With today's advances in technology, it is actually getting easier to get better equipment for less money. Case in point, two new Panasonic camcorders: the smaller, AVCCAM AG-HMC40 and the P2 HD AG-HPX300. These two cameras are quite different in size and capability, but both deliver outstanding images.
by Chuck Gloman
Looking at the smaller AG-HMC40 first, it's a very impressive camera with a small price tag (listing around $2,295). For that small fee, you get true HD video in its AVCHD (AVC/H.264) form, and the ability to shoot 10-megapixel still photos, all contained on a SDHD card. With three, two-megapixel one-quarter inch CMOS chips shooting through a 12x Leica glass, you have a lot of shooting decisions to make.
AG-MHC40 The first decision is which of the four HD modes from which to choose: on the lowest end in the HE mode (six Mbps, 1440x1080), you get 12 hours of footage on a 32 GB SDHC card; the HG mode (13 Mbps, 1920x1080) gives you around 5.3 hours; HA mode (17 Mbps, 1920x1080) consuming four hours; and in the highest quality setting, PH mode, (21/24 Mbps, 1920x1080) you would get up to three hours of recording. You even have several choices in shooting formats: 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 1080/24p, 720/60p, 720/30p, and 720/24p. You could also use SDHC cards with different capacities, like the 8GB card we used for this review, but the 32-gigabyte size gives you ample.
The flip-out LCD screen is touch-sensitive and allows access via a menu to all the user functions. Access to gamma, knee, black level, and all other scene functions can be stored to two pre-sets. I never liked the dinky VW-VBG260 Lithium-ion battery the AG-HMC40 ships with (I prefer the optional longer life model), but there is little else to complain about with options for shooting except the focus/zoom and iris all utilizing the same ring. Outputs include AV (Mini-plug to three-RCA jack), component, HDMI, and USB II.
It adds up to a two-pound camera that looks like a consumer camcorder but can compete with the pros. It's truly amazing that you can get a camera of this quality in the "under $2,500" range. If that's your price point, I don't remember anyone else offering so much for that little.
The AG-HPX300 is an independent-frame camcorder that shoots in master quality AVC-Intra (10- bit, 4:2:2) DVCPRO HD using three one-third-inch 3- MOS chips shooting through a 17x lens, and lists for $10,700. Again, I know of nothing similar that shoots with this quality for this amount of money. Recording in DVCPRO HD at 1920x1080, this camera is also capable of shooting standard definition DVCPRO, DVCPRO 50, and DV onto Panasonic's P2 cards. Fuji and Maxell also sell P2 cards.
AG-HPX300 Loaded with two 32-gigabyte P2 cards in the camera's two slots, the HPX300 records in a system mode of 1080/60i in: AVC-Intra 100, in 60i, capturing approximately 64 minutes of material; AVC-Intra 50, in 60i, capturing 128 minutes; 64 minutes in 30PN and 80 minutes in 24PN; and DVCPRO HD 60i, also giving you 64 minutes of record time. Recording is also available (and in some cases time can be extended) in 720 60p, 30p, 30PN, 24p and 24PN modes, although the camera must be powered down to make the switch.
The standard definition 480/60i mode has three options: DVCPRO50/60i with 128 minutes; DVCPRO/60i with 256 minutes; and DV/60i also with 256 minutes.
Unlike the HMC40, the HPX300 downconverts to standard definition with the usual three optionsedge crop, letterbox, and squeeze-making this camera more versatile in my eyes. However, although the glass up front is much better and sharper, the P2 technology is still quite pricy for those with smaller budgets and costs upwards of $500 per 32-gigabyte E-Series P2 card.
You have several ways to load the footage onto your computer when using the P2 HPX300 (like the HMC40, your material is also displayed as thumbnails). The slowest way is to run an IEEE-1394 cable from the camera to your computer-but this is going to be hard on the terminals of the camera. Use the USB 2.0-it's a better connection and it's faster. An easier way for both cameras in a laptop world is to insert the P2 card (or the SDHD card) directly into your laptop and your footage is immediately available. My Sony Vaio does not have the memory to utilize this function for HD size files, but that's a problem easily remedied. Panasonic offers P2 card readers and storage devices, which would be a much better option, although at an additional cost.
Designed more like a professional camera in size, quality, and weight (11 pounds), the "feel" of the shoulder-mounted camera is less plastic-like than the handheld HMC40. But I would rather handhold the HMC40 all day than the HPX300. Featuring two BNC SDI outputs, a BNC video output for downconversion, as well as time code in/out and genlock that camera is similar to the 2/3-chip club.
Other features like variable frame rates (from 12 to 60 fps) are a feature usually found only on higher end cameras costing far more. I reviewed the HPX500 a while back and the HPX300, in my eyes (and my needs), is just as good for a fourth of the price.
It did take a little while to get the P2 card's footage into my NLE system (Corel's Video Studio Pro X2) whereas my SD footage from the HMC40 imported flawlessly mainly because independent frame 100 Mbps P2 files are much larger than compressed long-GOP AVCHD files at 24 Mbps. I ended up having to use Adobe Premiere's CS4 to access the P2 footage. I would imagine that the Corel product is not able to deal with AVC-Intra Files regardless of size. On our shoot at a candy factory, the client wanted a video tour of the manufacturing process in high definition. Obviously, the HMC40 is smaller, less obtrusive, and can get into those tight spots under conveyor belts, but we opted to use the higher quality HPX300. We could have used the HMC40, but we wanted to use P2 technology. We decided to save the HMC40 for a campus video, because we had over 60 setups for that shoot, and a lighter-weight handheld would be best. In addition, since the end result would be a Web video, the HPX300 would have been overkill.
If I had a choice, of the two, I would prefer the HPX300 because as a bigger, professional P2 camera it offers so much more. For students or others with smaller budgets-the HMC40 is an excellent choice at the right price.
For our school, which one would be chosen? Both, because they each offer something unique to the mix. Not every project requires P2 technology, and the HMC40 is much more like our Panasonic DXV100B we currently use-only not utilizing Solid State technology. If you are interested in how the candy shoot turned out with the HPX300, I'll discuss in a future piece.
Chuck Gloman is program director of the TV/Film Department as well as a member of the faculty at DeSales University. He may be firstname.lastname@example.org.