For shooters grappling nobly to make sense of, let alone make a living in, the HD morass, the Panasonic HPX500 is a practical option. Delivering better than good performance at a reasonable price, the camera is at the forefront of a new trend in economical middle-market broadcast camcorders. It offers HD shooters a rugged full-featured 2/3in 3-CCD option that won't break the bank.
Of course, one can evaluate camera performance in many ways, but in the realm of HD, the crucial point is a camera's ability to respond adequately in low light. This capability, coupled with its interchangeable optics and remarkable low cost, largely accounts for the camera's appeal across several market sectors.
This appeal can also be attributed to the camera's robust feature set, which is similar in many aspects to the HVX200A. These now well recognized features include adjustable (not variable!) frame rates, 32 different recording modes and true 4:2:2 DVCPRO HD recording at 720p and 1080i resolutions. In addition, the camera offers HD-SDI and genlock, and it embraces the notion of a world-class camcorder that can shoot 24fps/25fps 50Hz/60Hz. For itinerant shooters like myself who frequently work in Europe and around the world, this is a major improvement over the HVX; I never appreciated having to track down a 50Hz model HVX when working overseas.
The camera, however, is compelling for a more crucial reason. For the first time in a camcorder with interchangeable optics, the nagging and often devastating issue of chromatic lens aberration is addressed. Chromatic lens aberration is no small matter in HD as a camera's higher resolution resolves greater picture detail along with inherent lens defects.
The HPX500 is a four-slot 2/3in camcorder with a 3-CCD 620K pixel imager. While this resolution may not seem impressive compared with the multimillion pixel imagers gaining favor at the top end of the industry, the fact remains that the camera exhibits at least two stops better performance in low light than its diminutive HVX sibling. My testing using a 17 percent grey chart and CDM reference chart indicates a true ISO rating of at least 640, a respectable rating on par with most professional SD camcorders. This means that SD shooters transitioning (finally!) to HD via the HPX500 will not have to endure the anemic low-light performance typical of most low- and mid-range HD camcorders.
Of course, in order to achieve this enhanced performance at a relatively low price, there must be a few compromises. The camera's advanced low light response can be partly attributed to the larger imager and pixels, which like coarse grain film allows higher speed albeit at reduced resolution. Incidentally, the native resolution of the 2/3in imager is identical to the HVX200; the 960 × 540 grid (with green pixel offset) offers decent but hardly stellar vertical resolution. Still, for most shooters, such a compromise makes sense; the camera exhibits a much wider dynamic range than the HVX and thus finds greater applicability and usability in less than ideal conditions, where many of us earn our daily chow.
The peril of chromatic aberration
Mediocre optics with elevated chromatic aberration are the bête noire of today's HD shooter. This common aberration affects the quality of our images more than anything else, including recording format, frame rate or even which manufacturer's logo appears emblazoned on the side of the camera. Thankfully, chromatic aberration compensation (CAC) introduced by Panasonic in the HPX500 can provide some desperately needed relief to this pernicious menace.
Chromatic aberration is not pretty, and no one mistakes it for art. The objectionable color fringing is present to some degree in all lenses regardless of price. From a manufacturer's perspective, chromatic aberration is extremely difficult to control. The apparent fringing is worse in low-cost lenses, owing to their inherent compromises in design and materials.
It is common knowledge among HD shooters that sub-$10,000 lenses are not as sharp as pricier optics due largely to chromatic aberration. It was logical, therefore, that Panasonic would alleviate chromatic aberration first in these low-cost lenses, and then deal with the other problems like mechanical and tracking inaccuracies. The fact is that complex lenses require more elements to provide adequate chromatic aberration correction. This extra cost in manufacture is inherent to intricate zoom lenses still mainly assembled by hand and, thus, not feasible at modest price points.
In coming years, other camera manufacturers are sure to follow and implement their own CAC strategy. A CAC lens mounted on the HPX500 provides a distinct signature. The camera reads the make and model of the lens and applies the necessary digital correction from its onboard library of lens profiles. Currently, there are several CAC lenses available, including two 16X models from Canon and two 17X models from Fujinon. Shooters can disable CAC if they wish by simply deleting the profile or unplugging the lens from the camera, the desirability of disabling CAC being of dubious value and not recommended. CAC profiles cannot be created or modified by the user.
Unfortunately, I've seen and worked previously with the HPX500's 4:3 SD viewfinder. The tiny 1.5in model performed less than well on the XDCAM HD PDW-F330, and it performs just as poorly here on the HPX500. Sure, price pressure forces manufacturers to make hard choices, but shooters, especially HD shooters, must have clean, crisp viewing for critical focus, so skimping on a viewfinder offers little comfort or rationale. Maximizing peaking in the stock VF only helps a little, as the low-res monochrome image is quickly obliterated and rendered unrecognizable.
Luckily, Panasonic offers a 2in 16:9 viewfinder as an option for an additional cost, and I strongly recommend it. Keep in mind the camera's VF output is SD in any case, so the SD limitation applies regardless of which viewfinder is actually mounted.
The best solution may in fact be the Panasonic BT-LH80W 7.9in electronic viewfinder. As an EVF, the 80W displays all customary VF functions, including zebras and the various camera setup info. The monitor powerable from the camera's rear 1.5A jack provides ample focusing assists, including pixel for pixel and red peaking. Note that the LH80W base price of under $3000 does not include HD-SDI support, which is available as an option.
Everywhere we look as shooters, HD has changed the rules of the game. Many SD concerns that were once minor, such as chromatic aberration and less than stellar viewfinders, are suddenly major issues now. In the HPX500, Panasonic recognizes the inherent compromises that go into a modest broadcast HD package. The company has endeavored to develop new and innovative strategies like CAC to mitigate the impact of these compromises on-screen.
Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from Focal Press/Elsevier.