Flip open the LCD, and to the left of the screen you'll find a button for activating the tracking autofocus, a five-way joystick for navigation and making manual shooting adjustments, and a Menu button. Pressing in on the joystick brings up mode-specific shooting options like accessing focus, white balance, shutter speed, and aperture in Manual mode.
Inside the LCD cavity is where you'll find the SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot for video or photo storage, Mini-USB port, and an AV output. This is also where you'll find the power button, a delete button, and the Long Record button. That last one approximately doubles the amount of recording time you have at Standard quality (SP), but the video can only be played back on the camcorder.
All in all, the controls and menu system are simple enough that even those new to using a camcorder should be comfortable using the S50 out of the box. The only minor complaints would be that the menus are graphically dull and dated and the LCD is low resolution and looks it. But, that's what you get on a sub-$250 camcorder. There are no jacks for an external mic or headphones, nor is there an accessory shoe. Panasonic sells a video light and adapter that attaches to the camcorder's tripod receptacle.
|Inputs/Outputs||DC in/Mini-USB, AV out|
|White balance||Auto, Indoor 1, Indoor 2, Sunny, Cloudy, Custom|
|Scene modes||Sports, Portrait, Low Light, Spotlight, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Fireworks, Scenery, Night Scenery|
|Focus||Auto, Manual, Tracking AF|
|Lens cover (auto or manual)||Manual|
Panasonic included both full-manual and full-auto shooting options--just press the iA/Manual button to toggle between the two. While Manual gives you control over focus, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance, it also gives you access to 10 scene modes, Soft Skin and Color Night modes, and Intelligent Contrast. Soft Skin is self-explanatory. Color Night is, too, for that matter, allowing you to record color video in low-light conditions down to about 2 lux. Intelligent Contrast improves overly dark and bright areas. If you don't feel like thinking about settings, switch to iA and the S50 will adjust depending on the subject and recording environment as it corresponds to one of five scene modes.
There are a few options available in both shooting modes including Backlight Compensation, which lightens backlit subjects and Pre-Rec that continuously prerecords 3 seconds of video until you hit the record button so you don't miss any crucial action. If you're considering the S50 for recording clips for video-sharing sites, YouTube in particular, the camcorder has a Web mode setting. Select it, press Record, and it starts a 10-minute countdown to keep your recordings within the site's upload parameters. The bundled Windows-only software has "one-click" uploading to YouTube as well.
For all its features and ease of use, the S50 produces video typical of standard-definition consumer camcorders. Video is soft with readily visible noise and digital artifacting, a lot of purple and green fringing around high-contrast subjects, and merely OK color reproduction with highlight clipping (though the Intelligent Contrast helps with this). Low-light performance is poor, but that also is expected from standard-definition models. That said, if you still live completely in a low-resolution world, the recordings are destined for video-sharing Web sites, or you simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the S50 should be satisfactory. Worth repeating, however, is this camcorder's need for a tripod when using the full zoom range. The OIS system is very good, and there's an Active mode that works well to improve stability while you're moving. However, regardless of how steady your hands are or how good the OIS is, once that lens is extended the camcorder really needs to be on a stable surface or a tripod.
The zoom range offered by the Panasonic SDR-S50 is incredible for the money. Yes, you can shoot video of the moon as well as capture sporting events from the nosebleeds and your child's play from the very, very back row. But the video quality simply isn't good. But again, if capturing distant subjects is all that matters to you, then the S50 is worth its price.
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