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Time to Buy That P2? A Review of Panasonic’s Camera Lineup

31 Mar , 2010  

Written by Lee Hershey | Posted by:

Sure, you want HD. But if you're looking at Panasonic's lineup, which is the right camera for you? Should you wait for the upcoming 3D model?

Introduced three years ago, Panasonic’s line of P2 solid-state recording HD cameras offers a high-definition recording system at an affordable price. They share the look, feel, as well as many of the features of high-end professional cameras, and moreover, are lightweight, portable and manageable. There’s no doubt they were built for travel. New, larger capacity P2 cards (up to 64GB) allow for longer recording times and memory storage, and record video as computer files rather than video data. This allows for faster than real-time transfers and facilitates editing.

The cameras record in MXF (Material eXchange Format) an industry standard “wrapper” compatible with most Macintosh and Windows-based editing systems. P2 cameras have proved themselves highly reliable under all sorts of harsh conditions, are easy to use, and offer much of the same functionality that the bigger and more expensive models do with a smaller footprint at a lower price.

Panasonic’s main competition in this arena is Sony. According to Michelle Brooks at Rule in Boston, Sony and Panasonic are “pretty equal partners.” Yet, Panasonic models, specifically the line of P2 HD cameras, in her opinion, are just a little ahead of the game.

“Panasonics are a little bit cheaper,” Brooks asserts, “and Panasonic really seems to listen to what indie filmmakers want. As far as developing cameras goes, they are more focused on the mid-range, professional levels.”

The Line Up

P2 HD cameras range in features just as much as they range in price. You will find “list” prices on Panasonic’s website, http://www.panasonic.com/broadcast, but typical “street” prices can be found at resellers such as Talamas, The Camera Company, and Rule in Massachusetts. In addition, Panasonic has always been great about offering rebates or rebate credits, thereby lowering costs.

The top of the line is the AJ-HPX3700 VariCam that offers three 2.2 megapixel 2/3-inch 1920×1080 full-raster CCD imagers with 10-bit, 4:2:2 AVC-Intra P2 HD recording. The AVC-Intra codec uses only the intra-frame portion of the MPEG 4, H.264 toolset, offering sufficient bit rate reduction to provide 10-bit, 4:2:2 (High 422 profile) recording on P2 cards at 100mbs, the same rate required by the DVCPRO codec just to record in 8-bit. The AJ-HPX3700 has Dual Link 4:4:4 RGB output and CineGamma for outstanding cinematic image quality. Price? It starts at $59,950 without glass.

Just a notch beneath this is the AJ-HPX2700 with three 1920 x 1080 2/3-inch 1-megapixel CCD imagers and 10-bit 4:2:2 AVC-Intra P2 HD recording, a great lower-cost alternative that’s priced at $39,950 without a lens.

Then there’s the AJ-HPX3000, a very close cousin to the AJ-HPX3700 VariCam, also featuring three 2/3-inch 2.2 megapixel 1920 x 1080 CCD’s, 10-bit 4:2:2 AVC-Intra P2 HD recording, but geared more towards the television production market than the more cine-wise VariCam. It’s a bit less pricey at $48,000 sans glass.

What the VariCam 2700 is to the VariCam 3700, the AJ-HPX2000 is to the HPX3000. The AJ-HPX2000 features three 2/3”1-megapixel 1920 x 1080 CCD’s, and a feature-set geared heavily towards electronic news gathering (ENG) and general television production assignment work (extended dynamic range and low-light gain boost). AVC-Intra 10-bit 4:2:2 is available as an option on this model. List price is $27,000 without lens. With a price point at less than half that of a full-blown VariCam what’s not to love about it?

There’s still also the AJ-SPX800: 2/3” P2 three CCD standard definition P2 camcorder geared heavily towards news gathering at $19,500 without lens. While it does not shoot HD it can operate in a 16:9 aspect ratio, making it easier to upconvert footage to HD when necessary. Of course, the AJ-SPX800 will also operate in standard 4:3.

Panasonic’s lowest price 2/3-inch P2 HD camcorder is the AG-HPX500. It is capable of recording in 32 HD or SD format choices with variable frame rate recording (overcrank/undercrank) in 720P. It offers great low-light performance, has CineGamma and lists for about $14,000.

The AG-HPX300 P2 HD camcorder is the only 3-MOS (Panasonic’s version of CMOS) three 1/3”chip shoulder-mount camcorder using AVC-Intra for 10-bit 4:2:2 recording. It can also record in DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO50, and DV compression—to P2. $10,700 list with a 17X Fujinon lens. It may just be the ideal camera for the “indie” filmmaker. Panasonic has just announced an $800 end-user rebate and two FREE 32GB P2 cards to purchasers of this camcorder (offer good through March, 2010).

