The Panasonic AG-AC160
COW Library : Panasonic VariCam : Anthony Burokas : The Panasonic AG-AC160
In as much as DSLRs have been cover articles on the trade pubs for some time now, the vast majority of cameras sold for video use are still camcorders -- either on-shoulder, or in-hand. The in-hand camcorders used to be called "prosumer" camcorders but with today's technologies being shared across product lines, you'll find the same 2.2 Megapixel U.L.T. CMOS sensor used in several Panasonic camcorders.
What used to be prosumer is very much "pro" these days and the "prosumer" gear is limited to those few camcorders that use core hardware from the consumer product line. The AC160 is clearly not one of those. Any pro or prosumer Panasonic user will be right at home on the AC160. Even as a long-time Sony user, I never wanted for capability on the AC160 and merely had to redirect muscle memory to where the switches were for manual features.
The AC160 is much the same "big barrel" design as prosumer camcorder have always been, but it packs in some amazing technology. After using a Sony, testing two Canons, and two on-shoulder prosumer Panasonic camcorders, the AC160 was a breath of fresh air. Not because it does anything miraculous, but because it does everything it does so well.
You might expect a 22x optical lens that's longer than Canon's 20x would make the camcorder very front-heavy. But it doesn't. You might expect the copious I/O on the back of the camera to make it unwieldy in the hand. But it isn't. In fact, Panasonic moved the I/O center and put the battery further to the right, behind your hand. This puts the balance of the camcorder more in your hand as opposed to next to it.
Panasonic moved the I/O center and put the battery further to the right, behind your hand.
The grip of the AC160 is nearly perfect -- missing just a little molding under the ball of your thumb, but I was able to wield the AC160 for two days of handheld use covering an expo and experienced very little fatigue. Adding a shotgun mic or XLR cables pulls the center of balance even more into the hand.
My only nit to pick is the same with the other Panny cameras I've used. You flip the thumb switch down to turn it on. Every other switch I use "up" is on. Not a huge hassle but it really is annoying when they could easily make it the other way around. This switch also toggles between camera / VTR modes.
The Power switch toggles down rather than up.
Nearly all the manual controls are in a line along the bottom left edge of the camcorder -- audio, shutter, white balance, iris/gain, and manual white. The manual focus is right up on the lens barrel and there are three separate rings for focus, zoom and iris. I found the manual iris to work very smoothly without any steps to the iris changes.
The manual controls are in a line along the bottom left edge of the camcorder
The servo zoom is smooth. When switching to manual, I was able to quite nearly achieve the same whip-zooms s with full manual lenses. Much better than full-servo zooms which still "zoom" at a set rate when you're trying to "whip" it for effect. The focus is very smooth, and allows manual adjustments even in full auto mode. No need to "switch" anything back and forth.
The lens unit has three rings: a mechanical zoom ring, a focus ring, and an iris ring.
The servo auto-focus, however, I found to be a little on the slow side. And when covering an event, I often had to wait a few seconds while it decided to look for focus and go there. It has the same red "peaking" for Focus Assist as other Panasonic camcorders. But, unlike the AC7 and other more consumer-based camcorders, the auto-focus assist here doesn't turn itself off after a couple seconds. As I said in the AC7 review -- more professional camcorders need to have it pop-up when the manual focus dial is moved, and then go away after a few seconds. Panasonic's lower-end camcorders demonstrate that having to manually switch the feature on, and then back off, is absolutely unnecessary..
The Optical Image Stabilization, while impressive, is not as good as Canon's. When I handhold these 20x lenses, I found the Canon OIS to be notably superior to Panny's. While it is competent, and nobody should try and shoot everything handheld, at full zoom on a 22x lense, I expected it to do better.
The 28-616mm (35mm equivalent) lens is also nicely wide at the wide end. While shooting expo interviews on the show floor, I did not want for a wide angle lens. Plus, I was also able to get down to 2.4" from whatever I needed to shoot without having to swap lenses or enable a special macro mode. I did once have to remove the lens hood to keep it from casting a shadow on the subject.
The built-in ND filters made it a breeze to keep the aperture low.
The built-in ND filters made it a breeze to keep the aperture low. I liked that the built-in waveform scope was much bigger than I've found on the Panny camcorders I previously reviewed. It made ensuring that I got the shot much more conclusive than using the Zebra. There are two zebras on the AC160 but I was bemused that I couldn't use both of them at the same time -- one for faces, the second for clipped whites.
Audio controls you might need to quickly adjust are readily accessible on the left side of the camcorder. The Zebra: you may select two levels from 50% to 105% in 5% steps.
This shot focuses on the three user-selectable control buttons. You can easily assign many of the camera's functions to three User buttons on the left side of the camcorder for easy access.
Any audio controls you might need to quickly adjust are readily accessible on the left side of the camcorder. There are also limiters and other settings in the menus. Like the HMC80 I reviewed, I still disliked the clear plastic cover. Two small screws facilitate its removal.
Two small screws facilitate the removal of this plastic cover.
The shotgun attachment held my Sennheiser shotgun with ease, but a little too far forward. The shadow of the mic was visible in some shots and I had to cheat it back several inches in the holder, making it back-heavy, which made it tilt up. You can mix internal and external mics so adding a wireless to the internal mic means you don't need a shotgun, but I preferred the much more directional mic.
The shotgun attachment held my Sennheiser shotgun with ease -- but a little too far forward.
