Benchmark: Panasonic PV-L859 VHS-C Camcorder

Venerable VHS-C

by Dennis Berkla

It was our choice as best VHS-C camcorder of 1999 with good reason. The Panasonic PV-L859 is an entry level camcorder with many of the features found only on high end models. And they’re not necessarily the features you might expect.
For example, the PV-L859 has both microphone and headphone jacks, a four inch LCD monitor, manual focus and shutter speed controls. We hold these little touches in great esteem as they let you apply more professional touches to your productions as you become more adept at making video. The camcorder grows with you.
To put this in perspective, the PV-L859 is a compact VHS camcorder. It’s designed for people who want to record their daughter’s wedding, their son’s Little League playoffs, or Christmas mornings. The upside is it’s smaller and less bulky than a full-sized VHS camcorder. The downside is that it’s substantially larger than its newer digital contemporaries. That’s not necessarily a drawback, however. It means there’s more room for well positioned fingertip controls on the camcorder’s body – not buried in a menu. The tradeoff is that with VHS-C you’ll find your record times shortened to a maximum of 40 minutes in standard play mode. Panasonic includes a VHS adapter, allowing you to play your VHS-C tapes on a standard VCR out of the box, something 8mm and digital formats cannot do.
The PV-L859 has all of the automatic features you’d expect to find. Automatic shutter and focus are present, but there’s more. The built-in light lets you operate in manual or auto settings. In automatic mode, the camcorder provides light when needed. And the light seems to work well, especially for common indoor uses. When working up close it tended to create hot spots, but that’s to be expected. The light has other uses as well. It can be set for stills or strobe recording. The strobe setting lets you record a progression of stills in 1/6 second intervals.

Wait, There’s More

A four speed, 26x power zoom gives the PV-L859 lots of reach. The digital boost lengthens the zoom to a full 300x. Use sparingly. Digital zooms create pixelation at extreme magnifications. Zoom speed is pressure controlled. The harder you press, the faster you zoom and four different speeds are possible. In theory, pressure driven speed control is good. We found the zoom wanted to accelerate as we moved into telephoto. Up close, macro focusing was smooth and accurate.
On playback, the image quality is quite good. Colors are true and bleed is minimal. The camcorder’s electronic image stabilizer worked well and no artifacts were noticeable, even after applying the stair climbing test. Similarly, sound quality is very good. Motor noise is absent, even when microphone sensitivity is put to the test. Boasting the longest zoom, fastest shutter speed and highest number of pixels per CCD in its class, this camcorder leaves other VHS-C competitors in the dust.
The PV-L859 can also record in true, wide screen TV format (16×9 aspect ratio). Titles are there too. Panasonic has added time-coordinated "intelligent" titles. So on December 24th or 25th, assuming you’ve set the camcorder’s date correctly, you can automatically super "Merry Christmas" or "Ho! Ho! Ho!" onto your recording. Additional phrases like "beautiful," "oops," and "way to go" are also provided. Unfortunately, the camcorder lacks a character generator so you’ll have to be content with these. You cannot create your own titles.

Those Little Extras

The PV-L859 also has an assortment of in-camera effects including fades, wipes and backlight controls. Digital effects like color fades and filters are added as well. All of the seven fades can be applied in eight different colors. The Digital Filter can add one of five colors to a picture, like a true color filter. The sepia color filter looks great for adding antique toning to your recordings. You can even do wipes using digital stills previously captured by the camcorder.
The PV-L859 includes a feature that Panasonic calls Digital PowerShot. Yes, this camcorder is a digital still camera too. Panasonic added a "CompactFlash Card" slot to the PV-L859 and then provided a 2MB memory card. This feature lets you capture 15 JPEG images in "fine" mode (640×480 pixels) or 30 images in "normal" mode (320×240 pixels). Adobe’s PhotoDelux image editing software is included and a serial cable makes the link from the camera to your PC. Nice touch Panasonic.

A Good Fit

The PV-L859 has most everything the casual shooter would ever want or need in a camcorder. The controls are well placed and easily accessible. It’s got good ergonomics in other words. Add to these the convenience of VHS and it’s a sure winner.
If there’s a downside, it’s that the PV-L859 is somewhat pricey for a VHS-C format camcorder. You can buy an entry level DV camcorder that gets you better resolution for the same money. Keep in mind, however, you may not get all of the manual controls and goodies on a DV model at this price. You won’t be able to play your tapes in your VCR either. Those are hefty sacrifices if you simply want a good family camcorder to record life’s treasures, both as video and web-capable digital stills.



Format VHS-C

Lens 26:1 optical zoom, 300:1 digital zoom, f/1.6

Image Sensor 1 CCD, 480,000 pixels

Viewfinder color, 4-inch LCD monitor

Focus auto, manual

Maximum Shutter Speed 1/10,000 of a second

Exposure Auto

White Balance auto

Digital Effects strobe, still, wipe, 16:9 wide-screen mode, color filter, fade

Inputs 1/8" microphone jack

Outputs composite (RCA) video, RCA audio, headphone

Edit Control infrared

Other Features motion security mode, time lapse, 640×480 digital still, intelligent titler

Dimensions 4 1/4 (width) x 4 5/8 (height) x 7 1/8 (depth) inches

Weight (sans tape and battery) 2.4 pounds

Video Performance (Approx.)

  • Horizontal Resolution (camera) 330 lines
  • Horizontal Resolution (playback) 200 lines

Performance Times

  • Pause to Record 1.2 seconds
  • Power-up to Record 4.5 seconds
  • Fast-forward/Rewind (30 min. tape) 4 minutes, 38 seconds



  • Microphone and headphone jacks
  • Manual control
  • Digital still with Compac


  • price
  • low playback resolution
  • inherent weakness of VHS-C format (tape length, resolution)


  • A well equipped VHS-C camcorder, but you could get a DV camcorder for about the same price.

1 Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
(800) 211-PANA

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

Related Content