The VX2000 and PD170 may be the kings of wedding videography, But for industrial, commercial, indie film, and other types of work, they don't hold a candle to the Panasonic HVX200, which is as close to a "digital film" camera as I've ever seen at a price that independent producers can afford. The HVX200 hooked up to a FireStore FS-100—a compatible, feature-rich DDR with a 100GB capacity—offers even more versatility for videographers doing a range of contract work.
This review of the Panasonic AG-HVX200 will be slightly different, in part because it's really a review of two products—the HVX200 and the Focus FireStore FS-100, a 100GB DDR that can be mounted directly on the Panasonic camera. I tested both products in the field, ignored all the technical papers, and shot in the southern Louisiana heat and humidity. I shot in swamps, gardens, a powwow, the French Quarter, and in the rain. In the process the camera was bumped, dropped, spilled on, and more.
I ran the Panasonic HVX200 with the FS-100, both mounted on a CineSaddle by Cinekinetic. The final footage was brought into Final Cut Pro 5.1.
The Star Of Our Show
The HVX200 is slightly larger and heavier than its popular DV-only precursor, the AG-DVX100. The controls are convenient on the left side and make shooting with manual control in real time easy to do. The P2 card slots are at the back of the body, just above the battery. During my shooting I found it very easy to get used to the control layout and to do fine manual adjustments.
Shooting in the field with the HVX200 and Cinesaddle
The camera also shoots in a variety of formats. Standard-def DV records DVCPRO DV to MiniDV tape. Other supported formats—DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, and DVCPRO HD (720p, 1080p, 1080i—including variable frame rates for 720p shooting)—record to the P2 system only (P2 cards or external recording option). The variable frame rate options for over- and under-cranking the system range from 12fps to 60fps. This is the method used to get fast- and slow-motion in film. When combined with fast shutter speeds, it captures the clearest motion effects.
The HVX200 also has the same image-tweaking controls as the DVX100, including Knee, Gamma Curve, Detail Coring, Syncro Scan, Chroma Level, and Phase. I won't go into what all these mean; let's just say it makes this not so much a video camera as a digital film camera. All these settings can be stored in Scene Files. You can select one of six Scene Files via the dial at the back of the camera, and all can be customized. The HVX also adds the option of saving these Scene Files to an SD card. This allows you to duplicate camera settings from one camera to another. They can also be edited in a text editor on your computer.
The HVX200 is a little heavier than most handheld cameras. The weight is not bad, but if I had to hold this up for more than a couple of hours, I'd start to notice the extra weight, especially with an FS-100 and light mounted on it. Regardless, it is a phenomenally well-balanced camera when hand-held (unless you have tiny hands).
If I used this for a wedding, I'd shoot in DVCPRO/DV on MiniDV tape so I wouldn't worry about the extra weight (at least from the FS-100). But the real magic happens in the HD modes—as for the picture quality, it's incredible! The full 4:2:2 color space of DVCPRO-HD is amazing. In post I can push color correction and effects much more than is available with DV or HDV, versatile and powerful as those formats are. The picture quality really is there. It's a film look like I've not seen on any other DV camera—beyond even the DVX100. Like I said, I consider this a "digital film" camera. Image quality at different resolutions and frame rates (left to right): 480i60 DV, 720p24 HD P2, 1080p24 HD P2
Low-light areas suffer a little bit of grain. This means it won't hold up to the extreme low-light situations of wedding receptions and other social events where you can't control the lighting. That said, with a mounted light, the HVX200 could hold its own under most low-light event scenarios.
I love the pre-record buffer, as I can hit record and up to seven seconds in Tape mode, and three seconds in HD mode will be there from before I hit the record button. You can dub your P2 footage in-camera to MiniDV tape. It's not an ideal solution to the current storage limitations of P2, but just keep in mind that HD and HDV for wedding and event video are brand new. There are a lot of inherent problems that will have to work themselves out over time.
