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Shoot Review — Canon XL2

2/15/2012 2:35 AM Eastern

The Canon XL2's robust construction contributes to the camera's considerable heft, but also its ability to withstand the day-to-day rigors of a typical DV shooter's grind. Photos and figures by Barry Braverman.

The Canon XL2 is the long-awaited successor to the legendary XL1 and XL1S, the two cameras that brought functionality and respect to DV cinematography for the first time. Introduced in the dark ages of August 1997, the Canon XL1 precipitated a revolution in digital video, transforming a format intended to be an economical alternative to Betacam SP into a serious storytelling vehicle for the masses. After extensive testing of the new Canon XL2, it's clear to me that the difference between the new and previous models is not subtle; it's a huge and dramatic, life-altering difference.

The performance of the original XL1 was startling when the camera was first introduced over seven years ago, but let's be honest here. By 2004 the look and feel of the XL1 and XL1S had become rather long in the cassette, with a harsh, grating character due in large part to a now-primitive 8-bit processor. All that is ancient history now with the introduction of the vastly improved Canon XL2, built on the latest-generation high-density, 640K-pixel CCD and robust 12-bit processor.

Approximately 200,000 pixels at the top and bottom of the XL2's CCD are permanently disabled to produce what can arguably be described as a "native" 16:9 chip. The 4:3 aspect is then configured from that.

Joining the modern world

With the advent of the new model, Canon has trained its viewfinder (and every other part of the camera) on the more serious professional shooter. Joining the ranks of competing JVC and Panasonic models, the XL2 benefits handsomely from 12-bit sampling, yielding markedly better detail in the shadows along with resistance to clipping in the brightest highlights. Of course only 8 bits can actually be recorded to tape in NTSC, so there is room for debate regarding the merits of such oversampling. Suffice it to say that in today's DV cameras that utilize 12-bit sampling, a dramatic improvement in image quality can immediately be perceived on screen. The advantage of the XL2's new processor is especially evident when Black Stretch is enabled along with a reduced (“Low”) Knee setting.

Another major reason for the improved performance in the XL2 is the camera's new 640,000-pixel, high-density CCD. The increased fineness afforded by this new-generation chip translates directly into more professional-looking, high-resolution images — which is, after all the techno-babble has subsided, what really matters to most DV shooters.

For current XL1 and XL1S owners, the advantages of moving up to the XL2 are obvious, as the camera exhibits vastly improved performance across the board in terms of superior pictures, better-quality audio, and efficient workflow.

Many of the functions we use often, like color bars, should be externally accessible, and they are on the Canon XL2. A 1000Hz reference tone can be set for output with bars.

The hallmark of the XL

Superior workflow has always been the hallmark of the Canon XL series, and that continues to be the case with the new model. The XL2 exhibits a highly efficient and functional layout of controls. I'm referring primarily to the externally accessed switches that control the basic camera functions we use most, which, in addition to iris, focus, and white balance, include aspect ratio, shooting mode — and color bars. I don't know about you, but I'm sick to death of having to drill down through four or five menus to enable a camera's color bars — something we have to do umpteen times a day and at the head of every cassette. Thank you, Canon, for thinking about how we really work.

Canon's view of the world

The XL2's large, bright color viewfinder is by far the best I've seen. It permits precise careful focus even under extreme low-light conditions. Of interest to many shooters, the XL2 also supports a high-resolution monochrome VF. This multi-pin plug could also conceivably support an on-board monitor of very high quality — much better than could be built into a $5,000 camera. This would in theory diminish the need for a flip-out LCD screen, a ubiquitous feature found on competing camera models. In my experience, the flip-out LCD units are largely invisible in daylight anyway, so a powerful third-party plasma display that could be mounted to the XL2 body would be a welcome addition to any professional camera package.

Frame rate and shooting mode are also nicely accessible in the XL2. The camera supports 24p in either standard (2:3) or advanced (2:3:3:2) modes. The preference is selectable in an internal menu setup. This arrangement seems logical to me.

And speaking of focus, the mechanical feel of the new 20X zoom seems much improved. The drift seen in earlier model lenses is no longer an issue, at least in the spanking-new model I tested. The camera's auto-focus is typically center-weighted in keeping with a common malady affecting virtually all prosumer DV cameras, not just the XL2. Those of us familiar with the work of the Great Masters, the principles of good composition, and the Law of Thirds will therefore continue to be duly distressed. Of course we professionals tend to avoid auto-focus like the plague anyway. But still, it would be nice if someone finally addressed the issue by offering the shooter multiple zones of focus. That way we pro shooters might finally be able to use the AF feature, for example, at the end of a jib arm. Wouldn't that be cool?

