The Digital Journalist
Camera Corner: The Canon XL2
September 2004

by Dirck Halstead

In early July, Canon video unveiled the long-awaited XL2 to the press in New York. This camera is the successor to the XL1 and the XL1S.

When Canon first designed the XL1 in the mid-'90s, frankly they had no idea what they had on their hands. They thought they were producing another consumer camcorder. Within a year they learned differently, as the camera quickly began to be adapted not just by serious video aficionados, but also by those in broadcast. Even more amazingly, it began to show up on Hollywood sound stages.

The key to its success was its modular design, which was revolutionary for the time. Rather than produce one die-cast unit, the Canon engineers created a design that could take full advantage of the company's prowess in making lenses. They already controlled a large share of the production of broadcast and film lenses. So they wanted to be able to have full interchangeability of the optics. Not only did they create a wide-angle lens, but followed with serious mechanical lenses for filmmakers who wanted to be able to more precisely control their shooting. These lenses were followed by adaptors for standard motion picture film lenses (or primes). The original cameras also offered sophisticated audio controls, and such features as bars, which are essential to broadcast camera operators.

Canon knew they had something big when suddenly the XL1 became the camera of choice for one of the biggest film industries in the world - the adult entertainment industry. They shipped these cameras by the thousands to California's San Fernando Valley.

Noted film directors such as Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle began to use the cameras to shoot theatrical features. What this did was to enable a whole new generation of would-be Steven Spielbergs to actually make a major motion picture on a budget.

It was with this fact in mind that Canon decided to fully enable a new generation of the camera to allow for many sophisticated techniques that are necessary for big-screen moviemaking.


A casual glance at the XL2 would probably draw shrugs. It looks very much the same as both the XL and XL1S. The familiar red and white chassis is still there. It weighs a pound more than the earlier versions. This is because Canon has introduced more magnesium alloys into the body, to make the camera more robust. The first difference you are apt to notice is that the viewfinder is almost twice as large. You can also swing back the eyecup on the viewfinder to reveal the 2-inch LCD. Unlike earlier models, you no longer have to dial in "near and far" to sharpen the image when the camera is not mounted on the operator's shoulder.

The main control wheel is also bigger, and made of metal rather than plastic.

You will then note that a new and more comfortable shoulder pad, which has the built-in balanced XLR inputs with Phantom power, has replaced the shoulder pad that most people took off in favor of the optional MA100 or MA200 XLR adaptor, which allowed you to connect professional audio accessories such as wireless mics, and is now a standard, built-in feature.

You will also immediately notice that the supplied lens is considerably bigger. The old 16X lens has been replaced with a new 20X fluorite lens. Canon will start selling body-only components later in the fall, if you want to stick with your old lenses. We tested the new lenses, and the sharpness and contrast are remarkable.


And that is about all that looks different at a casual glance.

But it's what Canon did inside that is truly remarkable.

Remember I started out by saying that Canon has filmmakers targeted as their prime market for the camera.

As readers of The Digital Journalist have seen over the past year or so, the name of the game is changing from the old broadcast standard of 4:3, 60i,to the world of film and high definition. So it was clear to Canon, as it is to almost all manufacturers of high-end equipment, that new products must be optimized for these formats.

So, to start, the key difference is that the XL2 features a native 16:9 aspect ratio (wide-screen format). Earlier cameras had the 16:9 feature available but it was really professionally useless, because it electronically squeezed a 16:9 image onto a 4:3 ccd chip. In other words, the image was being degraded. What this meant was that if you were serious about producing a wide-screen film, it was best to continue to shoot in the standard 4:3 format, and leave the wide-screen part to the postproduction process. In technical terms, the XL2 uses three 1/3-inch, 680,000-pixel chips to create its progressive scan image. So, what Canon did was to reverse the process, and make the XL2's native format 16:9, using a target area of 460,000 pixels, which is also known as 962x480. Canon now gets a full 16:9 without having to crop the top and bottom of the image. To get the old 4:3 format, the sides of the image are cropped, which results in 350,000 pixels, aka 720x480.

The XL2 displays a full 16:9 image in the viewfinder without any cropping or distorted squeezing that was common in the past.

