With so much attention placed on DLSRs and interchangeable lens camcorders today, Panasonic has continued to focus a great deal of effort on improving an old design.
The Panasonic AG-AC90 full HD, 3MOS AVCCAM handheld camcorder packs a number of very nice pro features into an extremely well balanced, lightweight and reasonably-priced prosumer level piece of equipment. The level of improvement and detail given to the automatic features will appeal to the run-n-gun, single-shooter types among us, while the ability to switch to manual controls will put a smile on the face of pretty much everyone else.
Though not an interchangeable lens camera, the lens it comes with is quite capable. The fast lens (f1.5 fully open) allows loads of light to hit the sensor, always a good thing – particularly in low light situations. Optical zoom is a respectable 12x and controlling it the middle of the three rings on the lens barrel or one of the two zoom rocker switches – one at the top of the handle and the other atop the hand grip on the right side – each near its own thumb-accessible record button. The rocker switches are right-now responsive, while the zoom ring is much smoother, allowing you to ease in and out and vary the speed of your zoom.
The focus ring allows you to achieve manual focus while Push AF (assigned to a User button) lets you switch temporarily to auto for a quick assist from the camera. Two buttons on the control panel affect your focusing options: Focus A/M switches between auto and manual focus, while Focus Assist outlines the areas in focus with red (the only color choice). Older eyes will find this a very welcome feature.
There are no neutral density or video gain switches or dials on this camera. These tasks are instead integrated into the iris ring. At one end of the exposure spectrum, the iris is fully closed. It begins to open at f11 and continues to open wider until it reaches f1.5 – fully open. At settings wider than f2.8 neutral density filtering is automatically applied in increasing degrees. Continue to rotate the iris ring beyond fully open and gain is applied in 1dB increments up to a maximum of 30dB. The tradeoff here is that as gain is added, noise increases. The AC90 however has some of the cleanest gain we have seen, with increases to 20dB being relatively noise free and very usable. Exposure assist features include a Zebra button on the control panel with two zebra settings and a marker function.
The placement of the LCD represents an interesting design change to this otherwise familiar format. Most LCD panels fold up flat against the side of the camcorder, covering frequently used buttons. The AC90’s LCD panel slides out from a crosspiece at the front of the handle then rotates vertically up to 270 degrees for high and low angle, or self, shooting. The high-res panel is sharp, crisp and touch sensitive. The touchscreen controls menu and playback options, all of which are nicely responsive and easy to navigate. The retractable nature of the LCD provides a high level of protection to the screen when safely tucked away, but care should be used when the screen is out and while putting it away, so that it isn’t struck or forced at an angle.
Of course, a huge part of the success of any video production is the quality of its audio and the AC90 includes numerous options to enable you to achieve that goal. Its built-in mic is capable of 5.1 surround sound or two-channel stereo capture with both focus and zoom functions.
Although this audio is certainly usable, we know it is better to get the microphone closer to your subject than the camera as often as possible. To this end, the AC90 includes two XLR inputs on the right side of the crosspiece at the front of the handle. Opposite the inputs, at the other side of the crosspiece, is a hinged plastic cover, housing line/mic and phantom power switches. A second cover at the rear of the control panel protects the input source selection switches and gain control dials. These dials can be accessed through holes in the cover, without having to open it first, for gain adjustments on the fly.
Three 1/4.7 type MOS, 1080p image sensors (one for each primary color – RGB) combined with highly sensitive backside illumination (BSI) and dense pixel shifting technology delivers extremely sharp pictures without aliasing, excellent color reproduction and a broad dynamic range. Shadows and highlights are right where we like to see them. The AVCHD format records at a color sample ratio of 4:2:0[MH2] – nice for high quality chromakey work.
The Intelligent Auto Mode and Hybrid Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) will likely appeal to run-n-gunners in particular. The auto mode automatically detects shooting conditions and adjusts every parameter accordingly. Of course, we like our manual controls, but for those times when it’s shoot it or lose it, Intelligent Auto Mode does an excellent job. Hybrid OIS combines the best of both optical and electronic approaches to image stabilization, analyzing motion along five axes for excellent results – some of the best we’ve seen in fact.
In addition to awesome video images, the AC90 also takes very nice 3MP still photos, recording everything to SD cards. With dual memory card slots, your recording time can be extended by automatically switching to the second memory card when the first becomes full. Backup recording records the same material to both cards simultaneously for safety. And, if at any time one card fails, recording continues on the second card so you don’t lose the shot.
With excellent image results, reasonable pricing, all these features and too many more to mention, the Panasonic AG-AC90 has a lot to offer enthusiasts and prosumers alike.
Contributing Editor Mark Holder is a video producer and trainer.
Excellent image quality
Highly effective OIS
Very clean gain
Backup recording on second memory card
No magnified focus assist
Pickup Devices: 1/4.7 type 3MOS image sensors
LCD: 3.5” wide
Viewfinder: .24” wide EVF
Lens: Auto Iris optical zoom (full range AF)
Focal Length: f1.5 to f2.8 (2.84mm to 34.1mm)
Filter Diameter: 49mm
Zoom: 12x optical, 25x i.Zoom, 2x/5x/10x digital
Image Stabilizer: Optical (hybrid optical image stabilizer, active mode)
Microphone: 5.1 ch surround (with zoom/focus function), stereo microphone
Recording Media: SD/SDHC/SDXC Memory Card
Recording Format: AVCHD version 2.0 compliant, AVCHD Progressive
Motion Picture Compression: MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
Audio Compression: Dolby Digital (5.1ch/2ch)
Still Picture Recording Format: JPEG
Video Output: AV Multi, HDMI
Audio Input/Output: Line (2ch – AV Multi terminal), HDMI (Dolby Digital), headphones, XLR (2)
Input/Output: USB, camera remote
Weight: Approx. 3.3lb. – main unit only; Approx. 3.9lb – with battery and SD card
Dimensions (WxHxD): 6-5/6”x7-11/16”x13-1/16”