March 30, 2012

Sonnet drives to speed up backup

Sonnet has launched two new professional media readers that can be combined with its compact new portable RAID arrays to for high-speed backups.

The Qio E3 card reader (pictured above - centre) can take up to three SxS cards at once, while the Qio CF4 takes up to four Compact Flash cards. Each reader costs £420 and has two 6Gbps eSATA ports for connection to back-up drives.

Sonnet currently has four ruggedised, portable drives, and has just added the Thunderbolt-equipped Fusion F2TBR, which takes two solid state drives (totalling up to 1TB) capable of high-speed transfers (up to 640MBps read and 430MBps write). It joins the 1.5TB Fusion F2 (with eSATA ports), 2TB F2QR (eSATA, dual FireWire 800, plus USB 2.0) and the similarly connected 6TB F3, but all of them have maximum speeds of no more than 200MBps.

It also has two new Fusion desktop RAID 5 storage arrays with Thunderbolt connections. The four-drive E400TBR5 has read/write speeds of up to 400/340MBps, while the eight-drive E800TBR5 offers speeds of 800/730MBps.

Sonnet card readers, including Qio F3, 
with Fusion F2 portable RAID (top) 
+ Thunderbolt-equipped Echo Express expansion unit (left)

The high-speed Thunderbolt port is standard on current MacBook and iMac computers, but these don’t have the ability to fit PCIe cards, so Sonnet has also announced new Thunderbolt Echo Express expansion units that will take either a single half-length (about $450) or dual full-length ($800) PCI Express 2.0 card, for video capture, fibre channel, digital audio, RAID control or multi-screen video. Up to six peripherals, including more expansion units, can be daisy chained on a single Thunderbolt port (which can cope with a total throughput of up to 10Gbps on each of its two channels).

Also new is the Xmac mini Server, a 1U rack mount PCIe 2.0 expansion system with Thunderbolt ports. It also has Gigabit Ethernet and can take two PCIe cards (one half-length and one full-length), so it could take an AJA Kona card to create a compact capture station or a fibre channel card to become a metadata controller for SAN systems. It should ship in April for about $1,400. 

By David Fox

March 21, 2012

Manfrotto MVH502 fluid head

Manfrotto’s new MVH502 fluid head replaces its popular 501 head, but has been completely redesigned to use Manfrotto’s bridging technology.

It will carry up to 4kg, be available either with a flat base or an integral 75mm ball, and should ship by April. Features include: a larger camera base; larger sliding plate; fixed counterbalance; and two 3/8-inch threads for fixing accessories. A complete kit, with tripod legs, should cost about £450.

It is based on the same design as the recently introduced 509HD, which carries up to 13kg and has three stages of counterbalance, plus “a levelling/balancing memory to make it easier to rebalance the tripod if going between handheld and tripod,” explained Peter Novell, Manfrotto’s video channel sales manager (pictured). The 509HD costs about £660, or £1,160 with legs.

By David Fox

March 14, 2012

Panasonic HPX250 review

The BBC used to publish a list of approved cameras for HD production. It meant that users could buy a camera knowing it would be approved for use on anything they shoot for the BBC (and now pretty much any European public broadcaster as the list has been adopted by the European Broadcasting Union). It has certainly reduced levels of fear, uncertainty and doubt when faced with a major equipment investment and helped sales, especially of cameras at the budget end.

Before the list moved to the EBU, the last addition was the Panasonic AG-HPX250, which is retailing around £3,600 plus VAT. It is a direct rival to the Canon XF300 and XF305 (£4,400 and £5,040 +VAT respectively), and the lowest cost camera on the list. Its form factor makes it particularly suitable for observational documentaries. We have done a side-by-side comparison of the HPX250 and XF305 on our Canon XF Notebook site.

Panasonic AG-HPX250 Camera 

The HPX250 has three 1/3-inch, MOS sensors at full-HD 1920x1080 (2.2 megapixels). The HPX250 is 50Hz/60Hz switchable so you have a choice of 25p, 50i, 30p, 60i and 24p. It records AVC-Intra, DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO50, DVCPRO25 and, should you need it, DV on to P2 cards. This means it can record up to 10-bit 4:2:2 and 100Mbps. And if that is not enough, you have an HD-SDI output for even higher quality recording to a separate field recorder.

