High-Quality Video and a Low Price Point Make a Compelling Option for New-to-4K Shooters
The Canon XC10 4K camcorder was announced at NAB 2015 and was released the following September. It is a relatively low-cost camera that is more run-and-gun style than its big brother, the C300 Mk II. Canon also envisioned it as a “companion camcorder” for the C300 Mk II — for a second angle, or when you need to put a 4K camera in harms way but don't want to risk your A camera or sell your car or get a second mortgage for another C300 Mk II.
The result is the XC10. At first glance, it looks like a consumer still camera, which can be beneficial if you want to blend in.
What you get in the box is a power supply, battery, strap, lens shade, 64 GB CFast card, CFast card reader, and a snap-on eyepiece for use on sunny days. There is no external charger. The power supply plugs into the camera to power it or charge the battery, but it can't do both at the same time. The XC10 does use the same battery as Canon's DSLRs, so a separate charger is inexpensive.
The XC10 shoots 4K and 1080p HD video and 12 MP stills. You choose the video mode in the extensive menu system, but you switch to still mode on a rotary switch that surrounds the record button. 4K video is recorded to the CFast cards and HD video and stills are recorded to SDHC/SDXC cards. You cannot record HD to the CFast or 4K to the SD card, and you can't record to both at the same time. I'd like the option to record 4K and an HD backup to the SD at the same time, but you can't. Your best option would be to hook up a third-party recorder to the HDMI 1.4 port and capture that output. Depending on how many stills you shoot on the same SD card, you will get 1 hr and 38 min of 1080/60p on a 32 GB card. A 64 GB CFast card will give you 28 minutes of 4K video.
If you care about audio quality, you are going to want to use something other than the built-in mic. As built-in mics go, it is good for ambient sound but nothing else. I would recommend getting a dual-XLR to 1/8-inch stereo cable to use two pro XLR mics at a time. My Sennheiser G2 wireless receiver comes with interchangeable XLR and 1/8-inch output cables. For using two 1/8-inch mono devices, I have a cable that turns two mono 1/8-inch inputss into a 1/8-inch stereo out. It comes in handy.
My first shoot with the XC10 was a fun, getting-to-know-you type of shoot — I took it on my short Thanksgiving vacation in Nevada, where we visited the Valley of Fire State Park. If you are into beautiful landscapes, you will want to check this out and bring a camera. I tried using the XC10 for both video and stills. Video recording in bright sunlight was difficult without the clip-on eyepiece. Because everything but focus and zoom are menu-driven, and I didn't have a long time in the park, I put it in auto mode — with very good results. For video, I missed having a servo zoom. I really wanted to be tight on some of the peaks and zoom out to reveal the vista, but it wasn't really possible with the manual zoom. Admittedly, I took more stills than video. While the stills were excellent, the camera's default setting is to display just-taken stills for four seconds. That can be an eternity if you are trying to take a rapid series of stills. In the menu section of the camera, you can turn the display to “off” to keep a constant live view. I was happy overall with the video and photos I took, but for stills I much prefer the Canon 6D.
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For my next shoot, I worked with my friend and frequent collaborator, Mark Alyn of Mark Alyn Communications. He is a producer and radio and infomercial host. He was working on a web promo for a client talking about different ways to stay healthy. The set-up was pretty standard. The camera was on my Manfrotto 504HD tripod, (overkill for such a lightweight camera, but it’s what I had). For audio, I used the Sennheiser G2 with a lavelier for main audio and an Azden SGM-250 for backup. You need to push the mic connector in surprisingly hard or it won't make good contact. It's the same with the headphone jack. I thought I had a really bad audio problem until I realized I just needed to really push the connectors in.
We had only two set-ups, and everything went smoothly. The set was lit mainly with natural light coming through a window, and a small fill light brought by the client talent. It was plenty. A little joystick takes you to all the important adjustment in the functions menu. While it took a bit to get used to, adjusting the white balance, ISO, iris, and audio levels through the menu can be done on the fly while shooting. Mark had me shoot it in 4K so he could add camera moves in post with Adobe Premiere Pro. Upon reviewing the footage, Mark was very impressed. He thought it was absolutely gorgeous. He's considering a new camera, and the XC10 has definitely caught his eye. I've worked with him for over 10 years and never heard him go on and on about how good footage looked.
