In the Field: Panasonic AG-HMC150
Posted Feb 17, 2009

As I write this article, it's a cold January day in Oklahoma. I'm listening to one of my favorite jazz artists, Marcus Miller, on Pandora Radio. I can't help but draw comparisons between musical artists and media artists. We are all creative artists, producing art in various forms. It has often been said that NLEs and cameras are just "tools" that we use in our craft. I'm sure I've expressed the same sentiment at times, but I'd like to suggest a slightly different view.

Having played bass for more than 30 years, I look at my bass not merely as a tool for playing music but as an instrument that helps me bring the music I've heard inside of me out to my fellow musicians and to my audience. For the last 20-plus years, I've played custom-made basses. The type of woods used, the electronics, neck length, strings, and the volume and tone all affected the way I've played and interacted with the other musicians on the stage.

I see my video camera in much the same light. Many times when I'm at a wedding, I can see the image I want in my mind. And my camera will either help me or limit me in achieving the shot I want. When viewing a video camera in this light, the camera becomes much more than just a tool—it becomes an instrument in the hand of an artist. So choose your instrument wisely.
I've used Sony video cameras for 13 years. I currently own five of them. Over the past 13 years, I've also owned a few Canons and one Panasonic. But the AG-450 I have from the '90s is not exactly one of Panasonic's best cameras, so I can't really claim to have delved into the best of what Panasonic has to offer—at least not as a camera owner.

Today, I find myself in a unique position. Through the various types of training we do with other videographers, both in small group workshops and private consulting, I've had the opportunity to shoot with just about every hand-held HD camera on the market: the Sony HDR-FX1, HVR-Z1, HVR-Z7, PMW-EX1, PMW-EX3, HDR-FX7, and HVR-V1; the Canon XH A1; and, most recently, the Panasonic AG-HMC150 (Figure 1, above, right).

I know there are many diehard Panasonic HVX and DVX users out there, but I've never been one of them. So when the Panasonic HMC150 arrived, I was at least a little skeptical; after all, it didn't have those four magic letters I've come to expect on my cameras: S-O-N-Y. But I was bound to see a number of things I didn't expect. Since I was new to the Panasonic world, I did a little digging around at www.DVXUser.com and found a wealth of information. The users were always very helpful and professional.

In the EventDV-TV video window at the top of this article page, you'll see some clips illustrating the capabilities of the HMC150 and some comparisons to the Sony Z1. Click the full-screen icon (second from the right in the player controls panel, just to the left of the audio control) to view the video full-screen in a new window.

Physical Comparisons
The first thing I noticed about the HMC150 is how little it weighs, which is a welcome feature. The Sony Z7, while nicely balanced, is quite heavy for a hand-held camera, weighing in at about 5.3 lbs. The HMC150 is nearly 30% lighter at 3.7 lbs. I weighed both the Z1 and the HMC150, complete with battery and tape/card. The Z1 came in at 5 lbs., 7 oz. and the HMC150 came in at 4 lbs., 6 oz. Both cameras had the full-size battery and no additional lens. One pound may not sound like much, but it really makes a difference on a Glidecam or after several hours of shooting handheld.

The lens of the HMC150 is much wider than the Z1 or the PD170, which means that there's no need for HMC150 shooters to purchase a wide-angle lens. Not only does this save money, but when using the camera on a stabilizer device such as a Glidecam or a Merlin, not having that lens attached saves weight. This makes it easier to get better gliding shots and shooting for longer periods of time on my Glidecam.

Less fatigue is a good thing. We all need to consider the physical toll we put our body through by shooting hand-held for hour upon hour, year after year. The lighter weight of the HMC150 is welcome news.

How Your Footage Is Stored
The HMC150 records in the AVCHD format to an SDHC card. AVCHD is a compressed HD video acquisition format based on MPEG-4 (specifically, H.264 or MPEG-4 Advanced Video Codec). HDV is an HD video acquisition format based on MPEG-2. AVCHD cameras typically record to hard disk or compact flash cards, such as SD, while most HDV cameras record to DV tape. Nearly all videographers have experienced dropouts on tape, which can be very bad. Solid state cards such as the SDHD cards used in the HMC150 do not experience dropouts, and they are not as delicate as recording to a hard drive (there's a reason Panasonic coined the phrase "no moving parts" when it first announced its solid-state cameras).

The HMC150 can use the currently available SD cards ranging from 4GB to 32GB. When recording in the highest-quality setting, a 32GB card will hold 3 hours of footage. A 32GB class 4 or 6 will cost $100 or more, while a 16GB class 4 or 6 can cost as little as $25 and will hold 90 minutes of footage at the highest-quality setting.