The camera’s form factor is nothing new compared to the typical camcorder of the last six years, with a viewfinder (EVF) at the rear and pop-out LCD screen on the side. The handle on the top houses most of the audio controls and the two XLR audio sockets. This camera neatly fits into the Panasonic range. If you are a HVX200 owner looking to upgrade or add to your kit, the HPX250 would feel familiar and be an easy transition.

It weighs 2.5kg (5.5lbs), a little lighter than the 2.7kg Canon XF305, but neither are shoulder mounted, which will mean the usual aching arms and shoulders on prolonged shoots.

Lens check

Most manufacturers have ditched the separate iris control on a little fiddly dial (as seen on Sony's Z1). Iris is where it should be – on the barrel of the lens behind the zoom and focus. The iris has a good positive feel to it and opens to F1.6, but as you zoom in it will ramp down to F3.2 at full telephoto.

Focus, Zoom and Iris control 

The camera has a good 22x optical zoom from 3.9mm-86mm, which is equivalent to a 28-616mm lens on a 35mm DSLR. There is also a 2x, 5x and 10x digital zoom.

The focus ring, however, was a bit of a disappointment, coming in a non-stop infinity ring mode only. I would have expected Panasonic to copy Sony (EX1) and Canon (XF300/305) and offer the option of a focus ring with hard end stops for a more repeatable focus pull. But, what is there is fine with no lag or stickiness.

If I have to be picky, one problem is that Peaking only comes in white. I always prefer to use a red peaking as it makes focusing so much more obvious and a lot easier.

That said, to help with focusing you do get the usual Push Auto button, which switches the camera from manual to auto focus while you press it down. Plus, there is a Focus Assist button that magnifies the centre of the screen to help you check your focus. This feature shouldn’t be confused with the MF ASSIST mode available in the menus, which increases the sensitivity of the focus ring for fine tuning your focus. If all that wasn’t enough, there is also the focus bar that indicates how sharp the image is – the longer the bar the more in focus you are. Nudge the focus ring too far and the bar starts to shorten as you go out of focus.

Gain control

Gain comes in the usual low, medium and high setting from 0dB to 18dB in 3dB increments. If you are in the dark with no possibility to use lights there are super gain options of 24 and 30dB.There is no negative gain, which seems to be pretty standard on most rival cameras, and there is no way to limit the auto gain, which is a bit disappointing.

Shutter framed

The shutter control design and implementation is a bit worrying. The shutter / F.rate dial is used to change the shutter speed and frame rate – this seems very dangerous. As you turn the dial it goes from shutter to synchro scan then Frame rate – and finally lock. Being lockable is useful to prevent accidentally changing anything, but the lock also activates after 12 seconds of inaction. This made changing things annoying and fiddly – hesitate too long and you have to unlock again.

Shutter and Frame rate on the same control 

But, I really do think it is a bad idea to have both shutter and frame rate on the same control - these two things need to be kept separate. If you weren’t paying attention or a beginner mixed up their shutter speeds with their frame rates – it could all end in tears.

There are, however, a wide range of frame rates to choose from, useful for off-speed (slow motion or fast motion) effects.

Frame rates

50Hz mode
59.97Hz Mode
22/23/24/25 frames per second

32/34/37/42/45/48/50 fps

22/24/25/26/27/28/30 frames per second

32/34/36/40/44/48/54/60 fps

ND filters

The HPX250 has the now almost standard three ND filters, coming in at 1/4ND, 1/16ND, and 1/64ND, controlled by a rotary dial (as pictured below).


The HPX250 comes with two sets of zebras that can be set from 50% to 109% in 1% increments, which is nice. You can see Zebra1 and Zebra2 at the same time, just Zebra1 on its own, or you can choose the ‘spot’ option and see the level between Zebra1 and Zebra2. I’m not sure if I’d use the spot function but some may find it handy.

There is also a useful Y get function that you can assign to an assignable button. It will show the brightness at the centre of the screen – making the camera a useful spot meter.

