Panasonic's latest top of the range consumer camcorder, the HC-VXF990, boasts 4K video and host of cinematic modes for budding filmmakers

Product Overview

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First Look Review: Panasonic HC-VXF990 Camcorder

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Price as reviewed:

£649.00
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Despite Panasonic admitting that volume and value sales of camcorders being in decline, the company stills sees that there are opportunities for its high-end consumer camcorder range. This is where the new Panasonic HC-VXF990 camcorder comes in.

One of those areas of opportunity is those users who may be shooting video on a smartphone, and want better quality, but without having to use an intimidating DSLR camera. So what exactly does the HC-VXF990 bring to the party?

Features

The most obvious feature is the 4K video capture. Given that even the latest Panasonic compact cameras can now shoot 4K video footage it is no surprise to see this in the companies top of the range camcorder. In terms of quality the 4k uses a data rate of up to 72Mbps, which is fairly good for this level, but obviously pales when compared to the Canon XC10 which clocks in at around 300Mbps, however that is only as a comparison and it is important to remember that these are very different cameras aimed at different users.

Capturing the 4k footage is a 1/2.3rd in BSI (Back Side Illuminated) CMOS sensor that has a high speed readout to avoid any rolling shutter effect. Obviously with a large amount of data being generated by the sensor and image processor a lot of heat is generated by the camera. To counter this all of the processing takes place in one location on the camera circuit board, and very cleverly copper has been used internally to help disperse this thermal heat to prevent the camera from overheating, which would of course also stop recording.

Panasonic Camcorder

As well as having an articulated screen on the side, the camcorder also has a tilting 1,550k dot electronic viewfinder. The tilting mechanism is useful for when shooting at lower angles, and it is a feature we have also seen in Panasonic photo cameras, such as the Lumix GX7.

The lens of the camera is designed in partnership with Leica and is a 20x optical zoom with built-in 5-axis optical image stabilisation. Having a zoom this powerful in a camcorder of its size is quite impressive and the image stabilisation seems to work very well when you are keeping the camera held steady. It isn’t quite as good when you are walking, but the results are acceptable.

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Microphone and headphone sockets are features on the camera, as well as a mounting shoe on the top of the camera should you wish to mount a light or external microphone. there is also a micro HDMI socket on the side of the camera for outputting directly to an external monitor or to a television. So again, whilst the camera may be ideal for those wanting a simple point and shoot camcorder, it  also caters for those slightly more demanding filmmakers and bloggers.

Shooting Modes

Besides shooting in 4K it is obviously possible to shoot at 1080p at a frame rate of up to 50fps. But besides these standard shooting modes there are some other interesting modes that should appeal to budding filmmakers who want to achieve professional results straight from the camera.

One of the most interesting features is Slow/Fast mode. This records footage at half speed, but a onscreen button can be press that then switches to recording at twice the speed. When the footage is played back the clip seamlessly jumps between the fast and slow motion recorded in the clip.

It can be tricky to use the Slow/fast mode with real precision, but with some careful timing of when you want to make the switch, the results can look very effective. Again, it is nothing that can’t be achieved in post production by recording at 100fps and then speeding up or slowing down the footage when editing, but for those that want to get as much as possible done in-camera it is a neat feature.

Another cinematic style effect is Dolly Zoom. This recreates the famous Vertigo effect, whereby the camera is pulled backwards away from a subject, whilst at the same time the cameras lens zooms in, keeping the subject exactly the same size within the frame, but altering the background depth and angle in relation to the subject. If it sounds complicated, it is, and it is a tricky shot to master. The mode in the HC-VXF990 does make it a little easier, but there is still some trial and error involved in getting this to work as it should, and for best results you will still need to use a slider or dolly.

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If you fancy yourself as a something of a live broadcast director then camcorder also has a  Wireless multi camera mode that will allow you to connect up to 3 smartphones to the HC-VXF990. The camera will then display two of the video feeds from the smartphone cameras in a picture in picture display over the main footage being recorded by the camera. You can switch the feeds from the smartphone whilst recording. Again, it is a fairly simple way to achieve something that could be done better in post production, but it makes this kind of feature available to those with little post-production experience.

More useful is the way that the camera can use its 4K capture mode to produce slick pans and zooms. Simply shoot your 4K resolution footage, select your starting frame size and position, then the end frame, and the camcorder can generate a smooth pan that is output at 1920 x 1080 resolution. This is actually a great use of 4K technology, which many people will be able to use the create impressive footage.

Build and Handling

Picking up the HC-VXF990 you really that there really is nothing to it. It is extremely small and lightweight, and will fit quite comfortably inside a large jacket pocket. This is quite an impressive feat given the feature set of the camcorder.

Part of the reason for this weight is the use of lightweight polycarbonate, or plastic as it used to be called, to form the body of the camera. This is certainly great for reducing weight, but it in turn it does also make the camera feel like it is very much a consumer product, and a little hollow on the inside.

The plasticky feel of the camcorder is a little deceptive as it is well constructed, albeit with a few little niggles. For example the sliding door for the headphone and DC inputs is a little clunky and lacks refinement. Ok, I’m nit picking.

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Otherwise the camera handles well. It fits nicely in hand and the buttons and controls are all quite logically laid out. The touchscreen allows you to navigate the various menu options and settings easily and it is reasonably responsive. One of the first things that you will want to do is to turn of the annoying confirmation beep that occurs every time you press one of the onscreen buttons.

In terms of battery the HC-VXF990 will shoot for around 70mins with supplied battery, but can do up to 2hrs 30mins with an optional larger battery pack. Usefully, as well as a charger, the camera can also be charged via its micro USB socket, which is extremely useful for topping up the battery whilst on the move.

Image Quality

We’re still in the process of testing the HC-VXF990, but our initial impressions of the footage that the camera can produce is very good. As already mentioned, the bit rate for the 4K footage means that it is quite compressed, but there is little evidence of that, and certainly nothing that would concern the average consumer user.

The Leica lens is sharp in the corners, particularly when shooting at the shortest focal length of the zoom, and in the Panasonic demonstration video that we saw, there was no chromatic aberration on high contrast edges. Again, we will look at this in more detail in the next few weeks when we have shot more sample footage.

Initial Impressions

The Panasonic HC-VXF990 is lightweight, small and produces very detailed 4K footage, which means that it is sure to appeal to those that still want to use a camcorder. All of the modes and features are simple enough for those with little technical knowledge to use, and those who like to point and shoot will be satisfied with the cameras Intelligent Auto scene modes. Delve deeper and there is a lot of fun to be had playing with the other modes and features of the camera.

We’re be updating this review over the coming weeks, so make sure you keep checking back for more sample footage from the Panasonic HC-VXF990.