Panasonic AG-HMC40 Review
From the outside, the Panasonic AG-HMC40 may seem to be just the latest budget entry in Panasonic's AVCCAM lineup, but don't be fooled. It offers remarkable bang for the buck: a built-in waveform for easy lighting of greenscreen; adjustable zebras from 70 percent to 105 percent for exposure evaluation; an intervalometer; two focus-assist modes; and comprehensive image-control settings including detail, gamma, knee, and matrix. With robust metadata support, the compact HMC40 is a mini-powerhouse with many professional features. Of course, as with any economy camcorder, there are compromises to be made. I will discuss some of them here, but there is also an abundance of sprit evident in the HMC40 that is very compelling.
The HMC40 is a 2lb. AVCHD camcorder that records to inexpensive SDHC media. At bit rates up to 21Mbps (24Mbps including audio), the camera offers impressive performancealbeit with somewhat less precision than the company's higher-end AVCCAM and P2 models. The main advantage of AVCHD long-GOP compression is the reduced file size and bit rates that allow recording to cheap SD memory. The main disadvantage is the increased risk of artifacts in scenes with lots of motion, complex color, or fine detail. Long-GOP formats, such as AVCHD and XDCAM, also tend to be less efficient in postproduction. The minimum decodable unit in these formats extends over multiple (usually 15) frames and increases the complexity of decoding and restoring the individual frame units, which in turn complicates common post processes such as color correction and compositing.
Given a native resolution of 1920x1280, the HMC40 performs best at this frame size, operating at 1080i60, 1080p30 (over 60i), and 1080p24 native modes. The latter format will be particularly relevant to narrative-style shooters looking ahead to output to Blu-ray Disc and digital cinema. For optimal compatibility with other camera systems, the HMC40 will also shoot 720p at 24fps, 30fps, and 60fps. Note that 24p native frame recording (rather than over 60i) is available at both 1080 and 720 resolutions, effectively multiplying the recording time of the SDHC media by 2.5.
In September, I had the opportunity to try out the HMC40 amid the wild music fans at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in Monticello, N.Y. Such groups as The Flaming Lips, the Boredoms, and Shellac filled out the three days of nonstop reckless abandon on the property of the old and now mostly decaying Kutsher's Country Club.
The small, versatile camera provided just the right profile to infiltrate the densely packed crowds. Maneuvering backstage before or after a set is never easy at such events, but in this case at least, I could be relatively unobtrusive. Given my all-access pass and the good will I wished to maintain with the artists and management, there could be no whacking folks in the back of the head with a full-size camera rig. The HMC40 is reassuring in that way; the camera is not likely to decapitate a passersby, which nearly happened on a feature set a few years ago when a pretty production girl ventured too close to my blind side and was promptly clocked across her forehead when I swung my Sony HDW-F900 around a bit too energetically.
The Panasonic camera is small, yes, but more importantly, it is well-balanced. Unlike other compact camcorders that are front-, back-, or side-heavy, the HMC40 enjoys a comfortable center of gravity, making the camera ideal for protracted handheld assignments such as weddings or navigating the mosh pit at a Flaming Lips concert. The camera's optical image stabilization (OIS) function is also considerably more effective than I'm used to seeing in low-cost camcorders. The technology implemented in the HMC40 was apparently borrowed from Panasonic's ample Micro Four Thirds Lumix still cameras.
Speaking of which, the camera boasts an impressive still photo capability. At 10.6 megapixels, or the equivalent of 4224x2376 pixels (16:9), the camera achieves a level of performance sufficient for many corporate and event shooters to leave their dedicated still cameras at home.
The Panasonic HMC40 features two user-settable scene files (or "looks") that may be stored internally and/or saved to the SD card, thus facilitating setup and matching of multiple cameras or recalling a favorite look. As in the higher-end Panasonic AVCCAM and P2 models, the HMC40 stores settings for parameters such as Detail Coring (to help shooting in low light) and Dynamic Range Stretch (for shooting in high-contrast environments), as well as for Master Pedestal, detail, gamma, knee, and color matrix.
