Before I start what will be a very lengthy review of this camera, the first truly professional mini dv camcorder priced under $12,000, I think I should correct something I said to a member of the NPPA discussion list when he asked about it (I was in my first flush of enthusiasm). I said, "It's perfect." Well, I know I went overboard. Nothing in this world, with the possible exception of my boeuf bourguignon is "perfect."
I now have had this camera in my hands for the past three weeks. It is a preproduction model (sadly, it has to be returned to Canon this week, for trade show display). The production models, I am told, were shipped from Tokyo on December 19th, so they should start arriving in stores as you read this review.
As I have written in previous columns, I helped to start a company named Video News International, in 1992. That company had an idea that they could train photojournalists in the use of the newly arrived three chip High 8 camcorders-- providing a new kind of television news. A few of us were trained on Sony EVW300 High 8 cameras. They were a slightly smaller version of a standard ENG camera, using High 8 instead of Beta.
By the time VNI started assigning its "VJs" to locations around the world, the EVW300 had given way to the new VX3, which was a much smaller and cheaper camera. This camera that looked rather like, well, a Platypus (sleek and long, with a protruding built- in lens instead of a duck bill), became the standard camera for the new breed of videojournalists. In fact, mine now sits in the NEWSEUM in Rosslyn, Va., next to Peter Arnett's mic from the Gulf War.
After a few months of using this camera, I became increasingly frustrated with the fact that it was just not a professional camera (Sony certainly didn't think it was, and refused to give it the same kind of professional service afforded Betacam users). There are many things wrong with it from a professional standpoint.
It is a hand-held, rather than a shoulder-mounted camera, which makes for inherent shakiness. The principal drawback is in its audio capabilities. When shooting for television, the audio quality is just as important as the picture, if not more so. There is a built-in stereo mic, but the only other audio input is through an "aux" input right below the mic that takes a minijack. This is a huge Achilles heel. If you added a professional broadcast mic, such as a Senheisser MK66, you automatically cut out the built-in mic. If you made the mistake of not wearing earphones all the time, you often found that the Senheisser had not been turned on, or the plug was not in good contact. This resulted in no audio track being recorded. We all experienced this at one time or another. In addition, if you tried to record audio from an external source, such as a "mult" (provided at most important public events), you would have to disconnect all your camera mics. The brittle nature of the miniplug often leads to poor connections, with breakup in the audio.
This was such a serious problem. I became obsessed with trying to find a solution. Canon, with whom I have had a long standing relationship, was interested in working on the solution to this problem. They had their own "prosumer" camera called the L2. It was a radical design, it looked and handled like a still camera. Not only did it use Canon EOS lenses (with an adapter), but, could be held like a still camera with a second off/on, and zoom controls on the back of the camera, where they could be easily accessed with the operator's thumb. The optics that were designed for the camera, a 16x 1.8 zoom, and a 3x wide-angle lens were superb. Its ergonomics were the best, and I would often refer to it in my lectures as perhaps what the camera of the future would look like. Its principal drawback (despite the element in determining picture quality) - it was not a three chip camera, which meant it was never going to be up to real broadcast specs.
Encouraged by Mike Zorich at Canon, I began to suggest some designs for a replacement camera. I sent in renderings and wrote about the things I felt a video journalist needed. The most important were: three chips (this was before Digital Video came along); a professional viewfinder; a broadcast quality mic; and most important, at least four channels of PMC audio, with solid audio connections, including at least two professional XLR audio inputs.
Not long after this exchange, Canon withdrew the L2, and for the next year had no "prosumer" camera on the market. We were told that Canon was working on a new camera that would incorporate many of our wishes.
Just as the Christmas season began, Canon unveiled the result of its work.
THE XL-1, THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL CAMCORDER FOR UNDER $12,000.
I have been using this camera for the past three weeks on a daily basis. At events at the White House, shooting side by side with Beta crews, and in the snows of Vermont, working on a long-term documentary project.
I have tried to evaluate it as a professional shooter would, in the field.
My reactions are that, first, it is a joy to hold and shoot, secondly the quality of the picture when played back on a professional monitor is nothing short of stunning. There are no artifacts in the picture that I could find. The colors, even in low light levels are bright and true.
