PANASONIC’S WV-SP509 is not a brand new camera – it’s been out for 8 months or so and some of you will have seen it at Security 2012. And while I’ve had a chance to poke around the camera at expos this is the first time I’ve sat down with the WV-SP509 and paid serious attention to its performance, something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.  
It’s my opinion that the last generation Panasonic WV-SP306 was probably the best all round performer of the past 3 years, with a particular strength in low light. What I’m keen to discover in this test drive is whether or not the WV-SP509 retains that strong performance in low light while adding the ability to handle strong backlight. 
It’s important to point out here that the last generation of HD cameras from all manufacturers was limited by processing power to being very good at only one thing. These current generation cameras are different and they offer more balanced performance in extreme conditions along with excellent 1080p image quality.  

Specifications and functionality

So – what’s the difference between the WV-SP509 and its forebear, the highly respected WV-SP306? Resolution is the obvious thing. The WV-SP306 was 720p HD and this new WV-SPSP509 is 1080p. There are also a number of neat features like lens distortion correction, auto back focus, Face WDR and VQIS to play with. 
Before we sit down in front of the monitors, it’s worth running through the camera’s general specifications. The Panasonic WV-SP509 has a 3.1MP high sensitivity progressive scan MOS sensor and drives at up to 30ips at a full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080. Panasonic’s UniPhier LSI chip allows the camera to stream multiple H.264 videos and JPEG images for simultaneous real-time monitoring, while Adaptive Black Stretch improves the visibility of dark parts of a scene without impacting on the brighter parts.
Panasonic claims high-sensitivity in low light conditions – 0.5 lux colour and 0.06 lux in black and white at F1.4. While low light claims from many manufacturers are ambitious, Panasonic has long played with a straight bat. The lux figure for the colour images was accurate for the WV-SP306 and the WV-SP509 maintains the same high standard.
A feature of interest is 2-area VIQS (variable image quality on specified area) technology which allows selection of an area of lower interest – the sky for example – to be recorded in lower resolution slashing network bandwidth demand. The camera also has Auto Back Focus to adjust the position of the MOS sensor to offer stable focus in both color and B&W modes.
There’s also a face detection function to ensure blur-free images of the human face in a scene and a cropping function that enables simultaneous broadcast of full images (1920 x 1080) along with the cropped images (640x 360). And you get 2-way audio, a video motion detection feature that triggers an alarm when activity is detected in the 4 programmable zones and a privacy masking feature that allows concealment of up to 2 private areas, such as windows, entrances and exits.
Meanwhile, the distinctive LDC (Lens Distortion Compensation) function provides a natural image without distortion using a wide angle lens, while an electronic sensitivity enhancement function increases the amount of light stored on the sensor, making images brighter.

“Sitting in the well-sorted Pacific Communications control room looking at the monitor my immediate comment is that the WV-SP509 is doing brilliantly with the backlight”

A stream control allows a video stream to be prioritized when multiple recorders or client PCs are accessing the camera so the prioritized recorder or client PC can maintain the highest frame rate. And the camera’s integrated digital noise reduction ensures clear image reproduction by filtering signals that could result in grainy images.

Performance in the field

 

