With a sharp imager, monster lens and killer codec, Panasonic's HPX250 ($5995, with additional discounts and rebates in effect) makes a great workhorse camera for any kind of shooting that doesn’t need a shallow depth-of-field.
Panasonic's HVX200 is one of the most popular pro-ish cameras to ship in the last several years. Almost every cameraman and producer I've met either owns one or has owned one, and now Panasonic is shipping what I consider to be a full sequel to the camera: the HPX250
Notice, that the camera is an HPX model, not an HVX. That's because this new camera ditches the HVX200's MiniDV tape drive (did anyone ever use that?). But other than losing that one item, the HPX250 adds a lot of new things that old HVX hands will greatly appreciate. I had a chance to take a 250 on a couple of shoots, and here are my main impressions after working with the camera...
Image Sharpness - Finally!
Panasonic has finally solved that nagging issue of sharpness in its prosumer-bodied cameras like the HVX200, the 200A, and the HPX170. Those cameras all used a standard-definition imager that essentially upscaled to HD resolution.
But the 250 uses a native 1080 "3MOS" imager that's tack-sharp (it's the same sensor found in the shoulder-mount HPX370). 720 and especially 1080 footage looks genuinely "high definition" with no excuses. In fact, the 250 seems a little sharper than much higher-end cameras like Panasonic's Varicam and HDX900, which are based on 720 imagers, and upscale to 1080. Better yet, despite the increase in sharpness, the 250 still maintains a fairly cinematic/filmic look right out of the box. Personally, I prefer it to the "through-glass" video look typical of Sony cameras like the EX-1.
The 250 is also a little more light sensitive than the HVX200. My tests showed it about a third of a stop more sensitive than my old 200 (which isn't a huge leap), but the 250 is noticeably less noisy in general. I recently shot some b-camera interviews with an HVX200, and was surprised at how much noise was in the picture, compared to the imagery I was getting recently out of the HPX250. That's not to say the 250 is noise-free. I also shot a grey wall in my backyard in daylight and later watched the shot on a 25" monitor. The wall still "swam" a bit with fine noise, but it's much better than what I've seen from other Panasonic cameras in this range.
If there are any downsides to the 250's image quality, they largely stem from its CMOS-inspired imager. It does produce some rolling shutter artifacts like jello-distortion on quick pans, and strobing with flashing lights. But these are fairly mild -- and manageable.
The other issue to consider is the 250's 1/3" imager. It's very hard to get the background out-of-focus when shooting typical interviews or narrative work that needs to look cinematic. For the kind of documentary work I usually do, which involves shooting a lot of interviews, I could never use the HPX as an A camera. That's the role of a 2/3" camera like a Varicam or better yet, a DSLR, Sony F3, Canon C300, etc.
But I did have some success using the 250 as a decent wide-angle B camera for interviews (the wide angle not requiring a shallow depth-of-field) with my 2/3" Varicam shooting the traditional portrait angle with a softer background. I chose standard scene files that I thought would match for each camera (but didn't customize anything) and found that the color in the two pictures clearly looked different. But with color grading, I was able to match them decently…not well enough to cut the two angles together side-by-side, but well enough to use them both with some b-roll in between.
And for shooting non-interview b-roll, or capturing reality, the 250's small imager can actually be an asset, helping you minimize the chance o fast-moving subjects going out-of-focus.
I also found the 250's built-in lens to be compelling, thanks to its massive, 22x reach (vs 13x on the old HVX200). In 35mm still photo terms, that range spans from 28mm on the wide end (the same as Panasonic's HPX170) all the way to 616mm. With a range like that, the 250 can frame up just about anything, and destroys the limited ranges you get from DSLRs and other interchangeable lens cameras. The lens loses about 1.5 stops of light throughout its zoom range, going from about f1.7 on the wide end to f3.6 on the long end. In terms of high-end ENG style glass, that's a lot of a loss, but in terms of lenses found on cameras in this price range, it's pretty modest. Still, the f3.6 iris can prevent you from using the long end of your zoom when shooting in low light, because f3.6 just isn't letting in enough light.
Another thing I really like about this lens is that it's got a traditional, step-less iris ring built in, right behind the zoom and focus rings. This is so much better than having a strange little iris wheel mounted on the side of the camera, like you find on an HVX200 and HPX170 . When you're shooting handheld with those cameras, it's often hard to find the damn iris wheel with your fingers. But with a ring right on the lens, already in the vicinity of your hand, it's much easier to make slow, subtle adjustments. Unfortunately, none of the lenses rings have stops built in. They just keep turning and turning.
One hitch: the camera sometimes has to hunt for focus for a second or two when at the long end of the lens (when using auto-focus, to be clear). I noticed something similar on Panasonic's AF100 too. Personally, I don't use autofocus much, but if that's something you rely on a lot, you might play with a demo model at a dealer to get a sense for its focus snappiness.
On the bright side, the 250's optical image stabilization (OIS) works noticeably better than that of the HPX170 and HVX200. Going handheld, I could zoom all the way in on the 250's lens, and keep a highly magnified subject near-still in the frame. OIS never felt as effective with the lenses on Panasonic's earlier cameras.
Full-faster, 10-bit, 422 codec Built In
These days, it's popular to use external field recorders with small cameras in order to capture video with better-than-native codecs. But those recorders really aren't necessary with the 250, thanks to its use of Panasonic's AVC-Intra codec.