I shot the Clintons at a White House Christmas party for children, sitting in front of a huge Christmas tree in the East Room. The situation was lit for television. Comparing my tape with network pool tape, the Canon picture more than matched the Beta picture. Despite the fact that much of my tape was overexposed by half a stop (because my finger accidentally hit the auto exposure compensation dial... Canon, this dial is a problem. It should have a lift and turn lock. In the meantime, I have taped it down), the colors in the First Lady's red jacket were bright and true, with good skin tones (tending to be slightly magenta), and incredible detail in the Christmas tree behind them.
I then spent several days working on a documentary project in Vermont. It was a great test, since I was shooting both indoors under low light conditions, and outdoors in the snow, which tested the contrast handling capabilities of the camera to the max. In both the indoor and outdoor situations, using the auto exposure and ATW modes, the pictures were always right on the mark. Outdoors in the snow, I was able to go from wide angle establishing shots, zooming in to closeups of my subjects, with the autoexposure working all the time, and the camera was extremely smart in handling the contrast range. It held detail in the shadows, without blooming on the snow scenes.
In all cases, the sharpness of the picture in playback was breathtaking.
A TOUR OF THE CAMERA:
The basic camera package weighs approximately 7 lbs. It has a standard 16x optically stabilized f1.6-2.6 removable lens. It looks like no other camcorder. Documentary film cameramen will recognize the basic design as being similar to an ATON 16mm movie camera, minus the magazine. It is a modular package, in that it consists of three separate elements.
When looking at someone holding the camera you become most conscious of the lens and viewfinder.
The camera module itself measures eight inches in length, 3 inches in width, and six inches in height. The tape compartment is cantilevered up at a 25 degree angle from the guts of the camera.
The supplied 16x zoom lens, which is a separate detachable element, is another 7 1/2 inches long, with its secure lens hood. A wide angle lens, or any EOS lens can be attached with the use of an optional adapter.
The viewfinder-mic assembly is fully detachable.
What this means is that it could be possible to buy camera bodies separately, if Canon decides to sell them that way. This would be absolutely invaluable to a documentary cameraman on location in say, East Timbuktu, who can't afford to be put out-of-action because of a malfunction in the camera. My guess is that the body itself could sell for about $2,500.
THE CAMERA IN USE:
When you put your right hand through the professional zoom control pod (similar to the zoom control on a Betacam), and lift the camera, it naturally wants to move to your shoulder. The cantilevered tape compartment fits snugly on the shoulder. The rubber-cupped viewfinder makes firm contact with your eye, and with the left hand holding the lens, you have a solid three-point support. The optional "pro mount" that I strongly recommend, replaces the supplied shoulder mount by simply screwing into the base of the recorder, and offers two professional XLR audio inputs in the rear. Canon also supplies a bracket which attaches to the shoulder mount. It holds a two battery charger, and provides a mounting surface to "Velcro" a wireless mic receiver. The additional weight of the spare batteries and RF unit will make the camera even more stable.
The tape compartment takes a mini DV cassette, holding up to 60 minutes of recording time. It is accessed by an "eject" button above the door. One important point that Canon should caution users (and their salespeople) about is that unlike most camcorders, simply shutting the door once you have inserted the tape is not enough. You must first press the tape holder in, before closing the door, or you will see a flashing red tape icon in the viewfinder.
The operational heart of the camera is a rotating dial mounted on the left front of the module. It is this dial that is the off/on power switch, and also controls all the options such as manual, automatic, TV (shutter preferred), or AV (aperture preferred) automatic. This dial, although it is very convenient (without having to hunt to change modes) is also the one thing that will worry pro-shooters the most. With all those options available, it could also make it the weak link in the system. Murphy's law says that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible moment. It would have been better to have a separate metal toggle switch that would just control the power up on the camera. Having said that, it does make the camera a joy to control. The most brilliant feature is that with the camera in the automatic mode, controlling all functions of exposure and white balance, you can, simply by touching the focus band on the lens or the iris control (which is conveniently located just between the camera and the lens), override the automatic settings to control whichever action you want. This leaves much of the drudgery of manual settings for the camera to perform.
