One of the things I wanted to get a feel for regarding this camera was how it performed under existing light conditions typically encountered in documentary filmmaking, with a dynamic range that most of the time extends from black to blown-out white, exceeding the dynamic range of any camera. How do the blacks look? How subtle is the gradient from shadows into black? How gracefully does it handle blown out highlights? How much noise in the shadows?
Another concern is how far can I take the color correction? This was not addressed in this test, but it’s an issue that’s been raised about the MPEG-2 based HDV format used in all of the other prosumer HD cameras that I would expect is less of a problem with the 4:2:2 DVCPro HD codec used by the camera.
You can see the following shots in the movies below: (1) Interior, Steenbeck flatbed lit only by window light, (2) Exterior, person (it was overcast so I’ll have to wait for another time with the camera to shoot on a sunny day), and (3) Interior, office, conversation, lit by a mix of overheard flourecent lights and sunlight from a window.
I used the following camera settings: 720/24PN, Gamma: Cine-Like-D, Matrix: Cine-Like, all other settings: Default; video captured to P2 media. Exposure determined using the spot meter (checking shadows, midtones, and then deciding on an iris setting). I did not have time to repeat the shots using the camera in the 1080i mode, which certainly would provide a more ‘live’ look and present less strobing and motion blur on pans, but time with the camera was limited. After shooting I connected the camera to my laptop (used only as a media transport device, it’s not fancy enough to run the latest version of Final Cut Pro) and easily dragged the media onto the hard disk right after the shoot.
Back at home on my PowerMac G5 I imported the clips into Final Cut Pro as easily as any other file and edited the movies using the DVCPro HD codec. No color or exposure correction was performed, what you see is exactly what I shot with the camera. The movies below were compressed with the H.264 codec using the high quality multi-pass settings, automatic key-framing, and limiting the data rate. One is full size with a pretty hefty data rate (requires a fast machine to play back without stutter) and the second is a smaller movie that will play better on slower machines. In another entry I’ll post a 4:3 version for the video iPod, but that’s not going to show you much of the HD spendor of this camera.
All in all I was pleased with the results, the camera has a nice filmic look, it handled the blown-out highlights gracefully and the shadows exhibit very little noise. The image might a tad softer than the Sony HVR-Z1U (a subjective thing based on visual memory) but a more pleasing image, which I suspect has something to do with shooting in 24P as well as the DVCPro HD codec, but we’re comparing apples and oranges: HDV is an 25 Mbit/sec codec using MPEG-2 inter-frame compression with a 4:2:0 color profile, while DVCPro HD is a 100 Mbit/sec codec using DCT-based intra-frame compression with a 4:2:2 color profile. But with storage prices in decline, rising quality expecations, I think Panasonic did a smart thing looking towards the future and implementing a high-end codec with this camera. HDV offers the advantage of convenient and inexpensive tapes and a proven media management strategy, while DVCPro HD offers higher quality with the media management complications of working with files rather than tapes.
I suspect the footage will inter-cut nicely with footage shot with the Varicam, making this a high-end camera choice for low-budget productions and a very versatile B-camera for higher budget productions. I think 16mm met its match with the Varicam, now the HVX200 offers 70% of what the Varicam provides and is available in an under $10K package inlcuding a couple of 8GB P2 cards. You give up the 2/3″ chip look, the wider range of frame rates, the more esoteric settings, but you also give up the weight and price tag.
The P2 workflow is a source of much discussion and debate, people either hate it or love it, it really depends on the nature of your project. It’s different from a tape workflow, and while not right for everyone, offers some distict advantages, including faster than real-time ingest into a NLE. Focus Enhancements has announced they will soon start shipping the FireStore FS-100, a portable hard-drive recorder designed specifically for the HVX200. So if recording to P2 cards is not your cup of tea, maybe recording directly to a hard drive is. One thing I’ve heard about the FS-100 is that it will not support the 720/30PN and 720/24PN native modes, so for variable frame-rate work, you’re still going to need to record to P2 cards. I suspect many people will end up using a hybrid P2 and hard drive approach. I’ll write more about this once I get a chance to work more with this camera and the various post workflow options.
If you want to see what the image really looks like without the H.264 compression artifacts, let me know and I can arrange to get you a copy of DVCPro HD master. In a previous post I include some still frames that give you an idea of the image quality before the H.264 compressor does it’s thing.
One good thing about shooting with this camera, or any HD camera for that matter, is even though your target today might be standard definition video or even the little video iPod, is your work will be future proof. At a later time you can release a high quality HD 16×9 version.
I shot this quick little test at Documentary Educational Resources in Watertown, MA on 24-Feb-06. Special thanks to Eric Rolph and Steve Garfield for taking part in the shoot. Panasonic HVX200 camera and P2 cards courtesy of Rule Broadcast Systems.
- Download Full-Size Movie (2:07, QuickTime/H.264, 1280×720, 14.7 MB)
- Download Small Movie (2:07, QuickTime/H.264, 640×360, 9 MB)
Notes:  These movies need to complete downloading before they will start playing, your patience will be rewarded;  Please don’t link to the movie files directly, link to this post, I will be moving the location of these movies as soon as I resolve a little technical problem uploading them to my media server.