Panasonic AJ-HPX3100 Review
COW Library : Panasonic Cameras : Helmut Kobler : Panasonic AJ-HPX3100 Review
Panasonic's AJ-HPX3100 looks like yet another old-school ENG-style camera, but this camera at least represents the best of the breed--one with a crisp 2/3" 1080 imager, the ability to record to a fantastic codec (AVC-Intra at 100mbps, 10-bits, 4:2:2) on industrial-strength P2 cards, and all for a reasonable list price of $21,100.
Those features alone makes this a great camera for news, documentary and reality work, and an obvious replacement for aging HDX900s, Varicams and XDCAMs out there.
But what really excited me about the HPX3100 are two optional upgrades that can streamline and turbocharge your workflow in a way that no other camera I'm aware of can. One upgrade lets a producer or script supervisor use a laptop, tablet or even phone to wirelessly enter metadata into footage the camera is shooting, or has already shot. Suddenly, camera-originated metadata like custom clip names, shooting locations, notes and markers become practical and useful in the real-world!
Panasonic has tweaked a few button locations since my P2 Varicam, but anyone with ENG experience should be able to find their way around the controls almost instantly. Please click on image above for larger view.
Camera front. Please click on image above for larger view.
Another upgrade lets the HPX3100 record high-quality proxy videos in real-time to an SD card, which producers or transcribers can use to quickly review what you shot without wrestling with master footage, or without a post department spending hours to render out proxies later on.
These two upgrades really take the HPX3100 where no other ENG-style camera has gone, so I'm going to focus this review on those upgrades first. Then, at the end, I'll talk a little bit more about the HPX3100's conventional features.
WIRELESS METADATA SYSTEM
Custom camera metadata is one of the most useful-but-woefully-underused features in production/post-production.
Panasonic cameras have been capable of baking tons of metadata into footage clips for a long time--things like custom clip names ("john_denver_interview"), program title, crew names, shooting location ("San Francisco"), and in-clip markers (aka text memos) that mark important moments in your footage, like when a whale finally breaches the water, or when an interviewee says something you know you're going to use.
Having all that information baked into footage is incredibly useful in post-production. When you go to import your footage into a metadata-friendly editor like Avid Media Composer, all the clips are already named, and the rest of the metadata goes into searchable text fields, so you can easily find just the shots recorded in, say, San Francisco instead of Oakland. Plus, any markers the cameraman inserted show up in the clips as well, so editors can find important moments very quickly.
All this saves editors a tremendous amount of logging time, but that's not the only way metadata is useful. It's also useful for quickly creating searchable company-wide databases of all footage ever shot, regardless of the show. I used to work for a production company that produced hundreds of shows, and paid someone to painstakingly log huge stacks of tapes into a database that producers could search when they needed broll for their next projects. Much, if not all, of that work could have been saved had metadata been baked into the footage as it was shot.
But the reason all this metadata is so underused is because it's too much of a pain to set up. The cameraman or producer has to use a computer and a custom Panasonic application to enter all this metadata information into the appropriate fields, then save it as a file to an SD card, then insert the SD card into the camera, and then use the camera's menu system to load up the file.
This can generally work if you're shooting one thing all day long, but as soon as you do a second interview with a new person, or begin shooting some b-roll that's unrelated to the last thing you shot, you often find that you didn't create a custom metadata profile ahead of time, or even if you did, things got so busy that you forgot to stop and load in the new file before shooting resumed.
The old way of entering P2 metadata meant loading up the P2 Content Management System app,
and typing metadata into these fields, then saving them to an SD card.
That's where Panasonic's AJ-WM30 board and AJ-SFU3100 software key come in.
You install the WM30 ($150), which looks like a USB dongle, into the innards of the HPX3100, and then activate it using the SFU3100 software key ($1500). Once activated, the two act as a wireless router inside the camera. Suddenly, you can use the web browser of any laptop or tablet to wirelessly enter metadata for clips already shot on the camera, or for new clips you're about to shoot. You can also insert markers into footage as it's recorded.
To get started, you just direct your device to log onto the wifi network being broadcast by the camera, as you'd log onto any other wifi network (there's a default password required). Then, use your device's browser to type in a custom numeric URL, then a username and password to finally get access to the camera's wifi interface. You can always bookmark the URL for quicker access, and only have to enter a username and password when the camera and device have been shut down for a while.
Once you're logged on, you're presented with a custom web interface that Panasonic has designed for the kind of device you're using. My laptop and iPad seemed to use the same interface, but an iPhone gets a simpler version of the interface (more on that later).
Now that you've got the Panasonic interface in front of you, you're ready to create and manage all your camera's metadata.