How does AVCHD stack up against HDV? AVCHD in the PH mode records at 21Mbps with the maximum variable rate at 24Mbps. HDV records at 25Mbps, the same as DV. Just looking at those numbers, I would rather record HDV's 25Mbps than AVCHD's 21 Mbps. But according to Sony's own marketing information, "The quality of AVCHD recording at 9Mbps (HD-HQ) mode is roughly equal to HDV recording." Since the HMC150 will record at 21Mbps and, according to Sony, AVCHD at 9Mbps is equal to HDV, is there any doubt to why the AVCHD format is superior to the HDV format? Keep in mind comparing the quality of video achieved with different codecs is not a simple bitrate comparison; MPEG-4 compression is far more efficient than MPEG-2. 

Camera Layout
I found the layout of the HMC150 to be very intuitive, like a finely crafted musical instrument. The gain and white balance toggles are placed in an easy-to-access position, very similar to the other hand-held HD cameras currently on the market. I was pleasantly surprised to find it much easier to do a manual white balance on the camera as well. The button is placed below the lens, which is much easier to locate than on other cameras.

I have mixed feelings about the location of the iris wheel. It's positioned on the body just before the lens. Now, this is a big improvement, both in size and location, from the older DVX100. And the location is much better than Sony's PD170. But it's not as good as on the Canon XH A1, Sony Z7, or Sony EX1, which have the iris on the lens barrel, where it should be.

The ease of use of the manual zoom and focus are very important to me. I want to be able to whip in fast with the zoom to get focus and then whip out quickly to frame the shot. The bad news is that the zoom servo is a little slow. It takes approximately 3:09 seconds for the HMC150 to go from all of the way from a wide shot to a close one, compared with only 1:22 seconds on the Z1. The good news is that the manual zoom on the HMC150 is very fast, much better than the Canon XH A1.

The zoom is only a 13x with a focal range of 3.9mm–51mm, which is a 28mm–368mm range 35mm equivalent. This is really sweet on the wide end and not too shabby on the zoom end. While shooting from the balcony in a very long church, the zoom was just adequate—certainly not as good as a 20x but, given the nature of my style of shooting, the zoom range met my needs.

I really liked the feel of the focus ring. It flows freely, which makes rolling focus a pleasure. Focus is a huge issue in HD. When you nail focus, the image looks great. When you miss it, the whole world knows. In HD you simply cannot cheat on focus like you can in SD. I did not test the auto-focus feature because I always use manual focus. Another great feature of the lens is the macro focus. I can literally focus within inches of the lens.

Some Key HMC150 vs. Z1 vs. XH A1 Feature Comparisons
There are three features of the HMC150 that I really like compared to the Z1 and XH A1; and there's one feature that the Z1 does better. To Sony's credit, the Z1 features red peaking, which allows you to see the color red on the outline of items that have a lot of detail when they are in focus. This makes manual focusing much easier. The HMC150 does not have a peaking feature, which is the single-greatest focus aide that I use on my Z1.

The Sony Z1 and the Canon XH A1 also have another useful focus-assist feature: If you push the expanded focus button, the camera's LCD magnifies the image, essentially zooming in with the push of a button to attain critical focus. There are two shortcomings of the expanded focus on both the Z1 and XH A1. First, you cannot record while in expanded-focus mode, which is a huge negative. I could really use this feature during a wedding ceremony. But for some reason, both Sony and Canon have chosen to disable this function while the camera is recording. The other negative to Expanded Focus on both the Z1 and XH A1 is the location of the button, which is not always easily accessible, depending on your shooting style.
Expanded focus, called Focus Assist on the Panasonic, is where the HMC150 really gets it right. First, the location is perfect. The Focus Assist button is located just behind the zoom ring. There are no other buttons of similar feel near it, so it is very easy to access, no matter how you are holding the camera. Secondly, the expanded focus works while the camera is recording. Brilliant! Could I ask for more?

Well, the HMC goes a step further. There is also an option to have a Frequency Distribution Graph. When the center of the screen is out of focus, the graph shows a narrow bar on the left side of the graph. When the center of the screen is in focus, the graph expands to the right (Figure 2, below).

Panasonic HMC150

When the Focus Assist is activated, the icon "EXPANDED" appears in the viewfinder to remind you that the framing you see is not being recorded. Did they think of everything, or what?
Another focus aid of the Canon XH A1 is to bump up the detail on the LCD by selecting the PEAKING button, not to be confused with the type of peaking available on the Sony Z1. The HMC150 also has the ability to increase the detail of the LCD. The downside of the XH A1's implementation is that when the detail is turned on, the zebras become inactive. On the HMC150, the zebras remain active while the detail is on, so there is no need to worry about overexposing the shot just because the zebras went away while the LCD detail was turned on. This is yet another big plus of the HMC150.

