Photo by Adam Wilt, NAB 2010
It’s hard to believe that twelve years have passed since I bought my first DV camcorder. My 1998 purchase? A Canon XL-1. At the time it was just about the closest thing you could buy to a professional camcorder for under $20,000. I remember my engineer-friends sniffing at the XL-1. Their biggest gripe? That DV only recorded 480 lines of video (instead of a full 486,) at only 25 MBit/sec in a 4:1:1 colorspace. “No TV station will ever air that (expletive),” they barked. Boy, were they wrong.
Canon kept coming out with updated versions of the XL-1, adding better viewfinders, some excellent lenses, and finally HDV capacity. But somehow the XL-series never seemed to gain the respect among broadcasters that their world-leading”big” lenses enjoy, possibly in part due to perceived “bandwidth bias.”
Well, Canon has knocked that final issue out of the park.
At NAB 2010 they announced the release of the Canon 50Mb 4:2:2 codec. Finally Canon had a codec that engineers could respect. And they packed it into two new cameras that have a lot to offer – the XF300 and the XF305. I got an XF305 to test out, so I suppose it’s sensible to point out the differences between the two Canons up front. In a word, it’s connectivity – the XF305 features HD-SDI output (with embedded audio), genlock capacity and SMPTE timecode in and out. Other than that, the two cameras seem to be identical. Video monitoring can also be done via HDMI or analog component for hi-def or analog composite for standard -def.
A quick glance at the XF305 demonstrates a bit of a resemblance to another recent breakthrough camera, the Sony PMW-EX-1. While there are some striking differences (the XF-series 1/3″ CMOS imaging chips as opposed to the EX-series 1/2″ CMOS, for example,) the form-factor similarities are pretty obvious, most noticeably the fold-out video monitor. When I had the opportunty to test out the EX-1 a few years back, I found the Sony’s LCD to be among the brightest and sharpest I had ever seen; the Canon goes it one better. This 4″ LCD screen would put some high-dollar home theaters to shame, with sharpness and brightness to spare.
And it does a trick I haven’t seen before – it can actually slide over to the right side of the camera, if that’s what your setup demands. In fact, it can even pan past the 90 degree point on either side of the camera, a nice ergonomic touch. Other great viewfinder additions are selected by a row of buttons on the left side of the camera, including (FINALLY!) the ability to have zebra and peaking on at the same time. You can also rotate through a waveform, vectorscope and edge monitor if you like. Of course, you can pick and choose what you want to see in the viewfinder through the extensive menu system.
Something I had been asking Canon engineers for through all the revisions of the XL-series finally comes true in the XF-series: You can now independently select line or mic-level recording via switches on both of the audio inputs, and you can pick between the XLR jacks and the onboard shotgun mic on either channel.
This may not seem like a big thing, but there have been plenty of times in my career where I wanted an external mixer feed on one channel and a shotgun mic on the other. Something bigger cameras should emulate is the “lock” setting on the audio channel gain knobs – you will always find those secured with a slab of gaffer’s tape on a Betacam.
Switches and buttons abound on the XF305, giving the operator easy access to most of the more-often-used functions, but the two switches I found most useful on the XL-H1 have been buried deep in the menus on the XF305 – selection of the recording format. You can shoot in 50Mbps 1080 or 720, 35Mbps 1080 or 720, and even 25Mbps 1440×1080, but to make that choice – and 60i, 30p and 24p frame rate as well – you have dive deep down into the “Other Functions” menu. Seems an odd place for such important functions to reside, alongside “Clock Set,” “Language,” and “Time Zone.” Of course, “Other Functions” is also home to “Slow & Fast Motion,” “Interval Recording” and “Genlock Timing,” among about a dozen other functions, so it’s a pretty important menu to know.
The XF-series records to common Compact Flash media, and at the 50Mbps rate will record 40 minutes to a 16Gb card or 160 minutes to a 64Gb card (with more capacity at lower bitrates, of course.) There are two media slots on the back of the camera, and the media is hot-swappable, making totally non-stop recordings possible. Shooting with the XF-305 was as easy as any camera in the “wrist-cam” category (please, Canon…could you put these guts into a shoulder-mount form factor?) Even without tweaking, the XF305 delivered vibrant, colorful, detailed footage, and if you feel the need to have your own personal look, there are nine memory slots for you to save it in. You can even record your settings to a separate SDHC card for transfer to other cameras, an indispensable feature when matching cameras on a multi-camera shoot. I tried to induce CMOS “jello-cam” in a shot by playing drums on camera, but I didn’t see much of an issue – which may be explained by my relatively low-light setup, with shallow depth-of-field. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t easily find a propeller-powered airplane to see if I could make the blades fly off.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lens, which features fully-manual focusing with range marks and gear teeth for focus-pulling rigs. It’s also a fully-autofocus lens when placed in that mode.
On the 1/3″ chip, the 4.1mm wide end delivers a 35mm-equivalent of 29.3mm and a 65 degree field of view, which is reasonably wide for a camera with a fixed lens. The 73.8mm zoom end equates to a 35mm-equivalent 527mm, which ought to be long enough for almost any of us. The exceptional Canon optical stabilizer shows up yet again in the XF305, but this time is controlled by a button marked “IS” for “Image Stabilizer.” The lens section is topped off with a 3-position neutral density filter, for finer control of bright situations.
30 seconds of Canon XF305 fall footage – all handheld, all natural light. Check out the texture on the bark of the crab-cherry tree.
One might think that a brand-new codec could be an oddball, but Adobe, Avid, Apple and Grass Valley all quickly announced support for the 50Mbps 4:2:2 system. (I can’t easily determine if Sony Vegas is in the fold as of yet…anybody got a link?) I imported several test clips into my Premiere Pro CS5 editor, and the footage worked immediately – no transcoding required. All new products should work this well right out of the gate. The XF305 is available now for a street price of $7499 (if you don’t need HDSDI, time code or genlock, the XF300 runs $6499.) Are there things I’d change? Sure, main among them the 1/3″ chipset – you really miss the depth of field control you get with 2/3″ or even 1/2″ chips – but on the whole, the XF305 is one hot piece of gear. Great controls and LCD panel, excellent battery life, reasonably priced media (especially compared to P2 or SxS cards,) stable workflow and beautiful high-bitrate pictures add up to a package that makes a very worthy successor to the Canon cameras that came before it.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a loaner Canon XF305 for the purposes of this article. It is on it’s way back to Canon. Nothing of value has changed hands.