Canon HF100 vs. Panasonic SD1
The shootout between the Panasonic HDC-SD1 and the Canon HF100 seemed to be inevitable. The former is the world's first solid-state AVCHD camcorder, originally priced well above a thousand dollars. Because of high price and of marginal support of AVCHD standard by software vendors a year ago, the SD1 was not sold in big numbers. It has been discontinued and became a rarity.
The HF100 was released a year after the SD1, when AVCHD had already established itself as a viable video recording standard and software support had significantly improved. Grown acceptance of the new video standard, modern design of the camera and competitive pricing made the HF100 one of the most popular AVCHD camcorders on the market.
Both cameras record video in AVCHD format onto the same type of solid-state removable media - SD/SDHC memory cards. Both cameras are very compact, weighing less than a pound each. Both cameras have efficient opto-mechanical stabilization systems. Both cameras lack a viewfinder, relying onto a flip-out LCD screen. Both cameras have no focus ring or wheel, substituting it with a joystick.
The similarities end here. The cameras represents different schools and different approaches to consumer video.
3CCD vs. CMOS
The optical portion of the SD1 is based on a traditional for Panasonic three-chip design. Three 1/4-inch CCD sensors are used as imaging devices, each sensor is dedicated to either red, green or blue part of the spectrum. The 3CCD system has long been considered superior to single-chip systems in regards to color fidelity.
A three-chip setup makes possible to combine data from three lower-resolution sensors into one higher-resolution image using process known as pixel shifting. This allows making individual photosites larger, improving light sensitivity.
A three-chip system is more complex than a one-chip system, no wonder the SD1 was an expensive camera. To simplify design and reduce cost Canon chose a single CMOS sensor instead of three CCD sensors. Improvements in CMOS technology made color fidelity and saturation of a CMOS system comparable with 3CCD systems.
A single 1/3.2-inch CMOS sensor in the HF100 is not only cheaper than a 3CCD system, but also draws less power and has higher resolution than the SD1 sensors combined together. Indeed, the sensor in the HF100 resolves 2,070,000 pixels in video mode, while each sensor in the SD1 has only 520,000 effective pixels, and no pixel shifting trickery in the world can help the SD1 competing with the HF100 when it comes to sheer resolution and level of detail.
CMOS technology has it drawbacks, one of them being the rolling shutter. The HF100 is claimed to have a progressive-scan sensor, meaning that a whole frame is scanned at once instead of being scanned field by field. In reality the frame is scanned not at once, but line by line, lke in old tube cameras. This can cause "jello" effect when high-frequency vibrations are involved. Want to shoot from a helicopter? From a car? In high wind? Then the HF100 is not your choice, you need a CCD-based camera like the SD1.
CCD sensors have global shutter, registering a whole frame or a field at once, so CCD-based cameras are not prone to "jello" effect. CCD sensors have their own problem though, they produce vertical smear when pointed to bright light sources.
The HF100 has a larger sensor, no wonder it achieved good results in sensitivity tests. For example, CamcorderInfo measured that the HF100 needs 11 lux to produce video level of 50 IRE, while the SD1 needed 14 lux. But these measurements are only part of the story. They are done in auto mode and rely on automatic light metering and automatic gain control.
Below are framegrabs from a test video I have made. Click on images to open bigger ones in a separate window. Looking at the images, it is apparent that the HF100 shooting in interlaced mode is less sensitive that the SD1. Progressive modes puts the HF100 ahead. The HF100 footage shot in Cinemode is close to SD1 footage. Regular HF100 footage is too high-contrast and noisy.
Being the consumer camcorders, both the SD1 and the HF100 offer fully automatic shooting modes. In addition, they provide a slew of semi-automatic modes also known as scene modes, and even a full manual mode.
