And so the pace of high definition camera technology continues unabated. Equipment has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years signaling that we might, just might, be entering an era where standard definition is entering its final days. Some might say that this has been the case for a while now. However standard definition has still been the main form of distribution up until now.
With Blu-Ray discs managing to break into the top selling echelons of Amazon.coms' charts, high definition has entered a new phase of mass adoption. This has meant that the demand for camera operators with their own high definition cameras has increased drastically even in the space of the last year or so. To enable owner/operators a way into professional high definition shooting Panasonic initially released the HDX900.
The 900 offered a good route for those who already owned or used the standard definition SDX900 and who were established in a DVCpro workflow. While the HDX900 offered a smooth upgrade path it was still a tape based camera, and as anyone who hasn't been living underground for the last 5 years or so knows tapeless is the way the industry is going.
Thus we arrive at the new HPX500 camcorder. The HPX500 has been designed once again to allow a smooth upgrade path for those wishing to get into low cost HD production. One set of customers Panasonic appear to be targeting with the 500 are existing operators of HVX200's who may be looking to move to a more professional style of camera.
On taking hold of the HPX500 for the first time the first thing that strikes you is the weight of the body. Because there are no mechanical devices for recording the overall weight is incredibly low. Overall the construction of the body seems to be very good. The viewfinder adjustment was smooth and solid, and buttons and switches are just where you would expect them on a camera of this type. Interestingly the user assignable buttons are hidden behind slide covers. An interesting touch, although I'm not sure what the advantages are given that all other controls bar the shutter switch are exposed. These can of course be left in the open position if you need to access them regularly.
General audio controls and switches are behind the large LCD monitor at the rear of the camera. Panasonic have sensibly made sure that the levels controls for the main stereo channels are above the screen and can be accessed when the LCD is flush against the body of the camera. Similarly they have placed the timecode selection (F-run, Set, R-Run) below the LCD so that these too are accessible when the screen is folded away.
The LCD itself is, as you'd expect for this type of display, of limited functionality. It does the job and can act as a very rough guide, but cannot be used for any critical colour viewing. Like all LCD's it suffers in the sunshine. Something else that I was puzzled by was that there didn't appear to be any way to make the LCD display full size audio levels and timecode. While audio levels are displayed at the bottom of the screen at a small size, it is a shame that there isn't a mode to display such information specifically without showing video throughput.
Below the LCD is a flap that opens to reveal the playback and thumbnail navigation buttons. Playback of a clip is initiated by pressing the “Mode” button. This takes the camera from its default “Cam” mode into “MCR” operation. From here you can browse the clip thumbnails, delete clips, add metadata, and perform other general clip organisation and maintenance. My personal preference would be to be able to perform playback of a clip instantly, so the need to enter a different mode does make the process more cumbersome to a degree. I also couldn't find a way to easily delete the last recorded clip without entering the thumbnail mode. This is a function that I use a lot on other tapeless cameras and I think it would be a welcome addition in a future firmware update.
One thing that cannot be said about the HPX500 is that it lacks recording formats! The camera can record 1080i/p/50/60/25/30/24fps 720p/25/30/60/24fps as well as recording standard definition progressive scan and interlaced based imagery in both PAL and NTSC modes. The 500 can also record variable framerates for undercranking and overcraking ability. These framerates are not infinitely adjustable, but have been set at the most commonly used settings based on the experience of Varicam operators. Interval recording for timelapse sequences is also available.
There is also an Operation Type selection that allows the user to select between Video Cam and Film Cam modes. Film Cam mode's main difference is that it displays the shutter as an angle rather than in fractions of a second. This helps when setting up the shutter to match the variable framerate settings for crisp motion.
As I mentioned earlier the HPX500 is partly being aimed at current HVX200 owners who might be aiming to move up to a more professionally styled camera. The 500's prosumer roots become apparent when entering the set up menus, and it is here that the camera suffers from the most limitations.
Most settings such as Detail Level, Chroma Level, and Detail Coring are only available to adjust in very coarse steps (mostly -7 to +7). Knee adjustments are similarly limited to just low, medium, and high. But one of the main omissions is the lack of a user adjustable colour matrix. This set of adjustments is essential for matching cameras, or for creating your own individual look. When cameras costing much less these days come with a matrix adjustment it is confusing as to why Panasonic left this out on the 500.
On the plus side Panasonic have included their famed Cinelike gamma curves, which are available in two versions. One for video out (Cinelike-V), and the other for film out (Cinelike-D) or more heavy grading. Cinelike-D shows exceptional contrast handing abilities, and when combined with the Cinelike preset matrix setting provides a very nice natural looking picture. Other gamma settings include HD Norm, SD Norm, B.press (crushed blacks), and News Gamma. This latter gamma curve is designed to help news gatherers cope with the wide range of conditions that they may encounter. It can only be selected in interlaced modes. In actual use I couldn't quite tell what it was doing that was different to the other standard non-Cinelike gamma settings.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this review, the HPX500 is a very light camcorder due to the P2 recording method. In practice this is both a blessing and a curse. My back has been asking for cameras to become lighter for a while now, but while this is happening the accessories that hang off either end of the device are causing things to go a bit skew whiff! While lenses have to stay at the same weight (you can't change the weight of glass), batteries are becoming smaller. This causes an issue with a light camera such as the 500. As a result it has the tendency to become front heavy. To counter this you need a heavier battery, which is all very well, but we want things to become lighter don't we? After all the HPX with its solid state recording has a low power draw so the smaller batteries last a decent amount of time. To be fair this is an issue that is affecting a lot of the new cameras these days as the equipment gradually becomes smaller and lighter.