New cameras now have a waveform monitor and vectorscope. I like to use my waveform to check on black and white crushing and the vectorscope can be handy when doing a white balance – to confirm you’ve done it right.

The camera does have a Full Auto Mode – or panic mode as I like to call it. In this mode the camera switches Focus, Iris, gain and white balance to Auto, but not Shutter and audio. This is different from Sony and Canon where the Auto Mode controls Iris, gain, shutter and white balance.

Full Auto or Manual 

If you are a wedding videographer or do red carpet events, you’re used to flash guns going off around you. Unfortunately, if you are recording video those flashes can cause problems. This is called Flash Banding and you’ll see the brightness at the top of the screen won’t match that at the bottom. The HPX250 does have a very interesting feature called Flash Band Compensation or FBC. This compensates for and minimises the banding when a flash photo is taken in the camera’s vicinity.

White Balance

The HPX250 has the usual preset white balances set to 3200K and 5600K – they have made it easy to toggle between them by pressing the AWB button. You also get the standard A and B manual white balance memories. However, the B memory can be assigned to do an Auto white balance or if you prefer you can assign auto to one of the user buttons.

The camera also has the option to do a black balance by holding down the AWB button for two seconds. I suspect a few operators will do this by accident – but it certainly won’t hurt to do an extra one every now and then.


There are no big surprises with the audio: two XLR sockets, which can be independently switched to line or mic input with switchable phantom power (+48v). It will do the usual 48KHz at 16 bits – but it is nice to see four channels are available, even if only to use as a back up.

Two XLR sockets on the HPX250 

Line and Mic level selection - with 48v Phantom power

Audio input/output selection 

Often the audio volume indicator is a bit small at the bottom on the screen – but you can assign MAG A.LVL to a user button and magnify the meters on the LCD screen – which is a nice touch.

Audio levels - loud and clear 

On the Menu

Moving around the menu is simple with the joystick like Operation lever on the side of the camera. Menus across all the manufacturers are fairly similarly laid out these days – which makes finding your way around pretty easy.

Easy joystick operation to navigate the menu 

Recording media

Two P2 card slots 

The HPX250 has two P2 card slots. P2 isn’t the cheapest recording media, but it is very reliable and unlike Compact Flash has “write protect” to stop you accidentally deleting your media.

However, you need to factor the cost of P2 into the purchase price. A 32GB P2 card is around £375 inc VAT while a 64GB card could set you back £550 inc VAT, although there are good deals if you buy a couple of 32GB P2 cards with the camera.

In comparison a 32GB Compact Flash card for Canon's XF305 would be about £95 inc VAT.

Recording times for HD 1080i, 720p

Recording Format
Recording time on 32GB card
Recording time on 64GB card
AVC-I 100
AVC-I 50
Recording times are for HD 1080i and 720p

The camera works in relay recording mode – first recording onto one card and then on the next once the first is full. With hot swapping you could keep recording until your battery runs out.

The Pre-Rec option is one of my favourite features of tapeless recording. If you’re worried you’ll miss something then switch on the pre-rec and you will not only get the video after you’ve hit the record button but also the three seconds before too. Everyone will think you are psychic.

For those of you who want to do timelapse there is interval recording – plus one shot (frame recording) for animation.

The modes to be wary of are loop and one clip recording. In loop recording mode the empty space on card A is filled then it moves onto card B. When B is filled – the camera does not stop but goes back to card A again and overwrites what it  recorded earlier… then back to overwrite card B – ad infinitum. I can’t think of a use I would have for this. I suppose if you have no idea when an event will happen you could leave the camera in loop mode. But, you would have to ensure you had stopped loop recording once you’ve got what you want – otherwise the camera will head back and overwrite it.

I have had a few trainees who don’t like the fact their video is split into individual clips each time they start and stop recording. So, I guess the ‘one clip recording’ option is for them. In this mode the camera compiles all your video into a single clip.

This feature worries me a lot and I won’t be recommending it to my trainees. Imagine if you do 20 shots in the normal way and one is corrupt. That has happened to me. It is annoying, but at least I still have 19 healthy clips. I assume that if I used the one clip recording option, I would have had one large corrupted file. No, this just sounds like a bad idea.

