Panasonic HDC-HS300 Camcorder Review
The Panasonic HDC-HS300 (MSRP 1399.99) is a first-class camcorder.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic HDC-HS300 offers a fairly intuitive user experience, especially for beginning users. The default setting is essentially an auto mode, which disables manual image adjustments and several other features otherwise found in the menus. When you have this kind of cruise control, you don't have to worry about anything except framing your shot. If you want even more assistance, there's the optional Intelligent Auto (iA) technologies. In iA mode, the camcorder will employ its Intelligent Scene Selector, Intelligent Contrast Control, Face Detection, and Image Stabilization in an attempt to make the best video possible. In regular auto mode or iA mode, you can also use the new AF/AE Tracking tool, which will follow the subject you choose on the touch screen, even as it changes location within the frame. It's all incredibly easy to use.
Sadly, all this great technology isn't really designed with the advanced user in mind. Panasonic expects you to use either full manual controls or easy mode. Once you enter manual mode—by pressing the hard-to-reach, ambiguously labeled button—all the clever iA tools disappear. We prefer when auto and manual controls aren't so mutually exclusive. Performing a simple manual white balance means deactivating some of the HS300's best features. Most significantly, you'll miss out on the AF/AE Tracking feature: an excellent feature that justifies Panasonic's switch to touch screen controls.
That makes the manual controls seem all the more inaccessible; users seeking a more integrated auto/manual experience might want to consider something like the Sony HDR-XR520V. On the other hand, there are some features that help ease the transition for beginners. The most useful of these is the information button, which brings up a tool tip every time you select a feature in the menus. The tool tips can explain things like Digital Cinema, backlight compensation, etc. The info button is available in both the main menu and the Q.Menu—but not the Function menu. Unfortunately, options that are only available on this menu (like white balance, shutter, and iris) get no explanation unless you consult the Operating Instructions. Fortunately, the included instructions are fairly comprehensive.
Another minor feature to aid newcomers is the Shooting Guide. When Shooting Guide is activated, the camcorder will give you 'tips on how to make a good recording.' All we really noticed was the occasional warning message like 'camera panning is too fast.' We suppose that this is a case of something-better-than-nothing-ness.
One of the more highly publicized aspects of Panasonic's 2009 lineup is the user-friendly features bundled into the Intelligent Auto (iA) collection. In fact, the HDC-HS300 has a number of shooting modes that will seem approachable to beginners—despite the fact that it is a flagship camcorder with the manual controls and price tag suitable for more experienced videophiles. When you first turn on the camcorder, the default mode is a standard auto mode, which hides a lot of options in order to create a less intimidating user experience for novices. The trouble is, the button for activating and deactivating manual controls is hidden up front, near the lens ring. So, if a beginner accidentally activates manual mode, it might be frustrating to figure how to get back into auto mode. We preferred the SD20's design, which featured a clear 'Manual' button right inside the LCD cavity.
When shooting in auto mode, you won't need to bother with adjusting focus, exposure, or white balance. Fortunately, the HDC-HS300 does an excellent job of making these adjustments for you. Focus happens quickly and smoothly, unless you're in very dim lighting conditions. There's also a tele macro option if you're shooting objects close to the lens. Exposure is also quite good: most slow pans were exposed with gradual and even transitions. Automatic white balance gives you surprisingly good colors, though it's not quite as good as the manual white balance.
If you want the camcorder to do even more heavy lifting, you can push the small iA button to activate the Intelligent Auto (iA) features. Intelligent Auto does more than make automatic image adjustments; it also uses Panasonic's AF/AE Tracking, Intelligent Scene Selector, Intelligent Contrast Control, and Face Detection.
The most fun feature of the 2009 iA lineup—and arguably the most useful—is AF/AE Tracking. This clever feature allows you to touch your main subject on the LCD and have the camcorder 'follow' the selected subject. Granted, the camcorder won't physically move, but it will keep the subject properly exposed and in focus as long as you keep it in frame. We found that the feature works surprisingly well, with a few notable exceptions. If your subject moves temporarily out of frame, for instance, AF/AE Tracking might have a hard time finding it again. There are also problems recording in a more crowded environment: if you're following the action at a soccer game and another player passes between you, the tracking will often lose one player to pick up the other. For recording at a school play, ballet recital, or gymnastics meet—anything where your subject remains relatively isolated—the feature is surprisingly effective.
The other iA features are less gimmicky than AF/AE Tracking, but can also come in handy. Intelligent Scene Selector automatically selects the appropriate scene mode for the subject being recorded. Backlight Compensation keeps a subject from getting overshadowed by backlight, while Intelligent Contrast Control moderates high contrast scenes to prevent dark shadows and blowouts. Face Framing makes exposure and focus adjustments for up to fifteen faces detected in a frame.
Low Light Modes - The HS300 offers one full-fledged low light mode: MagicPix. It isn't clear what exactly MagicPix does, but it's probably some combination of a 24p frame rate, increased gain, and slower shutter. If you don't want to change the frame rate, you can also engage the camcorder's auto slow shutter, which drops the shutter speed to 1/30 (1/24 in 24p mode). There's also something called Low Light Mode, but that is just the scene mode that the camcorder may select for you if you're shooting with iA engaged. In the iA Low Light Mode, the shutter speed will drop to 1/30 of a second.
Scene Modes - You get the usual smörgåsbord of scene modes with the HS300. You can select these manually or let iA pick the scene mode for you. Options include: Portrait, Snow, Sunset, Sports, Spotlight, Beach, and Fireworks.
Other Auto Features
- Product Tour
- Color Performance
- Low Light Performance
- Motion Performance
- Sharpness Performance
- Sample Videos
- Ease of Use
- Recording Options
- Other Features
- Sony HDR-XR520V Comparison
- Canon Vixia HF S100 Comparison
- Sanyo VPC-HD2000 Comparison
- Photo Gallery
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