Moving P2 footage into your NLE is simple. Via FireWire, the camera mounts the P2 cards just like a hard drive. With the card recognized and mounted, copy the folders to your media drive. Or, like in Final Cut, save a step and import the P2 card's data directly into your project.
My only serious problems with the HVX200 are the painfully slow zoom servo and the almost non-functioning auto-focus. For all practical purposes, the auto-focus doesn't function if you zoom in or out during a shot. Thankfully, Panasonic includes a Focus Assist button that really helps out with focusing HD material manually on that tiny LCD screen.
The FS-100 by Focus Enhancements is basically a hard drive designed for direct video recording and immediate access to acquired footage in post. Once you get back to the studio, plug it in, and transfer your footage from the FS-100 to your local media drive on your edit bay. That's it!
The FS-100 is the big brother to the FS-4 (See FS-4 review). The casing is the same size, but the FS-100 comes with a larger 100GB hard drive and the ability to record DVCPRO-HD/P2 material. The drawback is that it is a FAT 32-formatted hard drive, thus, has a 2GB limit (the FS-4 uses the same filesystem, but it's more of an issue with the larger HD files). But I found it did a great job at cutting those files accurately. I recorded long enough to do more than a 2GB capture file. It split into two different clips. When I placed them in my NLE's timeline back to back, it was seamless.
The FireStore FS-100
The FS-100 also has some very nice utilities built in. Running on a Linux operating system, it is very robust and reliable. It can repair minor glitches on the hard drive and to clips. You can set the back light, organize your clips into Reels for long, complex shoots, and even record "live" to the drive while the camera is idle. It also has a pre-record buffer and a variety of timecode-generation options, almost identical to the HVX200 itself. The variety and quality of the FS-100's utilities and functions really make it a worthwhile investment.
Although operation of the FS-100 can be sort of clumsy—such as having to race through its menu system—in practice it's not that bad. I found that after the first hour or two of shooting with it, I was very comfortable with the menus and could navigate them very quickly. There are three user-assignable buttons on the front. You can set these for your most often used functions.
Weight can be an issue when you mount the FS-100 directly on the HVX200. While shooting with the CineSaddle or tripod, there was no weight problem. I used the included belt clip to hang it on the side of my CineSaddle.
Both Panasonic and Focus recommend the JimmyBox for mounting the FS-100 to the camera's underside. My Focus rep tells me that they are working toward an FS-100/HVX200-specific JimmyBox solution.
FireWire—Blessing or Curse?
The FireWire connection between the HVX200 and the FS-100 is not a problem in the studio. In the field, it creates issues that need to be addressed. I had two moments over two weeks where the HVX200 flashed on its LCD screen, "1394 Device Disconnected." Pretty nice that the camera is smart enough to know, and to tell you right away! A tiny wiggle to each end of the cable and the warning went away and I was recording again.
I've heard concerns about breaking the FireWire connectors in the camera and in the FS-100 unit itself. This is the nature of FireWire connections. Focus tells me they have a multitude of these types of devices operating all over the world and they've had few problems. Even the hard drives hold up well. And after surviving the abuse my test unit went through, I believe it!
One solution to the FireWire cable concern is to get an elbow joint connector. I've seen several online from various companies. It is simply an adapter type fitting that is in an "L," or elbow, shape. This would give the connection a little more durability for sure. Focus also has told me they are looking for a "top quality" adapter like this to sell for their units.
Focus Enhancements is already working on upgrades to the FS-100 via the Upgrade function in its menus system. One we'll see is the ability to record more of the metadata automatically captured on the P2 cards. Right now, there are no thumbnails on clips the FS-100 records. Other enhancements they are looking at include automatic detection of your recording settings, so that the FS-100 can auto-configure itself to match. They're also reportedly working on the ability to record 720p24 native via FireWire (which may or may not be possible).
This 24p native mode records only the 24 frames per second and nothing else. The advantage is to save on storage space (fewer frames, smaller files). 24p and 24p Advanced modes record the original 24fps and flag those frames. Then it fills in more frames to match the 60fps stream of NTSC.
