Mike Jones takes at detailed look at Canon’s XLH1 HDV.
When Canon first released their now seminal XL1 DV camera it?s unlikely they knew exactly what they had on their hands. Intended as a quality camera for enthusiast amateurs the XL1 quickly shattered that image and was rapidly adopted by a huge range of professional users in the digital domain. Everything from short films, to docos and large budget feature films such as Danny Boyles? ?28 Days Later? and Steven Soderberg?s ?Full Frontal? have all utilised the XL1 and its sequels the XL1s and XL2.
This time around, with the world descending on our screens in glorious High Definition format, Canon are certainly not so unassuming about the XL1?s successor the HDV XLH1. It may cost substantially less than many professional camera systems such as Digi-Beta or XD-CAM models but with a feature set as long as your arm and high-quality interchangeable lenses there?s no doubt Canon are pitching their new baby as the lower-cost, more portable and flexible professional alternative for everything from TV news gathering to studio production and digital features.
But where once the XL1 stood alone as the only interchangeable lens DV camera under $20,000 it now shares the field with a much wider array of competitors. Will the XLH1 be able to repeat the success of its predecessor as the camera of choice for lo-budget production?
Flexibility and adaptability were arguably what made the XL1 and XL2 such a favourite among digital filmmakers and the impressive feature set of the XLH1 seems geared towards exactly that. Rather than being a camera best suited to one purpose, the XLH1 seems to have been designed to scale easily up and down to a huge variety of situations.
This flexibility begins with the switchable shooting modes for both Standard Definition and High Definition. SD can be shot on the XLH1 as either ordinary 4:3 or true 16:9 widescreen appearing as letterboxed using standard MiniDV format and compression. With a flick of a switch you can move to HD mode and capture a full 1440×1080 image.
Frame rates are also flexible on the XLH1 although perhaps not as flexible as many pro users might have wanted. The XLH1 can shoot in both an interlaced and frame-based mode; 50i or 25f. It should be noted however that technically 25f is not the same as a true progressive. Because the CCD?s in the XLH1 do not capture progressively the 25f mode is created by a process of internal interpolation of the interlaced fields captured by the CCD?s. The result is nothing you would be disappointed in and, in our tests, produced a result virtually indistinguishable from true 25p footage.
HD cameras and editing systems may be here but in the current state of affairs there is still no viable way to deliver HD content (Blu-Ray, HD-DVD where are you?? We know you?re out there somewhere?!) To tide you over and again make the XLH1 a very flexible camera (as well as keeping pace with the example set by Sony?s FX1 and Z1 HDV cameras) the XLH1 can auto down-convert your HDV footage on capture to your editing system. The result is that you can shoot HD but capture SD. The advantages to this are none the less profound as starting your SD project with a much larger and more colour-rich image is always a good thing. Effectively with a feature like this alone (which is common to virtually all HDV cameras now) there?s almost no reason not to go HD with your next camera even if you don?t own an HDTV.
Canon has been careful not to neglect sound and the XLH1 has a pair of quality XLR balanced microphone inputs mounted on the rear of the camera. Careful control of levels, gain, channels and monitoring is all provided through manual dials and switches mounted on the camera body. The XLH1 also comes fitted with a shotgun microphone that is well mounted into a shock absorbing fixture on the front/top of the camera.
The lens that comes as standard to the XLH1 is one of a new range of specially design HD video lenses and Canon informs us that new editions in this family of HD lenses are in the works. The standard lens is fitted with a two-step ND filter for over-bright and glary conditions and has a huge 20x zoom range (equivalent to 38.9-778mm).
From the feature list, the one that is most telling of the direction Canon is aiming the XLH1 is the inclusion of Serial Digital Interface (SDI) connection. SDI allows the XLH1 to interface with a wide range of hi-end production hardware such as recording decks and editing systems, particularly those used in TV production. However, more significantly, the XLH1 can output, via SDI, uncompressed HD images with 4:2:2 colour space directly to a computer or external hard-drive array. For a studio environment, and particularly for those producing green-screen chromakey effects, having uncompressed HD options as opposed to HDV with the expanded colour information makes the XLH1 a very viable small studio camera.
