Panasonic TM700 Video Camcorder
High-End Quality in a Consumer Package
We are now well into the era of the video DSLR. There are low budget feature films being shot with cameras like the Canon 5D MKII and Panasonic GH1. Numerous high budget ads and documentaries have been produced with them, and they are also serving as "B" cams in a great many TV productions.
Techies can argue over the nuances of image quality, but when a video DSLR can produce image quality like this in the hands of a talented film maker the arguments quickly become academic.
But, video DSLRs are terrible video cameras when it comes to handling. Worse than terrible. They simply suck, and it takes a raft-full of accessories and assistants to make them perform properly on complex set-ups without the cinematographer wanting to commit suicide in frustration.
At the NAB show in mid-April both Panasonic and Sony (two of the major players in broadcast video gear) announced their intention to produce video cameras that use DSLR sized sensors. Once this happens I think that video DSLRs will be of decreasing interest to professional film makers, and will return to becoming the province of low budget producers and serious amateurs.
Which brings us to the Panasonic TM700. Along with its sister model the HS700 (which differs only in having a 240GB hard drive built in instead of 32GB solid state memory), these cameras are essentially identical.
While this site is primarily about still photography we do cover developments in the world of video from time to time, and of course we are heavily involved in producing video ourselves in the form of our training videos and Video Journals.
Our current video camera cupboard contains two Sony EX1s for our commercial productions, as well a JVC HM-100, Canon 7D, and Panasonic GH1, for personal projects and specialized applications.
At first glance the TM100 seems like yet another small camcorder in the $1,000 range. Half a dozen companies make these, including the major players – Canon, Panasonic, and Sony. New models come and go on a regular basis, and unless one starts digging into the specs and reviews it's hard to differentiate between them.
But the TM700, released worldwide in March, 2010, has something special about it that caused me to ask for a review sample from Panasonic. It is the first camcorder that is able to shoot 1080P/60. That is full HD, 1920X1080 at 60 frames per second in Progressive mode. (Yes, Sanyo had a 1080P/60 camera last year, but they are a minor player and have since been acquired by Panasonic).
If you are not up to speed on the niceties of video formats and nomenclature have a look at my tutorial titled Understanding Video.
Be aware that 1080P/60 is a big deal, as it is the highest resolution and fastest frame rate possible under today's broadcast and distribution standards. In fact HD TV isn't even currently capable of 1080P/60, being limited to 1080i/30. The top current Progressive broadcast standard is 720P/60.
3D TV and the new Blu-Ray standard for 3D permit 1080P/60, but will just start to become available in mid-2010.
So, with that out of the way, back to the TM700, which really appears to be a ground breaking product.
The bullet points are...
- Three 1/4" CMOS sensors
- 32GB internal solid state media (2hr 40 minutes at the top recording speed)
- SD card compatible, including the new SDXC cards up to 2 Terabytes in size (now that's scary)
- 3" LCD and also an electronic viewfinder
- 14.2MP stills (claimed, but not really)
- 35-420mm (equiv) f1.5– 2.8 Leica lens (fast and wide for a video camcorder)
- dual mode optical image stabilization (very effective)
- time lapse shooting
- pre-record function
- full manual controls
The price? About $999 at B&H.
Build and Design
The Panasonic T700 is clearly a consumer product in its design, if not in its performance. In part this means that it was designed to a price point, but also it uses the lightest weight materials possible so as to keep the mass of the camera low. I can't argue with either of these approaches.
There are a few design considerations to criticize. I was not happy to discover that the AC power socket is located underneath the battery compartment. This means having to remove the battery for mains use, and also makes the camera itself unable to act as a charger.
The cover over the video connector ports and the SD card slot also can't be opened when the camera is mounted on a tripod with a Sachler plate, for example. This means having to remove it from the tripod to do something as simple as change a card.
The articulated LCD also must be opened to be able to reach the latch for the battery cover, and since almost all of the controls are either LCD touch-screen based, or hidden by the screen, it is impossible to do much more than the most basic shooting with the screen closed.
Also, when the screen is open for shooting the button that activates the lens control ring is almost impossible to press.
Ai Mode and Manual
There are going to be two constituencies of users for the T700, and the camera tries to address the needs of both. For the amateur who wants to just pick up the camera and shoot the best possible footage, there is the Ai button which automates virtually every available setting.