As well as P2, the camera also uses SD/SDHC cards for recording and loading scene and user files and uploading metadata. This is handy if you have more than one camera and want to swap and synchronise settings. Or maybe your colleagues have sticky fingers and like to change camera settings – this way you can save your settings and load them each time you shoot.

Scene files

If you prefer to tweak the look of your images before the edit, then Panasonic offers six scene files. F1 is for normal everyday shooting; F2 for shooting under fluorescent lighting; F3 for increasing the range of resolution, colour and contrast; F4 increases the contrast in dark areas (increasing black stretch); F5 gives a film look with contrast tweaked; while F6 gives a film look with dynamic range tweaked.

Scene File options 

I must admit I prefer to do very little in the camera to change the look of my pictures. I think if possible you should do that sort of thing in post.

Time code

One advantage of the HPX250 is the inclusion of Timecode in/out connectors for synching timecode across cameras. If you regularly work with more than one camera and have to synch them up later in the edit – synching with time code speeds up the process.

Time code in/out and Genlock 

OK so when did you last use User Bits? I’m starting to wonder why manufacturers still include them as I don’t know anyone that uses them. But, at least Panasonic has found a good use for them – to record your frame rate choices. But if your NLE doesn’t import that information – then it is rather academic.

Who will buy

If you need 100Mbps in a small, relatively inexpensive camera. This is definitely worth a look.

I was training at a production company last week and they were shooting on a Sony EX3 and a NanoFlash because the broadcaster had stipulated recording at 100Mbps. Now the EX3 is a good camera (if a little old) and the NanoFlash does a good job – but for observational documentaries that was a lot of weight to be carrying around. The XF300/305 was no use – as they record at 50Mbps. In that case, the Panasonic HPX250 seems a no brainer. Not too heavy and no external recorder to worry about - although some broadcasters won't accept its 1/3-inch sensors as HD.

The Flash Band Compensation is a fantastic feature for wedding videographers or anyone covering red carpet events with lots of flash photography. 

The genlock and timecode in/out features are a boon for anyone thinking of working multicam either on location on in a studio through a vision mixer (its main rival, the Canon XF300 doesn't have them, you have to spend extra on an XF305).

The Panasonic HPX250 is an interesting camera and certainly worth shortlisting if your budget is less than £5,000.

[[UPDATE: Panasonic has released 18 new, free, downloadable scene styles for the HPX250]]

By Christina Fox

-------------------------- In response to comments  - some setting is currently preventing us from adding a comment below - so we're adding this comment here:

OnThePulse said it doesn't do 1080p, but according to Panasonic (in the HPX250 manual), the variable frame rates it does in 1080p are: 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25fps in 50Hz mode, and 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 30fps in 60Hz mode.

Jonathan, thank you for your kind remarks. We agree about the price of P2, but given the cost of the camera, it can still make financial sense if you get a bundle deal and manage you media very carefully.

March 13, 2012

Fujinon in HA19x7.4 lens drama

Fujinon has started shipping a compact drama lens, the 2/3-inch HA19x7.4BERD, which had its first UK showing at BVE.

“It has reduced pumping compared to a typical ENG lens, and it has the new Fujinon servo control with the comfort grip,” said Stefan Czich, sales manager, broadcast products, of Fujinon’s UK distributor, Pyser-SGI. He hadn’t thought the comfort grip was important when he read about it, but having tried it he thinks it will be a lot more comfortable to hold and offer greater control when pointing the camera down, as it has more space to place your thumb and for using the little finger to control the camera.

It costs about £12,500 with servo focus, and there is also a BERM, servo zoom manual focus, version for about £12,000.

Also shipping now is the XA20sx8.5BERM, a low-cost HD lens with a 2x extender for 2/3-inch cameras for under £3,000. “It’s not a bad spec at a very, very good price,” said Czich.

By David Fox

March 07, 2012

Atomos makes the Connection

The recorder manufacturer, Atomos, is getting ready to ship its new HDMI to HD-SDI and HD-SDI to HDMI Connect converters, and has revealed plans to extend the range with other units, such as one to add XLR audio inputs to its recorders.