When it comes to automatic and semi-automatic modes, the camcorders have different approaches. The SD1 prefers to hover around 1/250 shutter speed, adjusting aperture as necessary. The 1/250 shutter speed is not too fast yet for movement to look choppy, but allows opening the aperture a bit more compared to 1/60 shutter speed. Wider aperture results in more pronounced background blur, which works great for portrait-style videos. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that you will be able to open the iris wider than f/11 on a sunny day without using an external neutral density (ND) filter.
Unlike the SD1 which operates in a sort of shutter priority mode, the HF100 implicitly operates in the aperture priority mode, staying at f/4.0 aperture whenever possible. It seems that at this aperture the camera delivers the least distortion and the best sharpness. Such a wide aperture does not necessarily result in fast shutter speed. On a sunny day you can easily shoot f/4.0 with eye pleasing 1/60 shutter speed thanks to a built-in ND filter, which can absorb up to four f-stops of light. Professional camcorders have more powerful filters, but no consumer camcorder comes close to the HF100. For example, the Canon HV20 and HV30 cameras have an ND filter that can absorb only 2 and 3/4 stops, the Sony HDR-HC1 can absorb up to 3 and 1/2 stops. You can use an additional external ND filter to open the aperture even wider, but for the most shooting conditions built-in ND filter is enough.
Shooting film-like or cinema-like videos is the latest trend in amateur video, and the HF100 came prepared. It offers film-like 24-fps shooting mode, Internet-friendly 30-fps progressive shooting mode, and provides the Cinema Mode setting that prevents blowup of highlights and has flatter gamma curve. The SD1 has nothing of that, it shoots good old interlaced video only.
While the SD1 does not have progressive shooting modes, it has sort of implicit Cinema Mode setting. The SD1 shoots "flatter" video than the HF100. A known technique among Canon users is to switch to Cinemode in low-light situations to reduce noise in the image. You do not have to do this with the SD1, on contrary you may need to adjust levels in your editing application to obtain "punchy" look.
Same thing with color temperature. The SD1 has only two preset modes - outdoor and indoor, while the HF100 has six of them. But the SD1 produces nicer and more predictable image at full auto, while the HF100 often requires manual intervention. The SD1 tends to deliver "warm" image, which may not look exactly like a real scene, but is usually pleasing to the eye. The HF100 often adds a good dollop of pink. In the evening the HF100 can paint skies purple, producing apocalyptic-looking footage. Click of images below to see full-size frame grab from videos made in full auto mode.
In the first pair of videos the SD1 produces quite pleasing but warm video, while the HF100 is closer to real scene. The next pair of videos was shot with the Sun right behind the camera, the HF100 is horribly wrong here. In the third pair the HF100 is closer to the real scene again, you can also see how more detailed image is. The grass blade in front produced some purple contouring. The SD1 is way too warm. In the fourth pair you can see the setting sun. The HF100 seems to deliver better dynamic range and much more detail. Image from the SD1 is just muddy. The fifth set of images was shot just after the sun has set. Without sunlight the SD1 produced a very realistic image. The HF100 added a bit of pink as usual. Also notice that the HF100 added noticeable amount of noise, while the SD1 delivered less detailed but less noisy picture.
The HF100 can deliver stunning video, but you have to be on your toes all the time. The camera has lots of features and modes, and you have to master them in order to get the best picture. With the SD1 all you need is just pressing the "record" button. That is right, you don't even have to turn the camera on, just flip open the LCD screen and start shooting. This brings us to question of ergonomics and handling.
Sometimes you pick up a camera, take it in your hands and wonder: did the engineers who designed it actually used the camera themselves? If not, did they look at competitors' products when they were building their own? Neither the SD1 nor the HF100 are perfect, but the HF100 has more problem spots, and remember that it was released after the SD1.
Turning the SD1 on is simple: put the mode selection wheel into camera mode, then open the LCD. In 1.7 seconds you can start shooting. When finished, close the LCD, the camera turns off. When you want to shoot again, just open the LCD again, and the camera turns on automatically. Pure bliss.
