STEP 1: Tackle those presets
OK, it's true, the XL H1's standard lens is still an electronic one, which means racking focus and making precise zooms can be a bit, shall we say, challenging. No, the lens rings aren't directly attached to the lens elements, but you can tell Canon has been listening to the wails of users. On the new lens, nestled between the auto-focus and stabilizer switches are two new switches, allowing a shooter to set and precisely recall either a focus setting or a zoom setting. They aren't subtle, while there are three preset speeds in a menu for focus, it still happens very fast. It is a helpful feature nonetheless. (And let's not forget that even with its shortcomings, the XL H1 still features the best lens stabilizer in the business.)
STEP 2: Activate the peaking button
Getting precise focus has always been a bit of an issue with the XL series, and now that it's shooting HDV it has lots of company. There isn't one HD camera viewfinder that even approaches HD resolution, and the XL H1's is no exception. To try and alleviate this pain, Canon has finally added something I wish the XL series had from the start, a peaking button. Activate this and your edge detail goes way up, making it much easier to grab good focus. Unfortunately, when you hit "peaking" you lose the exposure zebra, so you'll have to choose between the two. And if the peaking isn't enough to dial in your focus, its next-door neighbor "magnifying" zooms the viewfinder in about 2x. The viewfinder helpfully shows a yellow "focus" warning in the middle of the screen to remind you that "magnifying" is engaged. Rest easy – neither the peaking nor the magnifying effects are recorded to tape. And the cherry on the sundae: there are now focus distance readouts in the viewfinder for those of you with focus-pullers.
STEP 3: Use the "AE Shift" to adjust the auto-iris
I've long felt that DV cameras share a common failing, and the XL H1 is no exception: the camera's idea of what is proper exposure is always at least one stop too hot. Let the video get over the top and you'll blow out your whites and rob color richness from the rest of the image. There's an easy fix for this: that dial on top of the camera body that looks like it was lifted from an SLR still camera? It's called "AE Shift," and you can use it to turn down the auto-iris (or even turn it up, but I can't imagine why you'd do that.) On my SD XL cameras it's never higher than -.75 stop, and it's often at -1 or -1.5. Remember also that the XL H1 does not have a 100 percent white clip circuit, so if your footage is headed to broadcast you can save a lot of pain in editing by exposing the whites very carefully.
STEP 4: Use the custom presets
Much of the power and appeal of the XL H1 is accessed through the menus, and one of the most powerful menus is called "Custom Preset." Here you can modify the look of the XL H1 in many ways. You can have six preset looks inside the camera, and in each preset you can adjust the gamma settings, knee point, black stretch and press, master pedestal, sharpness, noise reduction, color matrix, color gain and more. And if that isn't cool enough, you can save your presets to an SD memory card and transport them to another XL H1 to assure camera match in a multi-camera shoot. (Just be sure to do your adjusting with a good, calibrated monitor, waveform monitor and vectorscope.) For the record, the SD card slot is slyly hidden under a door on the bottom of the zoom handle.
STEP 5: Familiarize yourself with BNC connectors
There are four new BNC connectors on the right rear of the XL H1, and while the HD-SDI jack is getting lots of well-deserved attention, the two BNCs to the rear deserve praise as well. Labeled "TC In" and "TC Out," these two ports are the gateway to painless editing of your multi-camera shoots. Use time code in and out to sync up the TC generators in multiple cameras and your editor will love you. The trick to this is using "free run" mode, where the time code runs continuously regardless of whether the tape is running or even if the camera is turned on. Once the time code is set on the "master" camera (it's often set to time of day to allow accurate on-the-fly logging,) you take a BNC video cable from the master's TC Out and attach it to the slave's TC In. Set the slave to free run and you should be golden. Remember also that there is no real limit on the number of slave cameras, and while the clocks in cameras are remarkably accurate, it's usually good form to re-sync every couple of hours. Also be particularly aware to provide 10 seconds of pre-roll on shots when in free-run, some NLEs can be really unhappy with time code breaks.
STEP 6: Record stills to the SD card
The same SD card you saved your beautiful camera presets to can serve you in another way as well—recording stills of what is currently being recorded to tape. Go to the "Recording Setup" menu, activate "Still I. Record" in the "ON+CP DATA" mode, and you'll be the continuity person's favorite DP. Just push one of the two "Photo" buttons while rolling to deposit full-rez stills on the SD card. The XL H1 is no Hasselblad, but it sure beats the older XL's, which were limited to recording a six-second still to tape at 720 x 480. At its highest rez of 1920 x 1080, the XL H1 is roughly equivalent to a 2-megapixel still camera—and you can shoot great video with it, too!
Bruce A. Johnson
Wisconsin Public Television and Painted Post MultiMedia
Bruce A. Johnson has worked in broadcasting since the RCA TK-76 was king of the cameras. He currently works in the new technology department for Wisconsin Public Television and freelances for his company Painted Post MultiMedia.
All photos taken by Bruce A. Johnson.
Bruce Says Keep In Mind…
It's a fool that runs the XL H1 (or any video camera so equipped) with
the viewfinder video level zebra turned off. It's a light meter!
Believe it or not, we still need them. I set mine at 95% so I have
extra headroom to keep my colors rich and avoid losing detail in the