On top of the camera, just under the professional carrying handle, is an audio level meter that gives you a bar read-out of the audio on both the left and right channels. The audio controls are located behind a swing out door at the left rear (where your ear would rest). They control the four channels of PMC 16 bit audio. You have selector switches on audio 1, which also control the excellent broadcast stereo mic supplied with the camera, with an automatic and manual select, and separate gain controls for the left and right channel. Below this are the audio 2 controls that allow you to selectively ride gain on the left and right rear channels. It also gives you an ATT select, to control mic tone. It is this audio 2 section that you will use with a wireless mic, a mixer, or a mult, without interfering with your audio 1 stereo settings.
For connecting audio components, Canon opted for two stereo sets (4 channels) of inputs, which use sturdy RCA or phono plugs. With the addition of the "pro mount," you also get two XLR inputs, the professional audio standard. The main rear connections are stereo input/output RCA inputs, along with a composite video input/output, and an S video input/output. When using the pro mount, the short RCA cables from it plug into these inputs, this means that the audio inputs are being fed by the XLR inputs in the back of the mount. However, there is yet another stereo input pair hidden behind a plastic panel in the carrying handle. This means that this camera has more audio capability than a $60,000 Beta 600.
The 7.2 volt 2700mAh lithium ion battery provided, slips into a receptacle at the right rear of the camera, behind the recorder. It is interesting that Canon decided not to "fancy up" this by putting the battery behind a door. It just slips into the receptacle, and is held in by spring action, facilitating quick battery changes. Canon also makes a dual battery charger that mounts on the bracket on top of the pro shoulder mount, where you can also mount a wireless receiver. In my three weeks using this camera, I found the battery to be exceptionally long-lived, giving me nearly 40 minutes of taping time.
Back on the left side of the camera, a sliding panel reveals the controls. By depressing the menu button, a selection of options opens in the color LED viewfinder. From top to bottom, they are: (1) a zebra pattern select, which allows you to get an accurate idea of overexposure by laying a pattern on overlit areas; (2) a 16:9 wide-screen feature (more about this in a moment), a "movie" mode which allows you to eliminate flutter in pausing in playback, very useful in frame grabs to a computer; (3) a sensor; (4) the tally lamp select; (5) audio mode to choose between 12 bit and 16 bit PCM sound; (6) audio 1 and audio 2 inpoint selects for editing; (7) record mode SP/ LP select; and (8) a month, day, and time select. The sliding panel is a great feature, because it keeps you from hitting an on screen date select by mistake.
Below the sliding menu panel are pop-out controls that allow you to easily select video gain from 3db to +12db; filters from daylight to tungsten to ATW; and a white balance button. These buttons, once popped out by depressing them, mean that the operator can easily control these features by touch, without having to remove the eye from the camera.
Forward of these features (just behind the lens), is a panel facing the operator that gives fast forward/reverse record search; an EVF button for hiding information in the viewfinder; two digital effect buttons, which control digital zoom, fades; and slow shutter speeds from 1/8th to 1/30th.
At the very bottom of this group of controls is an extension that has on the back side, a shutter speed control from 1/60 to 1/1500th of a second. On the front side is the iris control, this is a positive movement control that you can access with the forefinger of your left hand to control the manual iris.
On the right side, hidden behind a door, is the digital in/out firewire access, and a lanc remote control input, and a digital deck control input.
The professional carrying handle on top of the camera module contains, in the rear, an earphone input with gain control--and on top, VCR controls. At the very front of the handle is another terrific feature. Canon has put a separate start/stop button and a zoom control that allows for waist level and low level shooting.
There is also an exposure compensation dial on the inside of the handle, just above the camera, that allows plus or minus 2 stop adjustment. This feature can be a problem. It is too easily moved by accident, resulting in under or overexposure while in automatic mode. They should have made it a lift and turn lock. Unfortunately, I experienced this problem when I accidentally overexposed my first event, using the camera, in the White House. After that, I taped over the dial.
