When I first heard about the Panasonic AG-HMC40, I was excited to see how it would compare with the AG-HMC150, which is my primary camera. At a street price of $1,850–$1,995, how would the HMC40 match up with the HMC150, which has a street price of $3,250? The HMC40 (Figure 1, below) is a much smaller and lighter camera than the HMC150, which makes the HMC40 an ideal camera to use with a Glidecam or Steadicam.
The HMC40 uses 3 1/4" CMOS imagers, which Panasonic calls 3MOS. The 3MOS imager captures at a full-raster 1920x1080. It records to the AVCHD format with a maximum bitrate of 21Mbps. It records in 1080/60i, 30p, and 24p as well as 720/60p, 30p, and 24p. In addition to these video options, the HCM40 also shoots approximately 10.6-megapixel stills, all to a Class 4 or higher SDHC card. At the highest recording setting, a 16GB card will hold about 1.5 hours of footage.
As far as optics go, the HMC40 has a 12x Leica Dicomar lens with a 35mm equivalence of 40mm–490mm. Compared to the HMC150, the HMC40’s lens is not as wide, but it will zoom in tighter.
The HMC40 can be configured in three different ways. Without the handle, the HMC40 resembles a larger Sony HVR-A1. In fact, the HMC40 is just a little larger than the JVC GY-HM100 (Figure 2, below). When using the camera without the handle, it would be very easy to pass the HMC40 off as a consumer camera—that is, if you ever needed to shoot in an inconspicuous manner. A second way of configuring the camera is with the included top-mounted handle, which really gives it more of a pro feel.
A third configuration is to purchase the optional AG-MYA30G, which allows the use of dual XLR inputs along with a mic holder, which provides +48V phantom power, as well as mic level/line level controls. I see the AG-MYA30G XLR/mic holder adapter as a much better solution than adding one of the popular XLR boxes to the bottom of the camera. Not only does it greatly add to the audio capabilities, it also makes the camera look more professional. The street price of the AG-MYA30G is about $260.
One of my concerns when seeing the size of the HMC40 was how Panasonic would deal with important manual controls. Would many of the manual controls be menu-based? That might be acceptable for casual shooters, but it is a bad solution for pros who need to make adjustments on-the-fly at a wedding or other live event.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how efficiently Panasonic used the limited real estate of the HMC40 chassis. What I consider to be must-have features are not hidden in a menu or limited to a small, multifunction scroll wheel, which limits the functionality of shooting in manual mode. Features such as focus, white balance exposure, zebras, and OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer) all have their own separate control button or ring/dial.
Additionally, the HMC40 has buttons for three user presets (which I’ll cover later), a timecode counter selector and reset button, bars, auto/manual selector, auto/manual focus selector, focus assist (which I’ll also cover later), record check (to review the last scene recorded), and a selector that will change the focus ring to control either the iris or zoom.
Speaking of zoom, the zoom rocker has a nice feel and will allow for those ultra-slow, creeping zooms. dditionally, the HMC40 has an option to end the zoom smoothly instead of ending abruptly. There are times that you may want your zoom to end abruptly and there are times you may want the zoom to end smoothly, much like the keyframe ability in After Effects, which lets you “ease in” to the end of your movement. I certainly did not expect this level of control in a camera priced below $2,000.
Exposure on the HMC40 is controlled by a single exposure dial that is easy to reach, just in front of the LCD screen. Those who have owned a Sony PD150/170 or VX2000/2100 will remember how the exposure dial was placed so close to the LCD screen that it was difficult to reach. Not so with the HMC40. Locating the exposure dial by feel is very easy. However, the exposure dial does function in a similar fashion to the one on the VX2000/2100. Push the dial in to A/B between auto and manual exposure. Once the lens is opened up to the maximum, the HMC40 starts introducing gain in single-digit increments, from 0dB to 24dB.
The HMC40 has three distinct menus that are located at the bottom of the touchscreen LCD. The first two are physical buttons. The Q. Menu accesses the shooting mode (1080 or 720) along with all of the frame rate choices, prerecord (the function that records a few seconds before you hit the record button), fixed or manual audio, and exposure +/–.
The second physical button is the main menu. The third menu is hidden, at least at first glance. When you press the lower left corner of the screen, the lower third of the screen allows you to access a customizable auto focus, A/B white balance, shutter speed, sync for shooting a computer screen, and manual audio.
In the past I have not been a fan of touchscreen menu systems, but the HMC40 has changed my perspective. It’s very easy to navigate and set up the camera and customize it to fit my shooting style.
The HMC40 is a dream to customize. There are several features that you can customize, but I’ll go into detail on only a few. You can adjust the Scene Files to match the HMC150, which is a really nice feature. If you’re unfamiliar with Scene Files, they allow you to adjust the Detail, Vertical Detail, Detail Coring, Chroma Level, Chroma Phase, Color Temperature, Mater Pedestal, Auto Iris Level, DRS, Gamma, Knee, Matrix, and Skin Tone Detail.
I set the first of the three user buttons to A/B between auto and manual focus. When the camera is in manual focus, pressing the first user button causes it to go to autofocus as long as the button is pushed. It goes back to manual focus when the button is released, which basically makes it a push-for-autofocus button. I set the second user button to activate the LCD detail, which helps in manual focus; the Zebra function works when the detail is turned on. I set up the third user button to delete the last clip, which is a really handy feature. You can set up the user buttons for any of the 14 choices.