Likewise, in this vein the XLH1 also has Gen-Lock and Timecode input which allows for multiple cameras to be synched together for multi-cam shoots such as live performances, concerts and TV. Again this is a strong indicator of where Canon is trying to position the XLH1.
Design and layout
The XL1 was one of the most easily identifiable cameras on the market. Its bent chassis design and distinctive red and white markings certainly made it stand out from the dull grey and black masses. With the XLH1 Canon has changed almost nothing about the basic body design of the camera but gone is the distinctive colouring, the new camera joining the ranks of the banal in dull gun-metal black. As I have said previously in other articles about the XLH1 I can?t help but see this as a very poor choice on Canon?s part. The distinctive colouring of Canon cameras and lenses was a superb bit of marketing and brand identification. Now seemingly that has been given away to make the camera?s colours as boring as everyone else.
But beauty is only skin deep and its ergonomics and functionality that rule the day for a good camera. In this context, the XLH1 dispenses with the absurdity of LCD menus and touch screens for accessing options and camera functions; virtually every major shooting operation of the XLH1 is accessed with a dedicated button, dial or switch. Whilst this does make the chassis of the camera a bit crowded with controls, any experienced camera operator will be offering up prayers of thanks that they don?t have to navigate an electronic menu to change the white-balance!
The placement of this multitude of controls has been extremely well thought out. Canon has had three previous models to get the placement right and respond to user feedback and so in use I found all the major functions of the camera (shutter, WB, gain, ND, audio level etc) were within easy distance of the placement of my hands for quick and efficient operation.
Whilst light in weight the XLH1 is none the less certainly a two-handed camera for smooth operation. It balances well on its in-built shoulder pad and has good adjustments for moving the spacing of the viewfinder forward or back to suit the operator. The lens of the XLH1 alone is more than half the length of the camera and certainly more than half the weight and this led to the only down side which was a tendency to be nose-heavy. Moving the right-hand grip further forward would move the balance point of the camera further back and this would have made for a more comfortable grip. That said, by comparison to other shoulder-mount cameras the XLH1 is both lighter and smaller and so can be forgiven a great deal.
There is no LCD viewfinder on the XLH1 (just as there wasn?t on the XL1 or XL2) but the eye-piece cup of the viewfinder flips up to allow the operator to see the viewfinder screen in much the same way as an LCD panel and indeed it isn?t that much smaller than most camera LCD?s and certainly very functional.
Zoom and record controls are placed in the traditional right-hand position for thumb and fore-finger operation but there is also a second set of controls on the top handle for when the camera is used from low angles and gripped under-hand. The zoom speeds of both these can be set independently so, for example the top controls might be set to very slow zoom and the right-hand zoom set for quick slides in and out.
The lens barrel itself has three control rings; manual focus, zoom and the ND filter, placed fairly wide apart from each other to help ensure you don?t grab the wrong one in the middle of a shot.
To facilitate quick and efficient operation the XLH1, like other Canon models, has a set of custom keys that can be assigned to any common functions the operator finds most useful, For those shooting in improvised or live environments such as concerts or documentaries these custom keys are a must and my only criticism would be there should be more. I?d be very happy with 3 or 4 custom assignable keys.
The overall design of the XLH1 is quite unique from any other camera in its class but it is a design that obviously comes equally out of careful thought and solid experience. It?s a very comfortable camera to use, easy to keep steady, light and portable (as far as shoulder mount cameras go) and despite the huge range of features and controls is very efficient in operation.
The term ?performance? in the context of evaluating a camera could potentially encompass a huge range of elements all quite disparate from each other. But when you boil down the ?performance? of a camera to its most fundamental test it?s really all about just one thing ? The Lens… It doesn?t matter how big the CCD?s are, how many pixels you have or how many features are packed into the camera, if the Lens isn?t quality then the camera isn?t quality.
