Canon's XL H1 camcorder has been shipping for more than nine months, and has stood the test of time. Compared to competing HD/HDV models, it offers excellent robustness and accessible controls.
In the heart of every 1/3in HD or HDV camcorder there inevitably lies more than a few compromises. These compromises are understandable given these cameras' relatively low price points that preclude the inclusion of superior HD optics with the basic camera.
Other inherent compromises deleteriously impact key user functions. The mediocre viewfinders and LCD screens found in most sub-$10,000 HD camcorders are at the top of my pet peeve list.
Another serious compromise is the lack of robustness in camera hardware — the flimsy switches and controls that cause serious professional shooters extreme angina. I worked for years with National Geographic, facing charging rhinos and erupting volcanoes, so hardware integrity is a major issue for me.
In my recent cinematography and lighting class conducted at Video Symphony in Burbank, CA, students easily accessed key operational functions, such as frame rate and scan mode, without consulting a manual or cheat sheet. As a veteran cameraman, I can say that accessibility is a key feature, and that drilling down through umpteen setup menus to access routine functions is not a professional shooter's favorite pastime.
Manufacturer/camera type Native CCD resolution specs Canon XL H1 1440 × 1080i JVC GY-HD100U 1280 × 720p Sony HVR-Z1U 960 × 1080i Panasonic HVX-200 960 × 540p
Table 1. The XL H1 offers substantially higher native resolution than competing small-format HD camcorders. But like everything else in this crazy digital world, there's more to this particular issue than meets the eye.
The XL H1 offers shooters the maximum native resolution available in a 1/3in 3-CCD camcorder. At a chip resolution of 1440 x 1080, it performs well in simple resolution tests. Table 1 on page 96 shows manufacturers' native CCD resolution specs for their most popular camera models.
Of course, native resolution of a camera's CCD only tells part of the story. Reduced pixel size in a 1/3in (5mm) imager can also dramatically reduce light sensitivity, just as fine grain film provides increased resolution albeit at the price of lower ASA and film speed.
In my evaluations, the XL H1 exhibited about two stops less sensitivity in low light than the Panasonic HVX-200. The P2 camera's lower chip resolution of 960 × 540 (and thus larger pixel size) is a major factor for the camera's better low-light performance.
Another impact of the high-resolution chipset in the XL H1 is reduced highlight latitude. This is most apparent in the camera's reproduction of specular highlights, which tend to produce fringing around the edges of objects. One explanation for the appearance of this artifact is the camera's inability to properly handle 1440 resolution within the constraints of the HDV format. Outputting via HD-SDI to DVCPRO HD or HDCAM circumvents the HDV constraints, producing cleaner, more professional images, indistinguishable in many ways from broadcast cameras costing ten times the price.
As delivered, the XL H1 appears distinctly like an ENG camcorder — both in look and tone. While this may be acceptable for news and some corporate applications, the more discriminating shooter will almost certainly want to tweak the camera's extensive setup menus.
Abundant controls allow users to precisely adjust color. The controls offer the most extensive array I've seen in a small-format HD/HDV camcorder.
The detail setting in the camera presents a bit of a conundrum, however. Many shooters have lamented the inability to entirely disable the detail circuit (as is possible in JVC models). This means that some edging is always visible, even at the lowest (-9) setting.
In my evaluations, I liked the camera's -3 detail setting used in conjunction with a Schneider ¼ Digicon. The filter introduces a slight diffusion without flare or loss of resolution. Small-format HD and HDV cameras demand smart on-camera filtration to adequately address these cameras' many inherent compromises. The HDV codec appears to perform much better with fewer obvious artifacts when proper diffusion filtration and polarization is applied in front of the lens. I suggest that shooting naked is not the best course of action with HDV cameras, including the XL H1, given the perils in satisfactorily capturing high detail scenes or when evaluating images out of HD-SDI.
While HD-SDI output and genlock allow (in theory) for optimal integration into multicamera and post-compositing environments, the camcorder's HD-SDI output presents its own set of issues. The basic problem stems from the lack of embedded audio. The camera's built-in A/D converter introduces a latency in the video stream, placing it out of sync with the audio. This discrepancy does not appear in the analog component output; therefore, recording to an external VCR or hard disk drive may actually be more reliable by not using the camera's HD-SDI feature. (Note: Canon has rectified this issue in the recently announced XH G1, which outputs HD-SDI with embedded audio and LTC time code (SMPTE 299M). SD-SDI signals, which are output, are also supported in the newest model.)
Latency issues in the broadcast control room have been an occupational hazard for some time. Because of the wide range of LCD, plasma and CRT displays in use, producers and post-production supervisors have grown accustomed to latency issues and resultant synchronization snafus.
The time delay introduced by the various A/D processes brings about heart palpitations at the highest levels of the industry. With the advent of the XL H1, the specter of latency issues raises its ugly head during image acquisition.
Luckily, one recent solution — the Miranda HD-Bridge DEC — digitizes the camera's component output, time code and audio into a proper HD-SDI stream. Future camera revisions will no doubt incorporate a correct multiplexed bit stream, but for the moment, users will have to rely on a third-party solution.
A closer look
With a suggested list price of less than $9000, the XL H1 produces a high-quality image at a good value. But there's more to this statement than is apparent at first glance. Compromises in low-light performance and ongoing qualms regarding the HDV format and workflow have raised concerns among some users.
Regarding HDV and its relative merits, Canon has tweaked the performance of the HDV codec, reducing the artifacts that are sometimes apparent in high-motion scenes. I don't know how Canon accomplished this — and Canon isn't giving up the secret.
The interlaced 3-CCD chipset produces a progressive scan at 24fps and 30fps but the resultant HDV tapes are incompatible with Sony or JVC HDV equipment. Thus, workflow continues to be a challenge. Many shooters simply opt to bump their source tapes out of the camera to an intraframe-based format, such as HDCAM or DVCPRO HD. The latter format makes particular sense because files can be transferred and edited at full resolution on the desktop or laptop via FireWire. The camera's built-in HD-SDI is best limited to on-set monitoring.
The camcorder's 20X interchangeable lens also contains some compromises. The motor-driven controls seem vague, especially the zoom ring, and the lens exhibits chromatic aberration at wider apertures where users tend to do most of their work.
The 20X also exhibits considerable breathing, but this is typical of interchangeable objectives in this price class. This particular compromise only underlines the route followed by other manufacturers who permanently mount lenses for their cameras. In this way, lens deficiencies, such as pronounced breathing, can be electronically compensated for and mapped out.
The SD viewfinder, while robustly constructed, exhibits some smear and motion blur. Seeing what one is doing is a fundamental requirement for professional shooters, especially in HD, so using a Panasonic BTLH900A or other high-end monitor is imperative for proper monitoring.
Compromise is a fact of life for the small-format HD shooter. Shooters must understand the depth and nature of a camera's compromises to do their best work.
Barry Braverman is a veteran cinematographer with more than 20 years experience in feature films, documentaries and music videos. He is currently serving as a digital media expert and consultant to major studios. His latest book, “Video Shooter,” is available from CMP Books atwww.cmpbooks.com.