PRODUCT REVIEW: Panasonic AG-HMC150 AVCHD Camcorder

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Recently I had the opportunity to test drive Panasonic’s AG-HMC150 camcorder. The camera is lightweight and well balanced. It uses the new AVCHD format, which is an upgraded HDV format. It uses the MPEG-4 AVCH.264 codec and in it’s high-quality mode it fits an average of 10 minutes of video per Gigabyte.

The camera uses SDHC cards to capture it’s footage. There’s no tape – it’s an all digital camera in an all digital world.

Panasonic released this camera to appeal to a customer who wanted the Hi-Definition video ability, but can’t afford the higher price tag of the HPX170 P2 camera.

The pro’s of this camera – it’s lightweight, all digital and shoots on a very inexpensive media. The camera itself fits within most budgets. The playback is easy to navigate. One caveat – you can only playback a clip if it is in the same setting you are currently shooting. So, for instance, if you want to watch a 1080p clip and you are in 720p mode, you will have to switch to 1080 mode to view the 1080 clip. It’s a little cumbersome, but not a deal breaker by any means. The camera also supports HDMI out, Component out and Composite out video.

The con’s – many people feel as thought the joystick is a little flimsy and cumbersome. Personally, it didn’t bother me. It is compressed HD – using only the MPEG4-AVCH.264 codec. There is also no firewire output (however, there is an HDMI and USB 2.0 output).

The camera only shoots HD. You have your selection of 720p, 1080i and 1080p capture. It will down sample a SD image out the side of the camera via a composite video output.

One very exciting feature on this camera is the dual professional XLR audio inputs complete with phantom power (with the ability to switch it on or off). This is a real plus for people wanting to shoot in a more professional environment or for man on the street interviews.

In actual shooting I found the 720p and 1080i modes to be very nice. I found 1080p to be a little noisy in its compression when shooting high contrast, high action shots. Now realize, this is a worst-case scenario; the camera is doing a lot of data crunching to get 1080p within the AVCHD parameters. This is by no fault of the camera – it is simply working with the AVCHD format and doing the best it can. If you were shooting more controlled scenes, 1080p is fine.

I was truly impressed with the camera’s ability to shoot low-light. I shot several clips of actors on stage in very minimal light and the camera did a great job of capturing the images. On playback, you could sometimes notice some noise in the black areas of the shot, but it was really negligible – especially for the cost of the camera.

The 150 sports the same lens found on the HVX170 and the popular HVX200a. The 13x Leica Dicomar is more than adequate for most shooting needs. The camera supports both manual and auto focus. It also has the Panasonic focus assist system. One big challenge with High Definition shooting is getting that super crisp image in focus. The focus assist allows you to zoom right in on the subject and see super close details to make sure you have the shot in-focus!

The 150 has an on-board vector scope and waveform monitor. These are very useful tools for monitoring light level and color correction. Having these features on-board is a huge plus for videographers everywhere!

This camera offers a lot of tools that you would expect to find on only the higher end HD cameras. It’s quite a treat to find them embedded in an AVCHD camera.

One important thing to realize about the AVCHD format – it takes a ton of processing and updated software to edit. This is not like editing DV – there is a ton of compression that takes place and you need the horsepower to work with it.

There are various converters available that will convert the AVCHD footage into something a standard non-linear editor can read, but that takes a fair amount of time as well. You must copy the file over, convert the file, import the file into your NLE and then, often times, render that file to use it – not exactly an efficient workflow, but it does work.

All the main NLE’s support the AVCHD format or will soon do so. Then, you simply connect the camera to the computer and import the footage, drop it to the timeline and edit away. You will still need to check the minimum system requirements to make sure your computer is compatible with the standard.

This has nothing to do with the camera itself – you will encounter this with any AVCHD footage. It’s simply something to be aware of.

It’s also worth noting that with the 150, you can also use an HDMI – SDI-HD converter and capture the footage directly into the camera via SDI-HD for editing.

Hands down the SDHC chips are MUCH cheaper than P2 cards. For instance, a 32GB SDHC card can be found for less than $300. A 32GB P2 card is still around $1500. That’s a huge savings. The overall cost of the camera is significantly cheaper as well. I’ve seen the camera as cheap as $3,800. Not a bad price for HD acquisition. In comparison, I’ve seen the Panasonic AG-HPX170 for $4900.

The question ultimately comes down to what you want. I balanced the Panasonic AG -HMC150 AVCHD with the Panasonic AG-HPX170 when deciding on a camera purchase, and ultimately I chose the 170. For the work I do, I wanted the un-compressed HD, the HD-SDI out, the variable frame rates and some of the higher end features found on the 170. In the end, that made sense for me. But for many churches out there running man on the street interviews, youth programs, mission trips or other such scenarios, the AG-HPX150 would be a great little camera.

If you choose the HPX150 (or any AVHCD camera) remember to make sure you have what it takes for post-production. Make sure your software is updated (and compatible) and your computer meets the minimums.