Panasonic HMC150 HD Camera Review

Aardvark Video Panasonic HMC150 HD Review

I’m Richard DePaso, owner of Aardvark Video and the president of the Las Vegas Videographers Association.

I’ve been looking at and studying the pluses and minuses of HD camcorders for quite some time but hesitated to buy a unit because of the changing technology, multiple formats, lack of low light capability, difficulty focusing and expensive prices. Besides that, my market, largely convention related, hadn’t really requested HD footage.

During 2008 I began to see a shift to 16:9 HD requirements and knew I couldn’t hold out much longer.

Even though I hadn’t bought an HD camcorder, I had rented several, tried out others and generally was dissatisfied with the performance for the price. The low light capability was abysmal, the recording media was expensive, wide angle lenses were unavailable or very, very expensive and the camcorder didn’t have the controls and feel of a professional camera.

At 2008 NAB I saw the prototype of a camcorder at the Panasonic booth that excited me. Panasonic had developed a high quality truly evolutionary unit that took the basic form factor of the highly regarded and successful DVX100 series of SD camcorder and made a HD unit.

This camcorder appeared to address all my HD concerns:

• It had professional controls
• It was well balanced
• It was light
• It had tremendous low light capability
• It came with a wide angle lens and astounding depth of field
• It used inexpensive SDHC cards for recording media at less than 24mb/second
• It had recording time of almost 2 hours at the highest quality level on readily available inexpensive 16Gig SDHC cards
• And best of all, it was positioned to sell for under $3500.

During the fall I was fortunate to get a unit to try out and it has lived up to all my expectations and more.

The technology records in the AVC format, an MP4 codec more efficient than MP2 used for XDCam, HDV and other formats. The picture quality in terms of resolution, color clarity and low noise is astounding. A 16Gig card gives 98 minutes of recording time at the highest resolution and the battery it ships with gives about the same amount of time.

Panasonic HMC150 HD Camera Field Tests

The first thing we did was buy several of the inexpensive memory cards and two higher capacity batteries to give us a full day of recording time.

To test this camera, I took it on assignments that other HD camcorders I had used did poorly on. The first was in a nightclub where the lighting is barely visible. I used a 35 Watt camera light and was amazed at the result. At 12DB’s of gain there was absolutely no noise and the color fidelity was exceptional. Using the auto focus feature, even in the near darkness, all my shots were in focus.

I then taped the SEMA show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. This is the auto show where manufacturers display their latest products. In the past at this show, I had experienced a lot of problems getting good vehicle shots because often the vehicles are close together and a wide angle lens is needed. Many of the areas of the show aren’t brightly lit either. On this shoot I also had another manufacturers HD camera which with the lens attached sold for over $14,000.

We shot side by side shots using both cameras and the results were again astounding. The Panasonic’s wide angle lens easily allowed shots I had always struggled with. The low light sensitivity produced vibrant color and the auto focus and great depth of field kept everything in focus. Additionally the light weight and good balance reduced fatigue that the other camera created. The ability to interface with professional XLR microphones and hook into sound systems at the show were important features for us.

Next we tried the camera mounted on a jib on a two camera shoot using the Panasonic HVX200 P2 camcorder as a second handheld camera. These cameras matched up well even though the AVC camcorder required approximately ½ the amount of light and was set at 6DB gain as opposed to 12DB on the handheld. We had ceiling lighting and put a small portable lightweight Sima LED light on both cameras with tungsten gel. For this nearly one hour shoot the P2 camera needed two 32 gig cards while our camera on a 16GB card didn’t use nearly all it’s capacity. The file size difference was about 10Gig for AVC and about 50 Gig for P2.

The lightweight AVC camera was easy to maneuver, kept everything in focus and exposed our scene perfectly with no manual adjustment; just sitting on the jib and being maneuvered.

Our next assignment involved flying to a distant city to tape a tradeshow. In the past we always had problems with shipping our full size camera and dealing with extra bags of equipment. This unit was a joy to travel with. We were able to fit all our equipment in a small camera bag and soft tripod case which allowed us to put camera, batteries, light stand, tripod, lights and other miscellaneous equipment in the two bags we were able to carry on as well as bringing a laptop to work with the footage on the long flight home.

