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Panasonic AG-HMC70 AVCHD PRO Camcorder Review

Panasonic AG-HMC70  AVCHD PRO Camcorder Review

Shoulder Mount at a Reasonable Price - A big camcorder is a professional camcorder. The layman often assumes this, and a large form factor camcorder can be useful, especially for making an impression on a client. Manufacturers are often caught up in miniaturizing...

Shoulder Mount at a Reasonable Price

A big camcorder is a professional camcorder. The layman often assumes this, and a large form factor camcorder can be useful, especially for making an impression on a client. Manufacturers are often caught up in miniaturizing, making their camcorders increasingly pocket-sized. The downside of this is you end up with ports disappearing, image stability issues and basic camcorder functions disappearing into cryptic menu settings.

Panasonic has tried to combine both worlds with the AG HMC70, creating a large-format camcorder with a professional look, without the professional price. Aimed at event videographers, education and law-enforcement, the AG HMC70 strikes a balance between professional features and affordability.

The Imagers

A professional form factor would be useless without a reasonable camera section to back it up. No matter how large the case, if the camera doesn't provide good images, it won't make the cut. Let's look at optics and sensors.

The AG-HMC70 uses a 12X Leica lens with optical image stabilizing technology. With the shoulder-mount form factor, it is extremely steady at the long end of the lens. This stability lets you do some handheld telephoto shots where you'd need a tripod with a smaller-format camcorder. The lens has no manual controls for focus, iris or zoom, and it is identical in functionality to the electronically-controlled lenses on consumer camcorders.

The AG-HMC70 uses a 3CCD 1/4" progressive imager package. The three CCDs give much better color accuracy than a single-chip design, splitting the light onto individual red, green and blue imagers. This has long been the hallmark of a professional-level camcorder, and it's common across Panasonic's Proline. While the camera records an interlaced signal, the progressive nature of the CCD gives benefits in horizontal resolution and noise reduction.

Recording Format

The AG-HMC70 records high-definition video at 1080i60 in the AVCHD format, onto SDHC cards. That's a lot of acronyms, so let's break it down a little, in terms of signal, codec and media.

The video signal itself follows the ATSC 1080i60 broadcast standard, meaning that the image size is 1920x1080 pixels (1080), packaged in an interlaced signal (i) at a rate 60 fields per second (60).

This video signal is then encoded in the AVCHD format. AVCHD stands for Advanced Video Codec High Definition; it is based on MPEG-4 technology. Several camcorder manufacturers use it to compress high-quality video into the smallest possible file sizes. The same reasons that make AVCHD an ideal format for recording (high-quality, small file sizes) also make AVCHD difficult to edit with. The codec itself is extremely computationally intensive and requires a lot of computer power to edit in real time. Some editing programs can edit AVCHD natively, but most still transcode the AVCHD material into another, easier-to-edit codec. This process sometimes takes more than real time, negating one of the main advantages of a tapeless workflow. And some programs don't support AVCHD at all. As computers get faster and software companies catch up with AVCHD support, these issues should fade away. For now, make sure to check that your editing software supports AVCHD and in what capacity. Also make sure your computer is powerful enough to cope with the footage.

AG-HMC70 records to SD (Secure Digital) or SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity) cards. These are small Flash memory devices that fit into a slot in the camcorder. These cards are extremely reliable and less fragile than videotape and the precision mechanics of a tape transport system. One of the SDHC format's main advantages is that you can have long record times without having to "change tapes." At the highest-quality setting on a 16GB SDHC card, you can record approximately 160 minutes of video. With 32GB cards just around the corner and prices dropping all the time, SDHC is looking to become a very strong contender for replacing tape altogether.

Form Factor and Function

The AG-HMC70 is essentially a small camcorder trapped in a large camcorder's body. In terms of controls and ergonomics, it performs in a similar fashion to a handheld unit, but the larger surface area can be a bit disconcerting initially. For example, I assumed the standard position: the camcorder braced on my right shoulder and supported by my right hand, with fingers poised above the zoom control. My left hand naturally moved to the lens, for additional support and to adjust the lens controls, but there weren't any! Focus and iris are accessed via an electronic menu system, whose button controls ended up under my chin. A manual focus ring on the lens would have been a big plus in my book.

The ports and connectors take advantage of the full-sized form factor. Panasonic has thrown everything into this camera short of SDI. For video, you have full-size analog component and composite BNC jacks, as well as HDMI for pristine digital monitoring.

The real treat is the camera's audio capabilities. Full-size XLR inputs with phantom power, mic attenuation and line/mic level adjustment in the rear of the unit are accessed with manual switches that click securely back and forth, giving you instant tactile reinforcement when you make a change. There is also a mini jack input on the side for microphones using unbalanced connectors. Behind the LCD panel, recessed dials manually control the audio levels. The controls to select different inputs and for each channel (such as an external mic on channel one and built-in mic on channel two) are placed below these. For audio output, as well as the standard headphone jack, the AG-HMC70 also has rear RCA outputs and a small speaker on the side, designed to rest next to your right ear. These are controlled with a separate monitor volume knob. With the plethora of audio options, it would be hard to find any microphone and monitoring solution that couldn't be directly attached to the AG-HMC70. These great audio features are squarely in the "pro" category and simply wouldn't be able to find room on a small-format camcorder.