Metadata Entry and Playback
Here's a real-world example of how it works: I, as a cameraman, can hand a producer an iPad, and they can wander twenty or thirty feet away from me, and still maintain a wifi connection with my camera.
As we arrive at a museum to shoot some b-roll, the producer can use the iPad to type in a new custom clip name ("getty_broll") that will apply to all the clips I shoot at the museum (getty_broll_1, getty_broll_2, etc.). The producer can also type in something like "Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA" in the camera's Shooting Location metadata field, but he doesn't have to stop me as I work, or remind me to load in the new metadata he's created.
You can enter text into metadata fields for existing clips, or for new clips about to be recorded. Whatever you enter applies to all future clips, until you make a change. Please click on image above for larger view.
Instead, the producer has complete control over the camera's metadata, all from the iPad. And when he wants to make a change to the metadata -- for instance, he decides to interview a staff member at the museum, he can quickly type in a new custom clip name into the iPad ("curator_interview"), and the change automatically reflects in my camera. What's more, if the producer he hears his interviewee say something particularly interesting, he can hit a marker button on the iPad, and a marker will now be inserted into my footage, as I shoot it.
But the HPX's wireless metadata interface is also flexible enough to let the producer change existing metadata in clips I've already shot. Let's say that the producer didn't have the chance to type in a new custom clip name before we shot the curator interview. No problem. Once I've finished recording a clip, the producer can use the iPad to wirelessly preview any of the existing clips on my camera. That's right: even though my footage is recorded in 100mbps AVC-Intra, the producer can see thumbnails of everything I've shot, and then select any clip for playback on his iPad. It plays back at a low resolution, but it's still a decent quality. And in addition to playing back any clip I've recorded, the producer can edit the clip's existing metadata, creating a new custom clip name for the interview.
You can play any clip on the camera via the wireless connection. Please click on image above for larger view.
So.....WOW. Suddenly, it's very easy to enter metadata in the field, for footage that's about to be shot or has already been shot, without slowing the production down. The system is also very robust, working at distances of 20 or 30 feet in my tests, despite lots of other wifi signals around, and was even able to automatically re-establish links between my camera and iPad/laptop after swapping batteries on my test camera.
This is a game-changer, in my opinion. Panasonic has finally cracked the metadata conundrum, making it useful in the real-world. And nobody else is doing this -- certainly not a major camera company like Sony or Red or JVC, etc. So Panasonic gets a big congratulations for producing a solid, useful product, and delivering it way ahead of anyone else.
But the HPX's Wifi metadata system isn't perfect. There are a few refinements that are necessary to make it truly bullet-proof -- ie, something that can be used in all shooting scenarios and that's simple enough to be handed to a producer who's never used it before, with no chances for confusion or mess-ups.
And to be honest, I'm a little nervous that Panasonic will not follow up aggressively on this first release. The company can do some groundbreaking things, but then inexplicably doesn't take the few simple steps required to truly make a great experience for customers. Case in point: Panasonic was first with a robust tapeless format (P2 cards), but then took more than 3 years to ship a simple, affordable USB card reader that would let any computer offload footage from those cards. That painful delay hurt P2's adoption rate, and I'm hoping Panasonic doesn't do the same thing here, giving people with a product that's 90% polished, but leaves that last rough 10% to drive people crazy, or cause them to give up on the product.
Anyway, here are the things I think Panasonic still needs to work on:
1) Crippled iPhone interface. If you log on with a laptop or iPad, you get a full-featured interface, but if you log on with an iPhone (and presumably another small-screen device like an Android phone), you get a seriously dumbed- down interface which is barely useful. All you can do from an iPhone is wirelessly play back clips from the HPX, monitor some camera settings like battery life, and place text markers. You CANNOT edit metadata of existing clips, and you CANNOT type in new metadata for new clips to be recorded. UGH! This has to change, pronto. It may not be convenient to open up a laptop on set, and there may not be an iPad or tablet handy, but almost EVERYONE has a smartphone in their pocket, so why not let them use it fully?
Please click on image above for larger view.
2) Too many interface screens. Next, Panasonic should reduce and simplify the multiple interface screens used when people log on with a laptop or tablet. I was able to figure out the interface without reading any documentation, but it still took a little guesswork. There are visual icons without labels, and four different modes to the interface, each with its own screen. All that complexity can easily overwhelm newcomers, but ideally, a producer or script supervisor who's never worked with the metadata system should be able to figure out the interface in seconds, and use it without the cameraman having to handhold them. A couple of suggestions I can offer include reducing the number of interface modes/screens from four to one or two max. Another tip is to eliminate or hide some of the non-essential information that populate the screens, such as camera battery charge and which P2 card is currently being recorded to. That's not information most people will care about.