With AVC-Intra, you already get a full-raster image (1280x720 or 1920x1080 pixels), instead of the courser resolutions of older codecs like DVCPRO HD or HDV (for instance, the DVCPRO codec used by the HVX200 only records 960x720 and 1280x1080 pixels). So AVC-Intra gives you a sharper picture than the HVX200 or HPX170 could deliver, just based on its codec alone.
AVC-I also uses 10-bit color depth versus the typical 8-bits, which generally renders subtle gradations more faithfully. And AVC-I also delivers 4:2:2 chroma subsampling, which gives you more latitude for color correction and cleaner chroma keys than the 4:2:0 sampling found in cameras with lesser codecs like AVCHD (Panasonic's AF100), XDCAM (Sony's F3 and EX1/3) and the MPEG2 codec of Canon's DSLRs.
What you don't get with AVC-Intra is the super-high data rates that external recorders use (typically 170 and 220 mbps). Still, AVC-Intra uses a high bit-rate of 100mbps for 1080 footage, and about half that for 720 footage. That's definitely favorable to the 50mbps used by Canon's new C300, or the 35mbps used by Sony's F3 or the 24mbps used by Panasonic's AF100. If you're concerned about having the highest data-rate possible, all I can say is that I've been shooting with AVC-Intra for nearly 3 years, and never got the feeling that my footage suffered from a low bit-rate. It always appeared sharp and clean.
In fact, it seems that AVC-Intra represents a sweetspot among codecs, giving you very high image quality while still being manageable in terms of card space needed (a 64GB card handles about 72 minutes at 1080/24) and disk space once you get into post-production. And you get all that without having to hang any crap off your camera, or worrying how to power it.
The 250 adds many other little tweaks over its predecessors, most of which make using the camera quicker and easier in small ways. Here are some of the appreciable changes I noticed versus earlier Panasonic cameras like the HVX200 or HPX170:
The HPX250 next to the smaller HVX200. Fortunately, the 250 doesn't feel any heavier.
- The 250 is noticeably bigger than the HVX200 and especially the HPX170 (maybe 20-25% bigger, to my eye). When I first took it out of the box, I felt a little disappointed by the size, because I thought the camera wouldn't work as well as the for quick run-and-gun work. But then I noticed the 250 isn't as heavy as it looks. It's actually about the same weight as the HVX200, so its extra bulk isn't much of an issue.
Click for larger view
- Like the AF100, the 250 uses a 3.5" LCD viewscreen that's actually worthwhile. With 920,000 pixels, it's sharp enough to judge focus accurately, except in wide angle views. One note: the camera's Focus Assist feature doesn't seem to work when you're recording (only before recording) but again, the LCD is so sharp that you probably won't miss that. The 250's eye-piece also projects a bigger image than I was used to on the HVX200, which made you feel like you were looking at a postage stamp in there.
- I was pleased to see that the 250 has an extra position on its built-in ND filter wheel. The HVX200 has off, 1/8 and 1/64 ND filters, while the 250 has off, 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64. That gives you a little more control over your iris settings when you can't adjust your lighting. Another nice tweak to the 250's filter wheel is that it's higher on the camera than on the HVX200, which keeps it visible when you're operating with the LCD viewscreen open. On the 200, the LCD screen tended to block your view of the filter wheel, making it harder to make a quick adjustment without interrupting your shot.
- There's a small wheel on the side of the camera that lets you quickly change either your shutter rate or frame rate, and a button next to it that toggles between the two. It's a small improvement, but really pays off when you want to quickly get a slo-motion shot and then jump back to regular filming.
- There's a plastic guard over audio level dials to protect against accidental adjustments. A nice touch.
- The camera has 5 user buttons that can trigger any of 18 different functions (things like pre-record mode, y get, shot marker, waveform, etc). There are four buttons on the left side, and a fifth on the back of the camera (another nice touch that makes it easier to trigger a particular function while shooting handheld).
- I thought it was a little odd to see that the 250's two XLR mic inputs are built into the camera's handgrip. I didn't get a chance to use the camera with cables attached, but it seems there's a chance the cables, mounted so high on the camera, could get in your way if you're connected to a soundman.
- The camera has a built-in waveform monitor, which is becoming more common on smaller cameras these days, but it also has a vectorscope, which is still pretty rare. That's helpful because the HPX250 gives you very fine control over its color settings.
- You get both HD-SDI out but also HDMI out, which is great for keeping any DSLR monitors you may have bought over the last couple of years.
- The camera takes the same batteries as the HVX200, 170, etc. That's a relief, after seeing Panasonic's AF100 ship with an identical-looking better that turned out to be incompatible with all the ones I had for my old 200.
The HPX250's lack of a full-frame imager means it's not going to have the sex appeal that cameras like the Sony F3, FS100 and Canon C300 have these days. But it is a very capable camera for general shooting - ie, b-roll, reality, scenic and anything that doesn't require putting the background out-of-focus in as little distance as possible.
Its list price is $5,995, but you can get it at retailers for as low as $5,000. Plus, until March 31, Panasonic is offering a $730 rebate when you buy the 250 and a 64Gb P2 card (about $650). And there's also the extended 5 year warranty you get simply by registering the camera.
All-in-all, I see the 250 as a great workhorse camera, and a worthy successor to the old HVX200.
Rating: 4 out of 5 COWs
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary & reality cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com