The AC160 makes it easy to phantom power cabled mics, and accept mic or line level to either input.
The AG-AC160 supports uncompressed 16 bit LPCM 2-channel digital audio recording with PH mode.
You can mix internal and external mics.
The 852 x 480 x 3 [RGB]) LCOS viewfinder (1,226,000 dot) was very pretty. Almost soft & velvety in image tone. But as my eye darts around the screen examining different parts of the image, the rainbow effect was clearly evident. It did not distract when critically looking at the image. Optics in the viewfinder allow a wide space for eye placement, diopter adjustment, and easy use.
Widescreen 921,000-pixel 3.45-inch LCD color monitor
The 1920x480 (921,000 dot) 3.4" LCD screen was a little small, but very clear & easy to use. It is not a touch screen. The screen's plastic cover is coated, presumably to reduce reflectivity, but I still found it pretty reflective of incident light.
The "jackpack" on the back is nicely equipped. HDMI, HD-SDI, Composite w/stereo audio on RCA jacks. Headphones, separate jacks for Index, focus/iris, and zoom/shutter speed. Add to this Firewire for DV, and USB. XLR jacks for audio in are up front. The jackpack is well integrated and doesn't look like an afterthought.
A well-integrated "jackpack"
It takes two SD cards (up to SDXC) and can record from one to the other, or on both simultaneously, something that's pretty much the norm these days on professional / client shoots. One card for the client, one as a backup. Plus, with SD cards getting so cheap these days, they become your archive and use so little space, it's even hard to properly label them.
It takes two SD cards (up to SDXC) and can record from one to the other, or on both simultaneously. Clips can also be copied between the 2 slots.
Using the AC160 came very naturally to me, even coming to it as a regular Sony operator. So the menu system, button placement took a little bit of getting used to. Aside from that, every need I had while using the camcorder was fulfilled. I especially relished the 22x zoom which looked very nice all the way through.
I even took advantage of some of the creative frame-rate options in the AC160 to shoot some time lapse footage. I also enabled the Dynamic Range Stretch (DRS) but found the maximum (3 or 3) to be easily visible when the talent moves their hands in front of the camcorder. Though powerful, it's best to use this HDR-like feature carefully.
Recording video to the SD cards was easy and the only snafu was when I tried to enable the "fast motion" effect but was unable to when the camcorder is set to something other than 24p. It seems an odd limitation that slow & fast motion can only be conformed to 1080p24. Not 1080p30, or any 720 frame settings.
Importing the AVCCAM (AVCHD) footage into the computer was quick and effortless. It all looked wonderful, just as you would expect from a camcorder of this caliber. I had the software automatically transcode it to a more editable codec, but if your computer can easily deal with AVCHD, you should have no problems with footage from the AC160.
I should note that you can set up multiple scene files and save them to multiple positions on a rotary dial near the eyepiece. You can also read/write them to an SD card. A cursory glance showed Detail, V Detail, Coring, Chroma Level, Chroma Phase, Master Ped, DRS, Gamma, Knee, Matrix, Skin tone. I am a proponent of doing all that in post so I did not venture further, but it was not as comprehensive as Canon's in-camera paint options.
You can set up multiple scene files and save them to multiple positions.
While shooting, I appreciated that the camera menu buttons did double duty as headphone audio adjustments that required no menu to access. However, I wished the audio dials were on the back face of the camcorder so I could see how low or high they were set to without having to crane my head to the side of the camcorder.
I was able to set three prominent user buttons to Super Gain, Face Detect and the Waveform monitor. Yes, this last one is redundant with the WFM button already on the camcorder. But as all of Panny's buttons are nearly indistinguishable by touch, I wanted WFM where I could toggle it solely by touch, very quckly. The rubberized, stick out, user buttons proved to be the optimum place. Thank you to Panasonic for allowing me to select a feature that already had a dedicated button.
The AC160 is a fine camera. It does what you need it to do rather effortlessly. It doesn't get in the way and in some cases, actually allows you to make it easier to use than it is out of the box. It is not groundbreaking or dramatically different in any particular way. But that is the beauty of the AC160. It is an AVCCAM (AVCHD) camcorder that is pro in every way.
Especially nice is its ability to shoot all the AVCHD 1.0 standards at frame rates from 2fps to 60fps, and even intervalometer settings of 1sec, 10sec, 30sec, 1min, 2min between frames for some incredible time lapse work completely in camera. It shoots the 740p standards and even DV standard for backward compatibility. The AC160 does not record the new 1080p60 standard, it records 1080p60 into p30 for slow motion, but I believe the frames are intact so you can speed it up in post to achieve 1080p60.
If you don't like the AVCHD codec and find 21 Mbps (peak of 24) too much compression, Panasonic makes the 100 Mbps HPX240 for you. Same body as the AC160, more color, higher bitrate, less compression. Oh, and the HPX250 uses P2 cards while the AC160 uses much less expensive SD cards. Whether the improved image quality justifies the $6,000 versus the $4,800 pricetag (list) is something you need to determine for yourself. But either way, you get a capable, easy to use, high-quality, professional handheld camcorder.
Click on any image above to expand larger view.
Anthony Burokas has been producing video since 1989. Editing non-linear since 1994. Broadcast on PBS since 1996. And writing about it since 2003. He is currently based near Dallas TX and continues to produce, write, & consult. He looks forward to the 4k 60p 3D large-sensor camcorder he'll be using in a couple years.