A video camera lives or dies by its optics. A poor-quality model (think: the Flip for about $100, or a no-name brand at Best Buy) is a real disappointment in terms of resolution and color depth, even though it makes YouTube uploading easy. Similarly, a low-quality camcorder introduces noise and artifacts to a movie – there’s a noticeable pixilated look. Alas, unless you want to fork over $2000 or more for a professional camera, there are almost certainly bound to be compromises with most models. But somehow, Panasonic has made the sensors in the HDC-HS300 video camera work overtime – color quality and resolution are exceptional. It’s not the device you’ll want for, say, shooting indie films or other artistic video work, but, against the odds, it’s a solid all-around performer.
Features and Design
There’s now a standard form factor for consumer video cameras – they are typically about the size of your hand, with a fold-out LCD screen and highly digitized options, such as focus and zoom. The Panasonic HDC-HS300 is no different: It has a fold-out 2.7-inch LCD touchscreen, weighs exactly one pound, and is small enough to carry around with your digital camera in the same bag. It’s a 1080p video camera that records onto an internal, non-removable 120GB hard disk. Video captures at 10.6 megapixels with a 17Mbps stream rate, and you can snap still photos at 8.6 megapixels to either the HDD or an SD card. There’s a 12x optical zoom, which you can control manually or with a zoom button.
Resolution on this video camera is just outstanding, a noticeable improvement over other models we have tested. We compared video clips side by side to the Hitachi BD9H, which also records in 1920×1080, using a Viewsonic N4790p 47-inch LCD-TV. We inspected video resolution and color quality, frame rates, smoothness of video, artifacting, and tonal variation. The HDC-HS300 was much clearer, with less noise and better quality. In an afternoon of shooting near a historic mill with plenty of shooting scenarios – e.g., bright colors, churning water, etc. – the HDC-300HS operated more like a prosumer camcorder. In one test, with a subject about a hundred feet away (a problem for most consumer camcorders), the HDC-HS300 retained its fidelity and introduced very little noise. The camera uses three MOS sensors instead of the more common – and presumably more expensive – CMOS or CCD sensors. Clearly, Panasonic has tweaked the video camera since the original HDC-HS100 model.
That said, we also viewed several clips from an older Sony HDR-HC7 video camera that is roughly the same price as the HDC-300SC. Sony sensor technology is superior, and if pressed on which camera to use for a vacation, we’d pick the Sony. At the end of the day, the extra features are only so helpful – what matters most is the optics.
However, the HDC-300SC gets an edge when it comes to manual filming options. Panasonic is well-known as an innovator in pro-level video cameras, and its consumer models usually benefit from a trickledown effect, even if they sometimes lag behind Sony’s in overall value. The HDC-300SC allows you to zoom manually and adjust focus, unusual options for a down-and-dirty camcorder. In one test, we were able to focus on a foreground subject and capture a scene that looked almost cinematic. In another, we filmed kids running on a bridge and the video camera had no trouble keeping pace.
Extras on the camera allow for experimentation. There’s a Digital Cinema mode that works extremely well – it automatically adjusts filming speed to 1/48 and captures at 24p frames. Some of the other features seem like gimmicks at first, but they did work well in our field test. For example: There’s an Auto Stabilization mode that actually works – especially for distant subjects. A Wind Cut mode also reduced audio noise, and there’s a useful Auto White Balance option. We would have liked more options for white balance, such as quick scene modes for fluorescent lights or bright sunny days. There’s a nifty Slow Shutter mode that lets you capture video in low light conditions. It worked alright, but is no substitute for actual lighting. We really liked the Auto Ground Directional Standby, which automatically pauses recording if you point the camera to the ground too many times.
Taking digital photos is hit or miss. One issue is that a camcorder is designed for video, so it’s compact and meant for portability. It can be hard to grasp the device tight enough for a good still photo. And, there are no buttons designed for quick access to aperture priority mode or ISO settings for those situations where you want to set up a great photo in a difficult lighting situation. During our mill shooting trip, the still shots were just passable – akin to a point-and-shoot digicam. One interesting back-up option: You can shoot video to an SD card if you run out of space on the HDD.
There are a few other options on the HDC-HS300 such as a luminance meter, aperture settings, and support for 5.1 surround sound. We doubt any serious filmmaker would consider this model for shooting an entire movie though, mostly because the video is just not as good as, say, a Panasonic Pro AG-DVX100B that costs about $1000 more. But overall, as camcorders go, it’s one of the best you’ll find for casual shooting conditions. It offers some manual control options and plenty of settings for experimental filming, and the color and resolution are great compared to other consumer models. For the price, however, we recommend that anyone who wants to shoot a serious film grab the HDR-HC7 or a similar “almost prosumer” model.
- Good color quality
- Manual zoom and focus
- Records in 1080p
- Light and portable
- Great 24p options
- Not quite prosumer
- Small LCD screen
- Few scene modes
- Non-standard HDMI port