I get a look at the Panasonic WV-SP509 at Pacific Communications’ office in Rydalmere. I’m with Scott Myles, state manager, NSW, and Jennifer Cozma, operations coordinator. Cozma drives the system while Myles and I peer at the images in the company’s darkened control room.   
We view and drive the cameras using onboard browsers and the DVTel management solution and view image streams on generic Pacom 1080p HD monitors. The cameras we view are both installed indoors, which is not ideal for longer range performance but it gives us a very good idea of performance in a typical installation and it’s perfect for testing backlight. 
For the purposes of our test there are 2 viewing scenes. The first is the foyer which faces generally to the east then through the glass into the carpark to buildings on the other side – perhaps 75m and more. The second is the warehouse – looking across the warehouse floor with racks in view to the right, through the roller door, over the carpark to wall of the next building – about 25m from lens to wall. 
The day is bright, mostly sunny, so conditions for both cameras are backlit, though not extreme at this time of the day – its 11 am to 12 noon. The areas we’re looking at include indoor, outdoor, entry point in low light and with strong backlight. As I run my eye over the images I’m focusing on things like image clarity, light and colour reproduction accuracy and scene representation – stretch and distortion. Because there are trees outside and cars going past I also get the chance to check for horizontal smearing. 
The first camera we look at is the full body camera installed in the foyer on a camera tree looking towards the glass door and the through the plate glass windows to the cark park and across. While the camera I’m reviewing is the full body camera WV-SP509, there’s also the WV-SF538 dome camera with the same chipset and I take a look at images from that camera as well. Bear in mind, at all times images to the outside of the building are being attenuated by a thick layer of plate glass. 
Sitting in the well-sorted Pacific Communications control room looking at the monitor my immediate comment is that the WV-SP509 is doing brilliantly with the backlight. That’s an first important impression because as mentioned earlier, the great strength of the WV-SP306 was low light.
It’s clear to see that, the WV-SP509 is excellent in a number of areas across the entire scene. In daylight scenes with shadows, strong backlight and low foreground light, there’s excellent depth of field across the carpark, clean movement of leaves in mid-ground, excellent colour, clarity and contrast throughout and brilliant face recognition in the foreground. 
There’s no question I think, looking carefully at the monitor, that purity of colour rendition throughout the scene the WV-SP509 is spot on. The WV-SP509 is sharper and the colour rendition works well and the carpets and the lounge in the foyer look real. I walk a few steps to the door to check. Yes. The colours are more real. Side by side with the WV-SP509 the WV-SP 306 is softer around the edges and that translates to less detail, especially deeper into scenes. The difference is readily noticeable to my eye. 
The WV-SP 509 also does well with leaf movement in the trees outside the window at 30ips – there’s no blur with this screen-wide movement nor any sign of the processor being overwhelmed at any time. No latency or image fragmentation of horizontal smearing as a white car drives by. The scene is tight. 
To challenge the WDR we trawl through recordings for WDR witching hour – the moment the mid-morning sun floods directly into the foyer. But the WV-SP509’s care factor for gigantic hydrogen fusion reactors is zero. It handles the worst sort of backlight extremely well. To further test WDR performance Cozma calls up the warehouse of on screen. The camera on the rear camera tree is looking at the across the warehouse and out through the roller door into bright sunlight. 
While the warehouse is well lit, the carpark is very bright. Again, the WV-SP 509 is oblivious to the challenge. When I tested a WV-SP 306 last year I found it could be bested by very strong backlight. You’d get a face at an office door at 5-6m but you could lose the background to glare in direct sunlight. But this WV-SP 509 is a massive improvement. You get the foreground, you get the background and you get face recognition at the margin of the backlight. It’s great work from the new camera.
As we watch I notice that with excellent performance and colour rendition inside the warehouse and a recognisable human figure in the doorway of the warehouse at 15m the camera is still peering out into the sunlight and picking up license plates at 20m. The plates are not crystal clear at that distance but they are decipherable and the make, model, colour and distinguishing features of the cars are clear to see. 
I can even see the texture of the back wall at 25m. And what’s most impressive is that the camera continues to do well in the foreground – you can see all the detail in the warehouse and the colour work and depth of field inside are great. 
Next, we look at recordings of night scenes. To start with we’re viewing scenes from the camera in the foyer which seems to me to be lit only by a green exit sign. There is no other ambient light inside and absolutely no ambient light outside, which is unfair on the WV-SP509. It’s 9.43pm we can see dimly in the 3 x 4m foyer. 
Next we look at evening shots to give the camera a tiny amount of light to work with. The camera is changing to black and white at about 8.22pm and at that time we’re still getting visible cars 50m away. We’re not getting license plates but I judge if the camera was pointing towards them directly we’d be able to see the vehicle types. We can also clearly see everything in the foyer at this time. It’s a shame not to have been able to use a light meter to get a reading inside at that time but given we’re still in monochrome there’s arguably less than half a lux in the foyer. 
Next we look at dawn images. As we go through this process we notice cars arriving for work – it’s early – 5am and still pitch dark given it’s daylight saving time in Sydney. In the headlights we’re able to make out great swathes of detail in the carpark all the way to the margins of the space. We can see people walking past at 5.30am in the lights. At one point there are a couple of cars are moving and the whole scene brightens up.  
At 6am drivers still need their headlights on but we can now see what’s happening outside clearly all the way to the edge of the camera’s depth of field. The camera has not switched to colour yet so the foyer is still at less than half a lux. At 6.15am the camera is doing really well and still in monochrome. It’s amazing the depth of field you get from these cameras, I observe. The contrast is excellent and it’s almost a more detailed image than colour mode.