One noteworthy feature in the HMC40 is the built-in waveform, a tool particularly useful for ensuring a smooth wash of light and levels when shooting greenscreen. The shooter simply references the waveform to verify an even 55 percent to 60 percent across the screen and he's good to go.
The HMC40's recording options would no doubt seem familiar to experienced shooters. These options include a 3-second prerecord function and a synchro scan shutter for synchronizing off-speed monitors or discharge lighting, such as neon signs and street lights, when shooting abroad. The camera's three external User Buttons can be assigned to a multitude of tasks such as increased gain, setting the digital zoom level (2X, 5X, or 10X), or displaying the waveform.
For educators, the camera's display options include onscreen display (OSD) of setup menus, viewfinder markings for action safe and 4:3 cropping, and standard-definition output in squeezed or unsqueezed modes. Note that the HMC40 cannot shoot standard definition in any shape or form. The capability has been eliminated here, presumably as a cost-cutting move.
Viewfinder clutter is becoming a real menace for shooters these days. This can be an issue in the HMC40 as well because most menu options have an associated status icon in the viewfinder. Shooters should be sure to eliminate all but the most essential camera functions, which for me include audio level, timecode, battery condition, gain setting, and focus distance. The volume of cryptic characters splayed across the LCD can, if not constrained, easily obscure the image and frame boundaries, making effective camera operation difficult if not impossible.
Good question. It's there, sort of, in the guise of a robust audio module (AG-MYA30G) that mounts atop the camera. Unfortunately, the module with dual-XLR inputs is not included in the basic camera configuration price. For most users, this can be problematic if they wish to use professional balanced microphones and mixers. While I'm not a fan of artificially reducing a camera's selling price in this way, I understand that camera manufacturers, like everyone else, are feeling the pressure of tough economic times and must resort to such strategies to attract potential buyers.
Absent the XLR module, shooters are reduced to making do with the fragile 1/8in. mini-jack input. This jack is a known troublemaker and should be rejected for virtually all professional and semiprofessional applications. If you're considering the HMC40, the optional XLR module (an additional $300) is strongly recommended.
Many compromises come into play when discussing a (relatively) low-priced camcorder. The HMC40, with its tiny imager, struggles more in low light than do cameras of similar resolution with larger sensors. Some touchscreen menu items, such as the shutter and audio level, are awkward to access. And the camera's close-focus capability is not as good as it should be.
Still, the HMC40's performance is impressive, yielding images in the middle of its dynamic range easily on par with camcorders costing two or three times its price. The camera's metadata support is particularly notable as it can offer the shooter-producer the proper tool to create a comprehensive and searchable archive. As we plunge headlong into a file-based, IT-centric workflow, the diminutive Panasonic camera is tripod head and shoulders over competing entry-level camcorders.
Such basic infomation as date and time of recording, frame rate and resolution, and camera serial number is permanently attached to a clip, instantly creating a searchable database for later reference and retrieval. The names of shooters and producers, assignment title, text memo contents, and use prohibitions, if any, can be tracked and monitored easily. This increases the value of the archived resource while potentially avoiding costly snafus down the road, which may includein the case of stock footage houses and news organizationsembarrassing legal ones. Efficient archiving of assets is a challenge given the current onslaught and sheer volume of material we produce every day. The HMC40, as modest as it is, can play a central role in the greater effort to tame this digital mayhem.
The old adage of using the right tool for the job certainly applies: the HMC40 doesn't replace a Panasonic Varicam, Sony F23, or Arriflex D-21, but there is a place in the shooter's toolbox for the HMC40. You don't want to necessarily spend a lot of shooting time in the mosh pit, but if you must, it's nice to know there's a tiny camcorder that can survive the ordeal.
Assests: Good image quality given imager size; good metadata support; small size and weight; feature set pro shooters will find familiar; impressive still-photo capability.
Caveats: No balanced audio or XLR connectors out of the box; tiny imager struggles in low light; potential for viewfinder to become cluttered with icons and status indicators.
Price: $2,295 (MSRP)