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Review: Panasonic AG-HMC80 Shouldermount Camcorder

In an era of ever-shrinking HD cameras, cell phone HD, and DSLRs, you might ask, why would anyone need an on-shoulder HD camcorder? Is it the copious amount of I/O jacks? The ergonomics? Or the easy access to numerous features in a big camera sort of way that enamor the Panasonic AG-HMC80 to its target end users? Let's find out.

In an era of ever-shrinking HD cameras, cell phone HD, and DSLRs, you might ask, why would anyone need an on-shoulder HD camcorder? Is it the copious amount of I/O jacks? The ergonomics? Or the easy access to numerous features in a big camera sort of way that enamor the Panasonic AG-HMC80 to its target end users? Let's find out.

Before reviewing any shouldermount camera, I must disclose that, unlike the majority of professionals I work with these days, when I started working in the video industry, on-shoulder cameras were the only models available. In fact, the deck was separate and the two had a short, fat, multi-pin cable tethering them together.

Times have changed, and now cell phones shoot HD. People perform incredible stunts with a half-dozen GoPro HERO cameras strapped and mounted in all kinds of places, capturing amazing footage. Tiny DSLRs are touted as replacements for broadcast camcorders and motion picture cameras. But for some events and workflows there is still a definitive need for something bigger, on the shoulder, that provides easy access to controls, copious I/O that doesn't require proprietary cables or connectors, and has the innate heft and balance that helps to stabilize the camera through inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

My comparison for the Panasonic HMC80 is my Sony HDR-FX1, a prosumer "palmcorder" that is very typical of prosumer camcorders from every manufacturer. These are meant to be wielded by your hands alone, or a tripod, or some harness/stabilization rig. They do not rest on your shoulder. In fact, the total number of HDV camcorders that were real on-shoulder camcorders could be counted on one hand.

For someone new to the industry and accustomed to the ever-shrinking size of camcorders, the Panasonic HMC80 may seem to be a bit of a gorilla. But there is a definite reason it exists.

PHYSICS

First, the camera is longer than you're used to because it's designed to be long enough to rest on your shoulder, not against it, or solely in your hand. This rearward placement puts the camera closer to your face. So instead of defaulting to a swingout LCD screen, the HMC80 comes standard with a sizeable viewfinder that is designed to sit up against your eye. The rubber eyecup protrudes outward a bit much for me, but it's soft enough to bend it back to a comfortable position.

Panasonic HMC80

The HMC80 (foreground) and Sony FX1 (background); note the sizeable viewfinder on the HMC80.

The whole viewfinder assembly can extend to the left far enough for left-eyed people and looking through it gives a very nice view into your HD world. If you're used to looking at a camcorder's swing out screen, then you'll be surprised that using the viewfinder is like looking at a 24" display from just 4' away. You actually look around the image, as opposed to just looking at a tiny screen. I found the viewfinder to be good to use, but I wish it were a bit crisper for manual focusing. There ought to be a Peaking control in addition to the Focus Assist, which gives you only a digital crop of the center of the HD image.

You can swing up the eyepiece and watch the LCD with both eyes with no trouble. There is also a diopter adjustment for those who wear glasses so you can adjust the eyepiece for your eye and not have to use your glasses.

When packing the camcorder, however, you'll discover a new challenge with larger, viewfinder-based camcorders. Instead of just a thin tube of a palmcorder, you now have a minimum width of 10.5". That's 60% the camcorder's 18" length. There have been various on-shoulder camcorders that were designed to swing the viewfinder forward to make it easier to pack. Professional camcorders let you detach the viewfinder completely so you can cram a big pro camcorder into a small bag that fits airline carry-on restrictions. But the HMC80 viewfinder is hardwired and unremovable. So plan accordingly.

The grip distance is comfortable, though I wish the grip could rotate a little bit for a better fit. Every person's arm length is different, but I really haven't found a really comfortable grip since I stopped using big Fujinon lenses on pro camcorders. The HMC80 does sit nicely on the shoulder, but as there's little weight on the back of the camcorder, most of the weight is still in your hand. So, as with Canon's XL-series, your right arm is lifting the weight of the camcorder the entire time.

JVC is the only company to really get on-shoulder HDV camcorders right. When you add a pro battery to the back, it adds enough weight so the center balance shifts back over the shoulder. This allows your right hand to wield and steady the camcorder, not lift it. With my Sony DSR-250, I could literally pull my hand out from under the lens and the camcorder would stay on my shoulder. If an accessory comes out to mount big pro battery packs on the back of the HMC80, get it. Good balance makes a big difference.

As it is, the camcorder ships with a tiny 1.5" battery cube that weighs only 3.7 ounces. This powers the camera for a good hour or so, depending on use, but does nothing to pull the center of balance to the back of the camcorder. Even with the battery inside, the camera wanted to tip forward as much as it wanted to be level on my tripod. The lens is just where all the weight of this camcorder is.

The HMC80 is based on the much smaller HMC40, but in a much larger shell, so there's plenty of room for jacks and to attach accessories. You can velcro two wireless lavs on the body. The camcorder even has two cold shoes on top, side by side. It's the physical size of the camera that enables more buttons for direct access to features, and the addition of accessories without cumbersome cages or rails, etc.