The converters, claimed to be the world’s smallest, each cost about £200, and can add HDMI inputs to the Samurai recorder or HD-SDI to the Ninja. Each will be able to fit in a mainstream Sony camcorder battery mount, and has a one-hour battery built in for stand-alone work. This also gives it continuous power when swapping the Sony NP battery that can power it for many more hours (12 on a small battery), and it can pass that power through to the recorder, light fitting, monitor or camcorder it is fitted to (meaning all of them can also be continuously powered). The 3G-ready convertors include Pulldown removal where necessary (60i to 24p and 30p; 50i to 25p), and an inbuilt test pattern and audio tone generation.

Atomos is now developing a range of Connect products “that add functionality to the recorders, but that only 10% to 20% of users need, such as XLR audio inputs,” said its CEO Jeromy Young (pictured with the Connect HDMI to HD-SDI converter).

Since Atomos shipped the Samurai in November, it has “outperformed my forecasts by about 8,000%,” and the company is only now beginning to match production to demand. By BVE it had released 11 free updates to the firmware for the Samurai, with another almost ready to ship. Future updates include off-speed recording (over- or under-cranked), while focus peaking, zebra stripes and false colour should be added by NAB.

“We’re pumping our money into development,” hiring extra engineers, he added.

One of its longer-term goals is an affordable 4:4:4 recorder. “The difference between even 8-bit 4:4:4 and 10-bit 4:2:2 is incredible. You can see the extra colour. But, the infrastructure isn’t there yet – as it isn’t for 50/60p,” said Young.

By David Fox

Polecam Struts its stuff - adds stability

Long term commitment: Hewitt demonstrates the new long-body head with a Panasonic AF101

Polecam has introduced several new accessories for its lightweight jib arms. Although its carbon fibre poles are reasonably stiff, when they reach their maximum length (up to 8m) some users might need extra stability, especially with the older poles that don’t benefit from the latest advances in carbon fibre.

In response, there is the new Polecam Wire Strut System (about £500) “to stabilise it further, for operators who want to throw it around, especially at concerts,” said Polecam founder, Steffan Hewitt. It will reduce vibration during any rapid movement, such as when mounted on a moving vehicle or in challenging weather conditions.

He also reported lots of interest in Polecam’s recently introduced wide DSLR head, and has now developed a long-body head, so that the jib can take a wider range of cameras. “It has a slip ring for power and composite video, and you can put HDMI through it for monitoring,” he explained.

Polecam has also developed a new stabilised cup holder (pictured above), with a gap in the side for a proper cup handle – “Only £6,000 with a free Polecam,” joked Hewitt.

By David Fox

Cambo CS-MFC1 Follow Focus

Cambo’s new CS-MFC1 Universal Follow Focus Kit (seen here on a Canon C300) attaches directly to 15mm lightweight support rods with a quick-lock clamper to offer precise focus control.

To make the £830 kit universal to work with almost any lens, it has a flexible gear ring can fit any focus barrel measuring from 40mm to 100mm in diameter.

It can also reverse its direction of rotation to accommodate the inverse focus direction of DSLR lenses.

By David Fox

March 02, 2012

Canon EOS 5D Mark III launched

Three-and-a-half years ago, Canon kick-started the large sensor revolution with its full-frame DSLR, the EOS 5D Mark II. Since then it has been used on numerous TV dramas, such as House, and other productions to achieve shallow depth of field. Now Canon has introduced the 5D Mark III, which addresses most of the Mark II’s problems.

While the 5D Mark III isn’t the huge leap forward that some users had expected, it does have all the video features previously announced for the up-coming EOS-1D X, but at about half the price, and adds a headphone jack for audio monitoring.

It can record using either interframe or intra-frame compression. The interframe IPB AVC H.264 compression is apparently about 31Mbps (according to the Canon USA website figure of 235MB/min - the 5D Mark II was about 38-40Mbps). However, it has been reported elsewhere as 50Mbps (variable bitrate). The ALL-I intra-frame codec has been reported variously as being 78Mbps, 91Mbps (from the 685MB/min on Canon's US site), and even 300Mbps+ (although maybe that was just the recommended specification for the Compact Flash card). It too is a variable bit rate, and also varies depending on frame rate (going to 81Mbps for 720/60p). However, if we take 91Mbps as correct, that is not necessarily sufficiently better than the Long GoP (group of pictures) interframe compression for broadcast work. The BBC/EBU recommendation for minimum bit rate for interframe is 50Mbps, while for intra-frame recording it is 100Mbps (see What makes an HD camera?) - interframe recording is a lot more efficient than recording all the frames individually, although intra-frame should be easier for post production as the computer doesn't have to look at half-a-second's worth of video just to decode a single frame.

