators. Some of the lenses, such as the Lumix I was using, have this built into them. You do have to hit the OIS button on the camera. Yes, there is a lot to remember, but the great video is worth it. One of the great things the camera offers, which I’m constantly using, is the built-in waveform monitor. I’m one of the few cameramen who still carries a light meter, but, with this addition, there is no need to anymore.

Overall, the AF100 is incredible. It’s truly revolutionary but takes some getting use to. This doesn’t bother me, as for half my career I shot with a 16mm Eclair camera and a Nagra strapped to my shoulder with reel-to-reel tape rolling. This camera in so many ways is similar to a film camera and the image quality looks like it. That’s all that counts in the end. The only thing I’d add to it is a nanoFlash by Convergent Design (AVCHD isn’t my format of choice) and a compliment of more lenses, including some higher-quality primes. Without any question, this is going to be the new hot affordable camera for everyone.

Mickey Grant is in his 30th year as a documentary filmmaker and has covered numerous wars. His works include China Run (1987), Destination Da Nang (2008) and The Cu Chi Tunnels (1990). His Web site is www.creativehat.com, and he may be reached at mickeyfilm@aol.com. Look for updates here regarding his use of the AF100 in the field.

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