Panasonic FZ35 for semi serious video – reviewette

For a long time, I’ve been looking at the resolution of cheap digital cameras and wishing they’d get some video capability. And, much more slowly than I’d like, we’re getting there. While DLSRs are well into killer territory, I’m not quite ready for that kind of investment. Down the cheaper end, “stills” cameras are getting closer to really usable video, while “video” cameras are slowly taking better stills, but either involves some compromise. At the end of the day, stills cameras have vastly higher resolution sensors and it is there that I’d like things to end up.

From a practical point of view, I’ve long ago stopped taking my video camera anywhere, but the 640×480 video on my Fuji S5700 is not great, depsite the you-never-go-back convenience. I needed a new stills camera with decent video, and the more decent, the better.

The Lumix FZ-35 piqued my interest as, on paper, it ticks quite a few of the critical boxes:

The good

  • HD recording at 18Mb/s H.264. Not your first choice for keying, but for talking heads or superior home movies plenty good.
  • European and Au/NZ versions do 25fps video – this has been a MAJOR drawback of all the cheapies: 29.97/30 fps only (well, I have a Kodak that does 13). Not good for web delivery or broadcast to over 50% of the world’s population (or for cinematic release, however implausible that might be anyway).
  • manual everything – ISO, exposure, shutter speed and focus. Everything you need to shoot something without the damn camera hunting mid-shot
  • No godless Sony media formats. Good ole SDHC, class 6 prefferred
  • A pretty serious 27 – 486mm equiv lens with OIC, plus the usual auto-focus, face detection
  • Like most/all current Pannie’s, a “record” button that lets you record video in any mode, not just the one movie mode – no more missing stuff while you futz with the dial on top.
  • HDMI output.
  • Cheap – less than half the price of the Canon Vixia HF10 (an amazon now they’re $310 vs $750)

the bad

As specified, you can spot some drawbacks straight away – but I need to make the point that I was expecting drawbacks, this is a cheap camera, so this is not an exhaustive list

  • no external audio in
  • only 720P – “AVCHD Lite”, a Panasonic term which means “720P only video, using H.264 but in such a way it doesn’t play on any pre-existing system”. (VLC 1.x, iMovie 09, FCP7 – to name but 3 – can now play it
  • no higher frame rates
  • reasonably high compression but should be pretty good on undemanding footage.
  • other usual “it’s not a camcorder” stuff: no flip out/down viewfinder. No palm-strap, …

At the end of the day, the only bona fide task the camera will be doing is replacing a seriously ancient Canon 4:3 DV camcorder (so ancient it doesn’t like to load tapes), so it can be a little rough around the edges, it’s still going to be a huge improvement.

the … stuff I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere

Most reviews have dealt with the FZ35 as” a stills camera with video, but who cares about the video?” So, specifically wanting the video, what can I add?

Where’s the 25fps?

First off, the frame rate disappointment. As a patriotic Australian, I grey imported the FZ-35 from eBay (at not far off half the recommended AUD price). Turns out Panasonic lock the frame rate to the region sold in, and charge more for the EU and AU models (the aust/NZ model is in fact suffixed GN).I had a squabble with the ebay vendor, but at the end of the day it’s Panasonic that I’m disappointed with – they’ve made this thing cost more everywhere in order to make specific models, what a waste of time..

Now, you can get to the service menu on other Lumix cameras. The service manual for the FZ50 says you can change region, but only if your camera was not Japanese to begin with. I’ll keep digging on this – 25fps is something I really don’t want to go without, and there can be no technical reason not have lower frame rates such as 24 either. I’ll get my hands on a service manual eventually…

Picture quality

It’s pretty good, but definitely below what 720P can do. Colours are great, but pics are both slightly soft and show quite a bit of “ringing” from some sharpening algorithm. Why this should be, with a 12MP sensor is puzzling – no doubt cheaper but, as with many of my small gripes with this camera, I can see no hard technical reason why it should be so.

To illustrate this, below is a detail of a paintbrush taken from a movie, compared to a plain ordinary still photo of the same, downscaled by Apple Preview to the same resolution (note that you have to click the pix to see them full size, below is a shrunk preview). The video one shows a huge dark line around the white hair, as well as quite a bit less resolution. (You can also see some of the compression artefacts you get with AVHCD Lite). I actually did this comparison last in the review and it’s pretty terrifying – I wouldn’t have thought the video was that far below the stills.

The sharpness can be adjusted ± 2 (units of what I don’t know) from the default, but at -2 I could see no less ringing (or, in fact, any difference at all. This setting may be applied “upstream” before downscaling) nearly all the video on this page was taken with the sharpness at -2. On less contrasty material, the results are closer to perfect.

Here’s a quick compilation of what I’ve been able to snap in the past month, accompanied by something I threw together in Garage Band. (see note below regarding FCP black crushing – I’m hoping this will be fixed in the future)

Film’s fast … almost too fast!