The Focus Assist feature on the HMC150 is huge for me, so I was very happy to see a Focus Assist button on the HMC40. However, I found that it does respond differently. The location of the button is perfect, allowing for easy access when shooting handheld or on a tripod.
When I activate Focus Assist, the camera zooms in, making it easier to focus. In addition to that there is a small white bar that appears across the bottom of the screen. As you bring the subject into focus, the bar extends from left to right. A little white arrow shows when you have reached maximum focus (Figure 3, below). As you go past the focus point, the bar recedes from the arrow. This may be hard to imagine, but you can see it in action in the video clip that accompanies the online version of this article. The most important question of Focus Assist: Does it work while recording? The answer is yes, which is wonderful news!
While on the subject of focus, which is a huge topic when shooting HD, the lower-right corner of the LCD screen can show the lens status, which you can turn on or off, as with most of the information in the LCD screen. In addition to showing where you are in the zoom range, it shows if you are in manual focus or autofocus and, more importantly, where you are in the focus range by showing a numerical value between 00 and 99. This number is very valuable when you’re doing a rack focus or when tracking focus as a subject is walking toward you.
Other features of the camera include Component Out, A/V Out, Headphone Jack, Camera Remote, HDMI Out, 1/8" Mini Jack Mic Input, USB out, and an XLR Adapter slot. A big improvement over the HMC150 is that each of these outputs has its own protective cover, which is marked by the corresponding name. This is huge. If you need access to only the Headphone Jack, you do not have to expose the A/V Out, Component Out, and Lens Controller to the elements (Figure 4, below).
The HMC40 uses the same batteries as the HMC150, but it requires a lot less juice. Panasonic’s large battery, the VW-VBG6PPK, will run the HMC40 for about 7 hours!
Additional features that I was surprised to see include a waveform monitor and time lapse recording. The HMC40 even has several different ways to view timecode, including the ability to display how many seconds the current clip has been recording. For legal videographers, the HMC40 will record the time date stamp.
In the Field Performance
So while the HMC40 has obviously been very well engineered and designed, the big question is, how does it perform out in the field? I had a brief opportunity to see how the HMC40 stacks up against the HMC150 and JVC HM100.
All three cameras record to SDHC cards in the MPEG-4 format. The two Panasonics record to the AVCHD format. The JVC has the option of recording in the MPEG-4 format or MPEG-2. I chose the MPEG-4 format to make the comparison more apples-to-apples. In the MPEG-4 mode, the JVC records at 35Mbps, but it also has 1/4" sensors, so I was curious to see how it would compare.
As a side note, the JVC’s MPEG-4 is actually Sony XDCAM EX format, which can be edited natively in my NLE, EDIUS 5. As of this writing, EDIUS 5 cannot edit AVCHD natively. EDIUS Neo 2.5 does edit AVCHD natively, and it’s reported that EDIUS 5.5, which is slated for release after NAB 2010, will offer native AVCHD editing.
Good Light Comparisons
As expected, all three cameras look great outdoors; however, the HMC40 rates incredibly high in the sharpness category. Note the resolution chart (Figure 5, below), and study the numbers between 800 and 1200. There are four distinct lines, but notice how the four separate lines are a blur on the JVC HM100’s chart. The HMC40 scores big in sharpness and detail.
It was interesting to note that I had to engage the neutral density filter on the HMC150 to get the exposure near the JVC, and as expected the HMC40 was the least light-sensitive. The JVC was also limited by a 10x zoom lens with a 35mm equivalent of 39mm–390mm.
Low Light Comparisons
I then brought the cameras indoors where I could control the lighting. I framed up all three cameras to be similar, opened up the lenses and set the gain at 0dB (Figure 6, below left). I then tested how noisy 12dB gain would be. I was surprised at how relatively clean all three cameras were at 12dB (Figure 7, below right). Lastly, I really pushed the gain on the HMC40. I started seeing noise at 18dB. It was pretty noisy at 24dB, but that’s how high I had to take the gain to approach the brightness of the HMC150 at 12dB gain.
On a side note, I usually limit the gain on my HMC150 to 9dB, so I was pleasantly surprised at how clean the HMC40 looked at 15dB and even 18dB. In low-light conditions, I prefer to shoot the image a little darker and use less gain—6dB on the HMC150—and then I have a cleaner image to boost in post. I would never have imagined that 15dB and 18dB could look so clean on the HMC40.
The HMC40 offers a lot of bang for the buck. In many ways it is a much better engineered camera than the HMC150, even though the HMC150 costs about $1,400 more than the HMC40. The camera has lots of great features, and it also comes with a 3-year warranty and a free copy of EDIUS Neo editing software.
The biggest weakness of the HMC40 is low-light sensitivity. If you must have great low-light performance, I would recommend spending the additional money and buying the HMC150, but if great low-light performance is not a must, the HMC40 could be the perfect camera for you, and it comes at a very good price.
For a more thorough visual comparison of the three cameras discussed in this article, watch the video that accompanies this article.
Mark Von Lanken (info at vonweddingfilms.com) runs Von Wedding Films with his wife, Trisha. Five-time EventDV 25 honorees, WEVA Hall of Famers, and producers of the EventDV-TV series Von Real, the Von Lankens are regular speakers at WEVA Expo and winners of numerous WEVA CEAs. They were "megasession" presenters at In[Focus] 2010. Several times each year, the Von Lankens host intensive 2-day workshops at their Tulsa, Okla. studio.