The camera worked flawlessly shooting 1080 30P footage in mixed and low light situations. We used small Sima LED camera mounted lights and they provided all the fill we needed. We were able to download the takes from the SDHC cards and edit/review footage on site so that our client had a good sense of what was accomplished before we left.

Panasonic HMC150 HD Camera Work Flow

This is the area where AVC is probably where XD Cam was last year. It’s a situation where post-production products are catching up to the acquisition format and in just a few short months I’ve seen advances which now make AVC a viable editing format.

To understand my experiences with this I’m going to include information which will be helpful to anyone planning on using this camera. I’ve tested both on PC’s using Adobe Premiere Pro and on the Mac using Final Cut Pro.

To start, I have to say moving the files to a hard drive are a piece of cake. You can transfer directly from your camera using the USB connector or you can take the cards out and use a card reader. I bought a small reader and a 16GB card on Amazon for under $30.

For years we’ve edited on both platforms; on the PC with CS3 and an AMD processor with 2 gigs of memory running Windows XP and on a dual processor Power PC Mac with 2 gig of memory. We’ve never had any problems with the formats we’ve used, mostly DV.

Though you can edit in CS3 on a PC, CS3 doesn’t recognize AVC natively. You can use a workaround transcoder Panasonic provides to convert your files to DVC Pro HD however the file sizes are about 5 times as much as the native AVC. Additionally with 2 gigs of memory, scrolling or working on my timeline wasn’t very smooth with the transcoded files. This isn’t to say you can’t edit on a platform like this, it just isn’t ideal. Windows XP limits the amount of memory it recognizes and HD really needs more. What works better is a 64Bit system like Vista where you can work with 4 or 8 Gig of Ram. Because I really loved this camera I decided it was worth it to build a system to support it. I built a Vista 64Bit system with 8Gigs of memory and installed Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 which supports AVC natively.

The latest version of CS4 including patches from their download site, recognized AVC files instantly and allowed me to put them on the timeline, mix with P2 files or any other format I needed. Editing became seamless and efficient. However for maximum effectiveness, you need a dual quad core processor machine (8 cores) and a powerful graphic card. Anything less produces a timeline which is not quite smooth when scrolling.

We purchased and installed Sony Vegas 8.1 and found that it recognized the AVC files natively and provided a much smoother timeline scroll. The disadvantage is the lack of built in integration with other Adobe applications.

On the Mac side, our Power PC Mac not only didn’t recognize AVC files, it didn’t recognize the transcoded files we produced and in fact wouldn’t let us transcode. We learned that an Intel processor Mac was needed. Because we loved this camera, we bought a Mac which would work; a MacBook Pro laptop. With CS4 Premiere Pro this machine worked flawlessly. Final Cut required us to log and capture AVC files which converted them to Pro-Res. Here again the file size is much larger than AVC. We are waiting to see if Final Cut will have updates soon allowing native AVC editing.

Other Considerations for the Panasonic HMC150 HD Camera 

There are some minor features I would like to see improved on in this camera. There are no markings which show this is an HD camera. In professional applications where the size of the unit might not belie its true capabilities, this feature is needed to give credibility. I’d also like to see the User buttons have the capability to include variations of camera setup such as black stretch rather than relying on the scene file knob on the back capable of this function

We visited the CES show this winter and learned that the SD spec is soon to be expanded to SDXC with capacities of 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB and up to 2 Terabyte. We are hoping that the camera will be able to accept these cards and with the capability to hold up to 2 Terabytes and running on AC power, the cameras can record for days uninterrupted.

We also saw at every equipment manufacturer’s booth a large variety of new low to medium cost AVC HD camcorders aimed at consumers. As these units gain a foothold I expect AVC products to proliferate in both acquisition and post-production products.

In summary, the Panasonic HMC150 HD camcorder is ushering in a new era of convenient, inexpensive, low light capable HD acquisition for professional applications.

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