The professional shooter understands the relative advantages of each tool in his kit. Featuring a compact size, close-focus capability, and uncompressed digital output, the Panasonic AG-HPX170 is a versatile low-cost camcorder.
The Panasonic AG-HPX170 is a potent filmmaking tool with many compelling features. There’s a built-in waveform and vectorscope, 20 selectable native frame rates, dynamic range stretch (DRS), 50Hz/60Hz support (with free factory service modification for U.S. model purchases), and HD-SDI output. That’s a lot of imaging and functional prowess in a 4.3lb. package. For broadcast shooters accustomed to top-end gear, can we benefit from an HPX170 in our travel package and basic gear complement?
This is a fair question, as entry-level camcorders across the board have become increasingly capable and feature-laden. The HPX170 shoots 24p in 21 different ways, including 720p24 or 720p30 in Native modes and 1080p24 in Advanced mode for optimal output to film or Blu-ray.
For professionals, it’s important to note that the camera samples an initial 1920×1080 progressive image at 60fps; all other frame rates and resolutions, including 720p and 480i, are derived from that. This means there is no quality penalty whatsoever to shooting 1080 with this camera; if you need the larger raster size to match the 1080 output from another manufacturer’s camera, you’ve got it.
This is not to confuse the HPX170 with a 1080p full-raster camera, however. It most assuredly is not. The HPX170, like its siblings the AG-HVX200A and AG-HPX500, employs a pixel-shift strategy to achieve the 1920×1080 raster. This bit of alchemy may be noticeable at times in the less-organic looking edges around high-contrast objects. On a big-screen display, it can be particularly evident in strongly backlit scenes.
Still, there are merits to the pixel-shift approach, which is widely used in cameras at all price points from various manufacturers. The strategy’s primary benefit is that higher-resolution images can be derived from lower-resolution imagers, thus enabling better low-light response and increased exposure latitude — owing to the larger pixel size. The traditional 3CCD configuration of the HPX170 averts the skew and rolling-shutter artifacts common to CMOS-based camcorders, which in general are cheaper to manufacture and flaunt a higher native resolution.
As masters of the shooter’s craft, we need to be aware of the many compromises inherent in our equipment choices, and the CCD vs. CMOS conundrum is just one of them.
Raised detail coring can help reduce apparent noise in dark shadows. With camera detail low, however, increased detail coring will produce little visible benefit.
The right tool for the job
For the broadcast shooter, the HPX170 must be considered in a variety of contexts. With an MSRP of less than $6,000, the diminutive camcorder cannot be expected to compete head-on with camcorders costing five to 10 times the price. That doesn’t mean this camera isn’t relevant or useful to the broadcast shooter. It most certainly is. To understand the relevance requires an examination of the camera’s comparative advantages.
Many shooters accustomed to the crispness and superior contrast of broadcast optics may look askance at the modest integrated lens in the HPX170, but the inexpensive 13X Leica Dicomar zoom performs much better than it has any right to. The rampant chromatic aberration one would expect to see in a modest lens is all but eliminated in the digital processing, which also compensates for tracking, breathing, and other common lens defects. Also, the image processing largely compensates for tracking errors and other defects. Panasonic clearly knows the shortcomings of this lens and has taken aggressive action to correct them.
Most recent camcorders, regardless of price, are capable of producing excellent images if a shooter understands their inherent limitations. With respect to the HPX170, this means staying within the camera’s dynamic range, avoiding clipping of highlights in the windows and sky, and adding sufficient fill light to support underlit shadows.
When shooting in low light, the camera’s detail coring should be raised one or two increments to reduce single-pixel noise close to the baseline. Increased camera gain should also be avoided whenever possible, and cine-like gammas should be eschewed as well.
Hazardous duty and tight quarters are the perfect applications for this
As a second (or third) camera
For broadcasters used to high-end camcorders, the usefulness of the HPX170 may not be obvious, even though the camera can provide enormous functionality and enable shots that might not otherwise be possible. Shooters can use the camera for time-lapse and single-frame animation, stylized fast- or slow-motion scenes with a streaking shutter, or extreme close-ups right up to the front element of the lens. I like the latter capability a lot, and I use it often to provide unusual perspectives that are not possible with a traditional full-size ENG camcorder.
Likewise, in the case of dangerous duty: If a camera needs to be placed outside the door of a moving train, for example, the little HPX offers itself up to the peril a lot more readily than does a larger, more costly camcorder.
There are times, of course, when we require the most inconspicuous professional camera available, and the HPX170 fits the bill. The camera is a pound and half lighter and more compact than the HVX200A, which is hardly a behemoth. In my mind, the beauty of the 170 is that it can go almost anywhere and not intimidate or rankle anyone. From time to time, all of us can use a tool like that.
At the end of a day, the HPX170 can easily offload the P2 footage to a computer hard drive, obviating the need for a dedicated P2 drive or tying up a show”s primary camera.
As a data-wrangler
With the advent of tapeless workflows, the need arises to offload recorded camera files to an external storage device. This might take place late at night in a motel room or in a corner of a crowded set. There are several ways to accomplish the transfer from the P2 cards: via the PCMCIA slot (or DuelAdapter) directly into a computer; via FireWire or USB from the camera to a hard drive (in Host mode); or over FireWire/USB via a P2 Gear, P2 Drive, or P2 Mobile (in Device mode).
The HPX170 can go almost anywhere and not raise an eyebrow.
Many of us tend to use our project’s primary camera to offload the P2 files. While this strategy is straightforward, it does tie up the camera, which may not always be advisable or practical. The HPX170 offers some advantages in this regard: It can serve as a B- or C-camera on a production by day, and then act as a data-transfer machine by night, conveniently mounting the recorded P2 volumes on the computer desktop. This functionality includes adding text markers and memos to clips and arranging select takes to be uploaded or output to an external device. Unfortunately, there is no copy function in the HPX170; such a capability would allow the shooter to transfer clips from one P2 card to another in the second slot. In this way, a shooter could simply hand off a single P2 card containing the condensed meltdown reel to a producer at the end of the day — a workflow many of us in the freelance world already employ using tape or disc-based media.
Many of us in the broadcast industry often think of the entry-level camcorder as a not-ready-for-primetime player. But this notion is no longer quite valid, as the performance and versatility of the HPX170 can well attest. Whether serving as a first, second, or even third camera on an assignment, the versatile HPX170 could prove to be exactly the right tool for principal shooting, for shooting special effects, or for wrangling data — however you define its role to be.
Company: Panasonic www.panasonic.com/broadcast
Assets: Lightweight; compact; supports 4:2:2 recording in DVCPRO HD; permanent 13X Leica Dicomar lens provides excellent contrast with little obvious chromatic aberration.
Caveats: Menu-selection toggle is flimsy and imprecise; lack of copy function in thumbnail menu reduces usability of camera as data-management station.