Once the aspect ratio was taken care of, the next step to a "filmic" look was to offer 24fps. To understand the significance of this step, you have to understand that most video cameras record to tape at 29.97 frames per second; the industry standard. Also, the 29.97 frames are "interlaced," meaning that each frame is made up two fields even and odd. This results in the smooth pictures that we are used to seeing on our TV sets.

Movies, on the other hand, since the 1930s, were shot at a rate of 24 frames per second. This slower speed actually causes a jitter in the picture that we filter out of the brain in the movie theatre. Nevertheless, we have gotten accustomed to that, and that is why we can so easily detect the difference between tape and film. So, if you really want to make a movie, you either use film (which costs a fortune), or monkey around in post creating artificial jerkiness and grain. The XL2 offers not only 24fps (progressive), but also 30fps progressive and the normal 60i (at 29.97 frames per second). You will see how all this comes together as we continue.


The custom keys that used to be inside the door of the XL1 have been repositioned below the handle atop the camera. It makes things like the EVF button easier to hit. All controls can now be activated from the handle, and what a set of controls they are.

These buttons control the presets that are selected by the operator. There are over five menus of presets that can be programmed. Why, you may ask?

Well, it goes back to the filmmaker. A good director of photography on a movie wants to control many aspects of the picture. They are crucial to his or her "look." Therefore, the XL2 allows some of the following choices in what they call the "cine settings":

GAMMA: The gamma curve of the image can be adjusted independently for a normal video look or a "film look."

KNEE : The highlight area is adjustable.

BLACK: Controls the depth of the black in the dark area of an image. You can emphasize contrast in the video's dark area by selecting "stretch" to deepen or enhance the dark area.

COLOR MATRIX: You can change from a normal video look to a film look.

VERTICAL DETAIL: There are two settings, "normal" for detail optimized for playback on an interlaced monitor, and "low" for a progressive scan monitor like a PC. This feature is very useful when doing aerial or architectural photography.

SHARPNESS: Will change the amount of detail in the image. Images that do not require a lot of detail can be softened, such as imperfections and close-ups. What this means is that you can throw away your "soft-warm" filter. You can now select the area you want to be sharp, such as the eyes, and selectively soften the rest of the image.

CORING: Helps reduce image noise in highlight areas.

NOISE REDUCTION: Removes video noise-non-picture artifacts such as those commonly found in low-light photography - without hurting image detail or creating motion artifacts.

COLOR GAIN: Adjustable in 13 stops, from off to over-

saturate. This adjustment will let you shoot in B&W or color.

COLOR PHASE: Adjust the color phase of the image towards red or green for exact control (see the example of the dancers in the red dress).

FILM GRAIN: Simulates the graininess normally associated when you shoot film.

If all this sounds like overkill (or Greek), remember once again that there are people out there who need all of this. Up until now this was only available in a camera that cost more than $20,000.

To take a look at what the camera is capable of, look at our video presentation, in which Canon shot five different scenarios - from a commercial to a crime show - to see how all of these options work.

Other features include SMPTE time code from elapsed time to time of day. When a reporter, for example, covers a press conference, he is using his watch to note important moments that he wants to air. He has no way of knowing what the time code on the camera says, so he notes his watch time. Also, you have "force-run" options in which you can use multiple cameras on a shoot with the same time code. You can also use the "record-run" feature to continue a time code with multiple tapes on stories (i.e:, tape 2 would show up in the time code as 02:00;00:00). Obviously this would be of great benefit on stories for which tons of tape are used.

One of the cool features is the "preset focus or zoom preset," commonly known as "rack focus." You can set the camera to focus on an initial point, such as 10 feet, and return to that point at the touch of a button.

The audio section, which was one of the XL's strong points to start with, has been refined even more. Now the four audio controls behind the door can be adjusted for four separate channels of stereo.

One of the features that endears the XL series to professionals is the "open architecture" design, which resulted in a cottage industry of companies that made accessories for the camera.

What is amazing is that this package is going to sell for $4.999. That's steep for a prosumer camcorder, but for a professional camera, it's peanuts.

The big problem for Canon will be stocking the stores. It is supposed to be available in early September. My guess is that there will be long lines and alot of E-bay overpricing.

So, if you are interested in a professional system that will allow you to do some serious work, I would suggest you get to the camera store early.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of the Digital Journalist