Northern Light Films

High Definition Video Productions

Choosing an HD Camera

I thought I’d take the time to give a little insight into what goes into choosing the right HD Camera. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about my own experiences.  About a year ago I decided I needed to upgrade to High Def, I literally spent hours and hours researching because there were many options in regard to cameras. I wanted to make sure that I settled on a camera that I was completely satisfied with. At first I looked at some HDV Camcorders that record highly compressed HD Video to MiniDV tapes. The first HDV camcorder I looked at was the Canon XLH1, which offered great resolution, and a very filmic look. However; I wasn’t a fan of the design, and after hours of handheld shooting with an XL1s I came to the conclusion that the XLH1 would be absolute murder on the arms, with the H1 weighing alot more than the XL1s. I then looked at the JVC HD100/200 series. The ergonomics were much better, but it had a few flaws that took it out of the equation for me. To make a long story short I decided I didn’t like the idea of having an HDV camera as my main camera, mainly because of the mpeg2 compression and other factors like dropouts, and the work-arounds in post production… So, next I put my sights on the tapeless/solid state option and at the time the Panasonic HVX200 was the only option, the HVX200 was a revolutionary camera, it made alot of advances in the HD handycam market. This little guy offered users the options of shooting in a massive number of formats including, 1080p at 24, 30, 60i and 720p at 24p, 30p, 60 frames per second… it also offered timelapse, overcrank and undercrank (slow & quick motion) – this option was not done before in a camera that costs less than $40,000… It was basically as others would call it, the “swiss army knife of cameras”. This looked to be the best option for me, the only problem though at the time was the high prices and the low capacity of the P2 Cards didn’t make economical sense to me.  So, I went back and started to ponder getting the XLH1 with an Anton Bauer battery mount to offset the front heavy design. Then Panasonic announced the release of  a new HD camera that grew on the successes of the HVX200, they called it the big brother of the HVX200. It was the HPX500, which came in Kits that cost from $17,000 US with no lens to $25,000 US with lens.

The HPX500 is a full sized HD camera with 2/3″ sensors, it does all the things that the HVX200 does plus more… it shoots in more frame rates, it has HDSDI out, It has 4 slots for P2 cards, bigger sensors which meant higher resolution and better low light performance, it was a true well-balanced  professional shoulder mount camera… and to top it off it is accepted by Discovery HD as a 100% acquisition camera. Meaning I could shoot a program for Discovery HD entirely with the HPX500. Discovery HD has the highest standards for any broadcast station. The idea is, if it were accepted by D-HD then it will be accepted by any broadcast station. The HPX500 was alot more expensive than the HDV options but I decided to bite the bullet and go for it, even if I had to buy the needed accessories bit by bit (Lens, batteries, Mic, case, etc…)

So, after using the HPX500 for almost a year now I’m finding that I made the absolute right choice for what I do… this is a very nice camera… it shoots stunning HD video, the color reproduction is breathtaking, it offers a very cinematic/filmic look when shooting in the 24p modes with a nice shallow depth of field… my only gripe with this camera is the cost of the recording media (P2 Cards) I’ll get into that in a second but here’s a look at the HPX500.


HPX500 Right Side view


HPX500 Left Side view

So, lets talk a bit about the recording media… This camera does not shoot compressed Video to Tape. Nope, it shoots very high quality HD in a format known as DVCProHD onto solid state memory cards, or P2 cards. In order to record at such a high bit rate these P2 cards are very specially  and carefully made. They are extremely fast as they can sustain the 100MB per sec that DVCProHD needs, and they are very durable. They are however, extremely expensive! Just to give you an idea of recording time, you can get 16 minutes of 1080p out of a 16GB P2 card, so roughly a GB/minute. A 16GB card costs approx $800 US. But to keep things into perspective here, these cards are reusable up to 100,000’s times, and that brings the question of storing/archiving footage.. There are larger P2 cards out now, and here’s the current pricing scheme on them;

16GB Card: $800.00 US

32GB Card: $1,400.00 US

64GB Card: $2,400.00 US

Here’s a look at a 16GB P2 Card


16GB P2 Card

In order to shoot 1 full hour at the highest quality (1080p) it takes 64GB of space, so to film a long-form event I have to dump the footage to a laptop when they are full. These cards are hot-swappable meaning you can remove a full card while shooting to an empty card . A typical transfer of 16GB is approx 20 minutes when using USB from the Camera.

So that is my only beef with this great P2HD camera, I would love to see the 64GB cards come down to $1,500/each. I think that would really make this filmmaker’s life alot easier! One great solution for long-form shooting though is the option to shot at 720 24pN, or 30pN … N for native, this allows the camera to record only 24 frames in a second, instead of internally flagging 24 frames in a 60 frame/per second container. This allows for alot more recording time… but then you are stuck with the HD frame size of 1280X720, which is not a bad thing, it still looks great. Recording in this format allows for 40 minutes per 16GB Card, and a total of 2 hours and 40 minutes with the onboard 64GB (4X16GB).

Another thing that should be taken into account is post production with your camera. With DVCProHD I can easily edit on a fairly modest computer. Compared to compressed HDV it is probably close to editing DV. So, just something to consider when thinking about a camera is how will editing your HD footage be afterwards?

So that’s how I arrived at choosing the Panasonic HPX500 HD Camera…. Fast forward to today and its an even bigger mess trying to choose a camera. The options have more than doubled now for HD Cams. Sony has some great units in the XDCam EX lineup, they have their flaws but they also have unrivaled resolution. Panasonic has since updated the HVX200 to a HVX200a with improved sensors. They have also released the HPX170 which is a trimmed down version of the  HVX200, but with many improvements. My hats off to Panasonic for the development of the HPX170. Panasonic had representatives who were members of very popular camera user forums work with the filmmakers in the forum to develop this camera from the ground up…. and they did an awesome job.

The choices just got a whole lot harder now too with the introduction of shooting HD video on DSLR Still cameras like the Nikon D90 and the Canon D5 MKII. Then you have the Red cameras, and their plans for the Red Scarlet and Epic are just awesome… There are so many options when it comes to HD cameras today. I think a person just has to make a list of what he/she will require from a camera and go shop for the camera that will fit the bill. Otherwise a person can get lost in trying to decide which camera to buy. I hope this post will give a little insight into what is involved in selecting a camera that is right for you. Remember there are alot of really great cameras, you just have to decide and go for the one that makes most sense for you. All of the cameras I mentioned will make absolutely beautiful images in the right hands!

Northern Light Films,


February 10, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment