Dec 252017
 

In Brief

This review may be too long for some people to read in detail so in a nutshell, my opinion is that the AG-UX180 is a very capable HD camera with an amazing array of features that also happens to do quite a reasonable job at UHD and 4K, albeit with a reduced feature set.

I’ve done a lot of research on the camera options available to me at this time and without going to a system at least 10 times the price there is nothing else available that matches as many of my wants as the UX180, but it’s certainly not perfect. See the end of this article for some demo videos.

 

Why the UX180?

I’m currently making a wildlife documentary and recently purchased a Panasonic AG-UX180 to use as the primary camera. I also have a small Panasonic HC-VX985M to use in situations where the UX180 is not practical due to its size. Here is a link to an article about my complete kit for this documentary.

Two features that were non-negotiable in choosing a camera was a long zoom of at least 20 x and 50p/60p in UHD. It also had to be able to produce good quality video in the less than ideal light that’s often found when shooting nature. The UX180 scrapes in on all of those.

After having the AG-UX180 for a few weeks and shooting some footage on the raising of a pair of Brown Honeyeaters I thought I’d publish my thoughts on the camera to help others considering this model.

I come from a history of using professional 16mm and video cameras and lenses back in the 1980s. These systems were mega-expensive, sometimes costing as much as a house.  But in recent years I’ve been exclusively using consumer cameras.

My day job is electronics engineering and programming so I can usually make a pretty accurate educated guess as to why a manufacturer has made some seemingly weird design decisions.

There are operational quirks with the UX180 that may bother some people, such as the small lag in responsiveness of the controls and the time delay in the EVF and LCD. These are an expected function of doing digital processing and every camera in this class has similar issues. For someone used to the old analog equipment these delays can take a bit of getting used to, but it’s possible to adapt.

 

Audio

I have no complaints with the audio in the UX180, apart from wishing there were more channels. The controls are laid out nicely and there are all the settings one would want in a camera in this class. I’ve found no quality issues so far. There have been complaints from people online about noise from the camera’s fan making its way into the audio, but I have not found this to be a problem using a shotgun microphone attached by a shock mount. The fan is actually quieter than I was expecting. I can see that fan noise along with general handling noise would be a problem if using the internal microphones, but that’s just the nature of mics built-in to cameras.

As well as fully automatic audio level control, there’s also a limiter that can be used while level control is set to manual. This helps with the occasional loud sound. Panasonic calls the limiter the ALC, which confused me at first because I know the acronym ALC to stand for Automatic Level control. In the case of the UX180 ALC seems to stand for Automatic Limiter Control.

 

The Pros

The ergonomics of this camera are superb. All the controls are logically laid out and in positions that will feel familiar to people used to professional cameras. Thought has been put into the customizability of many of the buttons.

The battery life surprised me. I can get well over 3 hours of shooting from a standard battery. I expected I’d be needing to get one or 2 higher capacity batteries, but for my use 2 standard batteries will cover me fine for a normal shooting day.

As an HD camera, the UX180 is extremely sharp. This is due to the 8-megapixel sensor and the very nice lens. Panasonic have done a good job of software correcting the problems a lens like this invariably has. Chromatic aberration is minimal and edge focus is quite good at all focal lengths, as is distortion. There’s a little purple fringing on edges where over exposure has occurred, but this is to be expected in a camera with a Bayer sensor.

True parfocal lenses are very difficult and expensive to make, especially at large zoom ranges, so cameras in this class have to fake the parfocal function by dynamically adjusting the focus as the lens is zoomed.

The last generation of similar Panasonics, such as the AG-HPX250 and AG-AC160 had issues where this auto focus tracking was too slow to keep up with fast zooms, so the focus would tend to drift a little when making a large focal length change quickly.

In the UX180 this has been solved by not allowing direct mechanical control of the zoom position. By always zooming in servo mode it was possible for the designers to have greater control over the focus tracking. Of course, servo control of the focus and zoom does take a bit of getting used to, but to Panasonic’s credit, the zoom and focus don’t feel anywhere near as laggy as I was expecting.

Another area where the older generation cameras had some problems was with the auto focus. This appears much better in the UX180 during my limited testing. The manually assisted auto focus is quite nice to use. However, I tend to use manual focus because many of the subjects I need to shoot are difficult for any auto focus system to handle. Things like a bird sitting amongst branches.

Getting good manual focus at UHD resolutions is quite a challenge and the UX180 offers some help there. Focus peaking is available, but due to a clash with the WFM, which I’ll talk about later I’ve found that using EVF/LCD Detail and raising the level to +3 works better for me. Any sharp edges seem to shimmer and glow as they come into focus. Reminds me a little of micro prism focusing rings from old optical viewfinders.

The UX180 has a large number of different file formats to choose from, particularly in HD where bit rates from 8Mbps to 200Mbps are available. Just be aware that some features are limited to particular bit rates.

Intelligent zoom works really well in HD mode by adding a seamless digital zoom, increasing the zoom range to 30 times with almost no quality loss.

The EVF is large, bright and sharp.

 

The Cons

In HD mode, there really isn’t much wrong for me, considering the price of this camera.

The main one is probably the Wi-Fi remote capabilities. Without showing a picture of what the camera’s shooting I find it not of much use. Considering that many consumer cameras costing only a few hundred dollars can do this, I find it a surprising omission. I’m also not sure why a separate dongle is required and can only put it down to Panasonic not wanting to go to the expense of getting radio approvals in the various markets if the Wi-Fi was built-in the camera. After all, this camera doesn’t have anything like the volume of sales that the consumer cameras do.

Another thing I’m unhappy with is the limited functionality of the waveform monitor. The WFM cannot be shown at the same time as any other data. Surely there was enough processing power available to include a full-time small WFM, even if significantly cut down in detail, or perhaps even a histogram. As it is, zebras are the only exposure aid available when you’re in a hurry to get the shot, as is usually the case when shooting wildlife.

The WFM is made even more limited because it will not operate if focus peaking is turned on. Okay, so there weren’t enough resources to generate the WFM and focus peaking at the same time, but Panasonic should have simply temporarily disabled focus peaking whenever the WFM is turned on. This would only require a few lines of code to achieve and is what they already do with EVF/LCD detail and zebras.

And the worst limitation of the WFM is that it does not work in the viewfinder at all.

Another limitation of The UX180 is that the viewfinder (EVF) cannot be locked on. The only time the EVF will turn on is when the eye sensor is blocked. There’s about 2 seconds delay after the camera detects your eye at the viewfinder before it switches on. I think I know why Panasonic have done this. The EVF is an OLED display. These displays are vulnerable to burn-in like CRT and plasma screens and if it was left on for long periods the on-screen display information will become burned in. My suggestion is to make the EVF/LCD have 3 modes, the LCD and auto modes it has now, plus an EVF mode that locks the EVF on. A timeout could be added so if there is no eye detected after a couple of minutes or so it could still switch off.

As it stands, anyone who wants to override this annoying EVF behaviour can always hack it by putting a white sticker over the eye sensor. Then the EVF/LCD switch becomes just that; EVF or LCD. Of course, then the user would be responsible for making sure not to leave the EVF on for long periods. The software change I suggested above would eliminate the need for users to do the hack and still offer a little protection for the OLED.

It would have been nice had there been enough processing power to run the EVF and LCD simultaneously. I’ve added a 7” HDMI monitor to my system to work around this limitation.

In UHD and 4K modes, there are some important features unavailable. The following is a list of functions that are unavailable in UHD/4K. I have not included functions that are unavailable because they make no sense in UHD/4K, only the functions that would have been nice to have available.

On-screen display on the HDMI and SDI – Intelligent Zoom – Hybrid O.I.S. and Custom O.I.S
Background record – Variable Frame Rate recording

The lack of on-screen display on the HDMI and SDI in UHD and 4K is a particular annoyance. Personally, I’d have been happy to have a lower resolution output and still allow OSD. After all, when the on-screen information is being displayed the operator is obviously not wanting to record the output to an external recorder. It should be possible to copy the data from the LCD/EVF to the HDMI or SDI without significant extra resource usage.

Super Slow Motion

The UX180 has a 100fps or 120fps super slow motion mode. It’s important to be aware that super slow motion comes with quite a significant sharpness loss as can be see in the picture to the right. Click on the picture to see it full size. Significant aliasing is also apparent, suggesting Panasonic are performing line skipping on the sensor in super slow mode.

Wishlist

These are some of the things I wish Panasonic had included.

  • A usable, always-on exposure aid. Mini WFM or histogram. Zebras don’t give enough information.
  • Intelligent Zoom in UHD/4K. I’d be willing to live with the quality trade-off.
  • The ability to lock the viewfinder on. See above.
  • Iris assist to apply exposure compensation that works with the iris in a similar way to the auto focus assist function.
  • Higher bit-rate UHD/4K. The camera can already do 200Mbps in HD.
  • 10 bit 4:2:2, at least in HD.
  • Four channels of audio. Recording the internal mics to 2 channels while simultaneously recording the external XLR inputs.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I think the AG-UX180 is a great camera for the price and I’m very happy I got it.

This is not a low light camera. Fitting 8 megapixels on a 1-inch sensor comes with a sensitivity cost. The only way with current technology to get any better is to increase the sensor size. That requires a larger and more expensive lens, so a 1-inch sensor seems like a good compromise to me. There are a few 1/3-inch UHD cameras on the market and their low light performance is quite poor. The UX180, with its 1-inch sensor is adequate for the work I do and produces a quite clean picture, even with up to 12dB of gain when properly exposed.

I’m pleased that Panasonic were able to get a 20 x lens on a 1-inch sensor.

Having a 1-inch sensor also feels good in terms of being a similar size to the 3/4-inch cameras, which were the gold standard in my early days.

I feel the picture quality is perfectly adequate for content that will end up on the Internet and even for low budget TV.

 

  One Response to “Panasonic AG-UX180 Review”

  1. Great review, thanks

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