Panasonic HDC-HS100 Camcorder Review
The Panasonic HDC-HS100, though it was announced only a few weeks ago, is an anticipated camcorder. Many years ago, Panasonic ruled the roost for power users and budget videographers. The Panasonic PV-GS400 was the king of them all, so loaded with features that it stayed at the top of our ratings list until we had to recreate our rubric. Then, of course, the medium of tape began to die off. Camcorder bodies shrank, and with it, room for the features we loved like viewfinders, rings, and certain ports. Panasonic, in fact, became the de facto leader of that movement towards shrinkage. While it maintained a high degree of manual control, the interface began to suffer, particularly when the joystick was moved from the back to the LCD cavity on the last generation HDC-SD9 and HDC-HS9.
Auto / Manual Controls
Picture & Manual Control
* Automatic Control (6.5)*
The automatic controls on the Panasonic HDC-HS100 will suffice for most shooting environments. Indoors and outdoors, in darkness and in bright light, we didn't run into any unusual issues during testing. While much may have changed entirely from the previous to the current generation of Panasonics, the algorithms for auto adjustments seemingly did not. As we saw with the HDC-HS9, the auto exposure adjustments are quick and accurate in shifting from a dark shot to a bright shot. However, something like a panning shot with gradual exposure transitions is a trickier business. The HDC-HS100 makes staggered leaps from one exposure level to the next, making a seamless transition very difficult.
The auto focus worked well, even in low light. The auto white balance often felt a little too warm or a too cool in less than perfectly uniform lighting. We found that a manual white balance was called for frequently.
A new automatic feature, Intelligent Auto Mode (iA), debuted on this latest generation of Panasonic HD camcorders. To activate, first put the HDC-HS100 in auto mode, then push the iA button above the LCD cavity. In this mode, the camcorder will automatically select from some of the Scene modes (see complete list of Scene modes at the end of this section).
We'll talk about this more later in the review, but we want to mention here what a huge improvement Panasonic has made in an already great menu system. A new feature has been added this year that scrolls text along the bottom of the screen to explain each and every feature and setting. And by god, it's useful. It's not just another bit of junk clogging up the screen. Three cheers to Panasonic and its effort to make shooting more comprehensible to the non-expert. Now they should just think about extending that courtesy to its entry-level models, where it's probably needed even more.
While the multi-function dial offers tight control over a number of shooting features (discussed in the next section), there are a number of one-touch features that give you a small level of control without requiring arcane camera knowledge. To access these, shift your attention from the large multi-function ring to the tiny joystick inside the LCD cavity. Push in on the joystick to activate the Joystick Menu. Options here include Backlight Compensation, Soft Skin mode, MagicPix (a rather drastic low light mode), and Tele Macro.
The Panasonic HDC-HS100 also offers an assortment of Scene Modes, accessed through the Administrative Menu. They include: Sports, Low Light, Snow, Sunset, Scenery, Portrait, Spotlight, Beach, and Fireworks.
Overall Manual Control (8.5)
Panasonic deserves a lot of credit for this camcorder. The manual control system is truly innovative, at least for a consumer camcorder in this day and age. The professional feel is virtually unparalleled. Sure, we've seen very good handling and manual control from the now-discontinued JVC GZ-HD7 and Sony HDR-SR11 / HDR-SR12. But the Panasonic HDC-HS100 tops them all. There was clearly a lot of thought put into the operation. It's not perfect, and you can read below as we dissect each section exactly where our frustrations lie. The biggest headache is the placement of the flash, which prevents an unfettered, 360-degree turn. It seems a very stupid mistake, like misspelling your name on the SATs. One final glance before handing it in should have told you, 'Oh, wait a minute. This shouldn't be here.'
Nearly all the manual control that affects image quality can be adjusted via the multi-function ring: focus, zoom, white balance, shutter speed, aperture, and gain. As you could guess, a single control interface can't be great for every one of these functions. Strangely, the zoom control is actually the worst of the bunch, even though it would seem the simplest to get right. Instead, the action on the zoom is uneven and awkward. The focus, on the other hand, is good. The aperture (called 'iris') is amazing, with a live histogram and a spot luminance meter in the center of the screen.
It's also important to note that the ring cannot be used as a simple alternative to the joystick for aperture, gain, shutter speed, and focus. In fact, those functions are no longer controllable from the joystick at all. It's the ring or nothing.
Overall, power users will be very pleased with the Panasonic HDC-HS100.
Zooming can be controlled in two ways: the traditional zoom toggle or the multi-function ring. The zoom toggle is located on top of the camcorder near the rear. The switch slides horizontally along a track rather than rocking back and forth like you see on most camcorders. As a result, it can sometimes be a little tricky to get the zoom going in its slowest speed; pushing and pulling the zoom also means pushing down, which causes friction along the track.
