I'll be blunt: I'm a seasoned pro with more than 25 years under my battery belt, and I don't like working with substandard gear. I feel this attitude is understandable, because I often work under tough conditions or in remote locations where I depend on a camera's operational efficiency and reliability. That's also why I prefer to own my own camera, primary lens, and principal accessories — the gear upon which I stake so much of my life and livelihood.
It comes down to this basic notion: A camera should work for me, and not the other way around. So along with my other requirements related to a camera's robustness, workflow, and feature set, I also require gear that recoups the sizable financial investment I have in it, and thus enables me to survive for one more month the onerous cost of raising a family in Los Angeles.
When it comes down to it, I really don't much care which manufacturer's logo is emblazoned on the side of the camera. And although I have made my support of tapeless shooting clear in these pages, if a camera gives me the right return on investment, I don't ultimately care whether a camera shoots on tape, P2, optical disc, or my wife's latest knitted shawl. (Her current style by the way, appears to be large-format, multi-threaded, and interlaced; but is it true HD?) With this in mind, I found the Panasonic AJ-HDX900 to be a serious, rugged camcorder whose high performance and relatively low price offer the owner/operator a compelling opportunity to earn a quick ROI.
Some folks may see the HDX900 as simply a lighter-weight (by 2lbs.) Varicam that happens to sell at half the price. In truth, the two cameras are substantially different — although the HDX does share many of its big brother's more sophisticated features.
Besides incorporating the same 3CCD 720p imager found in the Varicam AJ-HDC27H, the HDX900 also shares the same physical profile and viewfinder compatibility. (It records to medium-format DVCPRO HD tapes as opposed to the large-format tapes the Varicam uses.) It also shares the Dark compression mode introduced previously in the Varicam H model, and the improved performance and reduced noise in low light (which is especially apparent in the blue channel). Note that the HDX utilizes an entirely different DSP, not quite as sophisticated as the Varicam's but very well-suited to broadcast/nonfiction/corporate industries.
The HDX900's unchanged physical profile means shooters looking to upgrade their SD gear can use many of the same accessories. Support rods, base plate, shipping case, and even the camera glove from the AJ-SDX900, for example, all work seamlessly with the new model. With the exception of the viewfinder — the HDX900 uses a native 1080i HD model with 50Hz/60Hz capability — the full gamut of SDX900 accessories, including the 2/3in. optics, may be used with the HDX. The standard-definition lens, of course, needs to be used with due diligence given the lower SD resolution that's apparent when shooting at or near full aperture.
Who can say? The HDX900 is an entirely different animal; its features, processor, and menu layout are skewed to the perceived needs of broadcast, cable, and corporate-event shooters.
The audio in the HDX, for example, is handled somewhat differently from the audio of the Varicam or AJ-HVX200. Here, four channels of uncompressed audio are recordable with full manual control over each channel. Compare this to the makeshift 4-channel arrangement in the HVX200, in which only two channels can be controlled manually via the XLR inputs. The Varicam, by contrast, allows for only 2-channel recordings through the camera, so the HDX900, with extraordinarily quiet preamps, offers a significant advantage to nonfiction and reality shooters who invariably record to the camera. One caveat: the unusual five-pin XLR mic connector at the front of the camera. This is the first time I've seen this input configuration on a camcorder, so camera techs should be so advised when packing their travel kits.
Not insignificantly, the HDX900 features a rugged six-pin FireWire connector for simultaneous output to a laptop or subsequent capture into an NLE. No fragile four-pin FireWire connector here to ruin your day. And the IEEE 1394 output is just that: output only. There is no provision to input AV streams via FireWire into the HDX900.
Of interest to HVX200 users, the Focus Enhancements FireStore FS-100 (see digitalcontentproducer.com/cameras/prods/shoot_tools_focus_enhancements_0706) works just as well with the HDX (with the proper software upgrade), making the FS unit very practical for the increasing number of operators who shoot with both types of cameras. Of course the HDX900 is not at all a point-and-shoot camera, so, as is the case with any professional piece of equipment, some skill and insight is required in order to establish the best workflow for you and your particular niche.
Image processing in the HDX900 is skewed to the needs of broadcasters and nonfiction shooters. I found the three Film Like (FL) settings rather baffling: FL 1 and 2 appeared to offer little visible difference onscreen. FL 2 appeared to capture additional detail in the brightest highlights of scenes featuring, say, a hot exterior window. FL 3 offered the most pronounced lowering of the knee, as evidenced in the expanded mid-tones. This produced a vague, murky look in my opinion — especially at low light levels.
