I just spent a month using Panasonic’s AG-HPX170 camcorder. While its P2 storage makes it an expensive choice for most event shooters, it boasts several new features that I hope will become standard in future camcorders. Several of its features demonstrate the value of solid state storage that will become particularly relevant when AVCHD camcorders that utilize less expensive SD memory become widely available. Let’s start with shooting-related features.
One of the biggest challenges of HD recording is trying to achieve a sharp manual focus using only the camera’s CCD or tiny viewfinder. Some HD camcorders can zoom the preview image to 2X to assist focus, but this view is usually only available during preview, not while recording, which is like a GPS device that works only when you’re stationary and turns off once you start driving.
In contrast, the HPX170 offers four Focus Assist features (in addition to a peaking display) that actually work and stay visible while you’re shooting. To start, when you enable Focus Assist, the camcorder displays a zoomed preview in the middle of the viewfinder, a histogram in the upper-right corner, and a moving bar below the zoomed image. I found the moving bar the more helpful gauge. Essentially, as you focus on your subject, the bar extends to the right. If you go too far, it starts backing down to the left; so you focus until the bar is at maximum length. In contrast, the histogram comprises black pixels on the right and white pixels on the left; as you focus in, the white pixels shift to the right, receding if you dial the focus ring too far. As mentioned, all of these indicators remain onscreen while you’re actually recording.
But wait, there’s more. Panasonic also debuted a feature called Manual Focus Assist. In this mode, you manually focus with the focus ring as normal, and once you get close enough for the camera to discern your target, it takes over, and automatically makes the last fine adjustments, which you can track by watching small movements of the focus bar. The result is absolutely striking and quite comforting, as the image in the CCD and viewfinder (and, ultimately, the recording) was absolutely sharp, all the time. Note that if you want your image to be slightly out of focus, or to shoot a rack focus shot, you can disable this feature, and go all manual.
The next area of note with this camera is exposure control. Here, Panasonic lets you display a waveform monitor on the LCD panel that doesn’t appear in the viewfinder—this is a brilliant touch since it lets you frame and focus in the viewfinder and monitor exposure on the LCD. To display the waveform monitor, you press the Scopes button. Click it again, and a vectorscope replaces the waveform; click it once more and both scopes go away.
Of course, the camera has two levels of zebra-stripes display that you can toggle through to test values as well. When other scopes aren’t active, the camera displays the luminance value of the pixel in the center of the frame. If the valus is not 95-plus when you’re white balancing, you know that you’ve got potential exposure issues.
I used these controls on several real-world shoots. Believe me, once you have them, you’re going to want them on every shoot. I’d be very surprised if the next iteration of camcorders from Canon and Sony don’t offer similar features.
What about the camera’s P2 storage? At 100Mbps, DVCPRO HD consumes 1GB per minute, and 32GB cards, the maximum storage currently available, cost about $1,500. The HPX170 has two P2 slots. You can hot-swap, or remove a drive, copy the video content off to a hard disk, reformat the P2 card, and then reinsert it, all while continuously recording. This will cost you $3,000 for the two 32GB cards, but buying enough cards to capture an entire event without hot-swapping—say 180 minutes—is cost-prohibitive ($9,000), especially if you’re shooting with multiple cameras. These numbers get much friendlier if you factor in AVCHD video stored off to SD cards. At AVCHD’s maximum bitrate of 24Mbps, you can fit up to 180 minutes of video on a 32GB card that costs only $150, with prices dropping fast.
Why do I like solid state storage? There are several reasons. First, the storage mechanism is so much more reliable than tape that Panasonic offers a 5-year warranty on the unit. Second, capture is as simple as inserting the SD disk into your computer and copying the files over, which is faster than real-time DV/HDV capture. Finally, solid-state memory allows features such as configurable pre-record that continuously captures a few seconds of video. If you’re late pressing the record button, you still get the shot. Solid state also makes it easier to view what you’ve recorded while you’re shooting, since each scene is saved as a separate video that you can access via simple menu controls (no more rewinding!).
Solid state does present some archiving issues: I love having my tapes around as a cheap archive medium. Still, with 1TB drives costing less than $200, this certainly isn’t as big an issue as it used to be. Overall, while P2 is too expensive for most event shooters, the market is ripe for a camcorder like Panasonic’s AG-HMC150, which offers full-resolution CCDs and full bitrate AVCHD recording.
Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics and the author of Critical Skills for Streaming Producers, a mixed media tutorial on DVD published by StreamingMedia.com.