“To challenge the WDR we trawl through recordings for WDR witching hour – the moment the mid-morning sun floods directly into the foyer. But the WV-SP509’s care factor for gigantic hydrogen fusion reactors is zero”

One of the neat features of the WV-SP509 is Lens Distortion Compensation, which allows you to straighten lines in the scene. Myles takes a moment to adjust the scene in the foyer on the WV-SP509. It’s a neat feature that maintains proportion in a tight space really well. We play with this feature using the WV-SF538 indoor dome (it’s the same chipset) and the unit covers the entire foyer, the foot of the stairs, outside the door, outside the windows and off into the distance against strong backlight. 
Given the wide angle view we are getting the camera is actually installed quite close to the door and when Myles tells me the 538 is ideal for cells, lifts and smaller spaces, I find myself agreeing with him. The same camera also comes as a vandal dome making it even more capable of handling this sort of application.  
After I’ve had a run through with the camera I get a chance to chat with Pacific Communications product manager for Panasonic Kieron McDonough who says that compared to other 1080p HD cameras the WV-SP509 has a range of features that make it really stand out. 
“Key features to my mind are that the WV-SP 509 is 1080p and high profile H.264 at 30ips,” McDonough explains. “Our high profile H.264 is the kind used for DVDs and broadcast – it’s got very good compression. And on top of that you have the actual camera features – it’s a Super Dynamic camera so it’s designed for difficult lighting conditions without undue noise. 
“It also has has automatic backfocus and it’ll detect a face and enhance that face using a feature called face WDR. There’s also VQIS which means you can specify an area and reduce the bit rate for that area so you are reducing the overall bandwidth of the camera.”  
The last generation WV-SP 306’s low light performance was its benchmark but the WV-SP 509 handles low light and then eats backlight for breakfast, doesn’t it? I ask.  
“Yeah, you’re spot on there,” McDonough says. “The WV-SP306 was good in low light but the WV-SP509 does both low light and backlight extremely well. The backlight is where there has been a huge improvement – it’s balanced out the performance and made this camera the class leader.” 

Fact file:

Features of the WV-SP509 include:
* 3.1 MP MOS Sensor/UniPhier LSI Chip
* Full HD Resolution of 1920 x 1080
* Super Dynamic Technology / 2-Way Audio
* Cropping Function / Auto Back Focus
* 2 Areas VIQS 
* Super Dynamic and Adaptive Black Stretch
* Face WDR 
* H.264 High Profile
* Electronic Sensitivity Enhancement
* 3D Digital Noise Reduction
* Minimum Illumination of 0.06 Lux (B&W)
* Privacy Masking (Up to 2 Zones)
* Video Motion Detection (4 Areas)
* SDXC/SDHC/SD memory card slot 
* ONVIF compliance
* Auto back focus
* POE, Onvif compliance.

“The camera is changing to black and white at about 8.22pm and at that time we’re still getting visible cars 50m away. We’re not getting license plates but I judge if the camera was pointing towards them directly we’d be able to see the vehicle types”