Camera Review: Canon XL H1

It was over a year ago that Mike Curtis, Chris Hurd, and Adam Wilt organized the Texas HD Shootout that pitted the JVC GY-HD100, Panasonic AG-HVX200, Sony HVR-Z1 and Canon HL X1 against each other in a battle for ultimate supremacy. Of course each camera had its own strengths and weaknesses, so there was no clear winner, but from all the data collected on the Big Four I decided that Canon’s XL H1 was the most powerful and flexible option for the widest number of uses. Well, for my uses anyway, which are pretty wide.

And now that I’ve been using XL H1 cameras for several months on several different types of projects, I thought I’d put together a review on its many features and what I feel are its strengths and weaknesses in production. I’ve been using Canon’s XL cameras for years, and from the XL1 to the XL1s, I never liked them much. Sony’s DSR-300 and 500 were DV cameras that offered much better control and imaging. The XL2, however, was much closer to being a usable camera, and adopted a number of pro features.

Now, with the XL H1, Canon has created something that feels and performs like a real professional camera. Also, it’s black, so it even looks professional.

The Camera Body
The chainsaw shape of the XL cameras has taken some getting used to. The XL1 was a bit too small to be comfortably used as a shoulder camera, but the XL2 worked much better. With a professional v-lock battery and two wireless receivers on the back, it balanced like a proper ENG camera should. The XL H1 is nearly identical in size and shape to the XL2, so all the cases and accessories are usable, but it is considerably heavier. Also some of the controls for newer functions have been moved around a bit, and it might be my imagination, but everything seems more ergonomic and more accessible than on the XL2.

Camera wobbles are much more noticeable in HD than on SD, so it is more vital the camera be held steady. This is another area where JVC and Canon cameras beat their handheld counterparts from Panasonic and Sony. To get the same motion control and stability that you have with a larger, longer, shoulder-mountable camera, handhelds need accessories and attachments. After years of also using very bulky broadcast cameras and looking down on anything less, I never thought I’d be defending a Canon camcorder’s size and stability as superior to other cameras, but in its price range, the XL H1 is one of the most solid and controllable form factors available.

And it’s flexible, too. I’m comfortable holding it on my shoulder, over my head, low to the ground with the carry handle, or, which seems to be the most stable of all, pinned under my arm, with the shoulder pad on my hip and both hands forward at the controls by the lens. I’d like a little more size to it, and more weight, but it really does handle well. On a tripod it is also very balanced, but since the lens is slung so low a riser is probably needed to fit it to a studio teleprompter. With the usual indie film accessories on board, it retains a useable balance, but a heavier battery pack on the back is a big help in offsetting a large matte box.

The Features
And this camera could be a digital cinema powerhouse with its 24F framerate and uncompressed 4:2:2 HD-SDI out. Canon’s 24F took a lot of flack from the indie community at first, and because nothing supported it properly, rumors arose that it was stuttery CineFrame fakery and not true 24fps video at all. It turns out, now that everyone’s NLE seems to support 24F, that it does resolve into true, proper cadence, 24p video, even though it wasn’t captured on a truly progressive CCD array. That means that there is some vertical resolution loss, but not as much as you might think, and since it uses an incredibly sharp 1080 imager to start with, the resulting processed image is still very clear.

Unfortunately, everything not recorded off the uncompressed HD-SDI channel will be compressed onto miniDV tape, using regular DV for the SD shooting modes, and Canon’s own HDV implementation for anything shot in HD. HDV compression is problematic, particularly for moving shots. Below are two frames taken with identical settings. The one on the left was taken from a locked off tripod shot, and the other from a fast trucking shot taken from a car. Same forest, same lighting. Each were recorded at 30f HDV, transcoded to CineForm medium upon capture, and then exported as lossless PNGs. You can see here the same level of vertical softening that 24F would give you.

The first shot is sharp and pretty clear for the amount of detail it contains, but the second has very visible MPEG compression artifacts, particularly within the motion blur. A great deal of fine detail is visible in the distance, where objects are moving slower, but rapid motion kills the quality. That said, Canon’s codec seems to pack far more data into 25mb/s than Sony’s, or at least retains a much better image. Also, the advantage of being able to fit 63 whole minutes of HD onto a tiny, lightweight, and very portable tape that will retain your data long after you’ve captured it and only costs $6 makes HDV much more appealing.