But, when one wants to, there is manual control available for everything from focus, to shutter speed, to aperture and gain, zooming, white balance and more.
Panasonic has a very convenient and usable interface for these, with a button turning Ai mode on and off. When it is turned off various manual settings can be activated by pressing another button near the front left of the camera, or via the touch screen. In fact, when in fully automatic mode just touching the front mode selector button instantly switches the camera to manual select mode, something that is appreciated when using the camera with the viewfinder.
A free turning ring surrounding the lens now becomes a manual control for a range of functions, including aperture, shutter speed and manual focus.
Speaking of focusing, there is a mode whereby touching the desired subject on the screen will cause the camera to focus on it, and the T700 can then lock onto it if it moves. There is face recognition (of course) as well as the ability to lock onto a face and track its motion to keep it in focus.
But, as nifty as this all is, the camera is a bit weak when it comes to deciding on the best point of focus when zooming. Just as the pros do, manual focus with pre-sets is best on complex set-ups.
I was quite impressed with the camera's zooming capabilities. While zooming is frowned up in serious filming circles, for the amateur that doesn't have a dolly track it's a way of introducing some motion and dynamism to the shot. But, most low-end camera have really poor power zooming, with either too fast or uncontrollable speed.
The T700 has two zoom controls – three if you include the manual lens ring (which becomes a zoom ring if it isn't programmed to do anything else). There are physical zoom buttons on the LCD screen, which produces a nice slow zoom.
There is also a dedicated zoom lever on the top rear panel of the camera which has a variable speed capability. The zoom buttons on the LCD bezel have a slow and smooth action while the zoom lever on the top of the camera has a variable speed action. Press hard and it zooms quickly; press softly and it zooms very slowly. Nicely done!
1080P/24 Cinema Mode
As you'll read further below, the good news is that the TM700 can shoot 1080P/60. The bad news is that it is nearly impossible to currently edit this format directly. Using a conversion program such as ClipWrap for the Mac both individual files and batch processing of native 1080P/60 footage is possible, preferably into an editing format such as Prores.
But, while 60P provides the smoothest motion, there are movie makers that prefer 24P for its "cinema" look. (In other words, the motion artifacts look like they were shot on film, which some prefer to smooth progressive motion at 30P or 60P, which is too "video-like" for some tastes).
60P can easily be converted to 24P (which 30P can't), and so one can always do this after the fact if transfer to motion picture film for theatrical release is contemplated. But, since theaters are converting to digital projectors at a rapid pace the days of film release are likely numbered, and these behemoths will soon join Carousel slide projects in that great camera museum in the sky.
Bottom line is that if you want the "24fps Look", the HM700 can give it to you. When shot in this mode the camera produces standard AVCHD footage that any editing program that can handle AVCHD can deal with it without trouble. Overall image quality though is demonstrably not as good as when shooting in the camera's special 60P mode. My suggestion would be to shoot 1080P/60 and then downconvert if you want 24P. You can't go the other way.
Be aware that the TM700 can also shoot 1080i/60 in regular AVCHD mode (though I'm not sure why you'd want to), and it edits normally, but there are no 720 modes (1280X720) at all.
And, speaking of format conversion, the TM700 has the ability to copy files between the SD card and the internal memory, and optionally to convert from 1080P/60 to 1080i/60.
The TM700 can also shoot stills. In fact it is promoted as having 14.2 Megapixel resolution, with this information even engraved on the body of the camera.
Sorry. Maybe in Planet Panasonic this is the case, but not on planet Earth. The camera has three 2.5MP sensors, each recording the same beam split image into separate RBG channels. I'll leave it to you to do the math, but no way, no how, does this add up to 14 megapixels of real luminance information.
All one has to do is look at the files on screen or on a print. Frankly, they suck. They are full of upressing artifacts, and for my money are useless for anything other than small prints or modest sized web use; nothing more serious than than.
Video image quality is another matter. I agree with the evaluation of the experts at camcorderinfo.com. This may well be the highest image quality seen to date from any pocket-sized camcorder.
The JVC is a superior camera operationally, but the new little Panasonic blows it away in terms of image quality. Whether its resolution, colour purity, motion artifacts or any other visual measure, the TM700 is preferable, and by a quite visible margin.
