Last Saturday I bought the NV-GS320 digital video camera from Panasonic. Since this camera is pretty new, I couldn't find many decent reviews on the web, so I decided to write one of my own. (The NV-GS320 seems to be the same camera as the PV-GS320 but with some different names for the features. The spelling of “colour” on the Panasonic web page suggests that the NV was made for the European market.)
This camera sells for 500–600 euros, which places it in the medium- to high-end consumer range. I bought mine at Media Markt for € 578 (prices as of April 2007).
The combination of 3CCD and MiniDV makes this camera almost unique in its price range. Most other 3CCD cameras start around € 1000. How did Panasonic do this? Probably a tape deck is cheaper than a hard disk or a dvd writer. But what else did they leave out? Let's find out.
Contents of the package
Apart from the camera itself and a battery, the package includes a remote control which, for a nice change, includes the required button cell battery. There is a manual (Dutch in my case, no English version included) which is comprehensive and relatively decent, though not excellent. Also included in the package are a USB connector cable (large to small mini A plug), an adaptor and the necessary cables, and an A/V cable to output to S-Video and three phono connectors. A MiniDV tape and a FireWire cable are not included.
The NV-GS320 is one of the few cameras in its price range sporting three CCD sensors (3CCD). This is supposed to give a clearer picture with more vibrant colours. The sensor allows for hardware widescreen (16:9) ratio, without losing quality compared to standard 4:3. The camera uses a Leica Dicomar lens with a maximum zoom factor of 10×.
My first impressions of the picture quality were excellent. The images are very sharp and colourful in daylight:
(Click to enlarge.)
In the enlarged version it looks a bit pixelized, but this is a result of the deinterlacing. Of course, I cannot compare the image quality to that of other cameras, but in the absolute sense these pictures are very good.
The camera can either be set to automatic or manual mode. When switching to manual, the current settings of the automatic mode appear to be retained, which is very handy.
The automatic white balancing can take a few seconds to kick in, but usually finds the right balance. The same holds for the aperture and shutter speed – sudden changes in lighting are not picked up immediately. Whether that is good or bad depends on the situation. Autofocus works just fine and I haven't noticed any unexpected hiccups. Filming through a dirty window, however, is not recommended.
In manual mode, you can configure the aperture, gain (only when the aperture is fully open), shutter speed, and white balance. I have not used the manual mode much, as automatic seemed to work just fine in all conditions.
There is an option called “backlight compensation” which brightens the input at the cost of saturating a light background. This works fairly well and can be very handy when shooting, e.g., a portrait against a bright sky.
Panasonic's O.I.S. (optical image stabilizer), done in hardware by wiggling the lens, promises excellent correction for shaking. Many other cameras do this in software, slightly degrading picture quality along the way. My finding is that the image stabilizer manages very well to correct for small vibrations; if you hold the camera properly, it is possible to compose a fairly stable shot at the full 10× zoom. Larger shaking is not compensated for, but even these motions seem a bit smoother than usual.
One of the most important factors in a camera is how it performs under bad lighting conditions, like lamp light, candle-light or worse.
Performance under indoor lamp light seems alright:
The picture does tend to get a bit blurry when moving, so shooting from a tripod whenever possible is recommended. However, as you can see, the level of noise is very acceptable. The above picture was taken with the maximum aperture and gain settings (18 dB); apparently the black areas were too difficult even then.
Additionally, there is a feature called “Colour night view” for shooting really dark scenes. The catch is that the framerate drops; I've observed factors between 4 (which may be acceptable sometimes) and 18 (which isn't). The other catch is that anything that moves becomes a big blur. The third catch is that light areas bleed a lot into dark areas.
If you can live with all of that, the night shot is pretty impressive for what I've seen. Here's a shot in the dark, lit only by a TFT monitor:
Admittedly, I tried to hold the camera very still while taking this shot.
Of course, TFT light is a little extreme, so I took the camera out to film by street light:
Left: without colour night view — Right: with colour night view
This seems to be one of the few situations where the white balancing screws up, resulting in a very reddish picture. I could not correct this by setting it to lamp light manually – street light is a different beast altogether. Manual white balancing would probably have fixed it, but I forgot to bring something white along. Also, you can clearly see the light bleeding into the dark areas.
Like with many digital videocameras, the Panasonic NV-GS320 is capable of taking still photographs. The maximum resolution is 2048×1512.
Unfortunately, this resolution is quite pointless. Even in bright light, when the aperture can be nearly closed, the photos taken are not very sharp:
When looking at them up close, it even seems that software sharpening has taken place, judging from the halos:
I suspect the picture is taken at a lower resolution and then scaled up in software.
One of the biggest weaknesses of this camera is the lack of an input for an external microphone, as well as headphone output. If you don't like the sound of the internal stereo microphone, you're out of luck.
That being said, the internal mic is quite decent. Any noise, from the tape motor or otherwise, got drowned out by the environment noise in places where I filmed. Handling of buttons (especially zoom) goes nearly unnoticed as well.
