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iPontificateFirst Impressions of Canon's XL2

by

- April 1st, 2005

Last night I had the pleasure of shooting a live event with Canon's new XL2 DV camcorder. This was the first time I had handled the camera since its release in July, 2004. Being an owner of the older XL1 for 5 years now, I was anxious to be able to shoot with the redesigned XL2 and see what all the fuss was about.

I was hired to shoot the live dance performance of Ballet Austin's "Light/The Holocaust Humanity Project", an artistic interpretation of the Holocaust by Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin's Artistic Director. The video project was helmed by Director Gabe Folse of Morning Productions, a guy I have worked with on other Ballet Austin projects over the past few years as the lead handheld operator. Gabe rented 4 XL2's for the project which were positioned in several areas for maximum coverage, one of which I operated.

The first thing that I noticed when I picked up the camera was its weight. I personally like working with heavier, shoulder mounted cameras as they lend to a more stable and fluid hand-held feel when anchored to one's shoulder and body, and the XL2 meets those requirements.

I have recently been working a lot with Panasonic's DVX-100A, and using it has made me come to absolutely hate camcorders that are essentially glorified handycams. I am always having to anchor the DVX-100A to my chest, while looking down to the LCD for framing. This kills my neck after shooting for an extended period of time, always having my head in such an awkward position, but the XL2 rests its 8lbs (fully loaded) firmly on the shoulder of the operator, as did the previous XL1 models.


The Canon XL2
Nuts and bolts

Canon really went all out on the camera's redesign, and I totally fell in love with this iteration of the XL series. All the little gripes and complaints that accumulated during the past six years of the XL1 being in the field have really been addressed in one form or another.

The main enhancement over previous models is the glorious 2-inch LCD view finder that comes standard with the camera package. It's huge and bright, and shooting in 16x9 mode was awesome with this viewfinder, far superior than the DVX-100 in comparison. Critical focus was not a problem because of the 200,000 pixels embedded in the EVF.

A user can flip up the magnifying glass eyepeice and view the LCD from a distance for when the camera is mounted on a tripod or in a studio-type setup. I did find the flip-up eyepeice a bit troublesome when shooting hand-held. It lacks a locking mechanism to keep the raised eyepeice in place, so oftentimes it would plop down hard onto the EVF frame.

If you are someone who likes bells and whistles, Canon has made this camera jingle. Pretty much all the necessary camera functions can be accessed directly on the camera. It shoots 60i, 30p, and 24p frame rates and can be switched easily with a knob on the side of the camera. Next to that switch is another switch for changing between 16x9 or 4:3 shooting modes.

While having these switches easily accessible is nice, I wonder why exactly they are so accessible. I mean, most people aren't running around switching between frame rates and aspect ratios on the fly while shooting. It's great they are there, but it seems they only alleviate having to select the frame rates and ratios in the menu manually. I'm all up for ease, but if some one is whining about having to navigate a menu then they're just plain lazy.


The XL2's controls

The lens

Another nice advance with the new model is the 20X OIS lens that comes standard with the camera. The new lens has advances over the older 16X lens that used to ship on older models. Its got a longer focal length and telephoto zoom built in.

One of the greatest things about the XL1 over Sony's VX1000 or 2000, or the DVX-100, was that the XL1 had a semi-pro lens attached. It provided excellent depth of field and surpassed its competitors, and even rivaled larger professional camera rigs.

As a DP (Director of Photography) and camera operator, it is critical I have full control over depth of field, and I hate being forced to use a fixed, shallow lens. The new lens that comes with the XL2 rocks.

Punching in for close-ups can be done using the variable adjusted zoom rocker or by using the zoom ring on the lens itself. Another new feature is that the lens comes with 2 integrated neutral density filters. The filters can be used by sliding the ND ring found right on the lens. While the lens doesn't compare with high-end manual lenses found on larger camera packages, it does over-achieve in the prosumer category. I am sure many will disagree with my feelings of the XL2 lens, rack focusing is a nightmare, but it does deliver in spades, and surpasses the older XL1 lenses.

Aperture adjustment is done similarly to the older models, by rolling a rocker tab up and down on a left sided control nub. In older versions of the camera, the aperture adjustment used a wheel for stopping up and down, and really worked like a dream when shooting documentaries or live events when shifts in light intensities and exposure change frequently and without warning.

Because if this, I found the rocker tab to be one of the disappointing functions on the new camera. The lighting at the dance performance overall was extremely dark, and we were forced to boost gain to +3db in order to capture all the action on stage during the mellow moments. When the full spots would kick on in time with the music, I found having to use the rocker tab to stop down aperture quickly in the changing light to be much slower than the wheel on older models. But that's really the only gripe I have with this new rig.

Customizability

"Customizability" must have been written on the dry erase board when the engineers sat down in the Canon conference room to tackle the new design concepts for the XL2. The scalability of the camera matches professional ENG camera rigs and leaves little to be desired. A user has complete visual control over Master RGB, Setup Level, Master Pedestal and Skin Tone Detail. Other "CineLook" variables included with the camera are color matrix, gamma, knee, black stretch, vertical detail, coring, sharpness, noise reduction, color gain, hue, and film grain (which has apparently been removed on the latest XL2 editions). While I didn't get into messing with the image controls much for this project, I look forward to the next project where I can really push the limits of the camera's visual look.

Overall the redesigned XL2 totally delivers for the cost. For an estimated street price of US$4,999.00, you get tons of options and quality that I feel, surpasses the popular DVX-100.

Conclusion

I was on the fence whether or not to purchase a DVX-100 until last night. The XL2 features a native 16x9 chip and shoots 24p, which is why I was leaning towards the DVX-100 originally; but, after shooting the XL2, I can safely say I am sticking with Canon. Shoulder mounted with a beefy lens, the XL2 has sold me.

The camera is a dream to work with, and Canon really went all out and listened intently to the concerns of the users of previous models, which is necessary for the positive evolution of any product. For me it was like falling in love all over again. Just don't tell my wife.


With five years in the entertainment industry, and three years writing for The Mac Observer, works passionately on various genres of film, including documentaries, narrative features, and shorts. He has two feature films under his belt as Director of Photography and Camera Operator, and his current role at TMO is to cover digital media and the film industry.

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