If you don’t need the portability of tape, though, some form of hard drive capturing mechanism for the HD-SDI would provide a far cleaner image. Speaking of HD-SDI, there are a lot of other ports open to users: composite video, BNC video, S-Video, the good old four-pin IEEE-1394 port for DV and HDV Firewire (all of which are in and out ports), component HDMI out, two XLR inputs (line or mic, and phantom power), as well as genlock and time code in/out.

The Image Controls
There’s also more control over the image before and during processing that with previous cameras. One of my favorite features is a simple numeric white balance, which shows up as a preset but allows you to dial in custom color temperatures for your white balance setting. No longer do we need warm cards for a slightly warmer image. I was shooting in Boston last year as the sun went down, and by changing the setting by a few degrees Kelvin every few minutes, I was able to get a fairly constant color balance even as the dusk light changed, without all the variability that auto white balance would have brought, or the hassle that re-white balancing would have been.

The limited data set that compressed video provides imposes limitations on how far color corrections can be pushed. It is vital that the image be tweaked in camera as much as possible before it is compressed. The closer that raw camera image is to the desired final product the better. Even something as simple and mundane as being able to manually affect the white balance temperature is a tremendous help, and Canon has provided plenty of settings to adjust every aspect of the image within the digital signal processor.

I’ve posted a few frames taken with the camera below. Like the frames above, these were transcoded to CineForm medium upon capture, and then exported as lossless PNGs from After Effects. No color correction or adjustment was applied, but since they were recorded at 60i, I did deinterlace them using RE:Vision FieldsKit. All of these shots were taken handheld, using the XL H1’s stock lens. At the time I was still learning about the camera’s settings (and I still am), so I didn’t nail the black levels or remove as much noise as I could have, but they should give you a good idea of what the camera is capable of, even using HDV.

Not only can you adjust the gamma, knee, and pedestal levels, as is common in other cameras, you can control the overall color matrix, or six individual color matrices for various combination of the three CCD signals. You can also control the phase and gain of the overall signal or each of the RGB channels independently. Not only can you adjust overall sharpness, but you can can set coring values, specify a horizontal detail frequency, and even adjust the balance between horizontal and vertical detail. There are also a number of noise reduction options and skin detail controls.

All the various permutations of these settings can be labeled and saved as custom presets for quick recall. Six are readily available on the camera, and 20 more can be accessed at any time from any SD or MMC card inserted into the reader in the camera’s handgrip, and hundreds can be downloaded from the internet. Canon’sConsole Software offers a computer interface with scopes and diagnostic information to more easily monitor and control all the camera adjustments and manage the custom presets. The power that a user has over the already very good-looking image from this camera is phenomenal. There are a few issues that crop up when it comes to using all that power, however.

The Viewfinder
The viewfinder is one of the most frustrating I have ever used. It’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen, but having such a small, grainy LCD try to display a big, sharp HD image is just bad. Admittedly, it’s not any smaller or grainier than I’ve seen on any other HDV camcorder, and guess I don’t really expect 1440×1080 viewfinders any time soon, but getting manual pin-sharp focus with it is almost impossible. There are two viewfinder modes which are supposed to solve this problem: magnify, which doubles the size of the image, and peaking, which applies an edge-sharpening overlay to better highlight what is in focus.

Unfortunately, magnify can only be used when the tape is not rolling, and the sharpening is so strong that if you don’t have a very shallow DOF, everything is affected by it. However, they do help, and the 2.4″ EVF screen is physically large enough to use comfortably in almost any configuration, and its color is vibrant and accurate enough for adjusting white balance (a toggleable levels or scope overlay would sure be nice, though.) Contrast and brightness are good, and everything is properly adjustable. The real Achilles heel of this screen, however, is the smearing.

Panning horizontally across an image reveals after-image trails from both light and dark objects. It’s not too noticeable until you try to focus on a moving object, and then you discover that the smearing or ghosting is softening your image so that it’s even harder to tell if you are in focus. Using a smaller-than-SD viewfinder to display an HD image is a limiting, but completely understandable, design choice. However, using cheap LCD panels with visible smearing is a genuine fault, one which I hope will be remedied in future versions. Fortunately, the camera’s auto-focus is pretty good… I just don’t like to have to rely on it.

