A Winning Pair of Twin Engines

The Canon XH A1 and XH G1 are, quite simply, awesome cameras. Coming on the heels of the XL H1 introduction, the A1 and G1 are welcome additions to Canon’s HDV offerings.
These compact units are reasonably tough, dust and moisture resistant and are light and easy to carry. Neither has a conventional viewfinder but this adds to their rugged appeal. They also have buried parts, such as the internalized battery compartment and the low-profile, closeable LCD screen.
These cameras are not power hogs, which make them great on the road. I took four of the palm-sized brick batteries on a week-long shoot and didn’t have to recharge any. They lasted out the week, shooting in hot and cold conditions. Granted, they were new batteries, but months later they’re still holding the charge as well.
I took the XH cameras with me to the Cascade Mountains to shoot snowboarders. It was a cold, wet and rough environment. They did great. I particularly loved handheld shooting with the image stabilizer function on. I used it pacing boarders down a hill while on a snowboard myself. The newer, faster auto focus helped out a lot there, too. The XH cameras have a bright LCD screen in addition to a small, "palmcorder"-style viewfinder. The large screen was visible in direct sunlight, had a sharp, colorful picture and made it easy to snowboard and shoot at the same time. The camera’s solid top-handle and top-mounted zoom rocker and record switch made action shots easy to capture.
About the Images
I regret that when I did my initial H1 testing, I shot everything in SD mode. I could’ve easily shot HDV and converted it. The HD images are outstanding, and both the A1 and G1 deliver the same quality. I have dozens of reels of HDCAM footage, shot with HD glass and a high-end camcorder. The new HDV footage is not as good, but I have to say it is playing the same tune. Earlier experiences with HDV had left me with some doubt, but what I’ve captured with the A1 and G1 (and the XL H1) leaves little doubt that HDV can provide the resolution, color saturation, sharp pictures and detail that will make most productions come alive. Few viewers would be able to distinguish the picture from that of a higher-end recording. I also love the price of tape stock- hit a drugstore and you’re shooting. I recommend using top-grade DV "Mastering" cassettes, however, which have fewer issues with dropouts.
All three cameras have the same camera components that provide native 1440 x 1080 pixel images. Unlike other HDV camcorders on the market, Canon cameras do not need to interpolate or up-convert their images to provide a full 1080i HD signal. The camcorders offer a variety of film and video frame rates, as well as progressive scan modes called 30-F and 24-F, wherein the system records the whole image in a single pass, like progressive scan. Overall, that means one camera can provide full 1080 resolution, interlace or progressive scan pictures for under seven grand. You could even go lower- under five grand- if you don’t need the connections the G1 offers.
The G1 has a variety of broadcast studio connections for timecode and genlock, as well as an uncompressed HD-SDI output (4:2:2 output directly from the camera only; tape recordings still meet the 4:2:0 HDV standards).
The only real difference between the G1 and the A1 is what Canon calls the Jack Pack. It’s located on an extended panel on the back of the G1 housing and features genlock, timecode and HD/SD SDI. With component output, IEEE-1394 and composite outputs, getting your HDV, downconverted HDV, or your SD footage into an edit system is an easy task with either camcorder.
All of the Canon X series cameras are easy to operate, right out of the box. Canon provides a full Auto setting that automates shutter, exposure, gain and all processing. Additional settings include Shutter priority, Aperture priority, Spotlight, Night and Manual operation. The cameras come with white balance presets for daylight and artificial light sources, but you can, of course, set your own. The gain settings can also be customized. The switch can set a variety of gain levels, including a handy -3 gain setting, which works like an ND filter and slightly reduces noise. The cameras provide nearly limitless creative customization for the picture through digital image processing.
Both cameras have inputs for an XLR microphone and phantom power. A solid microphone mount with soft rubber inside sits up front, though I found it a little far forward for my tastes. With the nice wide angle of the built-in lens, my longer directional microphone stuck into the frame. (The diameter of the mount is larger than my Sennheiser or Audio-Technica mics, too.) The XH cameras, however, have a great built-in stereo mic. I got decent results from it after I cloaked it with a small fleece windscreen. The sound from either channel was a little omnidirectional and seemed to favor high and midrange frequencies, while being muddier in the base ranges. The cameras provide good auto-limiters and manual controls for audio recording.
What Needs A Tweak – A Short List
All of the HDV camera manufacturers have thus far stuck with 1/3-inch chips for economy’s sake. This gives all of us high resolution at a cheaper price, but opens the window for some picture aberrations. Canon (and Sony, for that matter) is confident that the advancements in CMOS chips will bring with it better images and reduced smear and power consumption. Unfortunately, the current generation of camcorders uses a conventional CCD block design.
The other thing I don’t like about these camcorders (including the H1) is that the lenses still do not have mechanical focus, zoom or iris rings. The camcorders have an actual iris ring on the lens barrel, but it triggers an electronic aperture, has a little lag in sensitivity and produces a tiny bit of stepping during exposure changes. That being said, the XH’s ring is easy to get used to. Most shooters won’t object to the iris "stepping," but I’m used to a mechanical ring on a broadcast lens that gives me invisible, subtle changes to exposure. Electronic versions just can’t match that. The same goes for focus and zoom. Mechanical rings that don’t endlessly rotate, like their electronic counterparts, give real feedback on position and setting.
That being said, I was pleased overall with these new XH twins. They have a great auto focus system, LCD screen and rugged design. They are customizable for any production environment. Digital signal processing menus mean nearly uncountable broadcast-grade picture enhancements and custom setups, which is something I wouldn’t expect from moderately priced camcorders. Coming from the high-end camera world, I miss some manual functions, choices of lenses and the stability of size, but love the portability and price. Considering the quality of the finished images, I’d say that Canon has a winning pair.