My next shoot was a TV show promo for a new music show that will be aired on a big network that I can'ttalk about yet. This shoot was a lot more complicated. We had about eight setups, including seven indoors and one outside. We lit the indoor shots with a couple of fluorescent stand lights and an on-camera LED and shot 4K 30p ( the maximum frame rate at that resolution). So the producer and director could see, I hooked up a 20-inch monitor to the mini-HDMI. Outdoors, we shot 1080p60 so we could do smooth slo-mo in post. At times, I went handheld to get some funky music video shots and I found myself using the Magnify button to check focus a lot for those. The camera's light weight made it easier to hold at weird angles, including over-the-head shots. Again, the client was very happy with the footage.
If you or your client haven't worked with 4K footage before, you really need to be prepared for the amount of data produced in the field. Showing up with a 16 GB thumb drive just won't do it anymore. For wrangling the data, I used a very well-equipped HP 17-inch Z-Book G2, with a 3.1 GHz quad-core i7 CPU, 16 GB RAM, and (most important) the Nvidia Quadro K5100M GPU, and a Thunderbolt 2.0 port. For external storage, I used a LaCie Rugged 4 TB RAID that has 2 x 2 GB drives and both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3 connectors. I also carry along a Lacie Rugged 1 TB SSD, also with both Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3, for backup. Both of these drives gave us more than enough storage space, were fast on transferring, and were able to stand up to being bounced around on location. They also allowed us to preview clips in Premiere Pro to make sure they looked as good on the HP's DreamColor display as on the field monitor we used on set. If you are doing any 4K production and can't bring a full workstation like the Hollywood productions do, I recommend this as a minimal data wrangling set-up.
While the XC10 comes with a 64 GB CFast card and USB 3 reader to get you started, if you are shooting 4K you only get 28 minutes on the card. I would highly recommend getting a second CFast card for your kit. The CFast 2.0 64 GB cards are currently on the pricy side, running $180–$220 per card. A 128 GB card is more like $300–$380, and if you are feeling really rich, the 256 GB cards go for between $600 and $700. The good news is if you are shooting HD 1080, SDHC or SDXC cards fast enough for the 50mbps data rate can usually be purchased at your corner drugstore for $20. A 32 GB card will run about $25, giving you 90+ minutes of record time.
At NAB 2015 Canon was touting the XC10 as a “crash cam” for use whenever you don't want to risk a $16,000 C300 Mk II (and its lens, which can be a lot more money). In this case, the camera is perfect. You can easily set up the parameters via the menu, remotely monitor the shot via Wi-Fi and send it into battle without worrying too much about whether the camera will make it out to shoot again. That's great — if you are a major studio who can afford to destroy a $2000 camera on a take. If you are in the majority of people looking for an affordable entry into 4K, this may be the camcorder for you, but it's not the only camera. There are many point-and-shoot cameras, some with fixed lenses and some with interchangeable lenses, available for a fraction of the price. Panasonic and Sony have offerings between $600 and $1000 that are very highly rated. The less expensive offerings record 100 Mbps as opposed to Canon's 305 Mbps, but bit rate isn't everything as we have seen over the last few years, as both vendors and users get more out of less.
Ergonomically, the XC10 handles like a consumer still camera that shoots video. As an affordable 4K camera, it does the trick. But if you are going to be shooting mainly HD, there may be more affordable options for $500 less. One feature that I missed was concurrent recording, which is available on most other cameras and allows you to continuously backup from one card to another. I understand not being able to back up 4K recording from the CFast to the slower SD card, but it would be nice to at least downconvert 4K to 1080 on the SD card. That would at least give you an option if the 4K on the CFast card failed. External recorders can record HDMI out, but that would add an expense — and would require another article looking at the different options.
But you won't go wrong in buying the XC10 just on the quality of the video. At $1999, it is more expensive than many competing 4K cameras, but it includes a CFast card and reader, which are worth at least $200. And $1999 is a small enough price — instead of paying it off in one or two shoots, it may take two or three shoots, so that's not a huge issue. Bottom line? If you like the footage and the capabilities work for you, buy it with confidence. Maybe at NAB 2016 Canon will surprise us with an XC20 that will be pretty much the same camera, but with an EF mount instead of an included fixed lens — and, of course, a lower price point.