The New
Canon XL1S

Camera Corner Review
by Dirck Halstead

As readers of The Digital Journalist are aware, we have been enthusiastic about Canon's XL1 since it arrived on the market in late fall of 1997. The camera was designed to a professional instrument, aimed at the new generation of television and film photographers and producers. With an affordable price point of $4,500, thousands of dollars cheaper than the existing Electronic News Gathering (ENG) cameras then in use, it set out to offer some very basic design changes to serve this new market.

The key to its design concept was that the camera itself be a modular unit. That is, lenses would be interchangeable, viewfinders, mics; audio connections would all be outboard parts of the kit. This is the basic way professional still and motion picture cameras were always designed, allowing the owner to switch lenses, and add all sorts of extras.The heart of the system was the camera itself. For camcorders, it was a revolutionary design. Actually it was modeled after professional 16mm film cameras as far as feel and balance were concerned. It was intended to be used as a shoulder mounted camera, in order to appeal to professionals. It came with a standard 16x optically stabilized lens, color viewfinder and a very good directional stereo mic. The camera was an immediate success. It began to change the broadcast industry. It became the camera of choice for the Platypus Workshops, and many still photojournalists began to move towards video production.

In short order, Canon started to add important peripherals. First came the MA100 mic adaptor and shoulder pad. By adding this element, the camera operator had the ability to connect up to 2 separate professional XLR audio inputs to the camera. An accompanying plate was provided to mount wireless receivers. The added length made the camera sit more easily on the shoulder, and by adding a dual battery charger, the camera became better balanced. Next came a 3X wide-angle lens that essentially offered the field of view comparable to a 35mm 24mm to 50mm.

Budget-minded filmmakers began to realize that it was now possible to produce a movie at a fraction of the cost than was possible using film cameras. Canon took note of this market, and shortly a mechanical lens of high quality was introduced that allowed the operator to precisely control the focus zone. In the past few months a whole industry has grown that specializes in make adapters that allow 35mm film camera lenses, such as Panavision, to be attached to the camera. In March of this year, Canon introduced a 3D lens that cost less than $9,000 as opposed to existing lenses that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

So, the concept of modularity was paying off, but in the past year, people began to wonder when the "XL2" was going to come out, and what would it be like?


This month, the new version, The XL1S arrives in stores. At first look, it doesn't seem a bit different. There are no new design changes that are immediately apparent. It is the same size, weight, and is fully compatible with the add-ons that the XL1 owner already has. But inside the body of the camera, some major improvements that are vitally important to a professional have been made. First, the picture it produces has been substantially upgraded. There is a +4dBi sensitivity, which increases its low-light capability. The gain control now runs from -3 to +30 dB. It is now possible to configure the performance of the camera to your individual specifications. This is possible to access through the sliding menu cover below the control wheel, which allows the user to adjust color phase, sharpness, color gain, black level to their own satisfaction. There are now zebra patterns, which can be selected which can be variable between 80 IRE, 85 IRE, 90 IRE, 95 IRE and 100 IRE. The White Balance control now has added three settings allowing the user to store three different color balance settings in addition to either daylight, tungsten or automatic. Canon has also added a new "clear scan" function, which allows the camera to synch its picture to the different cycles encountered when photographing TV and computer screens.

When looking through the viewfinder, the user sees a 16:9 safety zone guide for wide screen applications. One of the stranger choices Canon made on the XL1 was in the BARS select. Professionals used to ENG cameras want to be able to lay down a minute of BARS before they start to tape. Canon included this capability, but sort of kept it a secret. They considered this function really to only be of use to technicians, so to access BARS you would go through a convoluted procedure of setting the control dial on green (stupid) mark, then hold down the two shutter speed buttons until BARS appeared. On the new camera, You will find the BARS select marked on the back of the lens mount, along with the digital select function. The BARS by the way are true SMPTE BARS.

A popular feature on the XL1 was the ability to go down to slow shutter speeds such as 1/30th or 1/15th. This was useful in low light situations such as candlelight, or in creating swirl type effects. However, to select the slow speeds, you had to go through a cumbersome process of entering the Digital Effect area, then scroll through the Digital Zoom and Fade options until you got to the slow shutter speeds. In the new camera, the slow shutter speeds are now incorporated into the main shutter speed select, which means that in the manual mode you can go seamlessly from 1/8th of a second to 1/15,000th of a second.