Given that the TM700 is much smaller and lighter, not to mention less than a third the price, the only compelling argument for the JVC are its handling advantages (along with ease of editing in native format), and its XLR audio audio inputs.
Two other comparisons which I did were with our Sony EX-1s and also my Panasonic GH1. I won't labour these comparisons, and won't be showing you clips, because by the time the footage has been downressed and compressed for web display much of what can be seen is masked.
What I see is that compared to the EX1, the T700 is very impressive, giving up little in terms of image quality in decent light conditions. In low light, of course, the Sony's larger sensors come into their own.
The comparison with the GH1 is another matter. I found the GH1's footage to be much less appealing in a side-by-side comparison, and compression artifacts quite objectionable, while the T700 was squeaky clean by comparison.
It needs to be said that viewed against all of these other cameras which I have available for comparison, the T700's images seemed contrastier and more saturated. I could do without the contrast, but the saturation, frankly, makes the images appealing to the casual film maker, and for the more discerning pro makes the images easier to grade in post, as reducing saturation looses less quality that increasing it when one needs to.
Remember – video is like JPG stills; a fully baked image, and much less amenable to manipulation in post than a raw file would be. (Where's the RED Scarlet when we really need it? Two years late and still in limbo, is where it is.)
This two minute long video shows various aspects of the T700's performance
– the good and the bad.
You will notice focus searching, as well as some colour fringing and blooming.
But on the whole the image quality is quite high.
Please note that this video
is hosted on Vimeo due to its size. It also has been reduced from 1920X1080P/60
along with whatever additional encoding and Flash compression
Vimeo has applied.
Any stuttering seen is an artifact of the Vimeo compression and is not seen in
the original video footage.
LCD and Viewfinder
One of the things that has always attracted me to Panasonic's top-of-the-line consumer camcorders is that they have an electronic viewfinder as well as an articulated 3" LCD. Just as with still cameras that only have LCD screens I find not being able to hold the camera up to my eye at times detracts from my ability to set up and frame a shot the way I want to.
The EVF on the TM700 isn't a terribly good one, but it's a whole lot better than nothing, which is what you get from most other moderately priced camcorders.
The LCD is similarly not the best in class, and there are now competitive products with larger screens, but it too is sufficient for what most people will likely do with the camera.
Note that like most cameras of this type, the vast majority of controls are accessed through the touch screen interface. Panasonic's is adequate, but not as elegantly designed as some of its competitors.
The TM700 has a built-in fan. One assumes that it is required to keep the electronics cool, since this camera certainly has to have some seriously powerful ASICs to run its very high data rates (28 MB/sec).
I found the fan to be almost inaudible in anything except the absolutely most silent environments. You can hear it if you hold the camera up to your ear, but that's about it. (Now try and shoot in that position).
There has been concern expressed on some forums about fan noise showing up in ones recordings. I haven't noticed it, but if you are that focused on sound my suggestion is that you consider either an accessory shotgun mike, or a separate sound recorder. The built-in mike is simply for ambience recording and a reference track, to my mind.
The T700 has an "Active" stabilization mode that is truly impressive. Even its normal optical stabilization mode produces very watchable footage, but the new Active mode is very effective when the camera is in motion, such as when in a car, walking down stairs, or other similar situations. It is less successful when the camera is being panned, so one needs to experiment to find what works best in different situations.
In and Out
The T700 has some of the most advanced image quality available in a small hand-held camcorder, yet it is strictly amateur when it comes to input and output controls. There is no LANC port, so remote control is limited to the provided wireless remote control – which only works when it has a view of the front of the camera. Come on Panasonic; think outside the box. Put an IR sensor at the rear of the camera so that it the remote control become useful for something other than home porn.
There is a stereo mini-jack for a mike input and a headphone jack, but the camera is too small for XLR connections. There are also USB and HDMI ports. An HDMI cable is not provided with the camera kit.
Frankly, even if there was nothing much else outstanding about the TM700 I'd buy it just for its time lapse capability alone. The camera can be set to shoot from 1 frame every second to a frame every 10 second, 30 seconds, one minute, or two minutes.
Shot Using the T700's Time Lapse Function at 1 Frame Per Second
Usually not seen on a camera in this price range is a pre-record capability. When engaged, the camera is always recording the last three seconds to a buffer, and then when the shutter release is depressed the camera continues recording to the memory card, along with the most recent previous three seconds.
