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Canon XL review: Canon XL

Canon XL

Ben Wolf
10 min read
Many were disappointed when Canon released its flagship XL2 DV camcorder without any high-definition (HD) capabilities. About a year later, Canon at last entered the HD fray with its XL H1 HDV camcorder. This 16:9-native camera incorporates the 1080i HDV specification, using MPEG-2 compression to fit an hour's worth of HD video onto a DV tape. The Canon XL H1 can trace its lineage back nearly a decade to the groundbreaking XL1, retaining that camera's unique love-it-or-hate-it design.
However, while the XL1 was a breakthrough camera, the Canon XL H1 is playing catch-up, matching the state of the art already established by Sony, JVC, and Panasonic. And at nearly $9,000, the XL H1 is by far the most expensive HD option in its class. To those familiar with or invested in Canon's XL system, the XL H1 may prove the obvious choice. To others, its quirky design, lack of progressive-video capabilities, and high price may be the three strikes that knock it out of competition. The XL H1 is very obviously the most recent iteration of Canon's XL-series camera. In fact, if it weren't for its stealthy black color and a prominent HDV logo, the Canon XL H1 could easily be mistaken for the earlier XL2, retaining almost exactly its odd hybrid shape--something between that of a typical Handycam and a shoulder-mounted pro camera.

The controls on the grip.

Many people have found this to be an ergonomically awkward design: too large to comfortably support in the hands and, thanks to its enormous zoom, too front-heavy to easily balance on the shoulder. However, others have found the XL easier to keep steady than its Handycam-style competition. At 8.3 pounds, the Canon XL H1 is about half a pound heavier than the XL2--hardly discreet but an asset for those needing that "pro" look.

The HD/SD SDI jack allows the camera to send out a pristine uncompressed 4:2:2, 1,920x1,080 HD signal to more advanced recording devices than the camera's built-in HDV tape system.

Most likely, Canon is sticking with this tried-and-true form in order to retain compatibility with the XL-mount lenses, viewfinders, and accessories originally designed for the XL1, the XL1S, and the XL2. This is a real boon for those who already have a significant investment in the XL system and for those with special needs that only those optional components can serve.
The stock XL H1 comes with a new HD-optimized version of Canon's 20X, servo-controlled, optically stabilized 72mm-diameter zoom. This is a beast of a lens--nearly as large as the camera body itself--and provides the 35mm-camera equivalent of a 39mm-to-780mm focal-length range. As 39mm isn't very wide, you might want to use Canon's excellent 3X wide-angle zoom for shooting in cramped interior spaces. Both these lenses are clearly optimized for use in autofocus, as the endlessly rotating pseudo-manual focus ring is frustratingly oversensitive and imprecise. Similarly, while the motorized zoom is silky smooth and has a wonderfully superslow speed, you have no true manual control over it; the zoom ring provides only a sluggish electronic impersonation of manual control. Fortunately for those demanding better lens controls, Canon makes a superb fully mechanical 16X zoom lens. Be aware, however, that the optional lenses are not optimized for HD and cost about $1,500 each--a very high price to pay on top of a camera that already lists at $9,000.

The controls on the lens.

The adjustable side-mounted viewfinder is the other major component of the modular XL system. Where every other camera in this class offers a traditional viewfinder on the back and a flip-out LCD screen on the left side, the stock XL H1 viewfinder attempts to combine both options in one unit by allowing the viewfinder eyepiece to flip up and expose a small 2.4-inch, 215,000-pixel color screen that can be viewed at a (slight) distance. While this viewfinder is a bit better than the one supplied with the XL2, it does not hold up well against the current competition. As an alternative, Canon offers a higher-resolution, tube-based black-and-white viewfinder at a steep $1,500 price.

Perhaps to show off the camera's new capabilities, a couple of conspicuous controls in front of the rotary selector let you set the frame rate and choose HD or SD recording.

The Canon XL H1 retains almost all of the XL2's nonstandard but easily accessed mechanical controls over all major camera functions: iris, shutter, gain, white balance, audio levels, and so on, as well as two user-assignable custom keys. Most obviously, the XL H1 preserves the large rotary selector on the camera's left side, which you use to turn the camera on and place it in one of its many exposure modes.

Mic and line input switches.

