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Review: Panasonic AG-HPX500 HD Camcorder
Posted Jan 9, 2008 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

One of Panasonic’s newest cameras in its P2 family is the HPX500. Designed for electronic news gathering (ENG) but suitable to a range of pro video work, this camera offers many features that will be familiar to users of other P2 cameras such as the HVX200, but it delivers them in an ENG-style shoulder-mount package. I tested an HPX500 recently, and I found it to be a really nice camera for its price point (MSRP $14,000). It’s very easy to use for those of us who are already working with P2 cameras. Although not a wedding video camera per se, it’s not just a broadcast camera either, but it will suit the needs of studios that do corporate work. Since I use the HVX200 in my own production work, I decided to use that as a base to compare the HPX500 to.


Usability
To begin, the controls and menu system are almost exactly the same as the HVX200, which made it very easy for me to get comfortable working with the camera. If you’re not familiar with the HVX200 or other P2-based models, you’ll need to take some time to learn it, but that’s true of any new camera you work with professionally.

The HPX500 balanced well on my shoulder, it felt nice, and it wasn’t quite as heavy as other ENG cameras I’ve used of the same size. It records to two types of storage media: P2 cards, or a Focus Enhancements FireStore FS-100 (the FS-100 model is specific to P2 cameras). Unlike the HVX200, there is no tape mechanism on this camera at all. But the good news is that there are four P2 card slots on the camera (Figure 1, below), and the advent of 32GB P2 cards should prove to be enough capacity for a practical workflow for corporate work. With all four slots holding 16GB P2 cards, I had 64GB total recording capacity. You can also increase this capacity and dramatically lower the cost of your storage investment by using the 100GB FS-100, or you can use products such as VeeScope, HD Monitor Pro, or On Location to record directly to a laptop hard drive.

figure 1

Both cameras offer the same shooting modes: You have 480/60i, 30p, 24p in SD; 1080i60, 30p, and 24p, as well as 720p60, 30p, and 24p in HD; you also have variable frame rates in 720p mode of 12, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 30, 32, 36, 48, and 60 fps. While the HVX200 is available in an NTSC model and a PAL model, HPX does both formats in the same camera.

The HPX offers three, instead of two, levels of built-in NDF filtering, which I found to be a really handy improvement on the HVX200, as I am a mostly outdoor "nature-ish" shooter. Both cameras have an SD card slot for storing the shooter’s customized scene setting presets. A welcome improvement over my HVX200 and other smaller cameras is the 6-pin FireWire port, which is a more stable alternative to the much more common 4-pin port. The use of a 4-pin FireWire port on a tapeless camera was a horrible idea with the HVX200. Thus it’s refreshing to see the solid quality 6-pin port on a camera of this level and price range. These are tapeless cameras, so a stable FireWire port is essential. I hope Panasonic and other camera manufacturers learned the lessons of the super-problematic 4-pin port with the HVX200, and will try to avoid these little incompetent ports on future camera designs.

Among the first things I noticed were the silver metal toggle switches for power and other functions. At first glance I thought it was a bad idea. I thought they’d snap off easily. But after using the HPX for a few days, I found these metal toggle switches to be very strong. They were well-constructed and well-recessed into the body of the camera to keep them protected, yet they were still easy to access, even with big fat fingers such as mine.

There is a switch to go between two users, which is great for broadcast applications where you may have more than one person using the camera.

Configurations, Controls
The unit I had came from Panasonic with a really nice Fujinon lens ($10,000) and an Anton/Bauer battery and charger pack ($5,000) that lasted so long, I never really was able to drain it in the time I had the camera. That sort of battery longevity was very welcome, especially since the battery snaps directly onto the rear end of the camera, unlike most long-life batteries, which have to be attached to your belt. The battery was light, and it made almost no impact on the overall weight of the camera. The lens felt very well-balanced when mounted. Keep in mind that the lens and the battery must be purchased separately from the camera body itself.

All controls are well-situated for practical use. The LCD is positioned behind the operator when the camera is shoulder-mounted. This will be handy for DPs on indie shoots or for producers in the field. They can stand behind the camera operator to see what is being recorded. For a lone shooter who goes from viewfinder to LCD a lot, this will be a compromise. I found the LCD difficult to adjust to a comfortable position for my body. It was very limited in its adjustment range, and it seemed to be permanently at an inconvenient angle toward the camera.

Thus, I wasn’t overly thrilled with the viewfinder. I found the image quality of the viewfinder fair, but not great, which is disappointing for an HD camera. There’s no option to switch from black and white to color as with the HVX200. I’ve heard the argument that "real" camera operators don’t want color in the viewfinder. But there is also the argument that this is an outdated paradigm, and when shooting HD, you really do need color in the viewfinder. Personally, my work requires a viewfinder that’s switchable between both, as you really do need color to work when shooting HD footage. Yes, the times they are a-changing. This was one of only two features of the HPX500 that I was not happy with. And how much it bothers you is something that will depend on the camera operator. It’s not an issue that will make or break the functionality/usability of this camera, but it will certainly annoy those of us who insist on being able to switch to color for HD work.

Focus Assist Issues
This brings me to the second feature of the HPX500 that I found pretty disappointing: the Focus Assist system. I’ve read other reviews: Some folks love it, and some folks hate it. Focus Assist is a must-have on any HD camera; LCD screens and viewfinders are simply not able to give you enough image detail to do fine adjustments to the focus, as well as other image details. On my HVX200, when I hit the Focus Assist button, it places a square in the middle of my LCD and viewfinder and fills it with an enlarged section of the frame’s center.

