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Extending the range

Following NAB, Phil Rhodes gets his hands on one of the new additions to the Canon HDV XL range of cameras, the XL H1s.

First published in Showreel magazine, June 2008

NAB this year wasn't exactly a cornucopia of new products. With Sony glossing over its seminal F35 in half a sentence and Panasonic having announced the interesting AG-HMC150 earlier in the year, I was left wandering around looking for something worth writing about. Canon are always interesting: what might they have? An XL H2 with true progressive CCDs?

Well, no. But they did have a kaizen of the XL H1, the ‘–s' variant, with a new version of the XL lens. The question is whether this sort of incremental upgrade is enough to keep us interested in a world which has – given the efforts of JVC, Sony and Panasonic – changed enormously since the first XL H1 was released.

My personal frame of reference for this camera, though, is not the XL H1, but the XH G1, a smaller but similarly specified fixed-lens camera I looked at soon after its release. At the time I preferred the JVC GY-HD series for dramatic work, based on a difficult-to-describe but strongly-held opinion that the picture was simply nicer, for all that it was crippled by poor default optics and had lower resolution. Even then, though, it was clear that the Canon, which used the same optical block and CCDs as the new XL H1s, was by far the sharpest of the consumer HDV cameras, at least in interlaced-scan mode. Equally clear was that it had better electronically-controlled optics than JVC could possibly afford to match in their traditional, manual Fuji lens. So, the issue for me is not just whether the XL H1s is a good camera in its own right, but whether it also represents a good use of the last two years by Canon's R&D department, especially as the only way to 24p is via the resolution-sapping 24F mode. This has always been a real shame, as the best aspect of any of the XH range has been its sharpness, given that they all have 1440x1080 CCDs.

We took the XL H1s to the Sepulveda Dam, a fantastic looking piece of neomodern architecture just northwest of Sherman Oaks, in Los Angeles. It was a steaming hot day a week after NAB, where we'd secured the loan of the camera from a very helpful and cooperative Canon – their attitude and the speed with which they were able to react was really quite impressive, and I hope their after-sales people are as good. The day was steamingly hot and the shadows deep. I thought it performed quite well.

The principal improvement, at least as far as Canon's sales teams are concerned, is that the XL H1s is part of a range – the XL H1a is identical but for omitted HD-SDI and timecode connectivity. This is probably a good thing; I love the presence of HD-SDI outputs on these things because it allows me to record uncompressed output, but I don't imagine everyone is quite as mad as I am and will resent paying the extra money. I really can't see a lot of people investing enough money in the sort of monitoring this camera would require to make the SDI output worthwhile just to feed a viewing device, although the viewfinder is feeble enough that for even vaguely serious work you'd want better monitoring. For run and gun stuff, then, you'll save your money and get the –a suffix, which is a nice choice to have.

The bigger deal, though, from a user's point of view, is the new lens. It's still a servoactuated type, effectively a variable prime with automatic focus tracking, which is what allows reasonable HD lenses to be sold for consumer prices, and also what makes it difficult to provide them with fully manual controls. On the latest version, Canon has seen fit to include servo rings not only for focus and zoom, but also for iris, which is a major improvement and probably the best new thing on the camera, as well as being very unusual at this level. Previously, to make an iris adjustment, the operator would have to reach for a control on the camera body, which was horrible to the point of unusability.

A further upgrade to the physical user interface of the camera involves variable speed servo tracking, so you can, in effect, change follow focus gearing on the lens. This is useful, but changing the speed doesn't really fix the fact that it's still laggy – it's nowhere near as snappy as the best consumer servo zoom I've ever used (on the now-venerable Sony Z1). I'd have much rather they spent their time making it more responsive, because at the moment it feels like it's trying to smooth out your moves and make all the zooms look nice and ramped-off. If this is in fact an intentional characteristic then it is a gravely mistaken one which should at the very least be optional. I've used much faster servo lenses than this, and Canon should recognize that this could be as much of a sales feature as a new set of DSP controls. There's nothing quite so amateurish as laggy, sloppy zooms and focus pulls in your footage.

Signal processing

Speaking of which, DSP is somewhat improved. There's now both more range and finer adjustment within that range on many settings, including the critical gamma and matrix. This is very welcome and goes a long way towards fixing my principal criticism of the XH G1 (which uses the same CCD block and very similar software as the XL H1), which was that it looked too electronic and clippy. I must admit to a feeling that they could have gone further still – consumer manufacturers are understandably hesitant to provide any control that could make the image look grossly incorrect out of the camera. Even so, with the HD-SDI port available, I found myself yearning for the extremely aggressive gamma ramps that are available on some of the best, high-end HD cameras, such as the Sony HDW-F900. These approaches have problems of their own, and you are entering territory where users must be expected to exercise at least some of their own intelligence, but this is an expensive enough camera that I think it could be justified and would help enormously. I'd hate to see a true progressive XL H2, with potential as a digital cinematography device, have this problem. Go mad, guys. Give us gamma all the way down to 0.1 and all the way up to 3. We can handle it!

So here we have a quite reasonable attempt at a $10,000 HD video camera. The lens is, well, a reasonable attempt at a $2500 HD video lens. Probably it's hampered by the fact that they need to put a 20:1 zoom on the front of the thing and I would be extremely interested to see if the 3:1 short zoom is any better. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fixed lens on the XH G1 might actually be better optically, but it's difficult to be specific without putting them side by side. What worries me about the current XL HD lens is not that it flares and veils and chromatically aberrates, which is to some extent unavoidable on something of that spec for that price, but that it appears to do these things equally irrespective of zoom position and f-stop. Another failing is that there is, unless I'm very stupid, no way of getting a literal zoom position readout in millimeters of focal length, which is an absolutely crazy oversight considering you can have focus distance in imperial or metric. Zoom is simply a 1-100 number. The fact that the servo lens rings are non-indexed and infinitely rotating makes this even more essential, although it's nice to see that there's a duplicate viewfinder output available for an AC's monitor (should Canon decide to make one).

So yes, fine, it's reasonable, it's competent. I want (even) more aggressive DSP control and the lens is lackluster, but otherwise it's every bit as good as you'd expect something to be, if it was very slightly better than the XL H1 – if you see what I mean. It has the same problem as every XL series camera ever has, which is that it's front-heavy, so you'd want to put an Anton Bauer battery system on the back, but that just exacerbates my main bugbear – the price. It's pretty expensive in a world which offers very competitive interchangeable-lens 1080-line cameras with true progressive scan which record to flash cards. Our insurance documentation priced out the demo package at $12,500, and even though a Google search revealed that it could probably be had sub-10K with a bit of maneuvering, it feels steep for what it is.

I want to look at Sony's latest SxS recording XDCAM EX stuff and see how good it really is before I make a final recommendation on this. Until that time, all I can say is look around carefully because it is no longer obvious that Canon has, either literally or figuratively, the sharpest tool in the box.

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