The only other obvious revisions to the controls are two new buttons that activate the Peaking and Magnifying functions--two new viewfinder features that will be covered in the Features section. Unfortunately, given how useful these new features are, the buttons are not very well placed and are difficult to find by feel. In contrast, Canon made a big ergonomic improvement by returning the iris control to an easily manipulated wheel, such as the one on the XL1, rather than replicating the XL2's awkward three-position switch.

The AE-shift dial.

In addition to the usual assortment of audio and video connections offered by the XL2 (ports for composite and S-Video, balanced and unbalanced audio, headphones, LANC remote, and FireWire), the XL H1 offers component video via a proprietary multipin connector, an SD-card slot for storing stills and Custom Presets, and on the right side of the shoulder pad, four BNC jacks collectively known as the Professional Jack Pack.

The XL H1 preserves the large rotary selector on the camera's left side, which you use to turn the camera on and place it in one of its many exposure modes.

The Professional Jack Pack consists of Timecode In, Timecode Out, Gen-lock In, and HD/SD SDI out. Previously unavailable at this price point, these connections enable the Canon XL H1 to interface with high-end pro gear and will be particularly useful for multicamera studio work.
Like its predecessors, the Canon XL H1 is unique among its competition in offering a removable plate at the back on which to mount wireless microphone receivers, extra batteries, and other items--a very practical nod to the serious user. Clearly, the most exciting new feature of the Canon XL H1 is its HD-recording capability, made possible by its three 1.67-megapixel, 16:9-native, 1/3-inch CCDs. Like Sony's prosumer HD offerings, this Canon conforms to the 1080i HDV standard, recording interlaced 1,440x1,080, 16:9 HD video to DV tape through an aggressive form of MPEG compression. The XL H1 can also record standard-definition DV with a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio and downconvert HD to standard definition over both FireWire and analog ports. This downconversion feature is a godsend for those who want to shoot HD now but aren't yet prepared to completely abandon standard-definition viewing, editing, and distribution.
Oddly, given the XL2's progressive capabilities, the Canon XL H1 cannot record true progressive video in either HD or SD. That's a real disadvantage for those going for a cinematic look. The XL H1 does offer a pseudo-progressive shooting option, which Canon calls Frame Mode, in 30- and 24-frame-per-second varieties. Unfortunately, while Frame Mode provides identical motion quality to that of progressive video, it results in a significant loss of vertical resolution. There are also real questions about whether or when decks and editing software will support this proprietary format.
With its Digic DV II HD Image Processor, the Canon XL H1 offers even more menu-based image controls than the XL2 before it. You can determine such variables as color matrices, gamma curves, knee, black stretch, setup, master pedestal, horizontal and vertical detail, sharpness, coring, noise reduction, color gain, hue, and master RGB color. The XL H1 has replaced the XL2's imprecise bar-graph displays for these functions with numeric readouts, making settings much easier to remember and exchange. The number of Custom Presets--user-defined and stored looks--has increased from three to six. You can now store and share these presets via the SD memory card.
The stock lens offers all the features of the XL2's lens: autofocus, a powerful Super-Range optical image stabilizer, two built-in neutral-density filters, and a zoom-and-focus-preset mechanism. This last feature lets you reset the lens to a predetermined zoom and focus position with the push of a button. While hardly a substitute for the subtle control of the optional manual lens, this makes the stock lens somewhat more functional. The only wholly new feature offered by the stock lens is a back-focus adjustment that can be set either manually or automatically.
While the Canon XL H1 viewfinder has several performance limitations (see Performance), it offers a host of clever features. Adjustable aspect-ratio and safety-zone guidelines, crosshairs, and a line to aid in keeping shots level may all be digitally superimposed on the image. To assist in focusing--especially critical when shooting HD--a distance readout is now available. Other viewfinder functions include Peaking, which artificially emphasizes areas in focus, and Magnifying, which blows up the center of the viewfinder. Unfortunately, the Magnifying function can be switched on only when the camera is not recording.
Also new to the XL H1 is a viewfinder-flip feature for use with certain types of lens adapters. It turns the viewfinder image upside down and backward; unfortunately, you can activate it only when the stock lens is not attached to the camera. Retained from earlier iterations of the XL series are zebra stripes (adjustable from 70 to 100 IRE) for assessing exposure.
Miscellaneous features retained from the XL2 include two user-definable Custom Keys; full SMPTE color bars complete with 1KHz tone; Clear Scan, for removing the flicker from electronic displays; Skin Detail, for smoothing out wrinkles; and full professional time-code functionality.