On the HPX500, Panasonic uses a live graph system. When the Focus Assist is activated, it is overlaid on your image in the LCD and viewfinder, thus obscuring it, with a graph that is updating in real time. It reads image data and displays it in a way that allows you to adjust your focus according to the graph display data. I found it worked just fine in most situations, but in some it didn’t help at all. I still needed to rely on an external monitor. In even moderately low light, the graph doesn’t seem to have enough data to function properly. Likewise, in bright light—again, not super-bright light, just light somewhat brighter than you’d prefer to shoot in—the graph did not respond in a useful manner.

In a studio situation, it would work just fine, as you would have total control over your lighting. But in run-and-gun field work and ENG work, you’re not always in optimal lighting situations and often have no control over the lighting. Thus, this Focus Assist graph is nice, but it is very limited in its real-world use. Other reviewers have responded much more favorably to this feature than I have, and I suspect that its appeal for shooters may depend on the environments they tend to shoot in most of the time. I do a lot of outdoor shooting for documentary and nature shots. For this type of work, I’d have to have some alternative to this graph to help with focus. And for professional HD work, you really should simply be using an external production monitor—except in ENG and run-and-gun situations, which is what this camera is built for.

Menu Navigation
One feature this camera has over my HVX200 is the menu navigation buttons. The buttons are easier to access, and they are laid out to more easily accommodate the eye/hand coordination needed. On the HVX, the buttons are at a 90-degree angle from what your eye sees on the LCD screen, and working with them takes a good bit of getting used to.

On the HPX, the buttons offer a more natural, instinctive feel. Both cameras have the same menu system, though the HPX has a few additional menu items due to its more complex build and configuration.

Image Controls and Comparisons
Easy-to-use controls, well-balanced, nice weight factor. In lieu of the so-so viewfinder and wacky Focus Assist, so far so good. What about the image quality? What about low light? What about bright, blown-out light? What about image control?

Let me start with the features that are the same on my HVX200. The image controls are the same, and they allow for a great deal of control and range of adjustment for recording. For those of you who aren’t familiar with P2 cameras, there are quite a few menu controls to adjust your image. There’s black knee, gamma curves, color balancing, and many other controls. Using a camera like the HVX200 or HPX500 is not like using a PD170 or VX2100. It’s more like working with a digital film camera. There are many more options for controlling your image quality and the stylized look of the image you record. These cameras do take more time to learn to use than some others, but the control you get is well worth the time. The Scene Settings store customizable camera setups, which makes accessing them quick and easy—a really handy feature. So, how’s the image quality? It’s really great! Does it blow my HVX200 out of the water? Theoretically, it should; the HVX has only 1/3" CCDs, and the HPX has 2/3" chips. And indeed it does. Once you learn the camera’s adjustments, the image quality is a noticeable improvement. There’s more detail in the HPX’s image compared to the HVX, and there’s a little more color depth too, as shown in Figure 2, below. There was a bluish hue I had trouble getting rid of, but had I been able to use the HPX500 longer and learn it better, I’m sure I could have compensated.

figure 1

In low light, the HPX500 did a bit better than the HVX200 did—not by leaps and bounds, but definitely noticeable. I did notice that using just ambient room light in a run-and-gun scenario, when zoomed in on a subject, whites in the background tended to blow out very easily. So what about the zoom? The HPX500’s zoom seems much more fluid and sophisticated compared to my little HVX200. But much of that is the difference between the HVX’s zoom and the zoom of whatever lens you put on the HPX. Figure 3 (left) shows a wide shot with the HPX500; Figure 4 (right) is a close-up shot zoomed from the same location, using only ambient light.

figure 1

Overall Impressions
Overall, the HPX500 delivers a better-quality image than my HVX200 does, and depth of field is improved quite a bit due to a better lens system. Is it enough to justify the $8,000 price difference? Well, at first, when I was in the field using both cameras side by side, looking at LCD screens, I didn’t think so. But having experimented with the same shots done by both cameras side by side in post for awhile, I’ve changed my mind.

It’s not a difference that grabbed me right off the bat. But when I started compositing, coloring, and grading, then outputting the two in various formats (H.264 for web, DVD, native DVCPRO-HD QT for computer viewing), I really began to notice the differences. The HVX200 gives an awesome image for its price and CCD size. But at the end of the postproduction day, I was more impressed with the HPX500. I may consider this camera in a few months when it’s time to upgrade. But keep in mind that if you take the same upgrade path I’m considering and go from an HVX200 to an HPX500, there’s still going to be a learning curve to get the image color right. There are some significant differences between using the HVX200’s glass and a $10k lens system, of course.

Aside from the semi-useful Focus Assist and the lack of a color option in the viewfinder, the HPX500 is a very easy-to-use, flexible, good quality camera. Would I use this for wedding or dance recital work? Never. Low light still isn’t there in any HD format to begin with. And it’s just too big and overblown for that type of work. But if you do corporate work, serious sports shooting, indie filmmaking, and the like, this is an awesome camera to use. It’s a little lighter than other ENG cams at its level (perhaps due to the lack of tape transport machinery), it’s more flexible in the formats it can shoot, and the speed of the P2 workflow, along with the ability to add the quality glass that you want, make for an awesome camera.

Great color depth, detail, improved depth-of-field, and ease/flexibility of control, along with the wide flexibility of recording formats make the HPX500 very worth its price. Again, the Fujinon lens and Anton/Bauer battery pack/charger that my test system came with were top-notch, and rounded out this camera very nicely. Now, if Barry Green can do a good DVD users’ guide for this camera, like the one he did for the HVX200, we’d be in great shape!

So, if you plan to spend $30,000 on a camera system (once you add in the lens, battery pack, P2 cards, etc.), want to go HD, and would like one hell of a fantastic image at the end of the day (despite a few quirks), the HPX500 delivers.

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in New Orleans, Louisiana. He specializes in training and consulting, and also produces documentaries, educational material, and commercial work.



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