Question 5: What are the bells and whistles?

Focus assist – One of the biggest challenges of HD recording is trying to achieve a sharp manual focus using only the camera’s CCD or tiny viewfinder. Some HD camcorders can zoom the preview image to 2X to assist focus, but this view is usually only available during preview, not while recording, which is like a GPS device that works when you’re stationary and turns off once you start driving.

Figure 2. Panasonic's focus assist. Click the figure to view the full resolution image.

In contrast, the Panasonic HPX170 (above) offers four Focus Assist features (in addition to a peaking display) that stay visible while you’re recording. To start, when you enable Focus Assist, the camcorder displays a zoomed preview in the middle of the viewfinder, a histogram in the upper-right corner, and a moving bar below the zoomed image. The histogram has black pixels on the right and white pixels on the left; as you focus in, the white pixels shift to the right, receding if you dial the focus ring too far.

I found the moving bar more helpful. Essentially, as you focus on your subject, the bar extends to the right. If you go too far, it starts backing down to the left; so you focus until the bar is at maximum length. However, both indicators remain onscreen while you’re actually recording, so if your subject does something radical like move, you can maintain your focus.

The HPX170 also debuted a feature called Manual Focus Assist. In this mode, you manually focus with the focus ring as normal, and once you get close enough for the camera to discern your target, it takes over, and automatically makes the last fine adjustments, which you can track by watching small movements of the focus bar. The result is absolutely striking and quite comforting, as the image in the CCD and viewfinder (and, ultimately, the recording) was absolutely sharp, all the time. Note that if you want your image to be slightly out of focus, or to shoot a rack focus shot, you can disable this feature, and go all manual.

The HCM150 offers the zoomed preview and histogram, but not the bar or Manual Focus Assist. At the very least, unless you plan on having a large screen preview monitor with you at all times, you should make sure that the zoomed preview stays active while actually recording.

Internal waveform – Another cool feature of the new Panasonic camcorders is an internal waveform monitor on the LCD panel which is a much more accurate gauge of lighting than the internal zebra stripes also available on these and most other camcorders. Both camcorders also display the luminance value of the pixel in the center of the frame, so if it’s not 95-plus when you’re white balancing, you know that you’ve got potential exposure issues. Getting exposure right is 90% of the battle, and these types of tools really make your job simpler.

Figure 3 Panasonic's waveform. Click the figure to view the full resolution image.

Optical zoom - This sounds like a consumer oriented feature, but if you shoot event or other structured presentations where you can’t control camera location, a 20X zoom lens can be heaven. I’ve shot 12x and 20x camcorders side by side, and vastly prefer the 20X zoom.

Audio connectivity – Probably the most significant difference between pro and consumer camcorders is XLR connectivity, which is necessary for connecting microphones and sound boards to your camcorder.

Comments (2)

Said this on 3-18-2012 At 03:33 pm

Awesome article, even after a few years!:) Thanks!   ~Will

Said this on 3-18-2012 At 07:55 pm
thanks! Jan

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