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Monday, 10 September 2012 14:11

Building the Panasonic AG-HPX250 Camera Rig

Written by  David Hurd
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testdrive_hpx250-camera-rig-side300I’ve always loved my Panasonic AG-HVX200 cameras. They were money-makers that easily shot good-looking footage, allowing for a fast and economic workflow. These cameras quickly paid for themselves and never let me down in the five years that I owned them. So when Panasonic introduced its new AG-HPX250 camera, I bought one from AbleCine in New York. This was the third Panasonic camera that I’ve bought from AbleCine because they are an authorized dealer and the staff really knows their stuff. While you will see the AG-HPX250 model for less money on the Web, these “gray market” cameras don’t have the USA five-year warranty, so, unless you want to wait for your camera to return from Japan if something ever breaks, it’s well worth getting a solid camera from a solid dealer.

 The AG-HPX250 is Panasonic’s first P2 HD handheld camcorder that offers master-quality 10-bit, 4:2:2 independent-frame, 1920x1080 resolution, AVC-Intra 100 recording. It’s lightweight with high-sensitivity 1/3-inch, full-HD 2.2 megapixel 3-MOS imagers and a 20-bit digital-signal processor to capture very high-resolution images. The camera basically processes at 20 bit and records to 10 bit, which is great. It includes updated professional features, like Genlock, timecode, HD-SDI and HDMI input/outputs for multi-camera operation and monitoring, as well as a color viewfinder. The lens on the HVX200 was wide but not long, which led to shooting close to the stage when doing corporate work. The new HPX250 remedied that issue — its 22x wide zoom goes from 28mm to 616mm, so you can usually get the framing that you need from the back of the room. And since zoomed-in footage is difficult when shooting handheld, the 22x lens also features an Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) function that ensures stable images.

I’ve always fumbled around while trying to find the iris control on camcorders, but the HPX250’s HD lens comes with three independently adjustable rings that make the camera feel larger. It also has zoom and focus controls like most camcorders, but Panasonic added an iris ring right on the lens, just like broadcast cameras. This is very handy and very nice. The camera’s Dynamic Range Stretch (DRS) feature varies the gamma within the image to help in shooting situations that vary quickly from bright to dark. And with the 2X Focus Assist function, you can zoom the center section of the screen to determine if the focus is correct.

The HPX250 can record in international HD/SD formats and frame rates. In addition to AVC-Intra 100 recording, the HPX250 also records in AVC-Intra 50, industry-standard DVCPRO HD, and standard definition in DVCPRO50, DVCPRO and DV. On two 64GB cards, the camera can record for over five hours in AVC-Intra 100 at 720/24pN (which is perfect for the Web); almost three hours in AVC-Intra 100 1080/24pN; or two hours in other AVC-Intra 100 or DVCPRO HD formats. To create fast-motion or slow-motion effects using under- or over-cranking, the HPX250 offers a variable frame-rate capability in 1080p up to 30fps (17 steps) as well as 720p up to 60fps (25 steps).

If you want to keep the camera very light, P2 cards are the way to go. If not, there are external recorders that you should know about. Since the HPX250 has both SDI and HDMI streams coming right out of the chip, you can record uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2 onto external recorders. Most recorders can be rigged to start and stop recording along with your camera. This makes it easy to shoot on both a P2 card and an external recorder at the same time, creating an instant backup.

Being a fan of the Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle recorder, I was anxious to try out the company’s second-generation HyperDeck Shuttle 2. In addition to recording 10-bit uncompressed .mov files, the Shuttle 2 can record Avid DNxHD files. Since they are compressed, I got about five hours of the 220Mb/sec DNxHD codec on one 512GB Crucial solid-state drive (SSD). I used a hot-shoe mount from K-Tek to mount the recorder on top of the camera so I could easily see the recording and playback controls. The internal battery usually lasts less than two hours, so you’ll need to power it externally. I connect mine to an Anton Bauer Gold Mount battery. When it was time to edit, I just popped the SSD into my Thermaltake BlacX Duet docking station, which is plugged into my Apple Mac, and the files were seen by Adobe Creative Suite 6, Avid Media Composer 6 and Final Cut Pro X.

The Ninja recorder from Atomos records ProRes files at 100,150 or 220Mb/sec, and has a small monitor to watch during recording and playback. It also records to a hard drive or SSD, with the SSD being the drive of choice. It’s small and lightweight, and can be powered from a pair of batteries (for several hours) or externally powered. I also tested the AJA Ki Pro Mini that records to ProRes and DNxHD codecs on compact flash cards (which are available everywhere). The Ki Pro Mini has both SDI and HDMI inputs/outputs and analog ins/outs for SD recording. Since it works on a Mac OS, it’s kind of like having a mini computer on your camera rig, and while it only powers externally, it still works really well. To use it with a PC, you’ll need a copy of Mediafour MacDrive software, which lets a PC read a Mac hard drives

Keep in mind that the bigger your camera rig gets, the more you’ll need both a shoulder-mount camera-support system and a power solution. Berkey System makes really high-quality camera-support hardware. For my rig, I used the CiniCity shoulder pad, 18-inch rod system with a camera base, and a dual-handle assembly. This allowed me to carry the HPX250 on my shoulder for handheld work and then slide it right onto my Miller tripod for additional shots.