This means that you can wait for an event to happen, and start recording after it has begun (at least as quickly as your reflexes allow), capturing the three seconds prior along with the material after you started shooting.
On a less positive note – the camera provides no ability to apply sequential numbering to its files. Every time you format the card the file numbering starts afresh at 0000.
This means that you will end up with a great many clips with the same numbers, which can be confusing as hell. Who at Panasonic thought that this was a good idea? Even the simplest point and shoots offers the ability to do sequential numbering. Grrrr.
As mentioned, the T700's footage at 1080P/60 is really terrific. The high data rate of 28MB/s really shows. But, there's always a catch. Right? Well the catch with the T700 is that there isn't any way to directly edit 1080P/60 footage. To my knowledge few NLE (non-linear editing) programs can handle this format (yet). What Panasonic has done is record the 1080P/60 signal from the TM700 is AVCHD, but in a new proprietary flavour.
I am told that Edius Neo 2 Booster and Edius 5.5 will edit the 1080 60p files on a decent computer.
Several online sources have made a bit deal of how difficult it therefore is to edit native 1080P/60 files. Well, not really. There are a number of solutions available for both Mac and PC owners. All it means is taking a bit of time to transcode the files to a format better suited to non-linear editing.
Sony Vegas Pro for Windows lets you render in Mainconcept AVC/AAC.
The least expensive solution for Windows users is Nero Vision, which I am told can handle these files. I am told that Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 can also handle T700 files at 1080P/60.
Roxio Toast 10 Titanium (PC and Mac) can also convert files to a robust transcoding format, such as Prores.
Probably the easiest way for Mac users to deal with the TM700's unique 1080/60P files is to use a program called Clipwrap. This program costs US $49.95.
See – I told you it wasn't a big deal. And at $100 for a Terabyte drive, the large files created by transcoding just aren't the concern that they once were.
I have a few suggestions for accessories for the T700, or indeed for just about any small camcorder. The first is for a mike. Built in mikes are pretty poor as well as subject to handling and camera noise, so a small shotgun mike is high recommended.
My experience is that the smallest and lightest high quality mike for these types of cameras is the Sennheiser MKE 400, at about $200. Be careful not to get anything much bigger or longer, as it will likely appear in the frame when shooting with a wide angle focal length.
I would also strongly urge anyone purchasing a TM700 to also acquire a Panasonic VBG-260 battery. This is a high capacity battery that provides about three hours of shooting and review time, and in the long run is much more economical and handy than just another standard 130 series battery. It's large, but fits snugly in the camera battery recess, and doesn't interfere with the EVF.
Though the T700's built-in zoom covers from the equivalent of 35mm to 420mm, it is often worth having something wider, and occasionally something longer. JVC makes very good accessory lenses in the 46mm thread size that the T700 uses. Their .7X wide angle gives the equivalent of a 24mm wide angle coverage and costs $225, and their 1.8X telephoto turns the cameras lens in the equivalent of 750mm at its standard 12X optical zoom ratio.
I was curious to see how far things could be pushed though, and so I did some experimentation with the camera's 18X and 30X digital zoom modes. What I found was that the 18X mode, though digital and not true optical, still produced high quality images, and even the 30X mode, which makes the long end of the lens equivalent to 1,000mm, still holds up reasonably well.
Of course when shooting at these lengths a high quality tripod and fluid head are a must.
For fun, I tried all of these modes with the JVC 1.8X accessory lens, achieving the equivalent of 630mm at 12X (true optical), 1,130mm at 18X and almost 1,900mm at 30X with the JVC.
How were the results? I've put this little clip of test shots together. Judge for yourself.
various zoom focal lengths (optical & digital)
along with the use of a 1.8X JVC accessory lens.
The Bottom Line
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the image quality produced by the Panasonic TM700 in 1080P/60 mode rivals that from considerably larger and more expensive cameras. Manual controls are somewhat limited, but given the small size and weight there will be many videographers who rejoice in the freedom that such a small high-quality camcorder can produce.
Video capable DSLRs are all the rage, along with narrow depth of field film making. But if you're in the market for a proper camcorder – one with adequate controls and great image quality – all for under $1,000 – then the Panasonic TM700 is what you're looking for. And if you need shallow DOF, there's always the use of a Letus or similar device.