Image processing is accomplished at a robust 14 bits and is substantially more precise than the Varicam 27H, which utilizes 12-bit sampling. Of course there is more to producing stellar images than processor bit depth, but one thing can be said: All that processing in the HDX900 produces an awful lot of heat. This heat has to go somewhere, and it's best to not be directed at or near the lens mount, where high heat can affect backfocus and produce soft images onscreen.
In this respect, the HDX900 feels unusually warm to the touch — which, in a sense, is a good thing because it means the camera's massive heat sinks are doing their job of directing heat away from the processor and lens mount. Unlike some top-end cameras, there is no fan in the HDX900 to help heat dissipation. Panasonic evidently feels that a noisy fan can be problematic for audio and could also increase the risk of sucking up abrasive atmospheric contaminants such as dust or fine sand.
The camera features 720p and 1080i resolutions and frame rates of 24, 25, 30, 50, and 60. The 25p/50i settings are being particularly notable to shooters who have international clients or who from time to time frequent the 50Hz Nations of the World. PAL downconversions are a routine matter at these settings, as is synchronization with common discharge light sources such as neon signs and fluorescents.
While the synchro-scan shutter permits shutter angles up to 250 degrees at 24p, there is no Varicam-like variable frame rate function in the HDX900. The HDX records at all times to tape at 60fps (actually 59.94) with the appropriate pulldown applied. The HDX900 limits the main shutter selections to six settings expressed in time only, with a clever “half” option that sets the shutter speed at 50 percent of the frame rate — a small but convenient little aid. Many Varicam users will miss the extensive image controls of that camera, because the HDX offers fewer handles to tweak color matrix, gamma, and black pedestal, among other functions. In this way, the camera has the look and feel of the SDX900.
This is a key measure by which I assess most cameras these days. A camera's performance in the deepest shadows and underlit picture areas is most critical to shooters' successfully earning their daily chow (or not). Small-format HD cameras perform poorly in low light due to the minuscule pixels jammed into their 1/3in. CCDs. Just as in film emulsion, the “fine-grain” pixels require substantially more light to trigger a response than in standard-definition imagers where pixels have greater surface area and, thus, increased light sensitivity. Indeed, this is a key advantage of the 720p (1.1-megapixel) chipset in the first place; the larger pixel size allows better low-light performance compared to 1080i imagers.
For shooters of small-format HD, the move up to the HDX900 is mostly motivated by this one issue. The HDX's larger 2/3in. chipset and more sophisticated processing deliver vastly better low-light performance for not that much greater investment. This means we can produce quieter, more professional-looking images in a wider range of conditions (including low-light scenes that require less fill or frontal wash), which equates to simpler, less time-consuming setups and more pages of script covered per day. Good low-light performance pays the bills!
The progressive imager in the HDX permits extended-time flashing of the CCD, further improving the camera's low-light response (F10 at 2000 lux) with less noise along and a concomitant improvement in highlight latitude. The digital super gain in the HDX boosts sensitivity to +56dB, contributing to a low-light responsiveness hitherto not seen in an HD camera in this price range.
I recently had the opportunity to use the HDX900 camcorder on one of the most unusual projects I've encountered in years. ON OTTO is the latest creation of German process artist Tobias Rehberger, who is well-known in Europe for his unusual avant-garde museum installations. Rehberger hoped in his latest project to distill the elements from the filmmaking process by producing a work of art in reverse.
Rehberger's aim was not to produce a finished film program, but a walk-through museum installation to debut in Milan, Italy, in the spring of 2007. A key aspect of the installation entails recognizable movie stars appearing in the audience of an empty cinema. This is a major conceit of Rehberger's vision: that movie stars assume the role of moviegoers, while the visitors to the installation peering through portals become the “stars” on screen. In the context of this role reversal, I recorded Kim Basinger at Los Angeles's Raleigh Studios in August — 87 minutes of Basinger in her seat watching and reacting to Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai.
From a shooter's perspective, Rehberger's vision posed a daunting dilemma: At his insistence, there would be no subsequent treatment or finishing of the HD footage; the entire 87-minute video of Basinger, Willem Dafoe, and the other participating stars had to run as is in the installation. The lack of postproduction precluded a more conventional shooting of the scene, which ideally should have been recorded at a normal light level and then crushed later in post to recreate the desired effect. In this case, without the finishing option available and because the scene had to appear dark and low key, it actually had to be shot dark with substantially depressed mid-tone values. Such an approach is fraught with peril, because abundant noise may well become apparent in the underlit areas of the frame, which in turn may contribute to more objectionable artifacts later upon encoding to H.264, MPEG-2, or other compressed display format.
