Jun 22, 2010
Panasonic HPX500 P2-HD camera Review
When the venerable HVX200 was released it created quite the stir in the world of commercial video and independent film production. Not only was it the first tapeless HD camcorder but it also offered a wide variety of features such as VFR frame rates and a true progressive chipset just to name two of dozens, but of course it also gave us the gorgeous richly-colored Panasonic chipset which so many came to love starting with the DVX100. But one of the HVX's biggest claims to fame was it's overall value to it's users because of it's great amount of configurability, ruggedness and total reliability when using the P2 media.
Although the HVX200 met with great and continued success many professional shooters and independent producers had been jones-ing for a logical step-up from a handheld HD camcorder to a larger 2/3" inch removable-lens system. The problem had always been that those cameras such as the Panasonic Varicam or Sony F900 were far, far out of the reach of most of these potential users simply because the cost is exponentially higher than any compact HD camera; a fully configured camera of those types pushing $200k easily.
Panasonic recognized this new market opportunity and created the AG-HPX500, released in 2007. Even today it remains the only 2/3" inch chipset/mount HD camera for less than $15,000. Competitive cameras offered by Sony, JVC are only 1/2" inch mounts and the only Canon with removable lenses is 1/3" inch.
There are good reasons for having a 2/3" inch chipset and lens mount:
1) The majority of professional video lenses on the market today are 2/3" inch mount starting with SD lenses that go back 20 years all the way up to the latest HD-spec glass costing upwards of $80,000!. That translates into a plethora of lens choices from cinema-style prime lenses to typical ENG zooms and everything in-between. The better the quality of glass the better the images look out of the camera.
2) A larger chip means more light-gathering capabilities, greater dynamic range, sharper images and, larger physical pixels which equates to far less noise than any 1/3" inch chipset.
3) Greater "film like" depth of field characteristics due to the physical distance between the rear lens element and the imaging sensors.
But bigger chips and a supreme choice of lenses isn't the only major benefit of this venerable P2 camera, it's also the audio capabilities. Most of the complaints professional shooters have about handheld HD cameras when it comes to audio is only having access to 2-channels of XLR audio inputs (all HD formats are by default 4-channel audio streams). The HPX500 has 4 discrete XLR inputs for audio with full controls over all 4 such as AGC, low-pass filters etc. This is a major step-up from any handheld camera and opens up a whole new world of audio possibilities and clearly puts you outside the "pro-sumer" world and into full-on professional capabilities.
One disappointing feature on the HPX500 however is that the supplied viewfinder is not in HD even though it is an HD camera. One reason for this was that Panasonic wanted to make this camera "affordable" and create a natural upgrade path from HVX200 users and also convert Sony or JVC users into this new camera body. If an HD-spec finder had been used it would have raised the price over the $20k mark which would put it outside it's target demographic. However to offset the lack of HD resolution Panasonic introduced a histogram-style focus-assist mode that goes a long way to aiding critical focus both in the finder and in the flip-out LCD.
And about the flip-out LCD: It's exactly the same module as in the HVX200 (as told to me by Panny engineers at NAB '07). Again, another cost-saving feature to help make the camera more affordable.
The HPX500 is similar to it's little brother the HVX200, in that the 500 is actually taking an SD chipset and using spatial-offset technology - something Panasonic has perfected beyond the typical pixel-shifting used by other companies - to create an HD-capable chipset. In point of fact, Panasonic is using a PAL version of the SDX900 chips in the HPX500. This created quite a controversy when the camera was initially released however the technology and the chips have since proven themselves many times over by producers worldwide.
An interesting side-effect of the spatial-offset is that when in HD modes there is more visible noise in the image than when shooting in SD, just as with the HVX200 and HPX170. In fact, because the chips are actually native SD-PAL, when you shoot in SD the resulting images are virtually noise-free in comparison! This made several producers opt for shooting in DVCPRO-50 widescreen (a high-bitrate and high-color SD mode far better than standard mini-DV) rather than DVCPRO-HD for straight-to-DVD productions. The resulting final output was amazingly crisp. But I've also seen HD footage from the HPX500 authored to Blu-Ray and it too was just as gorgeous.
Unlike it's little brother the 200, the HPX500 has an additional (2) P2 slots for a total of (4) and can use any P2 card currently available including the newer "R" and "E" series cards. As newer cards are released all that's required to make the camera compatible is to install free firmware that Panasonic always supplies on their support site.
In practical use the HPX500 does it's job amazingly well. Being a shoulder-mount design means no-more holding a camera in front of you and tiring out your arms; if you're used to any ENG-style camera or even the Canon XL-series then you'll be right at home with the HPX500. Main switches are all where you expect them to be and easily accessible and the entire rig is very well balanced with lens and battery mounted.
A great value-added feature offered in the HPX500 - and one worth learning about - is the CAC circuitry (chromatic aberration correction), in which the camera talks to electronics built into CAC lenses offered both by Canon and Fujinon whereby chromatic-aberrations or "fringing" as it's more commonly known, is automatically corrected for in-camera and dramatically improves the overall image quality. This CAC correction is an option you have to turn on or off depending on the lens you're using, but not all lenses offer this feature. In fact, the high-end low-dispersion and HD-spec glass won't need it since their light-transmission qualities are much better than the low-cost, affordable "kit" lenses that both Canon and Fuji offer for the HPX500.
Because the HPX500 is so unique in the marketplace - even in 2009 - Panasonic published FAQ and basic overview guides; you can get these PDF documents HERE.
If you goto my YouTube page you'll see a couple demo videos shot using the HPX500; one was done for Panasonic for the NAB '07 convention as a demo, the other was done for a client as some low-cost stock footage for their properties.
CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The HPX500 has been my first tool of choice ever since I shot the demo footage for Panasonic in 2007, allowing me to capture as near to the HPX2700 as possible with a far smaller budget. I've never shot nor tested any other camera at or near this it's price-range that comes anywhere close to it's usability, scalability, lens choices and overall image quality, ever. This is in point of fact, the "poor mans Varicam" and there have been several productions that simply would never have been done if it hadn't been for this camera's low-cost, high-quality output capability. It is also to date, the most enjoyable video camera I've ever used because it does exactly what ti's supposed to do with no surprises and total reliability.
As I mentioned earlier, even in Q4 2009 there is no 2/3" inch mount HD camera offered that bests the HPX500 in any category, and certainly none that can compete in price. Many consider the Sony EX3 to be a worthy contender and in many ways it is, but as I'm fond of saying, at the end of the day what matters most isn't counting pixels for measure-bating about features, it's what the image looks like out of the camera. In this respect - and for it's intended market and all the reasons I mentioned above the Panasonic AG-HPX500 has no equal.