All in all, the FS-100 is a solid unit, just like the other products Focus Enhancements makes. It is flexible and very useful in the field. The battery life is impressive, and the ability to get an optional 3-hour battery is a big plus. I wish they could get 24p native format to record via the FireWire connection. My biggest wish would be to upgrade the 100GB disk to a 200GB drive. But the current capacity, which allows for recording 90 minutes of DVCPRO-HD material on the drive, isn't all that bad. In DVCPRO/DV, mode it will hold up to 7.2 hours of footage.
Saddle Up, Y'all!
I can't say enough about it the Cinekinetic CineSaddle ($350), so I'll try to keep this short. It's simply amazing. In a nutshell, it is a super heavy-duty bean bag made for video/film cameras. It's as simple as that, and yet not.
I can get shots unavailable with any other support system. It is very durable, strong, and well-made. The securing hardware that comes with it is top quality and perfect for mounting on a car or motorcycle or just about anywhere. I've used it on tree stumps, balcony rails, chair backs, a niche in a stand of bamboo, and more.
There are pockets to store batteries, tape, even a Coke, and my beef jerky! The fill in the bag is easy to work with, you can mold the bag to just about anything. Don't throw your other gear away just yet, but I will tell you that I haven't used my tripod in almost a month. Add this little puppy to your arsenal and you'll be blown away with some of the creative shots it will allow you to get.
P2 Storage Issues
As of this writing, there are currently no realistic solutions for delivering high-definition video on disc to the general public. The very first high-def DVD burners are just now out on the market and not moving as fast as expected; none of them ships with adequate software for authoring video discs. The very first commercial HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs (BDs) are about to hit the shelves of Blockbuster. But HD DVD and BD set-top players are simply not flying into people's homes at the moment, partially due to high prices and the lack of models available.
So why go high def? Output to film, for starters. Then there is the argument that being ready now will pay off later when high-def DVDs do take off. Finally, theoretically downgrading HD to SD still gives better end results than shooting native SD to begin with.
Remember that this whole P2 workflow has been around for about four years. My Panasonic rep told me they have a great deal of broadcast installations. But these are much larger-scale operations than the typical event video shoot. What is new is the P2 tapeless workflow for smaller cameras. But I do see more and more solutions coming.
Storage and archiving are also issues. I am about to shoot a large documentary project that has 2TB of hard drive storage budgeted. But what about weddings and events? Drives right now are cheap, but not that cheap! You could dub all your HD footage to SD on MiniDV tape. But for archiving the original DVCPRO-HD footage, you have three choices. Archive hard drives, archive the files to (lots of) DVDs, or get a DVCPRO-HD tape deck. If you've seen the price of these decks and tapes, P2 is a nice solution after all.
The Final Act
Would I recommend the HVX200 for wedding and event video work? Not really, if that's all you do. So why are some of us jumping on the HD/P2 bandwagon? Because we're doing corporate work where this sort of camera and workflow make sense. The VX2000 and PD170 may be the kings of wedding videography. But for industrial, commercial, indie film, and other types of work, they don't hold a candle to the HVX200. The HVX200 hooked up to a FireStore FS-100 is great for many applications. But I'd not recommend it for someone who does only or even mostly weddings.
As for support, a popular place to learn about the HVX200 is DVXuser.com. Barry Green (of DVXuser.com) will have a tutorial book and DVD set available before you read this. It will be invaluable to any HVX200 user. Also, both Focus and Panasonic have their own people who monitor those forums and answer questions when needed.
The CineSaddle, on the other hand, is as perfect as a product can be. It is simply a must-have for everyone serious about being creative with their work. A 1280x720 demo reel of footage (copyrighted material) shot during this test will be available soon.
I'd like to close this article with some very well-deserved thanks to those who lent their help in significant ways to this test process. They are Jan Chrittenden (Panasonic), Matthew McEwen (Focus Enhancements), Kendal Miller (Lighthouse Media), Rip Van Winkle Gardens (New Iberia, Louisiana), and my regular UPS driver (he did a great job in the confusion after Katrina).