- Outstanding video quality, interchangeable lenses, HD/SD SDI output, timecode sync and Genlock, dedicated switchgear, superb lens, progressive scan SD.
- Expensive, unbalanced front-heavy design, 2.4in LCD can make focus tricky, only one HD lens currently available.
A unique HDV camcorder that’s just as comfortable in the field as it is cabled to a multi-cam studio setup. Professionals will find a lot to like in the XL-H1, while enthusiasts and semi-pro events videographers would be better off looking at a less expensive model.
Price$ 13,999.00 (AUD)
We were hoping that Canon would have launched a high-definition video (HDV) camcorder long before now, but history has shown that the global imaging giant prefers not to rush into new markets. As a result its products may not be the first, but they're usually well designed and fill a niche left open by the competition.
The new XL-H1 does exactly that, with Canon taking a different tack to current HDV competitors Sony, JVC, and Panasonic. The XL-H1 is aimed squarely at the professional videographer rather than the enthusiast - which you may already have guessed from its appearance, if not the price tag. So, if you're questioning how this can possibly be worth so much more than the Sony HDR-HC3 you were thinking of buying, this is not the camera for you - you'd be better off waiting for either the recently-announced XH-A1 or the XH-G1 to be released here.
Though noticeably heavier and featuring a matt black finish, the XL-H1 closely follows the modular template set by Canon's successful XL1, XL1S and XL2 DV25-based MiniDV camcorders. This design has always been a mixed bag; it's certainly easier to maintain a steady two-handed grip with this camera than with smaller models that don't have the XL-H1's partial shoulder mount, but it's extremely 'lens-heavy', placing the support load on your muscles instead of your skeleton. Having all the weight at the front can also adversely affect tripod work unless you fit a counterbalance (while not tested the Anton Bauer QR-XL mount and battery packs have always been an effective way of balancing the XL1 and XL2 models, and can be fitted to the XL-H1 without the need for the optional MA100/200 shoulder mounts).
Reviewer's note: Some filmmakers may prefer a more portable, compact model for candid or reality footage, but there are times when you need a large, professional-looking camera on your shoulder in order to be taken seriously. I was once refused access to an event I was covering because the doorman didn't think the VX2100 I was using was a 'proper' camera!
The lens, microphone and rail-mounted viewfinder assembly can be detached from the body allowing you to fit alternatives, like the FU-1000 CRT-based monochrome viewfinder for more accurate focusing (which we'll get to later), or altenative lenses. The XL-H1 is the only camera in its class with this feature, allowing you to use your old XL-class lenses if you don't mind the reduction in video detail, or you can employ an EF lens adapter to convert Canon photographic lenses. Just be warned that a focal multiplier of over 7x gives photographic lenses an extreme telephoto range that may prove impossible to work with.
The image sensor uses three 1/3in CCD chips with a resolution of 1.67Mp each, which matches 1080i HDV's 1.56Mp resolution (not to be confused with 1920x1080-pixel screen resolution -- the pixels in HDV have a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.33:1). This feeds to Canon's own Digic DV II digital signal processor, which can handle a variety of frame modes and resolutions; in the case of the PAL version reviewed here, SD 50i and 25F (progressive scan) in 4:3 and widescreen, plus HD 1080i. There's no 720P mode, but this is a standard that's not widely used in Australian productions.
Interestingly, Canon can also enable your XL-H1 with the same modes as the US model (60i and 24F) for an additional fee. Our review unit already had this enabled, though you need to dive into the menu to select it. We're not entirely sure why Canon has elected to use 'F' as an indicator of progressive scan; the frame mode of this camera appears to be identical to Panasonic's 24 and 25P modes in that it captures a complete frame, but stores each field of that frame as interlaced DV25.
As is always the case with Canon's XL camcorders, the lens that comes with the XL-H1 is superb. The 20X HD offers the same 5.4-108mm (39-780mm in 35mm terms) range as its predecessors and is very fast - F1.4 at wide, closing down to F3.5 at telephoto. The lens is equipped with two neutral density filters (1/6 and 1/32), as well as the same 72mm filter thread diameter, not to mention the optical image stabiliser system that effectively eliminates or softens camera shake without affecting resolution like digital systems can.
The key differences here are obviously the lens' ability to resolve the much higher levels of detail required for HD shooting, and a new SR coating that reduces ghosting. Our only criticisms are that the focus ring is a little vague, and the distance indicator is an arbitrary value from 0-99. Inevitably, there's a degree of barrel distortion at full wide, but not so much that it's likely to be a problem, and pincushion distortion is virtually non-existent. It also features a zoom/focus preset function -- which lets you store and return to focus or zoom point (though not both) -- and a variable speed zoom that's a joy to use.