The Lens
I alternately love and hate the stock lens, depending on what I’m shooting – but I certainly love it more often than I hate it. The 5.4-108mm lens offers 20x zoom when used with the 1/3″ imager, and its optical image stabilizer is amazing. Even at full zoom, I can track people walking without a tripod. The shot is better with a tripod, obviously, but the stabilizer smoothes things out immensely. I could be wrong, but it seems to be much more effective than the XL2’s stabilizer. Also, because it is a purely optical stabilizer, there isn’t any of the image degradation intrinsic to digital stabilization.

However, optical image stabilization does come at a cost. Because the lens elements need to move freely on many axis to dampen vibration, they aren’t fixed to the focus and zoom rings as they would be in a regular mechanical or manual lens. The focus and zoom rings merely control the servos than control the lens elements. This means that the controls for an electric lens are in relative or arbitrary position to the lens elements, not absolute position, so there’s no solid way to follow focus by numbers or even remember roughly where marks are on the barrel.

This makes manual focus very tricky and manual zoom fairly irregular. Canon has added the ability to set zoom and focus presets and switch back and forth between them, and the viewfinder shows a numeric readout of focus distance, but these are not perfect solutions. When I’m shooting interviews or standups, I desperately wish I had a manual lens that I could control with precision. The AF system doesn’t always know exactly what I want to be in focus, but the manual control is a bit too sloppy to make minor adjustments. A number of people have purchased the XL2’s manual lens for these situations, and it seems to give fairly good results for a non-HD lens.

When I’m shooting in the field, however, I am extremely grateful for the electric lens. The optical image stabilization is worth its weight in gold for handheld shots, and without an HD viewfinder, the camera’s autofocus is far more accurate than my eyeballed manual focus would be. Plus, an electric lens has another advantage over mechanical lenses; even with AF on, I can still spin the focus ring to tell the camera roughly which plane I want to be in focus. It’s especially useful for racking focus, since it works on the fly while recording. If I get an object even close to sharp (provided that other competing elements are suitably soft) and let go of the focus ring, the lens takes over and zeroes in on my chosen object.

Plus, it really is a stellar lens in terms of optical quality. Canon knows a lot about glass, and this is an excellent piece of work. The lens elements are made of fluorite and high-refraction glass to compensate for chromatic aberration, and have some fancy new coatings to reduce reflections and ghosting. It has a six-leaf iris operating from f1.6 to f16, built-in 1/6 and 1/32 ND filters, and a filter thread diameter of 72mm. In fact, preferences between electric and mechanical controls notwithstanding, it’s probably one of the best HD lenses you can get for anywhere close to $10k, which basically means that you’re getting a great deal on a lens, which comes with a free camera.

Conclusion
And it’s a good camera. In short, the whole package is pretty incredible. It’s really a jack-of-all-trades system that can be used for almost anything. Documentary filmmakers and reporters will make the most of comfortable yet compact form factor, run-and-gun lens, and great battery life. Television producers can run the HD SDI signal directly into a vision mixer and use the genlock and timecode options to sync up several affordable HD studio cameras. Hobbyists can afford a camera with a truly superior image that gives them room to grow.

Only those using the camera for digital cinema production will be seriously hampered by the automatic lens, crummy viewfinder, and HDV recording, but they should be using a lens adapter, on-set monitor, and hard drive recorder anyway. With it’s state-of-the-art CCD array, totally controllable image processor, removable lens, uncompressed output, and timecode sync, the XL H1 is an extremely capable digital cinema camera head. It is widely available and affordable, and now that it’s been in use for a year, it is battle tested and well supported. I give it a 9.5 out of ten.

  1. Even with a hard drive recorder, the recorded video is still HDV subsampled and compressed. If you have alot of FX shots, you’re better off looking at the Panasonic HVX series.

    - Jon C.
  2. Only if you are using an HDV recorder, and I’m not talking about those. A recorder that can take the HD-SDI out of the camera, like the Wafian decks that I mentioned, will get totally uncompressed native resolution 4:2:2 video to work with. In this respect, the XLs beat the HVXs on clarity, because Canon uses three 1440×1080 CCDS, and Panasonic upsamples the output of three 960×540 CCDs. The visual difference between the uncompressed outputs of the Canon and Panasonic cameras is truly startling.

  3. HI

    I found your comments on the XLH1 very interesting.
    I have a canon XLH1 and wan to record uncompressed to hard drive.
    My only problem with this is that the HD SDI has no sound recording on it which means I have to record sound separately which is not ideal for me.
    Is there any way to get the sound recorded onto the same hard drive device?

    Thanks and regards

    Dean.

    - Dean

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