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A big camcorder is a professional camcorder. The layman often assumes this, and a large form factor camcorder can be useful, especially for making an impression on a client.
Manufacturers are often caught up in miniaturizing, making their camcorders increasingly pocket-sized. The downside of this is you end up with ports disappearing, image stability issues and basic camcorder functions disappearing into cryptic menu settings.
Panasonic has tried to combine both worlds with the AG HMC70, creating a large-format camcorder with a professional look, without the professional price. Aimed at event videographers, education and law-enforcement, the AG HMC70 strikes a balance between professional features and affordability.
A professional form factor would be useless without a reasonable camera section to back it up. With the shoulder-mount form factor, it is extremely steady at the long end of the lens. The lens has no manual controls for focus, iris or zoom, and it is identical in functionality to the electronically-controlled lenses on consumer camcorders.
The three CCDs give much better color accuracy than a single-chip design, splitting the light onto individual red, green and blue imagers. While the camera records an interlaced signal, the progressive nature of the CCD gives benefits in horizontal resolution and noise reduction. Several camcorder manufacturers use it to compress high-quality video into the smallest possible file sizes. The codec itself is extremely computationally intensive and requires a lot of computer power to edit in real time.
This process sometimes takes more than real time, negating one of the main advantages of a tapeless workflow. As computers get faster and software companies catch up with AVCHD support, these issues should fade away. Also make sure your computer is powerful enough to cope with the footage. These are small Flash memory devices that fit into a slot in the camcorder.
These cards are extremely reliable and less fragile than videotape and the precision mechanics of a tape transport system. With 32GB cards just around the corner and prices dropping all the time, SDHC is looking to become a very strong contender for replacing tape altogether.
In terms of controls and ergonomics, it performs in a similar fashion to a handheld unit, but the larger surface area can be a bit disconcerting initially. For example, I assumed the standard position: the camcorder braced on my right shoulder and supported by my right hand, with fingers poised above the zoom control. Focus and iris are accessed via an electronic menu system, whose button controls ended up under my chin. A manual focus ring on the lens would have been a big plus in my book.
The ports and connectors take advantage of the full-sized form factor. Panasonic has thrown everything into this camera short of SDI. There is also a mini jack input on the side for microphones using unbalanced connectors. Behind the LCD panel, recessed dials manually control the audio levels.
The controls to select different inputs and for each channel such as an external mic on channel one and built-in mic on channel two are placed below these. For audio output, as well as the standard headphone jack, the AG-HMC70 also has rear RCA outputs and a small speaker on the side, designed to rest next to your right ear.
These are controlled with a separate monitor volume knob. This port lies just underneath the video jacks; once connected and put into PC mode, it treats the camcorder as a USB card reader. Some TVs and Blu-ray players are starting to feature these slots. I appreciate the strategically-located cable guides around the camcorder. This might seem a small thing, but being able to string your microphone and video cables up and out of the way makes a big difference in the field.
Two accessory shoe attachments, instead of the normal one, allow you to attach, say, a wireless mic and on-camera light at the same time. A handle-mounted zoom control and record button is useful for waist-level handheld shots. Panasonic probably should have paid more attention to improving the viewfinder in a camcorder with this form factor.
The LCD panel is bright and reasonably sharp. Testing it in a real-world shoot, I used the AG-HMC70 in a small studio setting and in some run-and-gun outdoor videography. My main problem was the confusing menu structure for electronically adjusting focus and exposure. In the studio, on a tripod, the camcorder performed well.
The camcorder is absolutely silent and starts recording instantly when you push the button. The zebra-stripes setting on the LCD helped me nail my exposures. In the field, I started to run into problems. With the camera shoulder- mounted, I quickly abandoned the menus to control the camera and ended up relying on the full auto mode. I imagine that in time one could get proficient with the button pushing.
The camcorder seemed rock-steady on my shoulder, and its weight was minimal; it would be no problem to shoot all day with this unit. I would recommend buying the high-capacity version. I was astounded by the image clarity and detail. Even notoriously difficult-to-compress scenes, such as blank beige walls, showed no banding in the image. Wide shots of trees blowing in the wind had no discernible artifacting around the leaves. I had some concerns with its electronic menus, but its image quality and audio capabilities are top-shelf.
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