(click thumbnail) For the past two years, the word on the street was that Canon, a founding member of the HDV consortium, had an HDV pro camcorder in the works. Two NABs came and went with no sign. The silence ended last fall, with press releases announcing the XL H1 HDV camcorder. This makes Canon the third member of the consortium to develop a unit for professionals. Not only is the XL H1 out of the bag, but it's also in inventory. It does come with a price tag considerably higher than its competition, and pros may raise questions what does it have and what can it do that makes it worth an extra few grand?
For starters, the XL H1 has three 16:9 CCDs, with 1440 x 1080 pixel resolution, the same as the CineAlta F900. It is the only HDV camcorder in its class to use 4:2:2 sampling. Like the CineAlta, it records 1080 HD at 60i, 24p and 30p. With additional software, it can also record 50i and 25p.
Comparing the XL H1 to the F900 CineAlta may seem a stretch, given the disparity in prices. However, video from less costly HDV camcorders has been intercut with CineAlta footage for HD broadcasts. Moreover, the XL H1 has one key asset that makes this comparison even more aptÑthe ability to output uncompressed HD video.
In anticipation of new applications beyond HDV acquisition, Canon equipped the H1 with a feature set called the "jackpack," that allows the H1 to function as a stand-alone camera, a studio camera or as a production camera in multicam applications. It makes the H1 format-agnostic, allowing recording of multiple SD and HD formats. Many parameters are adjustable, including gamma, knee and color matrix. Several cine presets are included for the elusive "film look."
Adjustments can be saved in camera memory and on standard interchangeable data cards. Stored presets may be shared in a multicamera production. The XL H1 is cinema friendly in a number of ways besides the "cine-look" settings. It has switchable frame rates and aspect ratios. Aperture settings can be set manually, as can audio levels. Auto-exposure levels may be adjusted. Gain levels and shutter speed are easily set. Video filters can be changed and the white balance reset manually. Additional menu-driven functions are controllable by assigning them to two custom keys. Color bars and fader rate their own buttons. Overall, the XL H1 is designed for convenient operation and fast access to key functions, without going through setup menus.
Professional grade HDV shooting
Multiple frame rates, direct HD SDI
output and cine tools
Canon USA Inc.
Electronic focusing tools would be of little use without a decent HD lens. Given its experience as a lens maker, Canon has endowed the XL H1 with a nice piece of glass having an impressive 20x zoom ratio. The small weight of the lens is also impressive; it doesn't upset camcorder balance. It accommodates 72 mm screw-on optical filters and the camera has two built-in ND filters.
In handheld mode, the Canon Optical Image Stabilization system compensates for camera shake, greatly improving performance.
Another feature of the H1 is lens interchangeability, however, currently there are no other HD lenses available. Canon does list several catalog options for the H1, including a 1.6x extender and an adapter for attaching Canon 35 mm EF still lenses, especially helpful in telephoto applications. A simple 135 mm lens effectively becomes a 1,188 mm telescopic lens on the H1. Moreover, only the optically superior center of the lens is utilized.
Finding, framing and exposure are aided with a "focus assist" button. For purists there is a black and white display mode for the color viewfinder. Zebra bars are adjustable from 70-100 IRE, with presets in the middle.
The XL H1 has a similar layout to XL 1 or XL 2. I've used them enough to recognize the similarities and the new additions such as the HDV/DV option, the frame rate switch and the digital "jackpack." Firing up and using the H1 without reading the manual in detail was not a major hurdle.
In my initial outings, I mostly used factory presets, which are geared for a classic, crisp video look. I was pleasantly surprised when viewing the results. After shooting a fairly drab winter landscape, it was interesting to see how varied even the browns seemed, with shades ranging from auburn to sepia. There were rich overtones in the bare trees, contrasting with subtle tonalities in lichens on their trunks. The landscape came through warm and colorful. Video shot in backlit scenes at sunset was quite acceptable with and without Canon's "backlit" feature.
I was even happier with the color rendition after selecting the "Cine 1" gamma curve. I used middle settings for horizontal detail, frequency and noise reduction. Overall, these settings are geared for a "film look." I used this to my advantage at the Niagara Ice Wine Festival, shooting without camera lights or a reflector. Lighting was soft and uniform, but yielded surprisingly rich color. I was able to capture the cornucopia of colorful clothing, wine bottles and wine in the dimly lit tent.
I shot video in 24p, 30p and 60i. The only inconvenience was a few seconds of delay needed for camera reset between modes. Again, results exceeded expectations. The eye saw a dimly lit tent full of people. The camera revealed a rainbow of subtle colors, from pastels to saturated shades of red and gold and browns and blacks. Flesh tones were especially impressive, considering that I paid little attention to adjusting for them during shooting. Everything was shot in existing light, yet flesh tones were remarkably rich.
I tested Canon's 1.6x extender, but got a warning in the viewfinder that I was using a lens not compatible with HD. However, I ignored it and shot anyway. The level of detail looked HD on an external monitor. Moreover, there was no noticeable color shift. I did notice a loss of color and image softening just after sunset, as might be expected with the loss of light. The autofocus feature was strained, but I was able to focus sharply using manual focus.
I didn't always monitor audio levels, but ended up with a very usable track. I used the H1's short stereo shotgun mic and mainly relied on the auto level function. An audio level control at the front of the camera would be helpful.
Uncompressed HD from the camera's SDI output is perhaps the H1's "killer app." I viewed this on an external HD monitor and it looked pretty impressive. This feature could be the tilting point when deciding to pay a bit more for this camcorder. Even without it, the Canon is jammed with more features and options accessible via hardware controls than in any other comparable camcorder.
There is no question that the XL H1 can deliver some really rich HD video. While it may not precisely match video from HD cameras in the $100,000 bracket, it can yield video that intercuts nicely. This should easily be the case when using the uncompressed HD output. Overall, the XL H1 is a serious foray into HD origination at a price that may convince many pros working in ENG and EFP that now is the time to buy into HD.