When shooting stills, you can choose an ISO setting from 80 up to 1600, with video it’s a much higher 400 to 6400 – which is also the ISO of the lower-resolution “Hi sens” mode. That may be a clue to the soft pictures: the downscaler for the hi-sens and the video modes may be being multi-purposed. While the high film speed might seem like a plus, it does have the downside that (as others have discovered) if you want to shoot in daylight at 1/50th or 1/60th for the ol’ film look (or at least the 180º shutter look), you’ll need a multi-ND filter (panasonic sell an 8ND, but it is a vanilla 46mm mount). You particularly want the ND if you want to shoot at f/4, which is reportedly the sweet spot for sharpness with this lens. People are also using NDs to prevent the sometimes extreme smear this (CCD-based) camera exhibits. You can set the ISO to auto,and it seems to go below 400, but the problem is it jumps in 100 ISO increments, which you don’t want in the middle of a shot.

As should also be evident from this: if you scale down to some kind of “web” resolution, like a nice round 640×360, you do have some pretty schweet web video.

Manual Everything?

Apart from the frame rate, the camera delivers in full: as well as focus, aperture and exposure, you can lock the ISO, white balance (which you can set manually beforehand). Full proper manual shooting. If you had a really solid tripod, you could pull focus and zoom (using double system of course to avoid all the clunks the microphones would pick up as you push teensy buttons). The manual focus features a little zoomed-in focus assist, just like a real camera!

Lens

There are any number of demo movies on the interweb: this is a frigging long lens! (or rather, there’s a long way between fully wide and fully tele). Google “FZ35 zoom test” – and check out all the closeups of the moon on flickr.

The OIC works very well, but you’re not going to be able to do free handheld at the long end. When I took the shot below, I was pretty impressed, taken handheld on a ferry, but back on a monitor, it’s a little bumpier that I thought (you can also see that I didn’t have the ISO on manual and that my very old polarizer was a bit dirty).

Pictures still look pretty sharp at the long end, too. And, you can get some shallow depth-of-field at the far end – though often you have to get a long way away to actually fit what you want in.

Compression

Could be my use of Class 4 cards, but the movies I’m shooting are running at about 13Mb/s – the blurb does say it’s VBR, so maybe 18 is the absolute max? Not sure. It would be nice for them to really be 18Mb/s.

Editability

iMovie 09 happily opens the card in the SD card reader – coverts to AIC of course. FCP 7 is similarly at home – mount a card and L&T sees it straight away. VLC 1.x will play the raw MTS files (but still with some shifts on what I assume are I-frames), and that ole workhorse HandBrake will happily convert these into various other formats (None readily editable, but it beats the hell out of QT X for delivery encoding.) And, the raw .MTS’es upload directly to YouTube as well

IOW no editing issues at all for me. I did notice that FCP was showing the imported footage using the full luminance range (i.e. blacker-than-black, whiter-than-white) – whether the camera’s wrong or whether FCP’s interpreting it wrongly I can’t say. (You may have noticed a little more black-crushing than was necessary on the clips above). I tried one of the same clips thru Handbrake and the gamma’s quite different (and better IMHO) so we’ll blame FCP’s implementation of AVCHD Lite for now.

Audio Quality

I ran across this clip while looking for other stuff, so it can do a pretty OK job under the right conditions. For anything serious, you’re talking double system.

HDMI Out (conjecture)

I can’t directly comment on the HDMI as I don’t have the mini-to-fullsize HDMI adapter needed to actually plug this in to a TV. But I did note that the composite SD video is not active when shooting – so there’s a pretty good chance you can’t capture over HDMI while live shooting to get uncompressed HD.

Conclusion

I’ve listed a pile of negatives, but I’m pretty happy with the camera – it cost 1/5th the video camera it’s replacing and it slaughters it. If I could get into the service menu, and set it to 25fps, that would be really good. And if something like CHDK came out for Panasonic, and we could get that dreadful sharpening turned off on the video, and any frame rate we liked, and all the other benefits, that would be super great. Based on the FZ50 manual, I also think a skilled hardware hacker could get external audio in.

The camera’s just about a quantum leap at the cheap end of the market. There are several more to go.

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  1. Noticed that Hardley Normal are selling a Samsung “Full HD” flip-style camcorder for $250 – might be worth a play to see what the other end of the spectrum is like.

    • Nice review. A couple of points.
      1. I really think that the whole PAL/NTSC is becoming redundant (unless you work for a dinosaur broadcaster 😉 ) None of the stuff most people are shooting will go anywhere but the web where frame rate and resolution are irrelevant.
      2. Compressor is good for transcoding if you are a Video Pro like us, otherwise MPEG streamclip gets everything into an editable format for the right price (free)

      Anyway I think I’ll stick to my Kodak Zi8, 1080p, 60fps, external mic input, $218AU on ebay (rubbish lens though, esp. since the cat knocked the camera on the floor and it fell out)

        • pdaddy
        • February 9th, 2010

        1. 24 fps is more critical than ever on the web: lowest data rate (or best pix for same data rate)

        2. Streamclip, I neglected to mention, was the only thing which could not open the .MTS’es

        3. I never mentioned the price: $445 – I could get two Zi8’s! I’m not dissing those little things, but they can’t focus, I’ve seen mid-shot interviews that are just slightly out of focus, so I don’t know how useful I would find them.

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