The Canon XLH1 has one the finest lenses I?ve ever used on a camera of this size and price. The newly developed Fluorite HD lens made by Canon specifically for the XLH1 is absolutely outstanding in every way I could think of to test. Visual clarity was excellent and a good thing too as shooting in HD tends to be a ?warts and all? affair. Lens aberrations that you could get away with in SD?s 720×576 show up like the proverbial sore thumb when shown at 1920×1080.
The lens has a very long 20x zoom which, on a lesser camera, would invariably result in noticeable and problematic distortions at the extreme extents of the zoom range; both wide and telephoto. But not so on the XLH1, which was clear, sharp and distortion-free right throughout the range.
Of course nothing on a camera exists or works in isolation and a good lens relies on good white-balance, colour saturation and exposure levels to obtain a good image. Canon has endowed the XLH1 with a wide range of features for image control including gamma curves and colour balancing tools. Coupled with a very flexible and accurate white-balance function, these features allow the user to make the most of the superb optics. The result was that the XLH1 coped extremely well with a range of tough conditions including the heavy glare of harsh overcast skies, shooting into the sun and strongly backlit subjects. In all of these cases a stunning level of detail was retained even in the darkest areas of the image. Elements such as facial shadows caused by bright singular light sources that would have given harsh, impenetrable dark areas on a lesser SD camera, retained a large amount of detail and tonal range.
The XLH1 also coped not too badly in low-light conditions with remarkably little visual noise or smearing in black areas. That said, whilst the XLH1 could compete and even exceed a variety of much more expensive cameras for image quality and clarity, it is still a camera that begs for as much light as you an feed it for best results.
From an all important audio perspective the XLH1?s XLR inputs are clean and noise-free. The mounting at the back makes them accessible but not in the way. The auto gain function worked well but as with most auto gain had a tendency to gain up too much in quiet scenes bringing ambience or minor hiss. But this is more than made up for by the precise and easily accessible manual gain controls and headphone monitoring. The standard shotgun hypercardiod microphone that comes with the XLH1 is remarkably decent and whilst those more pedantic about their sound quality may choose to replace it with a Sennhieser or Rhode, it is nonetheless a very acceptable mic with a convenient mono-stereo switch. The standard mic works best for front-on, TV-style, interviews at near range and also works quite well for recording room tone, ambience or back-up sound.
There?s no two ways about it, the XLH1 is an outstanding camera. Quite possibly the best camera in this price range I?ve ever used and certainly it throws the gauntlet down to many cameras with much higher pricetags.
But, that said, the XLH1 isn?t the only camera on the lower-price playing field to offer HD and interchangeable lenses. As I have written previously, the JVC HD100U with its HD, true progressive 24p and interchangeable lenses is a remarkably similar camera to the XLH1, offering many similar features. Certainly JVC are stepping up to challenge Canon in a territory Canon, with the XL2, once owned almost on their own. With a street price for the JVC now running under $9500 its more than $4000 cheaper than the XLH1 and that may make a big difference to the take up rate of the XLH1 and dint Canon?s expectations.
The price tag of the XLH1 also points to a product repositioning by Canon in the broader media production market. Where the XLH1?s predecessor, the XL2, was perfectly placed to be the camera an independent movie maker, documentary maker or small production house would, and could, justify buying and owning, the XLH1 is priced to more likely be the type of camera one would hire for a particular shoot rather than buy and own for themselves.
This is a fundamental shift in the role Canon cameras have traditionally played and the brand loyalty they have built up. It seems the success of this move for Canon relies on TV studios and broadcast production houses moving to the HDV format for acquisition. Whether this will happen still remains to be seen…
In the meantime, JVC are muscling in heavily on territory that Canon once possessed and which, in turn, Canon seem to be moving away from. To independent producers and videomakers, the question will invariably be not whether the XLH1 is a better camera than the competition but rather whether the XLH1 can be justified as $4000 better than the competition? The XLH1 is no doubt a superb and outstanding camera, but the jury is out on whether users will take to it as they did to its predecessor or whether the price tag will force a change of brand loyalty.