When zooming, the LCD screen provides both the exact zoom ratio (in whole numbers) and a progress bar to give you a sense of where you are in the zoom range. This is useful if you need to duplicate a shot later.
To control the zoom with the multi-function ring, first the camcorder must be in Manual mode, not Auto. Once you're in Manual mode, zooming becomes the default function of the ring. This is indicated by a little icon on the screen reading 'Mzoom.'
We were less than pleased with the zoom operation on the ring. It's impossible to get a smooth 1x-12x crawl because of the flash placement getting in the way. In fact, getting any sort of crawl is difficult. It has a tendency to jump even when you think you're turning the ring softly. It's just awkward. Not to fear, though. The ring works well for every other function, but it's a shame it can't do a decent zoom.
Zoom Power Ratio (12.0)
The Panasonic HDC-HS100 has a 12x optical zoom, up from 10x on the previous generation HDC-HS9. It's good to see a zoom increase without a negative setback in sensor size, as is often the case.
The manual focus is engaged by pushing down on the Auto/Manual/Focus switch, which lives on the left side towards the front. If you're in Auto mode, you'll have to pull down on the switch twice. When activated, a small 'MF' icon appears on screen.
The HDC-HS100 offers a useful Focus Assist tool (called 'MF Assist' in the menu). It's defaulted to be on when you take the camcorder out of the box, and we recommend you leave it on. It works like this: When you activate the manual focus and spin the multi-function ring, a large blue box appears in the center of the screen. Inside, you'll see a portion of your shot zoomed in to about 2x. This allows you to get a better look at the details in order to correctly gauge focus. This auto zoom and the blue box are not recorded to your final footage.
The Focus Assist tool on the HDC-HS100 is good, but we still think that JVC offers the best in the industry. JVC's system shifts your picture to black & white on the LCD, then creates a brightly colored grain along the edges of any area that is in focus. We like it because it's not dependent on the resolution of the LCD, which is usually pitiful.
Exposure & Aperture (5.64)
The Panasonic HDC-HS100 offers direct control of the aperture that can be set independently of the shutter speed, which is great for experienced users. However, there is no simple 'exposure' or 'brightness' mode that beginners may have an easier time with. The latter can be found on cameras and camcorders from nearly every other manufacturer.
To activate manual control of the aperture (referred to as 'Iris' on Panasonic camcorders), push the Cam Function button under the Auto/Manual switch on the left side. A menu pops up, and Iris is the last option. You need to turn the dial to work your way up and down the list; the joystick will not operate this menu. To confirm your selection, hit the Cam Function button again.
Iris control (Luminance target not shown)
As we mentioned earlier, you'll be pretty amazed by the default options you see on screen when you activate the aperture control. Along the lower left side of the screen is data about shutter speed, aperture setting, and gain setting. Next to that is a live histogram - great for a quick overview of exposure for the entire shot. In the center of the screen is a small square with a percentage value beneath it. This is a luminance meter, which to our knowledge is making its debut on a consumer camcorder. The purpose is to tell you what the luminance of the target is, from a range of 0 - 100%.
Because the square target is so small, its usefulness may be undermined for most shooting. For instance, if you're shooting a person outdoors, their skin might have a luminance value of 90%, but their black shirt is at 20%. Does this mean you should boost the exposure to get that shirt above 50%? No, of course not. But if you're shooting a large, even illuminated and colored surface, or if you're shooting outside and it's essential that you meter some shadowy area correctly, the tool could come in handy.
The aperture range includes: f/1.8 (Open), f/2.0, f/2.4, f/2.8, f/3.4, f/4.0, f/4.8, f/5.6, f/6.8, f/8.0, f/9.6, f/11, f/14, and f/16. Unlike the zoom operation, the control offered by the ring is excellent here. It's unlikely that you'll accidentally go flying by the setting you wanted.
Shutter Speed (8.1)
The Panasonic HDC-HS100 offers manual shutter speed control that can be set independently of the aperture. Like aperture, the shutter speed is controlled entirely by the multi-function ring. The settings include 1/60, 1/100, 1/120, 1/180, 1/250, 1/350, 1/500, 1/750, 1/1000, 1/1500, 1/2000, 1/3000, 1/4000, and 1/8000. If you activate the Auto Slow Shutter option (in the Admin menu), you can have a new lowest setting of 1/30th.
Shooting in 24P Digital Cinema Color mode (details in the Other Manual Controls section below) gives you a few different shutter option in the slower end of the range: 1/24 (with Auto Slow Shutter on) and 1/48th. A setting of 1/100th of a second and faster are the same as listed above.
