Jul 15, 2010

Panasonic TM700 Review

It wasn't that long ago that Panasonic put the indie filmmaking community on fire with the DVX100, the first SD-format handheld camcorder to shoot true 24p (24 frames per second in progressive mode, giving the video a more filmic look and feel).

They did it again in 2005 with the HVX200, the worlds first tapeless professional handheld HD camcorder.  And while it's not a professional or even pro-sumer model Panny looks to have launched yet another game-changing HD-camera, the TM700.

At first blush the little palm-sized camcorder looks to be no different than it's competitors; AVCHD format, ultra-small size, SDHC-card media with a built-in 32GB on-board and a flip-out touch-screen interface.  But that's where the similarity stops:  The TM700 is yet another Panasonic first:  It's the first conumer-grade camera that shoots a *native* 1080/60p format.  Currently only very high-end professional cameras are capable of such a feat and even then only a select few.

Images from the camera are nothing short of stunning.  Panasonic has always been known to have vibrant, color-rich imagers in it's cameras, both still and video, and the TM700 certainly follows that tradition.  It's noise characteristics are also extremely good, besting pro cams such as the HPX170, Z3 and other dedicated video cameras.  But it's nowhere near as good as say a Canon 5D MkII or the newer 7D; DSLR's are currently the king-of-the-hill with respect to low-noise characteristics and it will probably remain that way for some time until the camera manufacturers figure out a way of transferring this low-light capability into a CCD, global-shutter camera.  (If you haven't figured out by now, I absolutely abhor rolling-shutter technology.)

Currently the TM700 represents the top of the line in Panny's consumer line of AVCHD camcorders but when you're at the top of consumer that means some pro-level features have been included.

To wit, the little TM700 does in fact have manual controls over almost every aspect of image capture; focus, white-balance, iris and shutter speed.  In professional ENG cams Panny introduced "Dynamic Range Stetch" or DRS for short, in which the differences between light and dark areas are lessened allowing for greater slightly better dynamic range and latitude especially in shadow detail.  In the TM700 that feature has been transferred and split into two features, "Backlight Compensation" and "Intelligent Contrast".  When both are turned on imagery remains amazingly vibrant yet more detail is recovered both in shadows and highlight areas of the image.

The two-stage OIS or optical image stabilization is one of the best I've ever seen in any camera at any price.  I shot a sequence hand-held with OIS turned on and did a slow pan - you can't tell the camera wasn't on a tripod.  Now that's really saying something, not about my ability to make a smooth camera move, but more about the OIS doing an above-average job of keeping things steady.

But despite all the cool trimming the TM700 does have a few niggles and even some near deal-killer issues when pushed to commercial-grade shooting standards.

The touch-screen interface sounds like a neat convenience feature but in practical use it's actually an annoyance since the flip-out 3" inch screen is quite small and, when you've been busy making adjustments to all the features having your paw-prints all over the screen will eventually force you into cleaning it just so you don't have a blurred image for viewing.

Having manual controls is cool, but accessing them is a bit of a pain.  The actual and only interface into the manual controls is a small button on the left-front side of the camera right in front of the flip-out LCD; when the LCD is open it's near impossible to get to that button without moving the screen out of the way.  That wasn't very well thought-out by the engineers unfortunately.

You can only scroll through the 4 manual control options; focus/WB/shutter speed/iris.  Once you've made your settings if you have to go back and re-adjust something the camera - for some inexplicable reason - re-adjusts the other parameters in an attempt to give you an "optimal" setting first, then allowing you to change it to what you want.  This is very, very annoying since the last thing you want to do is have to re-adjust all 4 settings if you only need to change one of them.  I can only hope Panny addresses this goofy behavior in a firmware update soon.

The marketing hype about this camera is that it will shoot "24p", however that's a half-truth.  24p can only be accessed when "Digital Cinema" is turned on however it's not true progressive, it's simply frame-doubling an interlaced format.  This is very similar to the in-camera trickery that both Canon and Sony used in their pro-sumer HDV cameras to simulate a progressive format - but it's not true progressive and you can plainly see horizontal scan lines in post-production.

The only real progressive format available on the camera is when you use the dedicated 1080/60p button, and in that mode with "Auto slow shutter" turned on the slowest progressive frame-rate is 30p, not 24p.  However this really isn't a deal-killer per-se since over 90% of videos produced today are sent out to the web, and all web-based video hosts transcode their footage into 30p sequences anyway, so shooting in 30p - or 60p will produce the best looking results.

Speaking of which, images shot in the above mode produces far better results than  the interlaced modes by a large margin.  If you really want to get the best results out of this camera then ALWAYS shoot in 1080/60p, period.

Of course with any newer-tech, bleeding-edge technology comes the post-production caveats and the TM700 has it's hood-winking moments too.  For editing on the Mac you'll have to use Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Avid to fully access the 1080/60p format.  Final Cut Express and other consumer-grade NLE's will NOT be able to use the format, period.

But just getting your 1080/60p footage INTO your NLE of choice is a bit of a pain too.  On the Mac side ClipWrap will be your best friend, and the best workflow is to have CW transcode the footage into either ProRes or, DVCPRO-HD.  (DVCPRO-HD or DV100 is actually much easier to work with than ProRes, despite Apple's claim otherwise.)  For the PC Panny has supplied Windows-only conversion software but it leaves much to be desired and you should seek out a ClipWrap-type of program to do that job instead.

Unfortunately the transcoding process of taking the 1080/60p camera masters into either DV100 or ProRes is a very time-consuming task; expect it to be 2-3x times longer than real-time depending on the length of the clip and the speed of your computer.  This is one reason that AVCHD and other long-GOP formats are not ideal for serious, professional productions, just because the time it takes to transcode the footage eliminates the time-saving benefit of a tapeless workflow!  (In the future I'll be posting more info about that)

Amongst the list of niggles and less-than-great features is the all important user interface and camera menu structure.  Quite frankly, it sucks!  The camera is chock-full of silly, almost nonsensical features that are really about trying to woo the general consumer into having this plethora of "features" but all that's really been accomplished is that accessing the most critical camera functions has become an exercise in trying to decipher exactly what any given setting is supposed to do.  I'm a professional camera operator and even I have been stymied by the TM700's list of options and the poorly laid out menu.

Not to mention that many of these so-called "features" aren't always available.  Depending which mode/s are selected in-camera you either will or won't be able to use other options in the menu, and there's no clear guideline that tells you ahead of time "this feature only works when THIS feature is also turned on - or off...".  Just when you think you'll be able to use "Intelligent Contrast" for example, the camera will tell you, "Not available in "X" mode turned on...".  Really?  Panny needs to either completely re-work their menu structure or, make it much more obvious when and why certain features become available - or not.

Although the TM700 shoots a very high bitrate version of AVCHD in it's highest quality setting of 1080/60p it still does not hold up to broadcast standards for color reproduction in post, and serious color grading will quickly fall apart visually even at the first stage.  That's mainly due to the 4:2:0 color space of AVCHD, so you while the imagery looks spectacularly clean on the LCD and even initially on a computer screen it will easily show it's weaknesses when pushed just a bit.


Despite all it's pro-sumer weaknesses the TM700 represents a true powerhouse of affordable, handheld HD videography.  It's imagery currently has no match in it's pricepoint and it's low-light capabilities start to rival that of DSLR's.  Add to that the manual controls, time-lapse options and superb OIS it's not only an excellent consumer-grade camera but it may also be a great 2nd camera for commercial productions where rolling shutter and color issues are not critical.

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