A Quiet, Unpretentious Superstar

Like any other business, the film and video trade is awash with fads and buzzwords. Who can’t recall the dreadful shaky-cam craze in the 1980s, the must-have slow-shutter streaking effect a decade later, or the oh-so-cool, whisker-thin-depth-of-field look 10 years after that? Today, we have another fashion rage among the hottest DPs — on many shows, the au courant shooter is projecting the slightly off-axis beam from a powerful Fresnel down the barrel of the camera lens to induce the maximum flare possible. The irony of this is macabre, as we demand the latest ultra-high-resolution 4K and 8K cameras, and then proceed to trash the resolution of our recorded images, capturing something less than standard definition. You go figure. I can’t.

Hailing from one of the most conservative companies on the planet, the Panasonic AG-UX180 will not win many awards for hipness or haute couture styling. Nor will it garner many raves or exasperated hyperbole from legions of rabid fanboys. But it will capture your nonfiction, documentary, or corporate assignment with minimum hassle and intrigue. And it will do it economically, efficiently, and yes, creatively. Indeed, given the modest sub-$4000 investment, it may well be the documentary/event shooter’s best value in a compact 4K camcorder.

Panasonic AG-UX180

It may not be sexy or hip, but for many non-fiction, documentary, and event-type shooters, the Panasonic AG-UX180 is an economical and efficient 4K camcorder that pays the bills.

The 20x zoom with an effective range of 24mm – 480mm is unusual in a large-format 4K camcorder. For veteran documentary shooters accustomed to small-format cameras, the UX180 and 20x lens offers a familiar look and feel, with the capability to capture outstanding coverage in uncontrolled environments.

Sophisticated But Not Showy

Despite its unassuming demeanor, the UX180 features a wide range of advanced features. For large-format 4K shooters accustomed to limited-range zoom lenses of 4x or 5x magnification, the UX180 sports integrated optics with an impressive 20x range. I like that range, and am quite used to it after years of working on documentaries and news magazine shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20. Moreover, the performance of the integrated zoom is remarkably precise. The camera’s internal processing compensates for the usual problems in an inexpensive zoom (like breathing, tracking, and barrel distortion). Chromatic aberrations, the main reason cheap lenses look cheap, are effectively suppressed in the camera’s internal software. Harking back to small-format 1/3-type camcorders, the UX180’s zoom offers an effective range of 24mm to 480mm, giving wedding and events shooters the capability to provide expansive and close coverage, as necessary, in uncontrolled environments.

Folks, this is not a fad camera. This is a serious, no-nonsense tool for the non-theatrical projects we do every day. It is a modest, unpretentious camera that enables us to pay our bills.

The camera shoots a range of frame rates and formats: 4K/24p, UHD/60p, and FHD 60p, with slow-motion FHD capture at up to 120 fps. This brings up an important point: Most of us equipped with the latest 4K cameras are still shooting HD and taking advantage of the smooth proven workflow. Even with the proclamations of 4K and its many benefits, HD still rules the roost.

Uh oh. We’ve seen this problem before: a professional matte box cannot be fitted to the lens due to a long extended microphone designed to reduce the pick-up of camera noise. My solution, on the left, is less than ideal — attaching the matte box upside down. Grr.

The UX180 shooting FHD offers i.Zoom, an intelligent zoom function that uses the additional 4K sampling to seamlessly extend the lens zoom range to 30x with no apparent loss of resolution. So now, for your sub-$4000 investment, you have a camera with near-zero hipness that is also versatile as hell. It offers dual-codec UHD/FHD recording and the ability to create easily digestible proxies at 8 Mbps. The reduced data load can facilitate editing on an iPad or uploading files to your favorite cloud-based collaboration tool.

IR filters are built into camcorders to reduce the muddiness in dark areas of scenes, as the camera responds to light outside the visible range in the infrared wavelengths. Remarkably, the UX180 is capable of shooting in total darkness, a potential boon to wildlife, documentary, and nocturnal reality TV shooters. The camera’s built-in IR filter is disabled with a simple button push.

The 3.5-inch LCD housed in the camera handle can be turned 270 degrees for convenient viewing. Unfortunately, as in most compact camcorders, the flip-out screen intensity is too meager to offer much practical use in daylight.

No IR Filter? No Problem

The UX180’s simple IR-filter-free mode is unique among modestly priced camcorders, which makes the camera ideal for law enforcement, surveillance, gritty urban crime shows, and difficult nature subjects. I recall years ago shooting leatherback sea turtles coming ashore at night in Grenada. The animals could not be photographed using conventional lighting; the hatchling turtles, it was said, might mistake the artificial illumination for glimmering moonlight reflected off the waves and move farther onshore, where they would die of dehydration or be consumed by predators. The assignment required exclusive use of IR lighting (Litepanels used to make some great units) and removal of the IR filter in my VariCam. The removal of the IR filter can be highly inconvenient, necessitating a pricey shop visit; it also puts the camera out of service for conventional shooting.  The UX180, in contrast, shoots IR in total darkness and requires only a simple button-push to disable the filter. The resulting IR images are captured with either a green or white representation.

In general, the camera’s low-light sensitivity is slightly below average for a modern camcorder; the f2.8–4.5 zoom with a whopping 20x magnification surely contributes to this reduced responsiveness. Fortunately, the camera can shoot at +6 dB gain with little to no increase in discernible noise.

Scene files and user settings, with forty-four different functions, may be assigned to the camera’s thirteen user buttons. While the buttons are strategically placed around the camera, they need better recessing to prevent inadvertent presses. The BARS button at the top of the camera (pictured on the right) was once de rigeur on compact camcorders.

The AG-UX180 packs a number of high-end surprises, like a professional 16-axis corrector for matching color in multicamera environments. Among the functions addressed via the color-corrector are master pedestal, skin detail, and gamma. The gamma options in the UX180 include two Cine-Like settings based on the VariCam colorimetry. Sadly, V-Log itself, so fabulously implemented in the VariCam, has not yet migrated to the diminutive UX180.

Given the limitations of a tiny EVF or flip-out LCD screen, finding critical focus in a large-format camcorder can be a major challenge. The UX180 features the best focus assist of any camcorder in its price range — and its use is imperative! Note the focus-in-red dot in the pupil of the eye when sharp focus is achieved.

The AG-UX180 also features the best Focus Assist I’ve seen to date in a compact large-format camcorder. This is a major point, since focusing without it on the tiny half-inch OLED EVF screen or swing-out LCD is virtually impossible. When Focus Assist is enabled, Expand or Peaking mode is displayed to assist manual focus. I prefer the Focus in Red peaking option, which works very, very well.

Operationally, the camera is well balanced with none of the side-to-side flop typically found in other camcorders, which can lead to significant operator fatigue. Improved optical image stabilization and a nifty level gauge also contribute to the camera’s appeal for run-and-gun applications.

Sadly, like most cameras, regardless of price, the REC indicator in the UX180 finder is too subtle, making it easy to miss or overlook in the heat of battle. It happens to everyone: shooters, who miss the unobvious indicator, and have failed to press record!

The wide separation of the left and right audio inputs in Panasonic camcorders takes some getting used to.

The UX180 features a four-position built-in neutral-density filter: OFF, ¼, 1/16/ 1/64. An electronic Variable ND would be a nice addition to a future version of the camera.

The UX180 is fitted with 1/4- and 3/8-inch mounting points to accommodate a full range of professional accessories.