Panasonic’s latest entry in its AVCCAM camcorder lineup is the AG-HMC40, which might be described as the "little brother" of the popular AG-HMC150 model. This tapeless camcorder uses an SDHC memory card to record any of 9 different HD formats using AVCHD (MPEG-4) compression and also takes still photos at up to 10.6 - megapixel quality in the .jpg format.
The highest video quality setting of "PH" records the full 1920x1080 or 1280x720 HD resolution at 21Mbps, with settings of 1080i60, 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, 720p30, and 720p24. 1080i may also be recorded using the "HA" or "HG" quality settings at 17 and 13Mbps respectively, with the most economical setting being the "HE" mode which records 1080i as 1440x1080 at 6Mbps.
Of course, the lower the data rate, the more video you can fit on the card, so if you’re simply shooting a talking head video like a conference, you can get up to 12 hours of recording on a single 32GB card! For jobs that require a higher quality, just choose an appropriate format. Even at the highest quality setting, you still get a full 3 hours of recording time on a 32GB SDHC card.
SDHC media is much less expensive than the P2 and SxS media used on other solid-state cameras, which is an attractive feature of the AG-HMC40. This camera has a single card slot, unlike P2 and SxS-format cameras which have dual slots that allow swapping of cards on the fly for uninterrupted recording. Being used to changing HDV tapes every 60 minutes myself, I don’t think the recording time "limit" of 3 to 12 hours would present any issue to most users.
This is my first time using a solid-state camcorder, as my previous experience has been with DV and HDV tape-based units, shooting wedding, event and corporate videos. Since the full Panasonic specs and other reviews are readily available in print and online, I won’t seek to do a thorough technical review here, but rather will list my first impressions of the camera from a videographer’s point of view, as I would in sharing my observations with a friend or associate. So, don’t expect any resolution charts or signal-to-noise ratio graphs here!
I received the AG-HMC40 as a demo unit from our distributor, so the battery was already charged and attached. I simply powered up and started shooting right out of the box, finding it easy to start using immediately before looking at any instructions. The flip-out LCD offers touch-screen control, and with just a few taps, I found I could quickly switch to any of the 9 video recording formats.
After shooting several scenes around the office, I moved outside to take in the panorama of the first Wisconsin snowfall of the season to check how the HMC40 handled bright images. I next switched the camera to playback mode, and saw thumbnails of each clip I’d just shot displayed on the LCD. Touching any one of them began instant playback, which is great when you’re used to rewinding and fast-forwarding through tape! Playback controls include slow-motion forward/reverse, fast-forward/reverse, and frame-by-frame playback, all without distortion due to its purely digital nature. I connected an HDMI cable direct to a 24" LCD and was able to preview what I’d just shot and found it looked very good! The SDHC card can also be placed directly into many Blu-ray players for instant playback.
I’m used to shooting 1080i HDV, which uses a reduced resolution of 1440x1080 and Long-GOP MPEG-2 compression. The HDV format has a tendency to show compression issues at times, for instance with fast action or whip-pans, which will cause the image to degrade and show blocky artifacts. No such problem with the AG-HMC40 – I did some very fast back-and-forth whips of the camera outdoors, and the 1920x1080 video playback was crisp and sharp with no apparent artifacting using the best PH record mode.
After playing with the camera for a bit, I went back to investigate the contents of the box, and was impressed with the included accessories. A 3-hour battery and AC adapter/charger are included, and I was happy to see that the battery can actually be charged on the charger – most cameras require you to charge the battery on the camera, meaning you can’t charge batteries while using the camera. Nice touch, Panasonic! Optional larger batteries can provide up to 7 hours of record time.
Component and composite AV cables are included, or you can use your own HDMI cable. A small infra-red remote control is handy for playback duties, or recording when the operator might wish to get in front of the camera for taking video or stills. The bonus plastic stylus for the touch screen proved to work much better than my large fingers when navigating menus on the LCD, working accurately with the lightest touch.
A quick-start printed manual covers the basics only, but a full .pdf user’s guide is included on CD. The CD also includes a "Restorer" program to fix files damaged by power loss during recording. An "AVCCAM Viewer" utility can be downloaded from Panasonic’s website, and can also be used to create metadata files to load into the camera.
I was surprised at the inclusion of 3 RCA to BNC adapters, for those that might need to connect the component video output to professional gear having BNC inputs. Most manufacturers expect you to run down to Radio Shack for connectors, but that can be a huge inconvenience for many users in rural areas, so the inclusion of these adapters is appreciated.
Also included for a limited time is a Panasonic 16GB SDHC card. Other quality brands of SDHC card should work as well, provided that they are Class 4 or higher. The last goody I found was a top carry handle for the camera. It quickly attaches over the shoe mount using two knurled thumbscrews and provides a handle that works well for low-angle shooting, and it also has a shoe mount on top to get mics and lights up away from the camera. Unfortunately, there is no handle-mounted zoom rocker switch like the AG-HMC150 has.
Back to the camera, it includes a built-in stereo mic and there is a standard mini-jack input for connecting an external mic. Mic volume can be adjusted using the touch-screen LCD controls, and a headphone jack is provided for monitoring. Optionally, Panasonic offers the AG-MYA30G two-channel XLR interface box that attaches to the camera via a multi-pin jack. This add-on also accepts a shotgun mic, and would be a good option to consider if quality audio is important for your intended use.