Shutter Speed in action
White Balance (5.5)
White balance on the Panasonic HDC-HS100 is also controlled by the multi-function ring. Settings include Auto, Indoor, Outdoor, and Manual. Making a manual white balance adjustment is so easy it's.... well, it's almost confusing. When the white balance submenu is selected, you use the ring to choose between settings. Each setting has an icon rather than simple text (which is confusing in its own right). When you dial up the Manual setting, the icon immediately starts blinking. A prompt on what to do next would be useful here, but there is none. To confirm the setting, push the Cam Function button again.
White Balance in action
Panasonic is the only manufacturer of consumer camcorders that allows for manual control of the gain. However, gain can only be boosted if the aperture has already been opened as wide as possible (f/1.8, in this case). As such, there's no 'Gain submenu' to select. Go to the Iris settings and adjust from there. This is good, because you'll also have the histogram and luminance tool to help you meter. Gain settings are only as fine as increments of 3dB. Settings include 0dB, 3dB, 6dB, 9dB, 12dB, 15dB, and 18dB.
Other Manual Controls (9.0)
Histogram - The Panasonic HDC-HS100 offers a live histogram when shooting, which gives you a broad overview of the exposure levels for your shot. For those who have never seen one, a histogram is basically a bar chart. The x-axis expresses the brightness, with the lightest parts of the image at the right side, and the darkest parts on the left side. The y-axis approximates how many pixels in your shot are in brightness, shadows, or midtones. You should be aiming for most of the information to be in your midtones.
Luminance - This is a new feature for Panasonic this year, and the first time we've seen it on a consumer camcorder. It works by creating a small, square target in the center of your screen. Below that is a percentage written in whole numbers, which expresses the luminance value, falling between 0 - 100%. Because the target is so small, this tool is really only useful if you absolutely have to meter a tiny detail correctly. For large areas, the histogram and/or zebra patterns would probably work better. The Luminance meter can be set to never display, only display when the Iris (aperture) control is active, or always be displayed.
Zebra - When activated, this option creates scrolling 'zebra stripe' patterns in areas of the shot that are overexposed. This is a fairly common feature for high-definition camcorders, although we like to see more options. The HDR-CX7 and other Sony camcorders offer the option to set the threshold of the zebra patterns at 70 or 100 IRE. On this Panasonic, the threshold value is unknown.
Digital Cinema Color - This setting offers you the option to record in xvYCC color, which is the emerging color standard for high definition television. In short, it's a wider, deeper color space. This is great if you have a TV that supports xvYCC, but chances are, you don't. Unfortunately, if you record in Digital Cinema Color and you don't have one of those TVs, the picture will appear very oversaturated. We're not exactly sure why this happens, because when you try the same thing with Sony camcorders in xvYCC, TVs seem to simply discard the extra information.
24P Cinema Color - On the surface, this is a cool idea. You can record in a 24P frame rate. Great! But no. In fact, there are two problems here. First, you can't record in 24P mode without recording in Digital Cinema Color. As we explained in the paragraph above, only a select few people can take advantage of this. The second problem is that the 24P frame rate footage just doesn't look very good. The trailing is bad, and there is a pronounced stutter. See the Video Performance section for more details.
Guidelines - This feature creates lines on the LCD or viewfinder (and not on your final footage) to help you line up your shots. There are three options: the Horizontal setting creates three horizontal lines. The Grid 1 setting creates two vertical and two horizontal lines to create a 9-grid pattern. The Grid 2 setting creates a bunch of vertical and horizontal lines to create a bid old grid.
Shooting Guide - The Shooting Guide offers prompts in instances where the camcorder thinks you could use some shooting advice. They come in the form of pop-up messages that tell you to activate various features. It doesn't make the changes for you, however, taking the position that it's better to teach a man to fish that catch it for him.
ADDENDUM: There is an additional manual control that we overlooked in our original review of the HDC-HS100. We have included the information for Picture Adjust below and adjusted the score accordingly.
*Picture Adjust - *Within the 'Advanced' tab of the Administrative Menu, the Picture Adjust option gives users direct manual control over Sharpness, Color (Saturation), and Exposure. Each of these three adjustments may be made using the joystick to move a slider from -5 to +5. This is very similar to the Joystick menu used for setting exposure on the latest Canon models. We are grateful to Panasonic for including the feature, especially the Color adjustment, which lets us tone down the often oversaturated colors produced by Panasonic's processors. On the down side, the adjustment only offers 11 increments (as opposed to Canon's 23 increments) and is so deeply buried in the menus. Exposure, in particular, should be easier to adjust on the fly.
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