The remaining P2 HD camcorders are all of the small, hand-held variety:

The AG-HVX200A, is similar to the earlier AG-HVX200, but offers an improved 1/3” three CCD imager that improves image quality and provides better low light performance. List price: $6,310. In addition to P2 HD, it can record in standard definition to mini DV cassettes.

Finally, there’s the AG-HPX170. It’s very much like the AG-HVX200A but without the standard definition mini DV recorder. It’s very affordable at $5695 list. Besides all of the other features pro users have come to expect, it even comes with a waveform and vectorscope display.

The Test Run

Cameras in the P2 HD line like the AG-HPX170 are definitely geared towards the student and professional filmmaker alike with a range of features that make it possible to shoot either automatically or with a high degree of adjustment and control. The AG-HPX170 is a small hand-held camera that’s very light (4.2 lbs), yet solid and sturdy. It’s a small camera, featuring three 1/3” CCD’s, 14-bit A/D conversion and 19-bit processing. The 1080p camcorder has one of the widest zoom lenses in its class and records in both HD and SD formats. “It can be used for documentaries,” Brooks says. “It’s so light-weight. It’s one of Panasonic’s lightest cameras.”

“Panasonic caters to the student, as well as the professional by having a 1920×1080 full-raster shooting range,” Brooks points out. “But Panasonic markets more towards the student coming into the professional world. Panasonic cameras are great because they are easy to learn, easy to use, and with each upgrade, their layout does not generally change drastically, as compared to other competitors, like Sony.”

For documentary filmmakers, the lightweight and affordability afforded by Panasonic P2 HD camcorders mean that right from the get-go they have a lot going for them. The ease and speed with which they can be operated make “capturing the moment” easier than ever before. Buttons are large, visible and accessible – such a joy if one is shooting hand-held or even on a tripod. And these cameras can take a beating, ideal for harsh conditions and bad weather, as has been demonstrated on such demanding assignments as shooting the Iditarod, Alaska’s famed 1,150-mile sled dog marathon.

“Panasonics are well-known to have great sound quality because of their stereo microphone system that makes it ‘almost seem like ‘surround sound’,” Brooks opines. With a reliable lay-out, the microphone, and the shape and design of the camcorder (which, although it has a boxier look compared to Sony’s more rounded body, has better balance when it comes to being hand-held), filmmakers will likely be more apt to buy a Panasonic because of these features.

Panasonic offers many choices for compression and frame rates,” says Marty Feldman of The Camera Company in Norwood, MA. “In the case of P2 alone they offer both their DVCPRO intra-frame codec and the H.264 AVC-Intra codec. That gives discerning filmmakers a huge range of technical and creative options.” The Camera Company sells, leases and rents camcorders from Panasonic’s P2 HD line.

“Many filmmakers prefer the intra-frame compression philosophy,” Feldman states. “They are of the belief that less manipulation results in a cleaner, more artifact-free image and that less compression is a whole lot easier on their computer-based editing systems. The concept has merit, although the long-GOP MPEG proponents have some pretty persuasive arguments as well. From a visual quality perspective, though, I don’t think you could possibly go wrong shooting ‘intra’.”

Many of Panasonic’s P2 HD cameras now use three 1/3” or ¼” inch CMOS imagers (which Panasonic calls 3MOS). This is a recent change for Panasonic, offering lower power consumption, ergo—longer running times. CMOS imagers consume less power because unlike CCD’s much of the signal processing circuitry is done right on the chip.

CMOS is also easier to mass produce and shares much of its production technology with computer chips. Image quality is comparable to CCD save some rarely noticeable artifacts caused by its “rolling shutter.” The rolling shutter can cause rapidly moving horizontal images to appear to lean or a photographer’s flash to appear in a narrow horizontal band instead of over an entire frame. Panasonic has recently introduced software to minimize some of these effects.

Panasonic has been more daring than some manufacturers in their willingness to abandon tape. Sony, for example, still offers several pro camcorders that record HDV onto mini DV tape. An essential component of making the transition to solid-state recording is learning to deal with a new postproduction workflow. Mastering this transition has made a lot of digital filmmakers nervous. Panasonic has understandably been smoothing the waters—partnering with the nonlinear editing equipment manufacturers to make editing from memory cards, if anything, even easier and more reliable than editing from tape. Apple’s Final Cut Pro, for example was one of the first major nonlinear editing systems to be fully compatible with P2.

One of the impediments to the rapid adoption of the P2 card format has always been the high cost of the cards. Panasonic has addressed this issue by offering a new, less expensive P2 card they call the “Series E.” There are four main differences between the new cards and the old, namely: transfer speed, price, card lifetime and the type of flash memory employed. The transfer speed has been increased from 800mbs in the older “A Series” card to 1.2Gbps for the Series E. This means the card can be downloaded in even less time than before. The only price you pay for the lower cost and the greater speed is a shorter lifetime. While earlier cards could almost be used indefinitely (about 30,000+ times if used once a day, the Series E cards (now available in capacities up to 64GB) last about five years if used fully once a day.

Brooks likes what Panasonic has done with their Leica-built lenses, claiming they often have longer zoom ratios than their Sony counterparts. While a Panasonic camera may be lacking in one area, it makes up for in another. “With each camera, you’re going to have some give and take. Not every camera has every feature,” Brooks acknowledged. “But, most Sony cameras only have a 12x zoom lens, so Panasonic takes it up a notch.”

Regarding Panasonic’s AG-HPX170 model, Brooks says, “This is the one that we have the most buys on. It’s kind of a middle-range camera.”

And one pays for what one gets. In the AG-HPX170 camera “There is a flaw in this camera worth noting and that would be its LCD screen,” Brooks points out. “When focusing and looking in the viewfinder, images are blurry and out-of-focus. There just isn’t a lot of definition. Although visible in daylight with a menu screen that isn’t at all challenging to navigate, it’s still not an HD LCD. Sony has, generally, a better LCD screen,” Brooks concluded.

The Camera Company’s Marty Feldman agreed that compared to Sony, the Panasonic LCD viewfinders were of lower quality. However, he disagreed that they are completely deficient.

The Panasonic cameras generally cost less than the equivalent Sony, so one has to ask oneself when looking for a new camera -— how much am I willing to sacrifice to get a lower price? Only you can decide what you can or cannot live without.

The Future

Panasonic again leads the way in exploring uncharted waters. In the fall of 2010 the company is releasing a portable 3D Camcorder. It will list for $21,000.

“You can’t match it,” Brooks says, pointing to the AG-HPX170 camera. “Panasonic has put it [the 3-D camera] into a camera the size of this.”

Announced on February 12th, the company will begin taking reserve orders on the camera with a non-refundable $1000 deposit. It is targeted towards professional, high-end filmmakers as well as serious students and educators. Making a 3D camera available to everyone will accelerate the distribution of Blu-ray discs and more 3D channels like Direct TV.

The camera weighs only 6.6 lbs (the AG-HPX170 camera is about 4.2 lbs), making it light and nimble, and certainly cutting down set-up space for film crews. To achieve the 3-D effect before, a large set-up of two cameras fitted in parallel to a rig was required, as well as separate recording systems. The Panasonic HD 3D camera has a twin-lens system in the optical section that can be adjusted. The AG-3DA1 camera incorporates stereoscopic adjustment for easier operation and manageability, providing nearly the same flexibility as 2D handheld shooting.

It has a long recording capacity (up to 180 minutes). With such a quick set up time; the camera is almost minimalist in that regards, making it ideal for sports, documentary, narrative filmmaking projects, or even event video.

Not even Sony has launched a low cost professional 3D camcorder yet, nor have there been any reports of its intention to do so. Panasonic’s bold move towards making more affordable 3D cameras is likely to dramatically accelerate the adoption of 3D by indie filmmakers -— having the same kind of liberating effect as the DV revolution of the 1990s.

The Bottom Line

With Panasonic’s P2 HD line of cameras, one can expect reliability, ease, speed, advanced memory storage, and a battery that will last all day. Fewer moving parts also makes possible a longer warranty (up to five years on some models).

Panasonic remains a good starter camera. Because of its affordability (Panasonic offers a lot of rebate or rebate credits on their cameras). But it’s the little differences that really make a big difference when looking for a camera. According to Brooks, “Panasonic offers a variety of cameras: it puts different features on different cameras so the filmmaker can mix-and-match the features they want in a camera… Panasonic “kind of covers the range.”


For more information: http://www.panasonic.com/business/provideo/p2-hd/camcorders.asp http://pro-av.panasonic.net/en/3d/ ftp://ftp.panasonic.com/pub/Panasonic/Drivers/PBTS/papers/FAQ_P2HD.pdf To buy/rent locally: http://www.rule.com/ http://www.talamas.com/ http://www.cameraco.com/