The HMC150 has a few exposure aides as well. In addition to two levels of zebra bars, which are user definable, it also features a waveform monitor. The auto/manual iris button is also very easy to access, so if you need to pop the camera into auto as a reference and then go back to manual, it can be done very quickly and easily.

Within the exposure category I would like to bring up an outstanding feature called Dynamic Range Stretcher (DRS). DRS expands the dynamic range, both in bright areas and dark areas. We have all experienced the limited dynamic range of video. Common examples are when the bride is in the sun and the groom is in the shade. If you expose the bride properly, the groom is underexposed and visa versa. Or perhaps the exterior of the church is partially in the shade (see video clip below). You have to choose between underexposing the shaded part of the shot or overexposing the bright portion of the shot. Well, no more. DRS can brighten the dark areas while at the same time prevent clipping of the bright areas. This is truly an amazing feature!

You can see this comparison illustrated in the first clip in the video at the top of this article.

The HMC150's 3.5" LCD screen is noticeably sharper than the Z1's. When shooting with the two cameras side by side, there were details that I could see in the LCD of the HMC150 that were just not visible in the LCD of the Z1. The LCD screen of the HMC150 also displays nicely in bright light.

The LCD screen is 4:3, and the image looks letterboxed. At first I was not fond of the look, but I soon saw the advantage, which is ingenious. By having black bars at the top and the bottom of the LCD, the timecode, battery readout, VU meters, f-stop, zoom, and distance all appear in the black area, which keeps all of that valuable information from appearing over the picture. This really helps to declutter the LCD screen without loosing all of the valuable information.

Audio Features
As far as audio features, the HMC150 has two XLR connections, and it is very easy to switch between the built-in mic and the audio coming through the XLR jacks, whether the source is wireless mics or a shotgun mic. The Z1 requires the user to go through a menu to change between the internal mic and XLR. The HMC150 has a button, which is much better than going through a menu. You can even have one channel for the on-camera mic and the other channel using an XLR source.

The HMC150 shows the audio VU meters in both auto and manual audio. The Z1 shows the VU audio meters only when the camera is in manual audio or when you bring up the meters. Even when the HMC150 is in auto audio, you can adjust the level of the sensitivity with actual dials conveniently located on the camera. The audio level dials are partially covered so they are not accidentally bumped. The Z1 again requires navigating through a menu to adjust the sensitivity—yet another example of the HMC150 getting it right where other cameras haven't quite nailed it.

Low-Light Performance
So how does the HMC150 perform in low light? First, it's important to note that the HMC150 is rated at 3 lux. The Sony Z1 is rated at 2 lux. Lux ratings are not standardized, so don't put too much stock into lux numbers. In the real world, the HMC150 performs much better in low light than the Z1.

In one of the weddings that I shot with the HMC150, the ceremony was very dark. I shot in 1080/30p. I limited the gain to 9dB and I slowed the shutter down to 30. The image in the LCD was much brighter than what my eyes could see. You can see extensive low-light testing and the highlight from this wedding in the video component of this article on EventDV-TV. Figure 3 (top, with screen grabs from Z1 footage) and Figure 4 (bottom, showing screens from HMC150 footage) give a glimpse of what I'm taking about, with the 0dB gain, max zoom shots shown on the left, and the increased gain, max-wide shots on the right in both images.

Panasonic HMC150

You can see a better view of this comparison in the first video clip that accompanies this article.

To get a comparison with a more recent Sony HDV model, I talked to Rob Neal of Glass Slipper Productions (www.gspvideos.com). Rob owns a Sony Z7, and he told me that the HMC150 is very similar in low light to the Z7; however, he said that he can get more out of the HMC150 low-light footage in post.

Format Support
The HMC150 records in the following formats: 1080/60i, 30p, 24p, 720/60p, 30p, and 24p. In my testing, I shot in 1080/60i, 30p, and 24p. I stayed in the 1080 range for comparison's sake because the Z1 shoots in 1080/60i.

I really did like having the option to shoot in 30p and 24p. At first, 30p and 24p didn't seem very smooth due to the fact that I have only shot in 60i in the past. I shot a full wedding in 30p with the HMC150, and I really grew to like the look of it. While I did experiment with 24p, I avoided shooting very much in 24p because it doesn't look very good in slow motion. You can see the three different modes of 1080 in the clips at the top of the article page.

