Why We Still Need Small-Format, Full-Size Camcorders in the Age of the Large Sensor

Faster than you can shake your memory stick, the full-size small-format camcorder has pretty much disappeared from the scene.

Ten years ago, the NAB show floor was replete with 1/3-, 1/2-, and 2/3-type cameras. For nonfiction, wildlife, sports, and news shooters, these cameras with their (relatively) tiny sensors offered the ideal blend of high performance and practicality. In combination with their versatile optics, close-focus macro capabilities, and long zooms of 17x or more, the cameras, especially in their later incarnations, were also very lightweight, superbly balanced, and drew little power which translated into smaller and fewer deadweight battery packs. With their crisp focusing EVFs and deep depth of field, these cameras made the most sense for ENG-style applications.

And you know what? They still do.

The Scourge of Narrow Depth of Field
The shallow-depth-of-field fad that grew out of the Canon 5D phenomenon and ensuing DSLR onslaught enabled narrative filmmakers to achieve a more 35mm cine-type look with nowhere near the hitherto-extraordinary expense and hassle. Suddenly, it seemed, we were free of the dastardly 35mm lens adapters that plagued us for years, and this, by any measure, is a very good thing. No one enjoyed keeping those unwieldy contraptions in proper alignment given the persnickety nature of their beam-splitters and/or spinning mirror arrangements.

Still, beyond the obvious benefits of a large-sensor camera for narrative filmmakers, the question for the rest of us remains: Is a large sensor and shallow DoF really what we want in a camera used primarily for nonfiction programing?

Communicating genre
Monitor Output

The size of close-ups and depth of field can be powerful communicators of genre. Does the size of your camera sensor support the appropriate storytelling goals? Large-format cameras suggest dramatic story; small-format cameras like the Panasonic PX380 convey greater immediacy and are thus better suited for nonfiction, news and documentary projects.

Communicating Genre
One of the great pillars of effective visual storytelling is the communication of genre. Our audiences, wherever they may be, are perfectly willing to laugh or cry or do nothing at all, but they need to know what to do. If it’s a comedy, we want our viewers laughing most of the time. And if it’s a drama, conversely, we probably don’t want our audiences rolling in the aisles most of the time.  Basic stuff.

Many strategies may be used to communicate genre to one’s audience. At every turn we frame our close-ups, light our scenes, select our music, and direct our actors according to the demands of our intended genre. From a camera perspective, we know frame rate is a powerful communicator of genre. A frame rate in excess of 30fps suggests a news, documentary, or sports story, while a frame rate of 24fps is strongly indicative of a narrative representation, as in "Folks, I'm going to tell you a story, so let me run this camera at 24fps…"

Likewise, the communication of genre is connected to sensor size. Large-format sensors and a concomitantly narrow DoF communicate to viewers a more narrative feel, while smaller sensors suggest a more immediate nonfiction sensibility. Since "story is the conduit through which all technical and creative decisions flow," per Sidney Lumet, our choice of camera, frame rate, lens, and sensor size, should reflect the overall storytelling mandate: shoot large sensor for drama, and shoot small sensor for nonfiction.

AJ-PX380 shoulder-mount camcorder

The PX380 is a full-size rig that sits impressively on one's shoulder. Throw on a matte box and you'll have instant credibility.

Everyday Videography

In many ways the Panasonic AJ-PX380 camcorder is a throwback to a simpler time when small-format cameras ruled the roost. Now out of fashion and widely despised by filmmakers (mostly those under 30), a diminutive 1/3-type 3-MOS chipset like that found in the PX380 is not going to draw many oohs and aahs from the bigger-is-better single-sensor fanboys. But it will earn the respect of producers in news, corporate, legal, weddings and events, who produce content every day and not just talk about it.

The full-size, shoulder-configured PX380 is virtually identical in terms of performance to the company’s compact AJ-PX270, which also utilizes the VariCam 35 colorimetry and likewise produces stunning, nuanced images. However, the PX380, with interchangeable optics and built-in studio adapter, does offer notable advantages and disadvantages compared to its one-piece lower-cost brethren.

Fujinon's 17x zoom lens

The optional Fujinon 17x package zoom offers decent but not great performance. The camera offers effective on-board chromatic aberration compensation, which significantly improves the apparent performance of the lens.

The PX380 ships optionally with an interchangeable 17x Fujinon lens with traditional mechanics and zoom servo. This economical lens offers decent performance and good wide-angle coverage but does not produce nearly the same quality of images as the PX270, with its integrated 22x zoom. The PX270's one-piece camera and optics provide much more effective on-board correction for chromatic aberrations, barrel distortion, tracking errors, and other defects. The PX380 does offer onboard chromatic aberration compensation (CAC) with the standard 17x lens, with an on-board LUT suppressing the most egregious defects in the low-cost zoom. Still the camera body is also available without a lens, so better (and pricier) optics may be fitted if desired.

PX380 LCD panel

The camera's redesigned LCD panel features a bevy of soft buttons that are unintuitive and needlessly convoluted for setting key functions like timecode and audio levels. Some functions, like a USB connection to a computer, must be enabled via a menu-only option, so a thorough reading of the operating manual is a must.

One key benefit of the camera’s traditional lens and form factor is the ability to accept studio-type accessories such as remote zoom and focus. The camera’s built-in Ethernet connector and integrated studio adapter make the PX380 a good choice for budget multi-camera setups. Wireless operation and control (optional) via WiFi, 4E, and LTE further expands the camera's versatility.

PX380 side controls

The PX380 houses two mini P2 card slots and one full-size P2 card slot. The type of media is designated via a menu option.

The Bottom Line
The PX380 is a conservative camera that is not as sexy as it is functional and oh-so-productive. For nonfiction shooters, particularly in a low-cost studio environment in churches or in schools, the PX380 gets the job done, and it does it well without unnecessary intrigue. For many of us, that still counts.