Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thoughts on the AG-HMC70U

I’ve had the Panasonic HG-AM170 for over a year now, and I have to say that it’s been an interesting relationship. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that I neither love it or hate; yet I’ve grown increasingly fond of it.

I should mention that my other primary camera is a Sony HDR-FX1, though I also have a Sony HDR-XR500V, and a Canon 7D. The problem, perhaps, is that the HG-AM170 is not as exciting a camera as any of those. There's no "wow." It doesn't offer the most features, best image quality, smallest size or anything else that really distinguishes itself. In fact in many ways, it's missing lots of - manual - features. But it does offer two functions/features that those other cameras don’t do well;
  1. It works great on the shoulder
  2. It has two XLR inputs
This is a real ENG camera. For shooting standup interviews, it’s the best camera I have. It’s much easier to hold this camera steady for a long period of time on the shoulder then it is to hold any of the other cameras by hand. Of course, a tripod solves that problem, but in a lot of cases a tripod makes things more awkward; interviewing someone while they walk around for example.

XLR inputs are more secure and less fiddly when using external microphones. I have a wireless mic that I use a lot and though it has a mini-plug connector, I much prefer using the XLR connection. I’ve also got a second wired lavalier that only has an XLR connector. Now I could use an adapter, but that adds another element in the chain that can cause problems, and plugging two XLR mics into a single stereo-mini plug poses additional issues. All the other cameras that I own have stereo mini jacks, and while I have a Beachtek adapter (an earlier model with similar features to the Beachtek DXA-4P) that lets me plug in two XLR mics into a stereo input, it’s one more piece of equipment to deal with, and one more link in the chain that can fail.

Now it’s not all peaches and cream. The camera sometime feels like a cheap piece of plastic compared to the others, and it’s manual controls are limited. It does have a really nice rocker zoom switch, but manual focus is problematic at best; most of the time I leave it in automatic.

Because of it's large shape, and placement of the zoom control, while it's great on the shoulder, it's not so great for other situations. On a tripod, or on your shoulder, is where it works best.

The video it produces isn’t particularly spectacular either. It doesn’t do quite as well in low light and tends to wash out in bright light. Compared to the other cameras it seems to lack visual punch. On the other hand, when I recently shot a project with the XR500V and the HG-AM170, I found the footage from the HG-AM170 was much easier to color correct to something I liked than the footage from the XR500V. Initially the XR500V footage "looked" great, but the HG-AM170’s - after a bit of fiddling - actually looked better.

Interestingly, when I was buying the HG-AM170, I was almost tempted to buy the Sony  HVR-HD1000U. Already having the Sony FX1, I figured that matching the video between two Sony cameras might be easier, and I was tempted to stick with HDV. I hadn't yet dipped my toe in the AVCHD workflow, and was hesitant to make the jump.

In retrospect, I think I made the right choice. The HVR-HD1000U lacks the XLR inputs, and I really, really like having those. And though adapting to the AVCHD format has caused more problems for me than HDV had in the past (more data, more processing, finicky Log & Transfer in Final Cut) the three camera's I've bought since all use AVCHD or H.264. It's the future; for the next few months. And who knows, now that Sony has moved to AVCHD with the HXR-NX5, maybe the HVR-HD1000U will be replaced with an AVCHD version.

But even if they do, I'll hang on to the HG-AM170. As silly as it sounds, I just like those XLR jacks.

B&H: Panasonic HG-AM170

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