Editing AVCHD?
Ever since the first consumer AVCHD cameras (which preceded the pro models) debuted in 2007, users have been buying up the cameras without realizing that they have no clue what to do with the footage when it comes off the camera. Pro videographers are likely to look before they leap, but AVCHD editing is still pretty challenging. If you want to edit it natively, you're going to need some serious horsepower. Although previous versions of Premiere Pro and EDIUS required intermediate codecs to edit AVCHD, Adobe Premiere Pro CS4, Edius 5, and Sony Vegas 8 can all edit AVCHD files natively. Final Cut Pro transcodes AVCHD files to Apple's own ProRes 422. I am using Edius 4.6, which cannot edit AVCHD natively.

The workflow in Edius 4.6 is to transcode the AVCHD files to the Edius HQ format. On my Core 2 Duo 2.0GHz laptop, it takes about 3 minutes to transcode a 1-minute clip. The good news is that Edius will transcode multiple clips at one time, depending on your processor setup. Because I'm using a Core 2 Duo, two clips were transcoded at the same time. I have been told that a Quad Core processor will transcode four clips at once.

Transcoding is a bummer. It defeats part of the advantage of simply transferring the files instead of capturing from tape. Remember when HDV first came out, and the NLE vendors each had their own set of solutions for editing HDV? Well, AVCHD is a new camera format, so once NLE manufacturers have it all figured out (and we've all upgraded to processors that are equipped to handle native AVCHD editing), it will be a breeze.

Shortcomings
No camera is perfect … but the HMC150 is very close, especially at a street price at about $3,200. My list of misses consists of a lack of the focus aide, peaking. Additionally, the lens cap is not integrated into the lens hood like Sony's cameras are. And finally, the battery charger has a green light when charging. The light goes off when the battery is charged. For $3,200 I don't expect a fancy charger like the one Sony offers, but at least the Canon charger blinks at three different rates to let you know where you are in the charging process.

In the Field
After spending a few weeks with the HMC150, I decided to take it out and shoot a full wedding with it. Unfortunately, the camera only came with one small battery, good for about 100 minutes. I contacted Tim Harry, of Dallas-based Videotex (www.VideoTexSystems.com) to see if Videotex could provide me with a larger battery from their rental fleet. The VW-VBG6 battery runs for about 230 minutes. They didn't have the larger battery in rentals, so Tim bought a battery, out of his own pocket, and sent it to me. Without Tim's go-the-extra-mile attitude, I would not have been able to shoot a full wedding with the HMC150. Kudos to Tim Harry! I would much rather purchase my gear from someone who provides that level of customer service, especially when Tim can match the price of the big box houses.

The HMC150 is a dream to shoot with. Manual focus is easy to attain. The LCD viewfinder is a breeze to work with. The light weight of the camera is such a huge bonus, not only for hand-held shooting but especially for Glidecam work. I can usually shoot for about 1 minute with my Z1 on a Glidecam. I found myself shooting reception dancing for two songs in a row with the HMC150 mounted to the Glidecam. Wow!

I have now shot two weddings and one Life Story video with the HMC150 (Figure 6, below). Additionally, I've introduced the HMC150 to more than a dozen videographers. The first comment is always, "Wow, it's so light."

Panasonic HMC150

On a recent trip to Nashville, Tenn., I helped one of our workshop graduates balance his Z1 on a Glidecam, complete with a wide angle lens. It was a handful. I then put the HMC150 on my Glidecam and handed it to him. His eyes just about jumped out of his head, and he said the exact same thing: "Wow, it's so light."

The Proof Is in the Pudding
So when it's all said and done, how do the images from this new Panasonic look? Amazing! In the Panasonic world, the faithful refer to it as Panny Mojo. For us outsiders, Panny Mojo looks less like video and more like film. It has a really nice organic look.

In addition to the Panny Mojo, the HMC150 uses CCDs. Sony has chosen to go with CMOS. The biggest negative to CMOS is the rolling-shutter effect when a photographer's flash goes off. If you're unfamiliar with the look of rolling shutter, just do a Google search to see it for yourself.

There is not another camera on the market that offers affordable solid-state recording, excellent low-light performance, XLR audio, and CCD imaging at the unbelievable street price of $3,200.
If all of that was not enough, Panasonic is offering a rebate program through March 31, 2009. With every HMC150 purchase, you'll receive a free VW-VBG6 battery and an 8GB Class 6 SDHC card.

So if you are like me, and you have never really given Panasonic much consideration when shopping for a new camera, or if you count yourself among the DVX faithful, the Panasonic HMC150 is an excellent choice.

Mark Von Lanken (info at vonweddingfilms.com) runs Tulsa, Okla.-based wedding video studio Von Wedding Films with his wife, Trisha. Three-time EventDV 25 honorees and WEVA Hall of Famers, they are regular speakers at WEVA Expo, and winners of numerous WEVA CEAs. Several times each year, the Von Lankens offer intensive two-day workshops at their Tulsa studio.