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Review: Panasonic AG-HPX250 Camcorder

The Romance of the Battle Is Back in a Compact, 10-bit Road Warrior Camera

For years I’ve made my living conducting lightning-fast raids into remote cities and locales. These are bombing runs-fast in, fast out. Whether Vienna or Istanbul, Hanoi or Yellowstone National Park, the drill is always the same: With little production support and crew I must capture the shot or shots, often a missed establishing scene or series of scenes, that are part of a longer production. It is a rewarding sport of sorts, though highly frustrating at times, that requires confidence and resourcefulness, as well as an extremely versatile camera with a range of lenses.
My Arriflex III and 16SR and I got along great together on these assignments, and for over two decades we were effectively joined at the hip. The film cameras could shoot in virtually any temperature at a variety of frame rates. They could fit under my arm or under an airline seat, if need be. And they were ready to shoot, always with total reliability.

Today’s electronic cameras built on the fleeting technology of the day have lost a lot of this romance and functionality. They have no soul, as veteran shooters are prone to say. The Panasonic VariCam and the ARRI Alexa have come the closest to assuming this vaulted mantle of versatility and reliability, but in today’s media world, the full-size camera is often too much for the job – too awkward to manage and too conspicuous, given the need for speed and for shooting surreptitiously in public or sensitive locations.

Thus the demand from itinerant shooters for a professional compact multiple frame-rate camcorder with a far reaching zoom that all but eliminates the multiple cases, weight, and hassle of carting additional lenses.

There’s no other camera on the market like the new Panasonic AG-HPX250 – a rugged 4:2:2 camcorder recording 10-bits to P2 AVC-Intra for under $6,000. The critical importance of capturing at 10-bits cannot be overstated. Compared to the vast crop of anemic 8-bit recording formats like AVCHD, XDCAM, and HDV, 10-bit capture (à  la HDCAM SR) enables four times more precise color sampling, while also eliminating the dreaded contour artifacts often seen in 8-bit systems.

Recording to P2 AVC-Intra at 10-bits 4:2:2 the AG-HPX250 will likely usher in a new era of low-cost 10-bit compact camcorders.

The HPX250 output via HD-SDI is also at 10-bits, compared to only 8-bits in the new Canon EOS C300 or Panasonic AF100 cameras. Ten-bit output ought to be de rigeur for professional shooters, allowing for superior color correction and precise compositing in post, minimizing the risk of ugly 8-bit artifacts like contour ridges and irksome jagged edges.

Anemic eight-bit images, like the Egypt Guard frame above, impede proper color correction and compositing.

The time has come to composite with ease: Just say no to 8-bit recording systems.

The 3-MOS 1/3-imager exhibits extremely favorable low-light sensitivity and dynamic range with very little noise evident in underlit shadows. A macro lens with the equivalent zoom range from 28mm to 616mm SLR equivalent obviates the need for a bagful of lenses and related support gear.

The above are actual frame grabs from Barry Braverman’s “Prague: The City.”

So Here’s the Rub

By any measure the HPX250 produces remarkable images, but its (relatively) low price point has its downside, evident unfortunately in the integrity of some of the camera’s hardware. Bombing runs can be tough on gear. One must shoot in all weather and conditions from the skids of helicopters in arctic cold to the dripping mist and 100% humidity of a South American rainforest. Operational reliability, ruggedness of controls and ease of use are absolute musts.

The HPX250, to its credit, operated flawlessly in the sub-freezing temperatures and relentless dampness of a Prague winter. The goal of every shooter is to show the world in a way we haven’t seen before, which means getting up early, before dawn, shooting in driving rain, sleet and snow, and often placing the camera in harm’s way. No babying of one’s camera can ever be tolerated!

No babying allowed! The successful shooter pushes his gear to the max!

It is no surprise that many cameras, including the HPX250, fall short in the face of real-life adversity. A few notable shortcomings include the camera’s consumer-grade power/mode switch, which is awkward and difficult to operate, especially with gloved hands in the chilly Prague air. The menu joystick common to several Panasonic models is particularly feeble and flimsy, and really needs to go away. For an imaging machine as sophisticated as the HPX250, it makes no sense to scrimp on such switches and hardware upon which we as shooters rely on so utterly in the heat of battle.

Power mode toggle (a)

Menu joystick (b)

Frame rate dial (c)

Lens shade (d)

Operational ease is just as critical as imaging performance to the pro shooter. The power mode toggle (a) feels vague and is difficult to engage; the menu joystick (b) is flimsy and lacks positive action; the frame rate dial – a fantastic addition in the HPX250! – seems cheap and feeble; and the lens shade (d) – oh why or why? – is an ordeal to orient and affix properly. Whatever happened to the more professional compression ring and setscrew design of the HVX200? The low-cost friction design is prone to undue fumbling when we really need to get a shot. I don’t like it.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, no other camera on the market short of a full-fledged $30K model can approach the versatility and performance of the HPX250.

A Lens for All Seasons

The integrated 22X macro zoom delivers much better performance that might be expected in a relatively low-cost camcorder. This is due no doubt to the onboard chromatic aberration compensation (and other correction) being digitally applied throughout the zoom range. Still, the 22X magnification rating is a bit overzealous in my opinion; the lens feels more like a 15X. The loss of two stops and considerable contrast at full telephoto and maximum aperture leads one to question if the performance hit is really worth the additional reach. Nevertheless, I appreciated the 22X zoom range and generous wide-angle combined in a single lens; the expansive focal lengths available lending itself well to documentaries and lightning-fast bombing runs to far-off lands.

P2 Tough Enough for Road Warriors

Unlike its lower cost AC-160 & AC-130 siblings that record to familiar SD media the AG-HPX250 captures to mil-spec P2 cards. No bending of contact pins and failure of a substrate board to worry about here; this is not the cheapo CF media used in the DSLR or thin SxS cards used by other manufacturers. The P2 card is a serious recording medium capable of withstanding tremendous abuse. I like that. I like that a lot.

The HPX250 houses two P2 card slots which when fitted with 64GB cards can run continuously for 160 minutes at 1080p24 native. The plastic door’s release tab is wedged against the rear control block and is difficult to access, especially with gloved hands in -20 º C. temperatures.

With the right tool in hand your hit-and-run forays to far-off places stand a much better chance of success. For a street price under $6,000 the HPX250 can be that tool as you venture forth to embrace the unknown with confidence and gusto.

On the prowl in Prague, December 2011.


Categories: Business, Review, Technology

  • Anonymous

    Sony has recently announced PMW-200. We have used EX-1R in extreme conditions. If PMW-200 is anything like EX-1R, it will be a great competitor to HPX250. 

  • kirti karia

    r u happy with hpx250 panasonic i used here 102 now upgrade to hd but cant take dece. to by hd camera .if possible suggest m ….i belive in panasonic compare to sony