It will shoot 1080 at 24, 25 or 30p, plus 720 at 50/60p (at variable frame rates). There has been a lot of griping that it doesn't do 1080 at 50/60p, but there aren't many professional video cameras that do 50/60p at a decent bit rate, so it's a bit much to expect a relatively low-cost DSLR to do it.

According to Canon, “the new full-frame sensor combines with the vast processing power of DIGIC 5+ [processor] to improve image quality by virtually eradicating the presence of moirĂ©, false colour and other artefacts,” which was the principle problem with the Mark II. In the initial videos released by Canon, these artefacts don’t appear to be noticeable (although the sample online videos are too compressed to make an accurate judgement). There still seem to be some rolling shutter effects (jello), but this appears to be much reduced compared to the Mark II.

Other video related changes include the addition of a movie mode switch and a recording button (similar to the 7D), which enables users to begin shooting immediately when movie mode is engaged (and also allows two completely different settings for movie and stills modes), and locks to prevent accidental exposure changes (something that was a paid upgrade for the Mark II). The rear control wheel is now touch sensitive, so you can make light-fingered adjustments as you are shooting without potentially knocking the camera. Users can also check and adjust audio during recording via the camera’s Quick Control screen. It also adds free-run and rec-run timecode support.

The camera is also considerably better in low light than the Mark II (which was itself a pretty good performer in low light), by about two stops.

There are two card slots (for SD and Compact Flash cards) and users can record to both cards simultaneously, or automatically switch from one to the other when the first card is full. Instead of the 4GB limit per recording (which amounted to about 12 minutes on the Mark II), the Mark III can record up to 29 minutes 59 seconds without pause, as the camera seamlessly connects the 4GB files.

The magnesium body is apparently more weatherproof and durable than the Mark II. It also has a better LCD, using the 3.2-inch 1.04million-dot screen from the 1D X.

One problem with the Mark II that wasn’t addressed was the HDMI output, which still doesn’t produce a clean signal, so can’t be recorded on an external recorder, although the Mark III no longer reduces the resolution to 480p via HDMI when recording starts (which will be better for anyone using an add-on monitor).

Canon now faces a lot more competition than it did in November 2008. The Nikon D800, which should start shipping before April, is the obvious full-frame, full-HD rival, and it will allow a clean HDMI feed for external recording – although not the adjustable audio levels, frame rates above 30fps or higher bitrate in-camera recording of the Mark III (the D800 is limited to 24Mbps).

Canon’s own EOS C300 is a much lauded large-sensor (APS-C/Super 35mm size) video camera, which looks good in low light. And there are now a wide range of large-sensor video cameras that are relatively inexpensive (at least by the standards of a few years ago), from Arri’s Alexa to Sony’s F65, F3 and FS100, and Panasonic’s AF101. At the lowest budget end, Panasonic’s GH2 DSLR can produce lovely-looking video (once it has been loaded with the independent Driftwood hack that allows it record at up to 176Mbps).

At the C300 launch, Canon also promised to introduce a new 4K Cinema EOS full-frame DSLR camera by the end of this year, which may be a further consideration.

“The EOS 5D Mark III represents a big step forward for the EOS 5D series,” said Kieran Magee, Marketing Director, Professional Imaging, Canon Europe.

It “is an exceptional camera and we’ve listened carefully to feedback from its passionate community of users to improve performance in every area. This camera has been designed to meet virtually any creative challenge – it’s faster, more responsive and features the tools to adapt to everything from studio photography to creative videography, while producing results of the highest quality,” he claimed.

The EOS 5D Mark III will be available from end of March 2012, with a list price of £3,000 / €3,570 including VAT, or $3,500.

By David Fox