The zoom control pod is attached to the front left of the camera module. It is a real broadcast zoom control, similar to what you would find on an ENG camera. The zoom is pressure sensitive and moves smoothly for either a crash or a crawl zoom. In the rear of the zoom pod is the start/stop button, where your thumb would naturally rest. On top of the pod, just behind the zoom, is a photo button for doing stills at any exposure from 1/8th to 1/1500th. This feature is one that is very useful for pro shooters doing still-lifes, photo copies, or any scene that would normally require putting the camera on sticks to keep the shot steady. Once the still has been captured, it lays it down on seven seconds of rolling tape, just long enough to pull for a shot in edit.
THE VIEWFINDER / MIC assembly:
When talking to Canon about my wish list, I kept emphasizing that we need a professional viewfinder. It had to be similar to what you would find on an ENG camera, with a 160 degree rotation. Well, they gave it to us, going even further by allowing the viewfinder to traverse 320 degrees. It is a real pro viewfinder, with a .07 screen, which at the eyepiece, translates to approximately two inches. Unfortunately, they chose to give us a color LED display. Most pro shooters would have preferred a black-and-white viewfinder. This is actually one of the few problems with this camera. Due to the nature of LED displays, the slightest variation in eye point incidence will cause a misreading of the exposure. I found this to be a real problem, especially with the camera on a tripod. It is just not possible to get an absolute indication of how the image will look on tape from an exposure standpoint. However, since the viewfinder is fully detachable, it should be fairly easy for Canon or a third party to come up with a B/W viewfinder.
The viewfinder also sports another unique Canon innovation. They have included an eyepoint selector switch on top of the viewfinder that allows you to recess the viewfinder image. You can see the entire viewfinder when working with the camera at waist level without bending over. The default viewfinder display shows time code; time left remaining on the tape; and a new feature that I think is very handy, an elapsed time display that rolls from zero to ten seconds. This is useful in making sure you have the requisite ten second roll for your shot (this information is also displayed on the control dial). The viewfinder comes with a heavy-duty rubber eyecup, but the first thing I would do when you get the camera is cement that eyecup on. It pops off very easily.
The viewfinder bar has a shoe mount for a light, strobe, or additional mics. Attached to the viewfinder, on the right, is a brand new broadcast stereo mic, with incredible sensitivity. It beats even the quality of my Senheisser, which is about as good as it gets. The viewfinder is held to the camera by a heavy duty locking screw, this allows you to slide the viewfinder in for carrying or shipping. It also allows you to pull the viewfinder all the way to the left for left-eyed shooters.
The supplied 16x optically stabilized lens is pure Canon optics...which means very good. On the rear left of the barrel is a manual/auto focus switch; a push Autofocus lock; ND filter; and stabilizer control. The stabilization feature is a further refinement in Canon's optical stabilization development. It allows you to hand hold the lens for a reasonably steady shot while maxed-out on zoom.
The supplied wireless remote, is a full-featured assemble edit control. It has a professional jog/shuttle wheel for pinpoint accuracy in editing. It also controls audio 1 and audio 2 channels individually. The use of this remote in connection with the less expensive Optura would make basic assemble edits using a firewire a cinch. Which brings us to a feature I really wish Canon had thought of in both these cameras. It would have been nice to include a default override on the power save shutdown. If this feature which is standard on handycams could be overridden with the remote, it would be easy to use the Optura as a "cuts" camera from a secondary angle, or to place it in special positions, such as hanging from a lighting bar for an overhead shot of a prize fight, or at ground level under the rail of a horse race, and allow the operator to activate the secondary camera by remote control while still shooting from a prime location. This is exactly the kind of break with traditional thought in television shooting that these cameras should facilitate. Still photographers have been using remote cameras for years. Canon are you listening?
OH YES, ONE MORE THING:
Remember I said I would be getting back to the 16:9 aspect ratio thing? Well, this is one of the most important and forward-looking parts of the camera.