With a heavier battery on the back things can be balanced out more, although the HPX500 does not have any form of shoulder pad adjustment. So fine tuning of the balance is out of the question, something that is certainly required as extra accessories such as matte boxes are added. The HPX500 is designed as a step up from the HVX200 though, and the price and resultant features should be expected to reflect this. Panasonic were never going to be able to release a shoulder mounted camera for this price without making some concessions. So my comments shouldn't be taken too negatively.
Using the camera is a pleasant experience. Operation is totally silent, and as with all P2 cameras I find myself constantly double checking that the record light has come on and that the timecode is running because of this.
Our review sample from H Prestons only came with one 8gb P2 card. However the camera is available from them with 4x16gb cards included for around £9800+VAT. In most modes this should be enough storage for 64 minutes of recording in DVCpro HD modes. Recording time can be doubled by using the native framerate modes such as 24PN and 25PN.
While I cannot say that I have been convinced by the P2 workflow, things are beginning to get better storage space wise. The cards themselves are housed behind a slideable flap which I was initially concerned wouldn't protect them from the elements. Luckily it seems to be pretty solid and well sealed enough not to let any moisture in should you get caught out in some nasty conditions.
Much has been made in the video press about the resolution of the CCD's on the 500. It is true that they are 960x540 and that the high def resolution is achieved by way of pixel shifting. Despite the publicity blurb this does have drawbacks, but it also has advantages in other areas. Obtaining 1080p from pixel shifting in this way is always going to be a stretch. Certainly when viewed critically the image is softer than other 1080 native cameras. This has to be expected as there is no such thing as a free lunch. Put it this way, if the image was as sharp as a native 1080 imaging device all the manufacturers would be saving money by using low res chips!
The 1.5" viewfinder that is included with the camera does the job, but is not ideal for high definition production.
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In practice the 500 produces a nice smooth picture. I'm sure a direct A/B comparison on a grade one monitor, or shooting some zone charts would show up deficiencies compared to full raster cameras, but to do this would be to miss the point. The 500 is a budget camera, and it must be judged as such. For the short time that I had the review sample I was unable to perform any in depth tests so I had to let an HD monitor and my eye be the judge. I couldn't find anything that stood out as being nasty. This is after all how most people view the image!
Panasonics decision to use such CCD's has however meant that the HPX500 suffers from very little noise, and has exceptional low light performance. Rated at f10@2000 lux I found that it appeared to perform slightly better than its paper specifications in this regard. Strangely Panasonic have decided not to include a microphone with the camera. They do include a 1.5” viewfinder, which while functional is not ideal. Being a 4:3 SD viewfinder means that the 16:9 HD image is letterboxed making for cramped viewing. Focus is also made more difficult as a result. Although the 500 does have a nifty little trick up it's sleeve to help you with this. A flick of a switch brings up a focus assist function that displays a graph based on edge frequency.
The LCD showing off the focus assist frequency graph (this is also displayed in the main viewfinder.)
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High frequencies are on the right of the graph, while low ones are on the left. The idea is to make the object you are focusing on bunch the graph towards the right, for want of a better description! It is very intuitive to use and it would be great to see innovative features like this on other cameras. As high definition becomes ever more the standard of choice it is important that manufacturers get to grips with ensuring we can capture sharp images with the minimal fuss. Using this function is a doddle and anything that can help with focusing a high definition image in a none intrusive way is to be welcomed. Using this function leaves none of the uncertainty that you have with the usual peaking functions on a small viewfinder, and for ENG style shooting where having an external monitor is not an option in any way or form, it is an essential one.
White balance functions include the usual A/B memory options plus Preset. The 500 includes one filter wheel that selects the ND filters, while the 5600k preset, like many new cameras these days, is catered for electronically by way of a button. Unlike other cameras of its type you cannot dial in precise colour balance in the camera menus. In order to set the A/B white balance memories you must perform a manual white balance to a white card, or whatever your creative preference feels like.
Another feature that is worth mentioning at this point is the Chromatic Aberration Compensation circuits. This is a function that kicks in when lenses such as the Canon's new KJ16, 10, and 21 series of lenses are attached. The idea behind it is to drastically reduce the amount of chroma abberation that can occur on high contrast edges. Panasonic also claim that with compatible lenses it can also reduce softening towards the edges of the picture. Unfortunately no compatible lenses were available for this review, but perhaps I will get a chance to test the function out at a future date as this is something that I feel will be very important in judging the overall capabilities of the camera.
The HPX500 is certainly affordable as a camera body. The KJ series of lenses are also priced reasonably compared with 2/3” HD lenses of the past. Based on the limited time I had with it, the 500 appears to be a good solid performer, and while it is clearly a camera that has been built to a budget, for people who have invested in the P2 workflow in other areas it makes for a good upgrade path. Although if you are a current HVX200 owner who is hoping to upgrade you should remember that purchasing a 2/3” camera is about more than just purchasing the body and the lens. You'll need a tripod that can support the extra weight, and you'll need a good battery system, all of which could add up to almost half the price of the camera body itself.
With regard to P2 in general I have omitted mention of the solid state workflow in this review mainly because I feel that anything that has been said on the various factors involved has already been mentioned ad nauseum throughout the interweb and in magazines. By now most people have chosen their corners and I don't feel that I could add anything meaningful to the debate. P2 cards have come down in price and existing owners of P2 equipment will be able to use their existing cards with this camera, along with any others they obtain through the many deal prices that are being offered.
For those who have been sitting on the fence for the last couple of years the choice of whether to purchase this camera or go for one of its rivals instead will come down to a very personal preference. The only advice I feel that is worth giving with regard to this is to rent or borrow a camera and to see which workflow works best for you.