Those who read my review of the HMC80, will remember that I recommended the balance that an on-shoulder camcorder can give when there's enough weight on the back of the camcorder. The HMC80 features plenty of I/O jacks for video and audio that requires nary an adapter or specialized cable. This makes it very convenient in the field.
But despite the plethora of jacks on the HMC80, its capabilities are limited to one output at a time. So it's no surprise that this less-expensive AC7 also incorporates the same consumerish limitation. In addition, it has fewer ports and jacks, and doesn't allow for direct physical control of audio or headphone volume.
The component output is now a specialized cable that connects to a dedicated port on the camcorder. Gone are the XLR jacks and FireWire found on the HMC80 and typically associated with prosumer cameras. Composite video with stereo audio is supported with a dedicated set of RCA jacks on the right side of the camcorder. Oddly, that's also where the headphone jack is. The camera also includes HDMI out and a standard mini USB I/O jack.
The jacks are all on the right side, away from the operator. But the media slot is also on the right side, away from the operator, with a red recording light over it. Who does this inform that the camera is rolling? Is it risky to have the media accessible to others but not the camera operator?
The AC7 also has a mic input. It's hidden next to the diminutive built-in mic on the top of the body, in front of the handle. Plugging a single 1/8" stereo plug into this jack will deactivate the camera's internal mics. You can plug in a wireless mic receiver, but the AC7's input is stereo, not balanced mono. To access both channels separately, you'll need a breakout dual-mono cable. Alternatively, small external mixer would be useful because there are no surface controls for quickly adjusting the audio into the camcorder.
There is an abundance of surface area available to velcro multiple wireless microphone receivers, and the camcorder comes standard with two cold shoes to hold both an on-camera light and a lightweight shotgun mic. There's also a built-in speaker placed right next to your right ear. The handle has a zoom rocker and a Record button. The viewfinder has a diopter adjustment.
The viewfinder caused the greatest consternation for me because it's very limited in its position. Unlike the HMC80, the AC7's viewfinder has no side-to-side adjustment at all. You can swivel the eyepiece only to point up or down. As it was, I had to press my head hard against the AC7, and at an angle, to be able to see into the eyepiece. However, the view wasn't worth the effort. So I swiveled the eyepiece up and used the much clearer LCD screen instead.
The LCD screen is easier to see than the eyepiece, if you can push your head far enough back. The camera is clearly designed to be on your shoulder but that places the screen about five inches from your eyes. That was just too close for me to be able to see it comfortably. Once I slid the camcorder forward on my shoulder and craned my head back, the LCD experience was much better.
Watching the AC7's LCD screen as you shoot requires some awkward head positioning.
This LCD also provides the touchscreen interface for most of the camcorder's manual controls, including audio. Some settings can be access on-the-fly: White Balance, Shutter, and Iris. Touch the item and you can adjust settings incrementally up and down.
Making touchscreen settings adjustments on the AC7
Focus is a manual switch on the body of the camera. There's a Macro touchscreen setting, as well as 7 other quick-touch menu items, including Pre-record.
This is where LCD screens mounted far forward-like on Canon's XF300 series-really pay off in terms of usability. Plus, with on-LCD viewfinders becoming more commonplace on several camcorders, Panasonic ought to ditch the viewfinder and put the LCD screen much further forward. And they should make an eyepiece an optional accessory. Those that require it for outdoor use would need to forego easy touchscreen access.
Lastly, I am always bemused by camcorders that have a record-button rotating switch for power that's designed so that flicking it up-like a light switch-turns the camera off. It really needs to be the other way around.
The power switch on the AC7's Record button
The AC7 has a basic menu system for setting various parameters, including the data rate for the video. But if you want the highest quality, there's little to adjust in the menus, and when you can adjust something, you first have to try and figure out how that menu works.
For example, audio works as follows: You can adjust the incoming mic level between "Auto" and "Set + AGC." AGC typically means Auto Gain Control, but if I can set my levels manually, is AGC still on? The AGC has an on-screen button that the manual thankfully clarifies-yellow is off; yellow with a Yellow border is on. The manual says that turning AGC off means that "a natural recording can be performed," but with AGC on, "the amount of sound distortion can be reduced." What if I want a natural recording with no distortion?
The on-screen audio meter does not show two separate channels, only a combination of the two. It shows the loudest part of the audio, from either channel. There's also a zebra setting, but it's not adjustable; it's there only to indicate clipping. So getting certain critical feedback from the camera is a bit more challenging than professionals are used to.
You can turn on the Zebra setting in the AC7's LCD menu, but you can't adjust it.
There's also a bevy of items that are buried in menus that really ought to have dedicated physical controls, such as mic level, headphone level, and the like. I understand that this model is less expensive than the HMC80, and that it's unreasonable to expect the same feature set, but with so much camera surface space, there are certain things that beg for dedicated physical controls.
Overall, the menu system, designed for a consumer camcorder, is easy to navigate and adjust. The touchscreen actually makes things easier in that you don't have to cycle through every single item like you do with a scroll wheel; you can directly touch any item on a screen to adjust it. But I expect that, for practical purposes, most of the menu items will be set once and left alone.