Since the AVCHD format is digital and tapeless, the connection between the camcorder and the computer is via USB 2.0. This port lies just underneath the video jacks; once connected and put into PC mode, it treats the camcorder as a USB card reader. Or you can just pop out the SDHC card and put it into any SDHC-compatible reader or device. Some TVs and Blu-ray players are starting to feature these slots.

Due to the large form factor, Panasonic was able to include some additional niceties on the AG-HMC70. I appreciate the strategically-located cable guides around the camcorder. This might seem a small thing, but being able to string your microphone and video cables up and out of the way makes a big difference in the field. I've seen too many people accidentally snag cables wrapped around a small camcorder like spaghetti. Two accessory shoe attachments, instead of the normal one, allow you to attach, say, a wireless mic and on-camera light at the same time. A handle-mounted zoom control and record button is useful for waist-level handheld shots.

The AG-HMC70 includes both a viewfinder and an LCD monitor, and you can use both concurrently. I have to admit, I've become a complete convert to the flip-out LCD monitor. When shooting with handheld camcorders, I rarely look through the viewfinder, so it's not that high on my list when I go camcorder shopping. However, with the camcorder on your shoulder, you can't use the LCD panel, and the viewfinder becomes very important. The viewfinder on the AG-HMC70 is large and adjustable, but the internal LCD itself (.44 inch, 183K pixels) is pretty lackluster in terms of size, sharpness and performance. I found it difficult to judge the camcorder's focus, even with the image magnification tuned on. Panasonic probably should have paid more attention to improving the viewfinder in a camcorder with this form factor.

The LCD panel is bright and reasonably sharp. It's a 3-inch 251,000-pixel display, and I found I could use it to focus fairly accurately, but you can't use it with the camcorder on your shoulder.

Real-World Results

Testing it in a real-world shoot, I used the AG-HMC70 in a small studio setting and in some run-and-gun outdoor videography. My main problem was the confusing menu structure for electronically adjusting focus and exposure. I'm not a fan of electronic menus, but I can see their value in small camcorders. Space is not a factor here, so I can't see why Panasonic left some basic manual video controls out of this model.

In the studio, on a tripod, the camcorder performed well. I could use the LCD to focus, and using the iris and focus buttons didn't seem as tricky when I could see them directly. The camcorder is absolutely silent and starts recording instantly when you push the button. The zebra-stripes setting on the LCD helped me nail my exposures.

In the field, I started to run into problems. With the camera shoulder- mounted, I quickly abandoned the menus to control the camera and ended up relying on the full auto mode. I imagine that in time one could get proficient with the button pushing. To be fair, the full auto mode did a great job of exposure and focus, but I'm never comfortable giving up that control. The camcorder seemed rock-steady on my shoulder, and its weight was minimal; it would be no problem to shoot all day with this unit. The supplied battery wasn't very impressive, about 50 minutes in intensive use. I would recommend buying the high-capacity version.

Back in the edit suite, I simply plugged the USB cable into the camcorder and computer, and the SDHC card popped up on my desktop. I was using a Final Cut Pro system, so it required a lengthy transcode process to transfer all my AVCHD footage into the ProRes codec. It wasn't exactly the connect-and-edit simplicity it should be, but that's a problem for the editing software companies to figure out.

To judge image quality, I connected the camcorder directly to an HD video projector via HDMI. I was astounded by the image clarity and detail. The AVCHD implementation by Panasonic was superb. Even notoriously difficult-to-compress scenes, such as blank beige walls, showed no banding in the image. Wide shots of trees blowing in the wind had no discernible artifacting around the leaves. The AG-HMC70 delivered clear, vibrant and naturally-saturated images right out of the box.

Conclusion

Panasonic's AG-HMC70 is one of the most affordable shoulder-mounted, full-sized camcorders on the market. I had some concerns with its electronic menus, but its image quality and audio capabilities are top-shelf. If you're in a market where size does matter, it's definitely worth a look.

TECH SPECS

Imager: 1/4" 3CCD progressive
Recording Format: 1080i60 AVCHD
Recording Media: SD, SDHC cards
Audio Inputs: 2 XLR, Stereo Mini
Video Out: Composite (BNC), component (BNC), HDMI
Data: USB 2.0
Lens: Leica Dicomar 12x, optical image stabilizer

Strengths

  • Outstanding audio and video connectivity
  • Superb image quality

Weaknesses

  • No manual focus on lens, menu only
  • Lackluster viewfinder

SUMMARY

The AG-HMC70's great image qualities and robust audio system make it a suitable solution for event video.

John Burkhart is Videomaker's Editor-in-Chief

One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
www.panasonic.com
$2,495

Tags:  August 2008
John
Burkhart
Fri, 08/01/2008 - 12:00am