With the HF100 you need to put the mode selection wheel into camera mode, this is not easy with the chosen location of the wheel. Then you have to push "On" button with your left hand. Then you open the LCD and start shooting. When finished, close the LCD, then wait couple of seconds for the light to stop blinking, then turn power off by pressing and holding the On/Off button. To continue shooting you need to turn the camera on again with the button. This is just too much work.
The HF100 has an optional standby mode. In this mode it behaves similarly to the SD1, going into sleep when the LCD screen is closed. But unlike the SD1 that fully turns off, the HF100 draws about half the power in the sleep mode compared to fully turned on mode, so the fast-start mode is not a perfect solution.
The SD1 can effectively be held and controlled with just one hand unless you need to switch from auto to manual or to engage manual focus. The top-mounted microphone may transmit noise from the hand when you use the zoom lever or the joystick, it can also catch your breath, but this is probably the single biggest flaw of the camera, considering how compact it is.
The HF100 almost always requires two-hand operation because all camera controls aside of the Record button and the zoom lever are located on the LCD screen. The joystick on the left edge and the button strip on the bottom edge of the LCD screen control all camera features from shutter speed to frame rate. Here comes the biggest usability flaw of the HF100: the camera has no viewfinder, so the LCD screen is the only display device. In bright sunlight you will want to use a screen hood, but the joystick will likely become obstructed by the hood. If not, the buttons on the bottom of the screen will be obstructed for sure. This means that you have to select shooting mode, color temperature, frame rate and other important parameters before putting the hood on, because during the shoot you will be able - at best! - to adjust only exposure and focus. What were Canon engineers thinking? The SD1 is much better in this regard. Its LCD screen is devoid of any controls, so you can affix an LCD hood and still have access to all camera functions. The screen itself is much better on the HF100 with wide angles of view. The SD1 has a cheap TN-film screen, this is a real shame for such an expensive camera.
Aside of traditional right-hand operation, the SD1 can also be comfortably held using a "shotgun" grip, with the left palm under the lens barrel. Holding the HF100 in such a way is less pleasant because of rectangular housing for the iAF sensor, also the the palm of the hand may obstruct the microphone.
Access to auto/manual switch is hidden in the LCD cavity on both camcorders. The SD1 has a three-mode switch that puts the camera into full auto, manual or manual focus mode. Shooting parameters do not change when you switch from auto to manual, the camera just grants access to "professional" functions like shutter speed, aperture or white balance. You can change these options one by one, gradually shifting from full auto to full manual. This is a great approach that allows starting in automatic mode, then switching to manual and fine-tuning the image without noticeable jump in the look. The downside is when you switch back to auto the camera forgets all settings made in manual mode including white balance. On the other hand, when left in the manual mode and turned off, the camera remembers all settings and restores them when is turned back on.
The HF100 has a radically different approach. In full automatic "Easy" mode all settings are controlled by the camera. When you switch to manual, the camera recalls manual settings that were used in a previous manual session. This means that after switching to manual any and all settings can change at once. It is nice that the camera remembers custom settings, but this also means that you cannot switch from auto to manual in the middle of the shoot. With the HF100 you use either auto or manual and never mix them.
Aperture and shutter speed
Both camcorders allow controlling aperture and shutter speed independently. The process is more traditional and straightforward with the SD1. Just switch to manual mode, then lock and select shutter speed, then lock and select aperture. In the process you get proper readings in f-stops and fractions of a second.
The SD1 uses an implicit shutter priority mode, but allows locking and adjusting aperture after shutter speed is locked. When you change shutter speed, the camcorder "unlocks" aperture so you need to lock it again if you want to adjust it. On the SD1, aperture and gain are combined into one control. After the iris is fully open you can ramp up gain. It is not possible to add gain while keeping the iris partially closed.