Canon has noticeably enhanced the on-board zoom controller as well, allowing for finer control of zoom speed. The previous models were balky and hesitant, making tastefully feathered zooms difficult to execute. For best performance, I recommend a high-quality third-party controller like the Zoe DV-LANC from Bebob Engineering (distributed by 16×9 Inc.) for use with the Canon XL2.

SDK via FireWire

The XL2 supports three built-in custom user presets, but more settings can be retrieved as needed via FireWire. Relying on third-party developers, Canon has stated that the XL2's SDK will eventually permit, among other things, sharing timecode with multiple cameras in the field.

The power dial now features an EXT setting, which permits importing a custom preset setting from another XL2.

Sound improvements

It's no secret that the audio aspect of most DV cameras leaves a lot to be desired. The audio specs provided by the manufacturers, if any, seldom mention performance. The only reference provided is typically only the most rudimentary sample rate and bit depth.

Still, when compared to its predecessors, the XL2 is considerably quieter overall. The camera emanates significantly less noise from the preamps and pots. Practically speaking, the mic level XLR inputs can be padded +50dB to accommodate mixers without mic level output. And single-channel audio now can be panned for dual-channel recording.

For what it's worth, the new model facilitates four-channel audio recording at 32kHz 12-bit, as the external pots are clearly marked. The DV shooter should be wary of shooting at 32kHz, though, as 48kHz 16-bit audio (CD quality) is the professional standard.

The XL2 facilitates four-channel audio recording at 32 KHz 12-bit, as the external pots are clearly marked.

Performance

The camera offers comparable performance, in my view, with other DV cameras in its class, with the XL2 exhibiting particularly good clarity in the dark shadow areas. The XL2 has a 12-bit DSP and a modern-generation chipset and features a higher-resolution CCD with a “native” 16:9 aspect ratio. No squeezing is required to accomplish 16:9 recordings in the XL2.

The Canon XL2 is also highly systemized, featuring interchangeable lenses and viewfinders. This functionality might be attractive to those shooters who work under widely varying conditions, from documentaries to more dramatic fare.

Critical for most shooters, the new Canon XL2 is extremely robust, with a thick-skinned metal alloy body that can withstand considerable real-life abuse. Several of the external controls, including the multi-purpose iris switch, seem needlessly flimsy, however. This is a malady shared by other prosumer DV cameras.

As I mentioned before, the XL2 features a superior operational workflow with minimal flipping through of menu levels to achieve the most commonly used settings. The placement of the various controls, plugs, and jacks is also very well thought out in the XL2.

The Canon XL2 permits onscreen display (OSD) of all menus and running data — a valuable feature for those of us who earn a part of our living teaching camera craft in our spare time (ha!). In a classroom, students can see clearly on a large display the various camera functions and menu settings, and how to enable them.

The XL2 features only one zebra position. Shooters accustomed to working with higher-end gear might miss the control enabled by the additional pair of stripes. Also, the XL2's minimum zebra setting of 80 IRE is too high. Most shooters like me appreciate a working setting of 70 IRE to evaluate Caucasian skin tones adequately. We then set the second set of stripes to 100 IRE to guard against clipping. This is simply good craft and good practice.

Another feature that could be improved in the XL2 is the way the camera approaches the setting of black levels. In the Panasonic DVX100A, a simple menu option enables the user to select zero or 7.5 IRE setup. Ditto for the latest JVC models. The setting of black levels in the XL2 is not as easy, as the setup menu permits the setting of black level in 12 increments, all of which are unmarked. In my tests I used a waveform monitor to determine the correct black-level setup of 7.5 IRE. Every piece of gear has its drawbacks, and the Canon XL2 is no exception. But hopefully, in a future version of the camera, this simple matter will be remedied.

Conclusion

The Canon XL2 is a major step forward in the evolution of the DV species, and a worthy successor to the legendary camera that for many folks started it all. The superior workflow and performance afforded by the new camera will increase the efficiency of any shooter who has the opportunity to use this outstanding storytelling tool.


BOTTOM LINE

Company: Canon
Lake Success, N.Y.; (516) 328-5945
www.canondv.com

Product: XL2

Assets: New 24p mode, “native” 16:9 CCD, 12-bit DSP; improved zoom control.

Caveats: Only one zebra position; black level menu settings difficult to decipher.

Demographic: DV shooters with diverse projects.

Price: $4,999 for standard kit that includes 20X lens.


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