We all know that eventually HDTV will arrive. It will probably first show up where you least expect to see it, on the smaller cable network channels such as THE LEARNING CHANNEL, THE HISTORY CHANNEL and DISCOVERY. These will be the prime markets for television documentaries
By definition, HDTV means wide format. All of today's television is shot in 4:3 (width versus height) aspect ratio. Wide-screen is shot in 16:9. With the exception of Hollywood features there is virtually nothing in the bank for these stations in the new format. Where will they get product?
Canon saw this coming, so they have included an option within the menu that says "16:9." When selected, it actually squeezes the image vertically. When viewed on a conventional TV screen, the people all look as though they had been stretched on a medieval torture rack. However, when viewed on a true wide-screen monitor the picture unfolds to a wide format. Some low-end handycams, currently on the market, include a "wide-screen" feature that is simply a mask on the top and bottom, using only part of the frame. The Xl-1, on the other end, uses an anamporphic digital process that makes use of the entire frame.
By using the Frame Movie Mode it's possible to get the look of motion of film shot at 30FPS and transferred to tape. By altering the frame rate, your footage will gain the impression of being shot on film.
(Read more about this in Michael Pappas' review on the following page.)
A good colorist, in a post production house, can take the Canon 16:9 image, use a line doubler to take it from today's 525 lines per inch standard, and boost it up to HDTV's 1125 lines, transfer it to film or tape, and voila...wide screen!
Sony has just come out with a new ENG camera, the DWS30. It does essentially the same thing, and it costs $26,000. There is only one in the country right now. Sooner than later, though, forward-looking commercial cameramen will be rushing to jump on this bandwagon.
For $4,690 we can be there right now!
SO, DIRCK, DID YOU LIKE IT ?
After claiming that the camera was PERFECT, I really gave it a hard test drive. Frankly, I am not sure how robust the camera will be in, say, a campaign, considering all the banging around a camera gets. But, the fact that a second body is very affordable for a pro shooter should put one's mind at ease. I strongly recommend that Canon make the body available as a separate purchase (perhaps in a pro kit), that would contain two bodies, the 16x zoom and the three X wide angle, that goes from the equivalent of a 24mm to a 90mm lens, and include an EOS lens adapter.
What is clear is that for $4,690 it is now possible to buy a real pro camcorder with features not even available in a $17,500 digital ENG camera.
So, this brings me to the final argument. What all broadcast pros want to know is...can this camera really match a Betacam in performance?
HERE ARE THE FACTS:
Digital is digital. It doesn't matter if it is shot on a Sony VX1000, the XL-1, the Sony DSR200 DVCAM, or a $17.500 ENG camera.
The standards defining performance were laid out by the principal manufacturers at the DV conference, and these govern all cameras. They pertain to Signal to Noise ratio (S/N) and video sharpness. According to, Michael Pappas of Arifilms, who is an authority (check his website at http://www.digitalcinematography.com), the DV standard 4:11, is S/N 54db, Y: 5.75mhz, and C: 1.5mhz signal.
These stats compare with a 51db S/N ratio for a Betacam SP. that has been the broadcast industry standard for the past few years.
There is a comparable gap (in favor of digital) between the Xl-1 and Beta in all other critical areas such as audio dynamic range, frequency response (digital is from 20mhz-20khz, while beta is only 50mhz to 15khz), wow, and flutter, and recording length.
So, why is everybody lugging around those 30 pound monstrosities? The answer is, that is the way broadcast has been set up. It would be very difficult to find a digital tape edit deck in most stations today. Their investment has been in Beta, which costs roughly ten times as much in both acquisition and editing tools.
This is now going to have to change. The FCC says that all major market networks and stations must be digital by the end of '98. I doubt that date will be met.
There is great consternation and debate raging over the merits of DVCPRO (Panasonic) versus MINIDV (Sony, Panasonic and Canon) and DVCAM (Sony ), and the new Beta Digital. In the end, all these systems are merely interim steps as the industry moves to true and complete digital.
In the meantime, you can buy an XL-1, and
not only will you not be ashamed to show up alongside the "big guys," but...know
that in their hearts they are green with envy.
Reviews by Dirck Halstead
of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST
are solely the opinion of the author, and do not reflect the opinions of
Hewlett Packard. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers
considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages.
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