I used the camcorder to shoot a promo video for a local fundraising effort. Working with the footage was similar to that of the HMC80. It lacks the sharpness you'd get with more expensive prosumer camcorders. But this clearly is more affordable than all prosumer camcorders and the larger, on-shoulder size still commands respect. As I shot, I heard several attendees say, "Look out, the professionals are here."
That said, I found myself fighting an overaggressive image stabilization that would hold onto a stable image, despite my trying to pan or zoom, until it gave up and snapped back to center. The slowest speed of the zoom is noticeably fast, so feathering a zoom in and out is futile.
I was shooting a night-time event and the auto settings pushed the camera gain up all the way. But you wouldn't really notice it from looking at the footage. The absence of fine detail partially masks what would have been gain grain, and the heavy AVCHD compression obliterates the rest. So it looks pretty clean, if a little smudgy.
I needed more image than the standard gain was providing, so I leveraged the camera's high-gain Color Night mode feature to get a brighter image. The AC7's image brightened up noticeably, making a room that was dark to the eye look like it was lit brightly. However, there was a lot of motion blur from the camera slowing the shutter speed down to gather more light, and there's no way to adjust the camera's settings to dial back the shutter for less blur.
Moreover, when moving from the dark room to a brighter room, the camera showed me a clean, bright image, but I didn't notice that Color Night mode was still on. Dealing with the resulting strobe-like footage in the edit was a surprise I didn't want. Because of my unfamiliarity with operating the AC7, I would have been better off leaving it in Intelligent Auto mode to better handle the disparate conditions of the event.
Lastly, in an age when a lot of delivery (including this project) happens online, the camcorder's inability to record any progressive standard made a deinterlacing step a requirement that also took away some resolution from the final product. (interlacing.png) The AVCHD codec supports multiple progressive resolutions, none of which are in the AC7.
The non-progressive footage shot with the AC7 necessitated deinterlacing in post.
In the end, though it looks professional because it is bigger, trying to use it as a professional would actually caused problems later. It is a point-n-shoot consumer camcorder at heart. Using it as such would have served me better in the end.
There were several little features of the AC7 that I did like and wish I could take with me and put into other camcorders. One handy feature is the Luminance box. A small square in the center of the screen that gives you a 0-99+% value of whatever is in the box. Like a tiny spot-meter, you can zoom in to something in the shot and get an exact, real-time luminance value for that object using your current settings. There's also a histogram which shows you where the balance of your image data is in a light-to-dark range.
The AC7's handy Luminance box
There's an "I" at the bottom of the menu screen that you click to enter Information mode, and get a little description of the various parameters you can set, such as AGS mode, which will pause recording when the camera goes upside down or sideways. The handiness of Information mode is limited because it turns itself off as soon as it gives you just one tidbit of info. (img-5949) But it's good to have handy if you need to figure out a feature in the field.
The AC7 also features blue focus "peaking" that greatly assists manual focus, but it doesn't require you to constantly turn it on and off to use it. That's another feature the pro camcorders need to steal. The camcorder obviously knows when you are rotating the focus ring, so a blue border appears on the LCD screen and the edges in focus are highlighted by blue.
As you rotate the focus, the blue edges move. Even with the limited resolution of the built-in LCD screen, the camera clearly indicates exactly where the high-contrast edges are in the shot. After a couple of seconds, all the blue goes away on its own, ready to reappear the next time you start to adjust the focus.
Note how the blue edges move as you rotate the focus on the AC7.
I've seen similar colored peaking systems on more professional camcorders, but the AC7's auto on/off is something I became accustomed to rather quickly, and I wish my higher-end HD camera offered it. It's like a stereo that needs you to touch only one button-the Play button-and it turns itself on, changes inputs, and begins playing the CD. The AC7''s auto-appearing/disappearing Manual Focus Assist's intuitive design helped just enough without getting in the way.
The AC7 sits unchallenged in terms of size and affordability. But what it gives up to keep the price down may make it less worthwhile to many shooters. The image quality on both the HMC80 and the AC7 are not equal to the other stellar camcorders in Panasonic's pro lineup. In fact, Panasonic ought to position these camcorders differently, on a lower tier, or as high-end consumer camcorders.
I found the HMC80 to be a much better solution in terms of usability (the eyepiece, physical controls), and connectivity (I/O ports). The HMC80 is, essentially, an affordable consumer camcorder, that you can more easily connect accessories to than most consumer models, and it also gives you the ability to adjust more settings on than you could on a tiny palmcorder. With the AC7, you save half the cost, but lose much of that connectivity and easy accessibility.
While the AC7 does give the operator some measure of control, and makes that control fairly easy to get to, the end user will need to determine if the larger physical camera gives any additional value to a palmcorder's capabilities. In some cases, size (and shoulder-mounting) matters, and that's what the AC7 provides. For a certain group of end users, the AC7 will deliver what they need, but they'll also need to understand its limitations before buying it to use in the field.