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A Less Is More Camcorder

With the release of the AG-AC30, Panasonic has taken the simplicity of point-and-shoot digital video to a new level
Panasonic’s entry-level AG-AC30

If you’re seeking a basic way to capture content, Panasonic’s entry-level AG-AC30 camcorder is the perfect choice. It’s built with the quality that’s expected of Panasonic, yet streamlined in a reduced bodyweight design that makes you wonder if there’s anything hidden inside. Rest assured, the AG-AC30 offers enough features to make it a worthy choice, just as much for everyday prosumers as for camera operators who find themselves busy shooting content at various events.

One of the first design aspects that caught my attention was placement of the onboard monitor, a versatile three-inch LCD that can be neatly tucked away right above the lens. This enables easy access, as well as the option to be folded away for protection during transportation. It’s a very useful design feature, one different enough to take note.

The monitor itself features plenty of functionality, allowing touch-control access to various menus, settings and playback features. If you’re all-thumbs, however, a stylus can be used for more precise access. Exposure for color temperature, format and frame rate within the menu are displayed in simple fashion for quick use, with exposure and color temperature screens featuring easy-to-use sliders to make adjustments.

This straightforward, less technically challenging menu design is ideal for those intimidated by high-tech equipment seeking a set-it-and-forget-it camera enabling them to shoot something that looks good with minimal fuss.

Panasonic AG-AC30 side view

Footage review is quickly achieved by pressing the thumbnail button on top of the camera, allowing playback of both stills and motion capture. Once here, you can easily toggle through your clips for review, playback and deletion.

On the left side of the camera sit the audio controls and card slots, each with clear dust covers, a nice design element allowing rapid and easy assessment of cards and settings while keeping them safe and protected from the elements.

The AG-AC30’s 1/3.1-inch Back Side Illumination (BSI) sensor features 6.03-million pixels with a processing speed that has been improved to approximately 1.5 times the conventional speed, plus a new Noise Reduction function. When shooting, there are a variety of codecs to choose from, AVCHD and MP4/MOV, in both interlaced and progressive formats, as well as familiar professional frame rates including 23.98, all with a maximum resolution of 1920×1080.

The 20x zoom lens functions well, a very usable 29.5mm at its widest setting and a fast ƒ/1.8 speed. The smaller sensor size allows for wide-open close-ups, shots that easily keep focus to avoid challenging the novice user. It should be noted that the 20x lens does lose light zooming in optically. Advice for longer lens enthusiasts would be to mount the camcorder on a tripod, as its lightweight form (3 pounds) will only adds to image shake caused by subtle movement of the hands of even the most skilled operator.

In a pinch, if handheld is required, an impressive 5-Axis Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS) does suppress excess blurring, turned on via an easily accessible button on the left side of the body. An icon will appear in the monitor to assure of its engagement.
Focusing with a small sensor on specific objects can often be a challenging task, but Panasonic added a few notable Intelligent Auto Focus assist features in this design, including Area Mode, enabling focus in any desired area of the frame, and Focus Peaking, with the familiar red outline of objects on the monitor to assist the operator. Focus Expand is also available, a feature that can only be turned on and off when the camera isn’t recording, while other assist functions include a histogram display, color bar monitor and zebra pattern.

Everybody loves slow motion in some shape or form, and the AG-AC30 doesn’t disappoint here, offering frame rates up to 120 fps (100 fps on UK models). You’ll need to be sure that the proper SD cards are used not only to compensate for the extra data required, but also the higher speed at which material is recorded.

The camcorder also offers assignable switches, one of which can be set to slow motion, so with one touch you can move to slo-mo capture before jumping back again to your previously selected frame rate.

Panasonic hasn’t stated the native ASA as of the writing, but based on experiments, I estimate it to be around 400 ASA. There’s also the option to adjust as much as two stops in any direction, allowing up to a usable 1600 ASA in low-light situations or down to 100 ASA for bright conditions. There’s no option for ND, unfortunately. The best approach to reduce light would be to adjust the shutter via the menu or shutter button located below the audio settings.

Test footage was shot in varied scenarios, capturing images at a small chocolate business with mixed lighting and skin tones, as well as an early-morning trip to the beach.

The AG-AC30 was foolproof in exposure and color temperature, and across all situations rendered images well while creating some very useful footage. It was almost too easy and simple to use! The only issue experienced was in the occasional selection of focus, where it was difficult to tell what exactly was in or out of focus. When I returned to my computer to review footage, however, what I perceived to be slightly out of focus in the field I found acceptable upon closer scrutiny.

What I definitely found pleasing were skin tone renderings whether in mixed light, direct daylight or artificial lighting. Panasonic continues to deliver images with great skin tones and an organic feel.

Also of note, an onboard LED light has been added to the camcorder’s design. It brings no additional weight to the design while allowing you to shoot in dimly lit scenarios. A neat little diffusion cover is also there to reduce LED harshness, if required. There are some useful ports added to the right side of the body—USB mini for downloading images directly to a computer, a USB 2.0 port to attach to an external recorder and a HDMI port for external monitoring.

Panasonic camera LCD monitor
A versatile three-inch, slide-retractable LCD also serves as an HD monitor and menu setting touch panel.

On the audio side, the AG-AC30 offers a built-in microphone. I was impressed with its quality after listening to playback of a man talking in a crowd of people with street noise in the background. The microphone threw better audio capture than my very own ears, but as any professional shooter knows, the addition of an external microphone will instantly raise any production’s value, so take heed of two balanced line inputs, one in the front of the camcorder and the other toward the rear.

All in all, the AG-AC30 is a nicely designed, lightweight camcorder suitable for prosumer use as much as industrious camera operators shooting corporate video, weddings and sporting events. This simple, yet surprisingly proficient solution feels good in the hands, is instantly familiar to any Panasonic user and features enough intuitive design elements to entice new adapters. It’s a very affordable package that delivers the goods without the need to boast of its tech. Suggested list price is $1,800.

Learn more about the Panasonic AG-AC30 at Jimmy Matlosz is a cinematographer, director, writer and photographer, and the Chairman of the Emerging Cinematographers Awards. An Idaho resident, he often can be seen cranking up hills in Los Angeles on his bicycle in between gigs.

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