So how did the HDX900 do under such arduous conditions?
The camera performed much better than might be expected at such low light levels. Blacks appeared firmer and quieter than what I'm used to seeing from an HD camcorder. And while some noise was evident — especially in the smooth, monochromatic surfaces of the theater seats — increasing the camera detail coring to +10 mitigated the most egregious noise. Increased detail coring can be an effective way to improve low-light performance in any HD camera, and that certainly proved true here. The HD Norm gamma setting also helped to solidify the underlit areas of the frame; the Film Like 2 and 3 settings (with a depressed knee) only seemed to exacerbate the unwanted buzzing and convolutions inside the frame.
The effective ISO 640 rating of the camera, combined with the approximate 9.5 stops of latitude in the HDX, allowed for excellent tonal reproduction in the bright rimming of the theater seats, while still maintaining a modicum of detail in the densest shadow areas. This latitude in the HDX compares to about 11 stops in the Varicam and only eight stops in the HVX200, so HVX users considering the big move up to the HDX900 can expect to see a dramatic improvement in the dynamic range of their images.
At this point in time, the move to solid-state, hard-drive, and disk-based capture appears to be inexorable, so many shooters will question the logic of investing in a tape-based camcorder now. Indeed, the HDX900 may well be the last tape-based broadcast camera produced by Panasonic.
And therein, ironically, lies much of the camera's inherent economy. As tape-based imaging slowly fades from the scene over the next five to seven years, and as the cost of manufacturing declines for the mature technology, the economy of traditional tape acquisition becomes even more compelling. The immediate future for most shooters will likely entail a combination of data recording technologies, including P2 flash memory and videotape.
Still, despite the outward trappings of a traditional tape-based camcorder, the HDX900 is very much IT-focused. The simultaneous output via FireWire integrates nicely into a web streaming or hard-drive recording environment. With one-shot and interval recording, and seven-second pre-record functions, the HDX900 is hardly your father's camcorder — or even your camcorder from a few years ago.
Combining the virtues of low price and high performance, the HDX900 brings serious production capability to prospective owner/operators, rental houses, and production companies who derive the bulk of their income from cable, news magazine, and corporate programming — indeed anyone with an eyepiece on the bottom line.
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The industry-standard zoom controllers that cost shooters an arm and tripod leg are notoriously unreliable. The fact that spare parts and decent service are not readily available only exacerbates the problem.
The Vocas Z-10 is an elegantly manufactured, straightforward controller that sells for half the price of those of the other guys. Designed for commercial EFP applications, the unit does not approach the feel and function of, say, the Preston Microforce, but it can nevertheless fill a critical niche for Panasonic AJ-HDX900-level users involved in a range of cable and non-fiction style production.
I used the Vocas Z-10 in conjunction with my ON OTTO museum installation project, fitting the controller to my HDX900 and Fujinon 22X (7.3) HD lens. The Z-10''s switches and controls are large and robust, and can be easily operated even in winter with gloved hands. Feathering of the zoom is first-class with no obvious backlash or undue balkiness. While the loose feeling of the zoom ring may seem familiar to many camera operators, I found the rocker action to be in need of additional dampening—especially for those of us, like me, who lack a consistently subtle touch.
The Z-10''s digital readout greatly facilitates positioning of the camera and maintaining of a consistent frame size from setup to setup. I normally have my assistant note the focal length and zoom range of every camera setup in the production log. The Vocas LED display readily provides this information without my assistant having to indelicately hover over the lens barrel. Sadly, the Vocas readout does not indicate the focal length of the lens, only the percentage of zoom implementation.
Compatible with B4-mount lenses from Canon, Fujinon, and Angenieux, the Vocas'' basic Zoom, VTR, and Return functions work seamlessly with virtually any pro or broadcast lens. The ability to set limits at the wide and telephoto positions is possible only with compatible lenses that provide the required feedback.
Ailing zoom controllers have plagued pro shooters at the highest levels for years. Here''s a reasonably priced treatment that can alleviate that pain. Street price of the Vocas Z-10 is about $2,150. For more info, click here.