There is a setting to “zoom” the microphone. This, however, means applying gain to the signal, not altering the area over which sound is picked up. The microphone also picks up a lot of sound from the environment, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on circumstance.
The camera includes a wind noise filter. It's hard for me to judge how good this works; when shooting straight against the wind, noise is certainly there, but this may be normal. During 15 minutes of shooting outside on a medium-windy day, wind noise occurred only a few times, so it's not too bad overall.
This camera is one of the few that still record to MiniDV tapes; most cameras nowadays record to either a hard disk or some mini-dvd format. MiniDV still has some advantages: its compression factor is less, supposedly resulting in better image quality, and the tapes are quite cheap and widely available. Its prime disadvantage is the linearity of a tape, and the limited capacity (just over one hour). But tapes can be swapped, while hard disks cannot.
Still photographs are recorded to an SD card up to 2 GB or an SDHC card up to 4 GB.
LCD and viewfinder
The NV-GS320, unlike many of its colleagues, still has a viewfinder. Many other cameras nowadays rely only on the LCD display. Not only does this drain your battery, but also the picture can be hard to see in bright light.
However, LCD technology has come a long way, and even in broad daylight with the sun right behind me, I could still see the picture on the LCD quite well. But if you don't look under just the right angle, the LCD tends to show clipped whites where they aren't, suggesting over-exposure that isn't there. Looking straight at the screen, the problem disappears, but this is something to keep in mind especially when fine-tuning in manual mode.
The controls of the camera take some getting used to, because nearly everything is controlled by a little 4-way joystick which also functions as a push button. Once you get the hang of it, it's really quite easy and intuitive. The joystick controls an on-screen pie menu with options relating to the current mode (filming, playback etc.). The joystick is also used in the configuration menu.
The pie menu contains a tiny help feature, explaining the meaning of the little icons. This is convenient, because the text labels of the options cannot be seen before you activate or deactivate them. On the other hand, toggling an option to find out what it does is faster than calling up the help menu.
My overall impression of the menu structure is okay, though not perfect. But the menu is not deep, and you'll quickly learn where to find every feature.
Manual focus has to be done with the joystick, which is not half as convenient as having a proper focus ring, and on a small LCD it's hard to see whether you have focused properly. The LCD does not zoom in to assist you, nor does it show to what distance the focus is currently set.
Another annoyance is that you cannot hold down the button to increment or decrement values in manual mode; you have to keep wiggling the joystick to make large adjustments.
Some of the buttons cannot be reached when filming with one hand, most notably the menu button and the auto/manual switch. But you won't use these buttons while recording anyway.
The camera comes with a remote control, which duplicates most of the buttons on the camera, allowing for nearly complete control. There are also dedicated buttons for playback mode. One feature that is only accessible through the remote is “audio dub”, allowing you to create a voiceover right there on the camera. If you recorded the audio in 12 bits instead of 16, you'll be able to record the voiceover on a separate track without losing the original audio of the filmed material.
Battery life and power supply
According to the manual, the packaged battery can be used for 30 minutes when actively using the camera. It requires 1 hour and 40 minutes to recharge. Batteries with an effective lifetime of up to 1 hour 45 can be bought separately. However, I found that 30 minutes is not as bad as it sounds: I've been out filming for over an hour and the battery was still nearly full. I shot about 15 minutes of film in this time.
The accompanying adaptor can be used to power the camera directly, or to charge the battery while it's not in the camera, but not both at the same time. Unfortunately the FireWire and USB connections on the camera are located below the battery, so you'll have to switch to the adaptor while capturing to the computer, which means you can't recharge the battery at the same time. This could be problematic in some situations.
Capturing and editing
The camera can be connected to a computer using either USB 2.0 (cable included) or FireWire (cable not included). Adobe Premiere fans will like the FireWire, because Premiere Pro 2.0 is not really suitable for USB capturing. The accompanying software does a better job at USB capturing, because device control works. However, to use scene detection (place each captured clip into its own file), the software will rewind the tape a bit at every splitting point. I can't imagine that this is good for the tape nor the tape mechanism, and it's also completely unnecessary because Premiere has no problems capturing and splitting it all in one go.
Two editing programs are supplied: SweetMovieLife for basic editing and MotionDV STUDIO for (slightly) more advanced work. Because Premiere is my preferred piece of editing software, I only used MotionDV STUDIO for the USB capturing. First (and last) impression: have seen worse.
If image quality is your primary concern, this is the camera for you. In low light, too, it remains very usable. The picture stabilizer works pretty good. But don't buy this camera to take still photographs.
Audio quality is decent, but the mic picks up sound from all around the camera. The lack of a microphone input is a severe shortcoming.
The rest of the feature set is excellent, and the backlight compensation and night shot are nice additions. Remember to buy a FireWire cable if you intend to use anything but the accompanying software.
On the usability front, this camera is decent, but not excellent. If you're afraid of buttons and menus I'd recommend looking elsewhere, but anyone with a little bit of technical experience will have no problem controlling this camera.
Personally, I'll be returning this beast because I know I'll want to plug in an external microphone at some point. But if it weren't for that … I'd definitely go for it.