Field Report: Panasonic AJ-PX380 Camcorder

Broadcasters and news crews sometimes get wrapped up in the latest camera technology. They may forget, the goal is to capture good images, and tell a story. We still need full-size, small-format camcorders and here is why.

For much of the industry full-size small-format camcorders have mostly disappeared from the scene. A decade ago the NAB floor was replete with 1/3-, 1/2-, and 2/3-type cameras, which for broadcast shooters and news departments, offered the ideal mix of high performance and practicality. Fitted with extremely versatile optics, a close-focus macro, and a long zoom of 17X or more, the cameras in their later incarnations were also very well balanced, lightweight, and drew little power which translated into smaller and fewer lead sinker battery packs. With crisp focusing EVFs and a useful deep depth of field, these cameras simply made the most sense for news, documentary, and nonfiction applications. And yes they still do.

The size of close ups and depth of field can be very powerful communicators of genre. Does the size of your camera sensor support the appropriate storytelling goals? Large format cameras suggest dramatic story (a); small format cameras like the Panasonic PX380 convey greater immediacy and are thus better suited for non-fiction, news, and documentary projects (b).

The shallow depth of field fad that grew out of the Canon 5D phenomenon and ensuing DSLR onslaught, enabled narrative filmmakers to achieve a more 35mm cine type look with nowhere near the hitherto expense and hassle. For broadcasters however the tsunami of large-format cameras over the last decade meant fewer practical small-format options for news operations.

Broadcast news needs a different solution

So why not go with the flow and utilize a large-format camcorder for news and nonfiction programming?

One of the pillars of effective visual storytelling is the communication of genre. Our television audiences are perfectly willing to laugh or cry or do nothing at all, but they need to know what to do. If a news program is supposed to be light-hearted or comic, we want our viewers to be smiling or laughing through most of it. And if the program is serious, for example, a report about a family murdered in cold blood, we probably don’t want our audiences rolling in hysterics out of their overstuffed chairs.

Many strategies may be used to communicate genre to our audience. We compose and frame the scene, choose the appropriate close up, and light the reporter or talent, according to the demands of the nonfiction or news genre.

From a camera perspective we know frame rate can be a powerful communicator of genre. A frame rate in excess of 30FPS for example suggests a news, documentary, or sports story, while a frame rate under 30FPS, i.e. 24FPS, is more suggestive of a narrative representation.

Likewise the communication of genre is connected to sensor size. Large format sensors and a concomitantly narrow DOF communicate to viewers a more dramatic feel while smaller sensors suggest a more immediate non-fiction sense. Because the story is the conduit through which all technical and creative decisions flow (per the great American film director Sidney Lumet) our choice of camera, frame rate, lens, and sensor size, should reflect our overall storytelling mandate: shoot large sensor for drama; shoot small sensor for non-fiction.

The Panasonic AJ-PX380 camcorder

The Panasonic AJ-PX380 is a traditional small-format shoulder-mounted camcorder recording P2 to mini and full-size memory cards.

The Panasonic AJ-PX380 is a traditional small-format shoulder-mounted camcorder recording P2 to mini and full-size memory cards.

Panasonic’s new AJ-PX380 camcorder is a throwback to a simpler, more straightforward time, when small format cameras ruled the roost. Now out of fashion, the PX380 with a diminutive 1/3-type 3-MOS chipset is not going to draw many oohs and ahhs from the large single-sensor fanboys, but it will certainly earn the respect of news and documentary producers everywhere, who must produce a large amount of content every day, and not just talk about it.

The full-size shoulder-configured PX380 is virtually identical in terms of performance to the company’s compact AJ-PX270, which also utilizes the VariCam 35 colorimetry, and likewise produces stunning nuanced images. The PX380 with interchangeable optics and built-in studio adapter does offer some advantages and disadvantages, however, compared to its one-piece lower-cost brethren.

The PX380 ships optionally with an interchangeable 17X Fujinon lens with traditional mechanics and zoom servo. This economical lens offers decent performance with good wide-angle coverage but does not produce nearly the same quality images as the PX270 with its integrated 22x zoom; the one-piece camera and optics providing more effective onboard correction for chromatic aberrations, barrel distortion, tracking errors, and other defects.

The optional Fujinon 17x package zoom offers decent but not great performance. The onboard Chromatic Aberration Compensation (CAC) improves the apparent performance of the lens significantly.

The optional Fujinon 17x package zoom offers decent but not great performance. The onboard Chromatic Aberration Compensation (CAC) improves the apparent performance of the lens significantly.

The PX380 does offer chromatic aberration compensation (CAC) with the standard 17x lens, with an on-board LUT suppressing the most egregious CA defects in the low-cost zoom. Suffice it to say, the PX380 is also available (body only) without a lens, so better pricier optics may be fitted if desired.

LCD panel.  The camera’s re-designed LCD panel features a bevy of soft buttons that are unintuitive, and needlessly convoluted for setting key functions like time code and audio levels. <br />

LCD panel. The camera’s re-designed LCD panel features a bevy of soft buttons that are unintuitive, and needlessly convoluted for setting key functions like time code and audio levels.

A key benefit of the camera’s traditional lens and form factor is the ability to accept standard studio-type accessories such as remote zoom and focus. The camera’s built-in Ethernet connector and integrated adapter make the PX380 a good choice for low-budget multi-camera setups. Wireless operation and control (optional) via Wi-Fi, 4E, LTE, further expands the cameras versatility.

The PX380 provides two mini P2 card slots and one full-size P2 card slot. The type of media is designated via a menu option.

The PX380 provides two mini P2 card slots and one full-size P2 card slot. The type of media is designated via a menu option.

The PX380 is a conservative, small-format camera that is not as sexy as it is functional. For news and nonfiction shooters and in non-broadcast low-cost studio environments, like churches and in schools, the PX380 gets the job done and it does so without a lot of intrigue or discussion. For many of us that still counts.

Performance at a glance:

  • The Panasonic AJ-PX380 camera produces notably better than average skin tones and shadow integrity in low light, especially when recording AVC-INTRA 100 Mbps; camera provides adjustable frame rates to 60 FPS; comes with built-in Ethernet connector and integrated studio adapter enabling easy, low cost multi-camera setups for broadcasters on a budget.
  • I found some cost-cutting compromises in hardware integrity e.g. the rotary menu dial lacks heft and a positive feel; the camera’s new unintuitive control panel can be frustrating; a lens and viewfinder is not included with basic camera.
  • Specifications: 1/3-type 3-MOS 2.2M sensor, same as AJ-PX270 model, 1920 x 1080 native HD resolution; ten-bit 4:2:2 recording to AVC-Intra 100/50 P2; also records DVCPRO HD, DV; dual codec and simultaneous recording to two (2) mini P2 cards, one full-size P2 card slot also provided; (optional) interchangeable 17X F1.6- 4.5 4.5mm – 77mm; VFR mode to 60 FPS gen-lock IN, time-code I/O; 3G-SDI, HD-SDI, HDMI and switchable SD/HD monitor output; built-in Ethernet and studio camera adapter; (optional) USB dongle for wireless connectivity via Wi-Fi, 4G, or LTE; on board slot for wireless mic receiver. Weight: 2.7kg body only; power consumption: 19W. 

Some other Barry BravermanThe Broadcast Bridge articles are listed below.

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