I found the viewfinder to be small and of low-resolution compared to those I’ve worked with before, but I never use the VF anyway since I wear glasses and prefer to use a camera’s LCD screen instead. Some may prefer the VF outdoors in bright sun, but there are 3rd-party sunshades available for LCD screens that work well. I also didn’t find the LCD image quality to be as good as my other cameras, but it’s sufficient for judging focus and color.
The camera has a 12x optical zoom, and I really like the smoothness of the variable-speed zoom rocker. At the slowest speed, it took over 2 minutes to go from full wide to telephoto, which would work quite well for dramatic effect at weddings. The LCD shows the zoom setting in increments of 0 to 99, which I found helpful to judge where I was at in the zoom range.
While most pro and prosumer camcorders will have a pair of manual zoom and focus rings up front, the AG-HMC40 has but one ring. A switch at the left front of the camera lets you choose between focus or zoom/iris control for the ring, with the zoom or iris preference being set in the menu. If moving the switch during recording, the noise is picked up by the built-in microphone. The ring does offer smooth control, whether adjusting focus, iris or zoom.
There is a thumb wheel for iris adjustment, and notably, the user can change the direction of adjustment in the menu. I found the iris wheel to work opposite of what I was used to with my own camera, so I switched direction in the menu. Little amenities like this are appreciated.
The camera doesn’t have a lot of manual control buttons, as many functions are handled through the touch menu on the LCD. To make up for it, there are 3 "User" buttons which can be programmed with various duties to suit the user’s most common needs to avoid having to access onscreen menus during shoots.
The AG-HMC40 does offer many higher-end features not usually found at this price point. Benefits include color bars, black balance adjustment, and zebra pattern settings from 50% to 105% in 5% increments. Timecode options include DF, NDF, Free Run and User, and the ability to set a start point for the TC counter. A pair of camera Scene Profiles can be saved as well for quick camera setup, and metadata can be included in recorded clips.
A few other notable features are Focus Assist, OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), face recognition, one-touch High Gain (34dB), digital zoom and a Pre-record function that starts recording 3 seconds before you hit the record button, bettering your chances of getting the critical shot every time. Time-lapse recording is also possible using the Interval Record feature. The Synchro Scan feature allows monitors to be shot without flicker by matching the shutter speed to the display refresh rate.
The camera doesn’t shoot standard definition formats, but will downconvert video output to NTSC with conversion options of Letterbox, Side Crop, or Squeeze. The latter two options are usually not found on cameras at this price level.
AVCHD is a very complex codec, so it requires a lot of processing power to edit. For a limited time, the Grass Valley EDIUS Neo2 with Booster NLE software is currently included for native editing of the AVCHD video files. The Booster option allows Neo2 to handle more realtime streams of AVCHD than any current competitor. AVCHD is also supported by other edit packages in varying degrees, and some users prefer to convert AVCHD to an intermediate codec, such as Cineform Neo Scene, for easier editing.
Files are typically transferred to the edit machine’s hard drive by inserting the SDHC card directly into a card reader, or files can be moved over a USB cable. Another option is to use a capture card to ingest the video playback from the camera in realtime via HDMI or analog Component, which records to a codec supported by the capture card and software. The Matrox MXO2 Mini and Black Magic Intensity Pro are two options for capture devices. In studio settings, users might appreciate the chance to capture the live video to their computer at uncompressed quality via HDMI, bypassing any in-camera compression of the signal, especially for green-screen work.
Keep in mind that this camera uses ¼-inch CMOS image sensors, which are not known for great low-light performance, so consider that in certain situations, auxiliary lighting may be beneficial. The step-up AG-HMC150 model uses 1/3-inch CCD technology which is said to offer better low-light performance, though I’ve not tried that camera. In normal lighting though, the AG-HMC40 image looks great.
I did find that I can use up to 24dB GAIN on this camera and still have a much cleaner image than my HDV camera at 6dB GAIN. Lowering the shutter speed will also let more light into the camera for better images. When shooting 1080i60 for example, drop the shutter from 1/60 to 1/30 to increase sensitivity. The AG-HMC40 also utilizes DRS (Dynamic Range Stretch), which adjusts the image to preserve details in shadow areas and also avoid blown-out bright areas when both appear in the same shot.
Overall, I find the AG-HMC40 to offer a lot of bang for the buck – there’s nothing comparable at this price. For a hobbyist wishing to move up to a camera with more professional features without spending $3k or more, this camera is a great vertical move. For deposition or surveillance work, this may be the perfect camera with its long record times and the ability to burn time stamp info right into the video image, as required for those jobs.
Videographers moving from DV to HD on a budget will welcome the versatility and features this camera has to offer. That said, it may not have all the manual controls and low-light sensitivity that wedding videographers desire in a main camera, in which case they might consider the AG-HMC150 as a main unit, with the AG-HMC40 (or a couple of them!) as B-cameras for multiple-camera ceremony shoots. For schools, this camera would be an excellent choice for student videographers.
As a videographer, I’m impressed that a camera of this size and weight (just over two pounds) can provide the performance, features, and ease of use that it does at this price. Adding the XLR audio package and a wide-angle lens will make this a well-rounded performer for most applications without breaking the budget. Did I mention that registering the camera increases the Panasonic one-year warranty to three full years? The more I think about it, the better this camera looks!
Jeff Pulera brings 18 years of video production experience to Safe Harbor, having his own corporate, event and wedding video business. His background includes product reviewing for magazines and websites, NLE beta testing, producing training tutorials, and working as a demo artist and seminar presenter locally and nationally. Jeff stays current with developing technology by researching and trying new products, attending training seminars, and being involved with video forums online. His extensive technical background allows him to help customers find the best solutions for their editing needs.