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that this is the only HD lens currently available for the XL-H1 (though rumours suggest a 3X wide angle HD is coming soon), and using older lenses like the 16X (5.4-86.4mm) manual lens will reduce the effective picture resolution significantly.
The supplied boom microphone is the same mono/stereo hyper-cardioid directional as previous models, but now has a spring suspension mount on the body to isolate it from vibrations. While this is welcome, we found that strong knocks would introduce an audible click into the recording -- though admittedly, this transient is easier to remove in post than the dull thuds and booms you'd get without the suspension. Hidden in the handgrip, you'll find the SD Card slot for still images -- obviously, this isn't a camera for still photography, but it's an extremely useful tool for continuity records or location shots.
While most professionals are used to working without one, the absence of an external LCD viewfinder is something that all the XL models have been criticised for, and the XL-H1 is no exception. You can flip the eyepiece up and use the internal viewfinder's 2.4in LCD panel, but this is hardly ideal. The screen can get pretty cramped if you prefer to have current camera settings displayed on it, and the 215,000-pixel resolution is a long way short of the 1.67-megapixel image being recorded, which can make focusing something of a guessing game at times. Canon has included a 'Peaking' switch that highlights edges - like an intensive image sharpening algorithm - to assist in this regard, as well as a Magnify switch, that enlarges the centre of the image. However, even with these, you may find yourself wishing for the FU-1000 high-contrast CRT viewfinder mentioned earlier, particularly if you're working with a shallow DOF in awkward lighting.
Although these features add up to a good camera, so far there's nothing there that greatly separates this product from its significantly cheaper competitors. It's when you check out the 'jack pack' at the rear of the camera that things become more apparent. As you'd expect, the XL-H1 supports two XLR inputs with phantom power (located at the rear of the shoulder pack, past the four-channel audio mixer panel), but on the right-hand side, you'll also find a row of four BNC connectors along with more conventional composite, S-video and RCA audio outputs. The first two BNCs are for SMPTE timecode synchronisation, allowing you to connect and use multiple XL-H1s in a studio shoot with perfect timecode sync on each one -- taking a big problem with post-production and multi-cam setups out of the game. In a similar vein, the third is a Genlock port that will maintain video sync with external audio recording devices.
Most surprising, however, is the fourth BNC, which is an HD/SD SDI port. As well as allowing you to hook this camera directly up to a broadcast-quality reference monitor, it also bypasses the HDV encoding circuit of the Digic DV II, providing 4:2:2 YUV output via SDI that's more in line with top-end Betacam camcorders than the 4:2:0 YUV colour space of HDV.
Unsurprisingly, we don't have a professional SDI reference monitor or AJA editing system lying around the office, so we couldn't really test the HD-SDI output under ideal conditions. However, connecting to a high-definition consumer display using the XL-H1's component output proved that it's capable of delivering stunning video. Colours are rich -- leaning towards slightly warm tones -- and detail is everything you'd expect from a three-chip high-definition camera. Gamma is fully adjustable to provide a more film-like appearance, though the default settings already do a pretty good job. Detail is extremely sharp, and low-light performance is very good indeed (minimum illumination is rated at 6 lux with 1/50s shutter speed and full gain). The supplied battery is a little on the slim side however, providing only 3hr 40min from a single charge (and that's just recording black, striping the tape, autofocus, zoom and external XLR mics will cut that down significantly).
Obviously, a camera of this complexity takes a while to become confident with, but all of the key features are given their own dedicated function keys so menu navigation is kept to a minimum - particularly as you can set six custom presets for immediate recall. As well as the usual automatic, priority and full manual modes, other shooting functions include exposure compensation and one-touch exposure lock. It can be a little cumbersome to use, but overall, the XL-H1 is worth it particularly if you're looking for a camera that can handle field or events shooting, but which can also double up as a fully-synced component in a multi-camera studio shoot.
It's true that many will consider this camera's price tag too high for their needs, which is hardly surprising when you can buy a Panasonic, JVC or Sony HDV camcorder and have enough left over for the high performance editing PC you'll need to handle the recordings. But those who can make use of timecode sync, Genlock and HD SDI output, as well as the interchangeable lenses supported by the XL-H1 won't need much convincing that this is worth the extra cash. In fact, when you look at it from this perspective, it's a bit of a bargain.
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