The HF100 is more cumbersome and requires a different mindset. First, you select either shutter or aperture priority mode from the main menu using Func button. Then you set shutter or aperture value in the main shooting screen. You can fine-tune a complementary parameter using the Exposure slider. To simulate the SD1 operation select shutter priority (Tv), choose shutter speed, then the Exposure slider will turn into proper aperture/gain control. The Exposure slider does not show real f-stop numbers, you can verify current exposure by half-pressing the Photo button. In the end, you can control both aperture and shutter speed and even gain to some extent, but this is not as simple and straightforward as on the SD1 and requires some knowledge about camera idosyncrasies.
When switched from auto to manual, both cameras keep focus in auto. To adjust focus you use the auto/manual switch on the SD1 and the joystick on the HF100. I like the approach used in the SD1, it would be even better if the switch was located on the lens barrel (Panasonic listens to its customers, the recently released HS100 has auto/manual switch in the proper place). Switching to manual focus is one of the rare cases when the SD1 requires controlling the camera with both hands.
Both cameras have no focus ring, offering the joystick as the only way to adjust focus. This is pitiful especially considering that high definition video requires more accurate focusing than standard definition. To help with focusing, both cameras provide focus assist functions by magnifying the middle of the frame.
The focus assist on the HF100 fills the whole screen with magnified image. Sounds good? Not quite, as this works only in pause mode. Focus assist is disabled on the HF100 when you are recording. This copycat from a three-year old Sony camera is really stupid and makes rack focusing practically impossible. On contrary, the focus assist on the SD1 was designed by people who actually use camcorders. The magnified portion stays onscreen while shooting, and it does not take up the whole screen, which helps framing.
You can perform decent selective focus with the SD1 if you are patient and your subject does not move. The joystick on the SD1 is less jumpy than on the HF100 so it is easier to get the focus right. Despite that the joystick is located on the main camera body, clicks from the joystick are not passed to the mic. All in all, despite the same basic approach to manual focus, the SD1 is clearly superior. The manual focus on the HF100 can be used only for locking focus to prevent focus hunting.
Both cameras have decent autofocus that works better in good light and hunts more in low light. Both cameras favor distant objects even in Portrait mode. The HF100 has two autofocus sensors, one built into the lens (regular AF) and another "instant" sensor (iAF) on the left side of the barrel.
When shooting interlaced video with the HF100 in broad daylight, focusing is precise and very fast, but switch to 30p and for some reason focusing takes longer, and even longer in 24p. Attach a hood or a lens converter, and iAF is out of the game. The in-the-lens sensor on the HF100 is painfully slow, so focusing gets sluggish and sloppy. It is almost a requirement to switch to manual focus when you shoot in progressive mode with iAF turned off, but controlling focus manually is impossible as there is no proper focus ring and focus assist does not work during recording. All in all, the HF100 has a really bad combination of focus controls.
On contrary, autofocus on the SD1 performs equally well with or without attachments. The SD1 has only the in-the-lens sensor, and Panasonic took time to make it work reasonably well most of the time.
Attachments and ports
The HF100 uses popular 37mm thread for lens attachments, while the SD1 sports more serious 43mm thread, like on the Canon HV20/HV30 models. Using screw-in filters is no problem with both cameras, but larger attachments like a lens hood, telephoto lens or a wide-angle adapter can obstruct the iAF sensor on the HF100. In this case you need to turn the iAF sensor off from the menu to ensure proper automatic focusing. Without the iAF sensor focusing on the HF100 is slow, especially in progressive shooting modes.
The SD1 has noticeably wider angle of view, 52 degrees vs. 48 degrees that the HF100 offers. Attaching a converter or a lens hood on the SD1 may result in vignetting. There is a trick that can help: unscrew the front plate from the lens, it is not functional, it only sports "Dicomar" logo. After removing this fake focus ring you'll find another 43mm thread, use it for the lens hood. It helped me when I tried to attach the Cokin A hood on top of a UV filter.
Both camcorders are comparable in terms of input/output ports. The only glaring omission on the SD1 is a headphone jack, which is present on the HF100. The HDMI output on the SD1 is full-size, while the HF100 uses miniHDMI jack.-->