I’ve also used Anton Bauer products for years with good results, and their usability with my HPX250 rig was no exception. I mounted the company’s cheese plate on Berkey System rods and then attached an Anton Bauer Quad Gold Mount. I also tested Anton Bauer’s on-camera Ultralight with each of the three recorders, while monitoring via a Plura Broadcast 7-inch monitor or Small HD DP4 electronic viewfinder. To power all of this I only used one Anton Bauer Dionic HCX battery. Its high current allows it to power up a big load without damaging the battery, which would be dangerous since it’s sitting next to your head. To be safe when building your rig, add up the total wattage of all of your accessories and make sure that the battery that you select can handle the load. Two other Anton Bauer products that you’ll need are the cables and step-down adaptors to connect the battery to your accessories. The nice thing is that when you are finished you’ll only need one battery to power everything, so you’ll still be covered if the shoot goes long. Lastly, since brick-style batteries hold a huge charge, I also use one of them to power my 17-inch 2s2 monitor in the field. The 2s2 monitor is so bright that I can see it from 6 feet away using no monitor hood, and, since it is battery powered, I can take it anywhere.

When it comes to audio, the Panasonic HPX250 has all of the professional features that you would expect. It has four channels of 48kHZ/16-bit digital-audio recording; two locking XLR inputs with switches for mic/line; two RCA audio outputs for your monitor; and +48V Phantom Power for your mics. This system allowed me to record two lav mics on CH1 and CH2, and still have the on-board mic recording on CH3 and CH4. I found that these extra channels were helpful for listening to the director and client comments that were happening in the room at the time of the recording, while still getting clean audio on CH1 and CH2. By plugging a single mic into CH2, you can set the mic input switches so that your single mic is recorded on both CH1 and CH2. And in a run-and-gun situation with no audio recordist, you can set CH2 to a lower volume so you’ll still have clean audio on CH2 if someone yells into your mic.

The HPX250 is also equipped with added features, such as instant recording startup; clip thumbnail view for immediate access to video content on all cards; and a host of time-saving recording modes, including continuous recording, card-slot selection, hot swapping, loop, pre-record (three seconds in HD and seven seconds in SD), one-shot and interval recording. I also like the camera’s four user buttons that let me quickly select Backlight, Spotlight, Erase (last clip) and Iris Gain. I frequently use the Bars and OIS buttons and, when things get too bright, there’s a four-position ND optical-filter switch. For guerilla filmmakers, the HPX250 has auto-focus with face detection, white balance, mode display, zebra display, color bar, tally lamps, and slow shutter and synchro-scan shutter functions. I actually went full auto on a job that had a lot of people in a poorly lit room, and everything worked out well.

The SKB 3i-1914-8B-D camera case works great with the HPX250 if you’re just using the camera with a couple of RF mics and a battery-powered LED on-camera light. The case is small enough to qualify as a carryon when you fly, and, if you have a full-blown rig, SKB’s larger iSeries case is big enough to keep most of the rig assembled. Both cases are solid, waterproof and foam-lined.

With so many clients wanting footage for the Web, Panasonic’s HPX250 makes a lot of sense. It’s a simple camera with a fast workflow that works with CS6, FCPX and MC6, and the footage looks great right out of the camera, so there’s little need for color correction or grading. The HPX250 also has the lens reach to get desired framing, and the recording quality to produce great results. It’s easy enough for beginners to use and versatile enough for professionals. Bottom line: This camera rocks.

My review system for testing footage consisted of a MacPro 12-core 2.93GHz with 24GB of RAM; LSI 9750-8e SAS controller card connected to two Ci Design 8-bay RAID cases loaded with 16 Seagate 450GB SAS drives; Blackmagic Design HD Extreme 3D card with output viewed on a TVLogic 17-inch HD monitor; and NVIDIA Quadro 4000 card connected to a 24-inch EIZO ColorEdge monitor and 2s2 24-inch monitor mounted on Monitor in Motion stands. A G-SPEED Q and Thermaltake BlacX Duet 5G were used for backup and small projects, with two Genelec audio monitors, Mackie mixer, Wacom Intuos tablet, Apple Color panel, and KB Covers for various programs.

David Hurd can be contacted through

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