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Review: Panasonic AG-UX180 4K Professional Camcorder

With its 1" sensor, 20x optical zoom, and extensive array of image controls, Panasonic's AG-UX180 strikes a balance well-suited to the prosumer camera market.

Image Controls

This camera features extensive image controls, ranging from 16-axis independent color correction to adjustments in skin detail, master detail, detail coring, V detail level, RB gain control, chroma level, chroma phase, matrix color correction, master pedestal, gamma, black gamma, knee, knee master point, knee master slope, DRS, DRS effect, auto iris level, auto iris level effect, noise reduction control, and more. Most of these ought to be packed away in an “advanced” menu, considering how much you can affect the image here.

For simpler choices, the AG-UX180 is equipped with eight selectable gamma modes, including two Cine-like gammas, drawing on technologies developed for the VariCam. (You can see the full list of gamma modes with descriptions at bit.ly/2kvxgNM.)

Panasonic provides six files with preset picture quality settings as Scene Files (Standard, Shooting under fluorescent lights, Spark, Still-like, Cine-like contrast, and Cine-like dynamic range). I found it confusing to have two separate groups of settings (Scene Files and Gamma Settings) that affected how the image looked. Since the Scene Files can be saved to an SD card, stored, and shared, I would have preferred to have just Scene 1, 2, 3, etc. As it is, you can change any of the settings as desired and store one set as a custom file in the AG-UX180, and up to eight sets on an SD card.

Being able to set up a look on one camera and quickly load it onto other cameras is essential in multicamera productions, especially on a camera with as many image controls as the UX180. It’s good to see that feature included here.

Stabilization

According to the documentation included with the UX180, the correction area of the camera’s Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) is approximately 9x the correction area of the older Panasonic AG-AC160. In 4K mode, I found myself constantly fighting the OIS in the UX180 because it has so much compensation area. I’d try to follow someone walking and the camera would “isolate” my movement. I’d overcorrect and go back, the camera would correct for my overcorrection, and I’d overcorrect again, leaving me ping-ponging around the subject I was trying to follow.

In the menu, I did not find any way to adjust the speed or scale of the OIS in the UX180, unlike the autofocus, which offers multiple controls for speed, sensitivity, and the width of the focus area. In the absence of OIS user controls, I found it easier to press the OIS button and toggle it off. In HD mode, the camera offers additional electronic image stabilization, which enables five-axis stabilization.

In the video test clips that accompany the online version of this article (bit.ly/2lIR8Cn), I compare the UX180 to a JVC GY-LS300 with a non-stabilized ENG lens when trying to follow my son at full zoom on each lens. You can see in the videos that the manual lens offers much less “floatiness” even though it is not stabilized. I hope that firmware updates can address this and offer both more user control of the OIS and a faster response so there’s less “overshoot” when trying to follow a subject at full telephoto.

Video Tests

I did several video tests with the UX180. The first set of tests was designed to see whether the camera could track a moving subject as well as an older, very small sensor HDV camcorder, and better than the JVC LS300 with the longest Micro 4/3 zoom lens currently available, the 14–140mm 10x lens. In testing, the UX180 traced focus very reliably—more so than the LS300 did with the 10x lens. The HDV camera tracked focus reliably, but the depth of field was much greater because of the smaller sensor.

Then I put the UX180’s 1" sensor head-to-head with the Micro 4/3 sensor found in the Panasonic DVX200 and DMC-GH4 (Figure 5, below). Although the DVX200 is functionally and ergonomically a closer match to the UX180, I didn’t have the DVX200 in house at the time I was doing this review, so I did the comparison testing using the GH4. Side by side, the difference is subtle, but less so than you might imagine because the long zoom of the Micro 4/3 lens stops down to f/6 at the long end, while the UX180 is still in the middle of the zoom range and is able to open the aperture wider, delivering a similar soft look to the background.

Figure 5. Setup for side-by-side testing

Next, I did some handheld tests to follow a subject (my son) moving around in our back yard. For these tests, I outfitted the JVC LS300 with a 15x ENG lens that covers the Super35mm sensor. The manual focus means I track the subject by hand, but it never hunts or automatically pushes focus to the background like the other cameras do. With this configuration, there’s no stabilization other than the heavy weight of the rig and inertia.

The Panasonic held good focus whenever my son’s face was in frame (I didn’t see any facial tracking parameters in the menu system), but at other times it pushed focus to the background with a lot of detail. The optical stabilizer had so much isolation that I found myself working against it, swinging back and forth, constantly overcompensating. This is clearly visible in the test video (bit.ly/2lIR8Cn).

I concluded my tests with a simple demonstration of the zoom range of Micro 4/3 versus UX180. Both cameras offer the wide open field of view of a 24mm full-frame camera. However, you get only a 10x lens on the Micro 4/3, and a 20x lens on the UX180. The 20x lens provides the convenience of a long servo zoom, with autofocus and image stabilization on a larger-sensor camcorder, which is simply not available elsewhere.

Conclusion

Overall, I was impressed with the Panasonic AG-UX180. Before its arrival, the convenience of a camcorder with a 20x optical zoom had fallen by the wayside with the move to larger-sensor cameras. While not as large as Micro 4/3 or APS-C, the 1" sensor in the UX180 offers a shallower depth of field than the tiny prosumer camcorders we’ve used in the past. It restores the flexibility and convenience of a wide lens and long zoom without having to change glass as you would on an interchangeable-lens camcorder.

This combination is perfectly suited to events where you need to go from very wide to long telephoto to capture a variety of shots and it’s just not possible to change lenses. It’s a good match for live performances, sports, competitions, weddings, and more.

The UX180’s potential use in multicamera live events is hampered only by the lack of Genlock (which would save the video switcher from having to lose a frame to sync it with the other cameras) and the inability to use both HDMI and SDI out (one output for the operator’s monitor and the other for the house feed). To accomplish this, you’ll need to use more expensive gear with loop-through, or split the signal if you want to send 4K HDMI out to the mixer, but need to feed an on-camera monitor too.

The UX180 balances nicely in the hand and gives you features that would take time building up and then taking apart if you were using an interchangeable-lens camcorder or DSLR. In places where you need to produce content quickly, but still want to get some shallower DoF than a tiny-chip camcorder, the UX180 finds a sweet spot that has eluded large-sensor camcorders until now.

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