Superb Optics, Genlock and HD-SDI Out, All In A Compact HDV Package

While Canon has turned out dozens of great still cameras and lenses
over the years, when the DV revolution came about the company was
relatively unknown in the video world. Canon’s consumer cameras were a
mixed lot – anyone remember the original ZR? Now
was weird. And even when the XL1 came out, it certainly wasn’t perfect.
I ought to know, I bought one and own it to this day. But give Canon
credit, it was committed to fixing its problems and improving the
camera. Learning from its fixes on the XL1, many additions and
modifications on the XL1s, and many more on the XL2, which I also own,
here comes Canon again with the XL H1. It’s no exaggeration to declare
it a worthy successor to its older siblings.
The first change everyone will notice is the new black color. Believe
it or not, the iridescent pearl of the XL series is one of the things
many pros disliked most about it. Other new features abound on the XL
H1, such as the unique addition of an HD-SDI connector, and
multi-camera shooting and editing will be made much easier by the time
code in- and out- jacks. One of the most head-scratching omissions from
the XL2 was a line/mic level selector switch on the audio inputs (yes,
there are several very good portable audio mixers that are line-out
only.) The switch is there on the XL H1, but it controls both inputs,
not two switches for two inputs. However, there are
separate phantom-power switches, which is mystifying.
Other nice changes are the return of a wheel for iris and menu
controls, and the addition of a new tape-roll button on the front of
the iris control pod. The amount of info available in the viewfinder
can be dizzying, including crop and center marks, time code, exposure
and focus distance from the XL H1’s new lens. (And thankfully, it can
all be turned off with the tap of another button.) Unfortunately, the
XL H1’s viewfinder has a tendency to smear noticeably when panning, and
shares the Achilles heel of all HDV camcorders in being way short of
full 1080i resolution. This can make focusing an adventure. Canon has
addressed this in a very ingenious way, adding a peaking switch, which
over-enhances edges to an almost painful amount, and a 4x in-viewfinder
digital zoom. Even with those aids, I sometimes had problems
guaranteeing I had my subjects in focus. I’d like to think that I’d get
better at it with more practice, and the XL H1’s lens would be a great
asset in that journey. Head and shoulders above any of the older
XL-series electronic lenses, the XL H1’s lens zooms and focuses
smoothly, and holds focus through zooms in a way none of its
predecessors ever could. (Hey, if you loved the XL1 or XL2, you learned
to live with those things.) In my testing, when I mounted my older 16x
manual-focus or 3x wide-angle lenses, I got a big warning in the
viewfinder saying "HD INCOMPATIBLE LENS." Warning notwithstanding, the
camera let me roll tape, and the older lenses performed well, although
the 3x wide-angle gave a noticeably softer image than either of the
But how are the pictures? Well, they’re good. Really good. Better than
I expected, actually. I shot fast-moving radio-control airplanes in a
gymnasium, with limited depth of field, and got lots of great footage.
I was especially impressed with how the XL H1 held the whites in
ceiling-mounted lights, something its older siblings weren’t all that
good at. And heavily saturated colors proved no challenge for the
camera- on both a Sony professional monitor via the HD-SDI connection
and a Samsung consumer monitor via component, reds were deep and rich,
highlights didn’t blow out, and the amount of detail visible was
shocking compared to the low-res viewfinder. Shooting close-ups of a
Grass Valley video switcher, I kept closing down the iris to read the
writing on the buttons. I shouldn’t have bothered; when I played the
tape back the text was clearly visible at all of the iris settings.
I also tested the quasi-progressive modes of the XL H1, which Canon
calls 30F and 24F. Both of them performed as expected, giving a
film-like feel to the high-def images, and imparting the temporal feel
of the slower frame rate in a realistic manner. Shooting test examples
on a professionally lit news set in 24F, I could easily imagine I was
shooting a sequel to Broadcast News. And the XL H1
offers plenty of image control, including three gamma curves, three
knee points, three black stretch/press points, setup, sharpness,
detail, coring, three color matrix choices and channel-adjustable color
gain settings with wide latitude, among others. If you can’t find a
look you like with the XL H1, you aren’t trying hard enough.
All of this comes with a price. Listing comfortably below $10,000, the
XL H1 is quite a bit more expensive than its 1/3-inch chip competitors,
and the present lack of a fully-compatible playback deck is worrisome.
But there are many advantages, namely the versatile removable lens
system, an HD-SDI output that makes interfacing to non-HDV editing or
viewing on an HD monitor a breeze (though it’s video only, so you won’t
be able to embed time code or audio in your stream), and impressive
image control. I can see the Canon XL H1 finding a happy home in many
videographers’ kits, especially if they have pleasant experiences under
their belts with the earlier XL-series cameras.
Weight fully loaded: 8.3 lbs.
Dimensions: 8.9 x 8.7 x 19.5 inches
Video Recording System: HDV 1080i
Image Sensor: 3 1/3-inch 16:9 interlaced CCDs
Frame Rates: 60i, 30F and 24F (Canon’s own synthesized progressive/interlaced format)
Lens: 20x HD video zoom lens with Superior Canon Optics
Input/Output: HD-SDI, Genlock, SMPTE time code