In theory, it's great to have so many customizable markers/text memos available for inserting into footage, but when the camera is rolling, it takes too much time to hunt for the right tictac-sized button. Click image above for larger view.
4) Confusion customization. Panasonic's web interface lets you rearrange and customize the layout of different buttons and fields. Panasonic gets some credit for giving people this advanced level of customization, but I think it's largely unnecessary and currently leads to confusion and frustration. It's unnecessary because this is supposed to be an easy-to-use data-entry application, and a good default layout should be able to work for everybody. And it currently leads to confusion and frustration because once you do try to customize the layout, you're suddenly given a clean slate and have to rebuild the layout interface from scratch. That's a daunting task--made worse by some bugginess--and I think most people will give up and want to go back to the default factory layout. Unfortunately, I could find no way to return to the default layout, so after I screwed up the interface while experimenting, I could never get it back to how it was supposed to work.
When you customize the interface, you start by choosing one of many templates, and then filling the template with different fields. Please click image above for larger view.
Again, Panasonic has definitely broken new and important ground with the HPX3100's wireless metadata system. No major manufacturer is doing anything like this, and the technology can already pay off for many productions that are willing to put up with its initial quirks.
But the product is still not ready for widespread acceptance. For that, it has to become so easy to use that a cameraman can spend one or two minutes showing it to a producer or script supervisor, and then let them manage metadata on autopilot. The system is not there yet, but it can get there with one more good push from Panasonic, largely to streamline/simplify the interface. That, and Panasonic needs to hound Adobe and Apple to build more support for P2 metadata into Premiere and Final Cut Pro X (right now, the two apps read some but not all metadata fields, including markers).
One more unsolicited tip for Panasonic: wireless metadata is so compelling that it should be included in all pro-level cameras going forward, from the prosumer HPX250 on up. This should become part of the pro-level Panasonic brand, not just a feature found in one or two cameras.
HIGH-QUALITY PROXY VIDEOS WITH THE AJ-YDX30G
Besides adding wireless metadata, the HPX3100 also lets you install Panasonic's optional AJ-YDX30G proxy encoder (about $1600) which creates the best-looking, most capable proxy videos that I've seen in any camera system.
Most people understand that a proxy video is a smaller, lighter-weight version of the master-quality footage you shot. But most people are used to creating proxy videos once they get into their edit bay or post production facility, using apps like Proxy Mill or Compressor. They don't know that a camera like the HPX3100 can record proxies in real-time, as it shoots, to any SD card you stick in the camera.
With a YDX30G board installed inside the camera, you no longer have to go back to the office, offload your master footage, wait an hour or two to export that footage as an H.264 file with a timecode window burn, and then send it to whomever needs it. Instead, just pull your SD card from the camera, and hand/upload it to anyone on the spot, be it a client or producer who wants to quickly review the day's shoot, or a transcriber who has to type up an interview, or a footage librarian who can use the proxies to build a database of all your company's footage.
Since the HPX3100's proxy footage comes formatted as QuickTime movies, most people can play the movies without installing any special drivers (not the case with master footage). And since the videos can be use a very low-datarate (as low as 800 kb/s), they're very easy to post online.
Anyway, the vast majority of cameras can't shoot proxy videos at all, but a handful of higher-end models can (certain XDCAMs, and a few shoulder-mount Panasonics, like my trusty HPX2700 P2 Varicam). But I've found that the proxies shot by other cameras are so low-resolution that they're only good for sending off to someone who's going to transcribe an interview, and just needs to read a timecode burn clearly. I wouldn't want to give the proxies to a client to evaluate what we shot, because the picture looks pretty bad.
And that's where Panasonic's YDX30G board for the HPX3100 is so unique. It's capable of doing the same old postage-stamp proxies that other cameras can do (ie, in the neighborhood of 320x240 pixels with a commensurate data rate), but you also can choose to record at three higher-quality settings. Here are all your choices:
960x540 image size
H.264 (3.5 Mb/s) files
16-bit/48 kHz 2-channel (uncompressed) audio
640x360 image size
H.264 (1.5 Mb/s) files
16-bit/48 kHz 4-channel/2-channel audio
480x270 image size
H.264 (800 kb/s) files
16-bit/48 kHz 2-channel audio
Profile 4 * (legacy proxy format from older cameras...I'd use Profile 3)
320x240 image size
MPEG-4 (1.5 Mb/s) files
16-bit/24 kHz 2-channel audio
Profiles 1-3 look very good, about as good as if you created your proxy video using an app like Compressor or ProxyMill. I would actually say the video looks better than video I create in Compressor using a single pass of encoding, but slightly softer than video using two passes. Still, the quality is something I would feel great about handing to a client or producer to review, or even to use for quick news broadcast. And if you use Profile 1 (960x540 pixels @ 3.5MB/s) you'll be giving your client a proxy file that doesn't feel too far off from a 720p recording.