The EVF information can now be fully displayed, partially displayed, or hidden in the viewfinder. There is also a color adjustment for the viewfinder. There are a few changes which I found disconcerting, mainly because I did not get an instruction model with the pre-production sample I tested, It took me a while to figure out how to set the audio input controls. The camera comes from the factory set for 12 bit, stereo 1 operation. Most professionals will configure the camera for 12 bit, stereo 1,2, allowing the use of the rear channels simultaneously with the on camera mic. Previously this function was accessible through the menu select. On the new camera, I found it had been stuck into the VCR set up menu, which I thought a bit odd. Talking about the VCR controls on the top of the carrying handle, I was pleased to see that they had actually added Audio Dub and AV insert. Another nice feature is that the camera can be programmed to override the previous 5-minute shut-off which enables the operator to disengage the tape deck operation, while keeping all the functions of the camera active. This has an important secondary use, in that you can now mount a camera as a remote, and use the supplied wireless controller to activate record at any time. The camera has a new feature called DV control which allows the XL1S to control the record/stop/start of another camcorder connected via firewire. Focus Enhancements makes a control box called "Firestore" that allows the user to record directly to a firewire hard drive. This means that you can save a lot of time in the edit suite because your clips are already digitized, and it also means that you have a backup copy already on cassette.

One of the things that we kept asking Canon for since the XL1 first came out was to consider selling the camera minus lens as a separate unit. They have taken our request to heart, and it is now possible to buy the camera package with the generation II 16x zoom lens for $4,699 (Manufacturer's suggested list price). However you can now buy only the camera body for only $3,299. This makes a lot of sense, considering the number of alternatives now available as optional items, including the new 16x manual lens.


As mentioned above shortly after the release of the original camera, some people began to request either an adaptor for broadcast lenses, or a Canon-designed manual lens just for the XL1. The problem for a professional camera operator when using the XL1 is that on the supplied 16x Optically stabilized lens is that the focus, due to the auto focus feature, rotates throughout a 360-degree arc on the focusing ring. There is no "there" there. Professionals, especially filmmakers need to be able to accurately calibrate and mark focus. In a desire to come up with a solution, Canon hurriedly designed a 14X pure mechanical lens. It fit on the camera fine, but it was unable to incorporate any mechanism that would power the servo zoom, F-stops were set on the barrel, so the camera iris controls were useless. Another big problem with the lens was that it had no Neutral Density (ND) filter, which posed big problems when shooting outdoors in bright light. It was an interim solution until a new camera was ready for market.

Now Canon has introduced a 16X manual lens that is able to work with the crucial elements of the power servo zoom and the camera auto exposure system. The black-barreled lens has a switch located on the bottom of the lens that allows it to easily be switched between servo and manual. What this means is that by leaving the switch in the manual position, it is possible to quickly "snap" focus by racking between long and short focal lengths using the handle on the barrel, or by switching to servo, be able to make smooth pushes and pulls. The lens has two ND filters built in. The lens can focus to 3.5 feet and it also has a micro button that allows the lens to focus nearly to point of contact. Of course, you give up the optical stabilization included in the regular 16x lens, but if you are a pro, and can keep steady, you will absolutely love this lens. In a word, it is awesome. The lens list price is $1,799.


Canon has also introduced a new shoulder-pad with XLR inputs, the MA200. Slightly smaller than a house trailer, it bolts to the bottom of the camera, just as the still-manufactured MA100 did. It gives the operator the ability to input four, count 'em, 4, separate stereo XLR connections. It also has a BNC video/in connection, which is useful when monitoring the camera picture. Actually, this is a very useful accessory for specialized productions, however my guess is that once you get into that kind of arena, the chances are you would be using a sound mixer anyway. The adapter adds eight inches to the length of the camera as opposed to 5 inches for the MA100. What this means is that you will never be able to get the camera with the adaptor attached into a Porta Brace DV bag. The MA200 also is capable of extending a rack designed to hold big battery packs or an overnight bag, I guess, which ads yet another 6 1/2 inches. Which would make the entire camera package come in at a whopping two and a half feet from tip of the lens to the back of the slider rod. making a Betacam look like a kid brother.

Even though this new add-on may not be for everyone, it is an indication of their philosophy, which is to keep the system constantly evolving for its users.

So, when do we get to an XL2? My guess is that we will have the XL1S as the flagship video camcorder from Canon for the next two to three years. At the end of that time, I would not be surprised to see the camera start to evolve into a hybrid still/video High Definition TV Camera. But in the meantime, Canon is still setting the bar.

For more information about the Canon XL1S, visit Canon's website.

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