From the beginning, the Canon XL series has offered the unique capability to record four tracks of audio, albeit only at a lower-quality 12-bit setting. The XL2 added two built-in XLR jacks with switchable 48V phantom power for powering professional microphones. The XL H1 goes one better by making these inputs switchable between microphone and line levels, allowing them to interface with virtually all types of audio gear. And as the HDV standard includes four channels of 16-bit audio, the XL H1 can record four high-quality audio tracks at once.
Due to the addition of an SD-card slot, the XL H1 offers some limited photo functionality. It can output stills at resolutions as high as 2 megapixels and record them as fast as 5fps. It can also drive an external flash and capture single-megapixel stills while shooting HD video.
Finally, Canon offers three new options for an extra price. First is the Console software package, which enables a FireWire-equipped PC to control just about every camera function and serve as a hard disk recorder. Second is a package including the FU-2000 Color Viewfinder and the ZR-2000 Zoom Remote Control, which together enable remote monitoring and control of the camera. Finally, for a $500 service charge, Canon will give the XL H1 the ability to switch between PAL and NTSC formats--almost as nifty as Sony's HVR-Z1, which offers this multiformat functionality for free. The Canon XL H1's stock lens shows the strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the XL series since its inception. On the plus side, this sharp and contrasty lens offers an unrivaled 20X zoom range, a terrific selection of motorized zoom speeds, and a spectacularly effective optical stabilizer. However, those wanting to shoot wide will be disappointed; at its widest, the zoom provides the 35mm-camera equivalent of a 39mm lens. And the zoom and focus controls are as clumsy and imprecise as ever, making precise manual adjustments difficult. A superb fully mechanical zoom is available to rectify most of these issues, but it adds about $1,600 to the price of a camera that is already more expensive than its competition.
While every other manufacturer offers a flip-out LCD in addition to a viewfinder, Canon continues to offer only a viewfinder--one that has not significantly improved from the XL2's. To put it simply, a camera capable of 1.5-megapixel HD imagery deserves a viewfinder with higher than 0.25-megapixel resolution. The Magnifying feature helps ameliorate this weakness, but this focusing aid cannot function while the camera is recording. Finally, there is no way to override the viewfinder's underscan, making it impossible to see the full image--a serious limitation if you're shooting for distribution in a format that displays an overscanned image (streaming Web video, for example).
With the exception of the mediocre lens controls discussed above, the manual controls are precise and responsive. The camera starts and stops almost instantaneously. Unfortunately, the Canon XL H1's automation is considerably less impressive. The autofocus and the autoexposure are quite accurate but lag badly, particularly when you're shooting in 30F or 24F mode. This should not be a major issue for most users, however, as a camera with the XL H1's advanced capabilities deserves to be controlled manually.
The audio performed well in informal testing. Quiet and relatively directional, the built-in camera microphone is better than average, though of course, it's no substitute for a proper audio kit. There is no doubt that the Canon XL H1 produces interlaced HD video of extraordinarily high resolution. However, those shooting narrative work will want 24P imagery, and the Canon offers only a 24F mode, which sacrifices approximately a quarter of the vertical resolution in order to run at 24fps. While the 24F footage may suffice for many projects, this is a real weakness in a camera whose main selling point is its HD resolution.
It's important to note that resolution is only one of several measures defining overall image quality. Another critical variable is dynamic range, or latitude--the camera's ability to handle a contrasty scene without blowing out. Here the Canon is less impressive, easily clipping on uncontrolled highlights.
With regard to color, the Canon XL H1 provided an accurate, saturated image. In addition, the very rich Custom Presets enable the user to dial in any desired look, from the naturalistic to the stylized and experimental.
Like all new small-chip semipro HD cameras, the XL H1 has mediocre low-light performance; it needs something on the order of a stop more light than its standard-definition predecessor. This is simply physics at work; surface area dictates that the tiny pixels on the chips of HD cameras be less sensitive than the larger pixels on the chips of SD cameras.
As previous HDV cameras have demonstrated, the HDV compression scheme does a surprisingly good job of squeezing an HD picture onto a DV tape. Even complex, high-motion imagery revealed little in the way of artifacts.
In standard definition, the Canon XL H1 performs similarly to the XL2, which costs half as much and offers a true progressive mode. Finally, the XL H1's still-image quality is extremely limited, offering only 2-megapixel resolution.

Canon XL

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 9Performance 7Image quality 8