In auto mode, the joystick also provides access to Soft Skin, night mode which enables the built-in video light, and Tele macro. The auto focus and exposure are both satisfyingly responsive, so those who just want to point and shoot should get good results without having to configure any settings. However, Panasonic’s usual powerful array of manual controls is still available via the joystick, when the camcorder is switched from auto mode. These include aperture from F1.8 to F16, and shutter from 1/50th to 1/8000th of a second. Both can be set independently, and once the aperture is fully open, up to 18dB of video gain can be added on the top, which can enhance performance when shooting in low light. Neither Sony nor Canon offer this level of control in their consumer models, although it could also be daunting for the novice.
The happy halfway house in between is the good ol’ Scene mode. Accessing these necessitates a trip to the full menu, however. Panasonic is relatively sparing with these, only offering five options, including Sports, Portrait, Low light, Spotlight and Surf & snow. These may be the most frequently used ones, but other manufacturers include quite a few more, particularly Canon.
The SDR-H250 also offers only two white balance presets, for indoors and outdoors, alongside manual and automatic modes. Other features to assist the novice include the Anti-Ground-Shooting system, which senses if the camera is upside down whilst still in record mode, and switches to pause.
As to be expected in a three-chip camcorder, the SDR-H250 gets colours spot on in good lighting conditions. There isn’t much evidence of MPEG-2 compression artefacts, unless the camera moves very fast. In lower light, equivalent to a room lit by a 100W bulb, the SDR-H250 still fares reasonably well. The colours are nowhere near as saturated, but at least the amount of visible grain is low and relatively fine. However, the picture isn’t as sharp as the NV-GS230, which has essentially the same trio of CCDs.
Dropping the light levels lower, to the equivalent of candlelight, shows the limitations of the small sensor chips. Most of the colour information is lost, and the noise increases dramatically. Where Panasonic’s larger-chipped NV-GS500 is still just about usable in these kinds of conditions, the SDR-H250 isn’t – the video is too dark, grainy and washed out.