Suddenly, clients and producers can see exactly what they've got the moment you hand them that little SD card. Also, you can change the HPX3100's proxy profile very quickly through the camera's main menu, so it's easy to switch the quality level depending on what you're shooting. If you're shooting something that you might want to email to a transcriber, then just dial in Profile 3 or 4, and for all else, use Profile 1 with an 8 or 16GB SD card in your camera.
A profile 1 proxy vs a profile 4 proxy -- scaled down to fit. Please click on image above for full sized version to truly view the comparison in its full scale.
One more thing about the HPX3100's proxies: you can set them to record with a timecode window burn or not, but either way, the movies are embedded with the same timecode as your master footage. That makes them useful for logging work, but you can even use them for offline edits (edit with the proxies, and then conform the edit once you have access to your master footage). This may not be quite as convenient as it sounds, though. The proxy files use the same file names as your master footage, but they have a .mov at the end that may prevent your NLE from automatically finding the master files it's looking for. But if you're willing to put some manual effort in, you should be able to solve this issue.
OTHER CAMERA FEATURES
Besides the wireless metadata and high-res proxy videos, I found plenty else to like about the HPX3100. Here are some highlights:
Sharp Imager. Panasonic is using a new, very sharp 1080 imager in the camera. It's very similar to what you find in the older-but-respected HPX3700 ($59,950), except the the camera sips about 34 watts instead of the 3700's 42 watts. It's also slightly more sensitive in low-light. The end result is that this camera looks tack sharp, as opposed to Panasonic's older Varicam and HDX900 workhorses, which have to upscale their 720 imagers to 1080, and look a little softer as a result.
AVC-Intra. The camera records in Panasonic's high-quality codec, which delivers a 100mbps data rate in 10 bit color and 4:2:2 chroma subsampling. These days, a lot of guys are attaching external field recorders to cameras to capture in Prores, which uses a datarate up to 220 Mbps. Personally, I don't think you need that for the vast majority of applications. AVC-Intra is a very competitive, well-balanced format that looks incredible but doesn't hog memory cards and hard drives as much.
Gamma modes and extras. The 3100 has also inherited a bunch of image-related features typically found in Panasonic's highest-end cameras. This includes Dynamic Range Stretch (DRS), which lets the camera preserve detail in highlights that might otherwise blow-out. There's also the ability to shoot with Panasonic's Film-Rec gamma settings, which deliver a flat, high-latitude image with the greatest flexibility for color grading (similar to Sony.
Plus, there are plenty of other smaller tweaks to appreciate:
There are a couple of limitations to be aware of as well....
Fan noise. The 3100's fan spins up as soon as you turn the camera on, and it keeps spinning until you turn the camera off. The fan's not too loud - for instance, you won't hear it when shooting outside or in a reasonably bustling interior, and I doubt talent sitting on a quiet stage could hear it from 6-8 feet away. But when there's no other noise going on, the camera's on-board mic can definitely pick up the fan. It's rare that the on-board mic will be your main audio source, but still, it's a little annoying that the camera's fan is this prominent. Older shoulder-mount cameras like the P2 Varicam and the HDX900 have fans, but they only seem to come on periodically, and seem subtler to me.
No variable frame rates. The camera can't under or over crank, so there's no shooting 60fps for slow motion, or shooting, say, 26 fps to speed up action a bit. That's the one feature I really wish Panasonic could have delivered in the 3100. I don't use off speeds very much, but am always glad to have them on hand.
No 720p shooting. That's right, this is a 1080-only camera. Personally, I won't really miss 720 because most productions I encounter prefer 1080 to 720 these days, but the lack of 720 altogether means the camera can't shoot for certain networks.
2 P2 card slots. Most pro-level Panasonic cameras take four or five P2 cards at the same time. The HPX takes only two. That's not such a bad thing now that 64GB cards are reasonably priced, but if I were ever to own the camera, I would miss filling it up with five P2 cards in the morning, and never having to worry about swapping cards for the entire day.
When you add wireless metadata and high-end proxies, you're looking at spending closer to $24,000 for the HPX3100. That's not cheap, but at the same time, the HPX3100 is one of the most versatile and innovative cameras aimed at news, documentary and reality production. Its Achilles heel is the lack of variable frame rates for under/over-cranking. Still, when you look at what you get from other cameras competing in the same space, at similar prices, I don't see anything quite as compelling.
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