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Canon's XL1 DV Camcorder:
Leadership through Innovation

by Jon Leland
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DV videography just keeps getting better.

As many of you already know -- including those of you who have been shooting with DV and those of you who have been following Videography's coverage of DV products and productions (including my own "Doing a Pro Job with 'Consumers' DV Camcorders," May, 1997) -- DV tape formats (including the more universal mini-DV format, and the proprietary formats, Sony's DV-CAM and Panasonic's DVC-Pro) deliver image quality on a par with BetacamSP with cameras that are a fraction of the cost.

In the new category that I am defining as "DV cameras under $5,000," to date, the most popular and perhaps the most powerful performer has been Sony's VX-1000. In fact, until I got my hands on Canon's new offering in this category, the XL1, I thought the VX-1000 was destined to become the standard in this category. But, in a digital age, things change quickly.

Now, due to its remarkably innovative design complemented by Canon's optics and accessible yet powerful implementation, the XL1 is not only giving Sony and the other manufacturers competition; but, in my opinion, it has clearly taken the lead. I make this statement because the XL1 not only offers an exclusive set of features including an interchangeable 16x optical zoom lens, 4 channels of audio, and a Frame Movie Mode (an option that combines video fields into higher resolution frames); but Canon has assembled these features (and more) into a powerful, fully-professional camera package that pleases the eye not only with high-quality images, but also with a hot, sleek (even sexy) design. For this videographer, this means that the XL1 is now the one to beat.

THE OPTURA OPTION
Canon's unique DV designs now include three levels of originality. (See Canon's DV web site at http://www.canondv.com/ for more details.) They have just announced a flat, pocket-sized DV camcorder called the "ZR" that looks more like a small digital still camera (due in April), but which shoots DV videotape and (like all of Canon's DV cameras) includes a "firewire" port. For this review, in addition to the XL1, Canon also gave me the opportunity to check out their Optura DV camcorder which is a one-chip unit that lists for $2,699 and looks more like an conventional 35mm SLR film camera. Like virtually all DV cameras, the Optura also shoots digital stills, but using Canon's expertise in the film market, the Optura is the only DV camcorder that I know of that includes a build-in mount for a flash attachment. In fact, the top of the line, XL1, the three-chip professional model (list price $4,699) that I will describe in detail below also includes an flash mount option.

The Optura offers two view-finder options. A relatively conventional but tiltable 0.55-inch view-finder and a 2-inch color LCD. Like the XL1, the Optura also offers variable "movie modes." By combining the two video-fields into one frame in "Frame Movie Mode" both cameras provide higher quality freeze frames and image quality, albeit with slightly less fluid motion (i.e. if you are panning, zooming quickly or shooting a fast moving object the video motion is more like film than video). I liked the Optura, but like most video professionals, I was immediately more enamored by its "big brother," the XL1.

XL1 EXCELLENCE
While Sony took an early lead in this market, Canon has apparently used the past year or two to design a more innovative product. An evolution of Canon's popular high-end, Hi-8, L1 and L2 designs, the XL1 features the option to use interchangeable lens and is one of the most attractive cameras I've ever seen. It's not only sleek and good looking, but I especially like the accessibility of the controls and the thoughtfulness of its details.

After all, when it comes to usability in a camcorder, frequently its the little things that count most. For example, I like the way the batteries are mounted outside the camera (on the right side), so that there's no door to open when you need to make a quick battery change in the field. The tape housing is also straight forward and seemingly self-contained, however you have to be careful to close the tape transport first before closing the exterior door. Otherwise, the tape transport will not engage.

TAKING CONTROL
All of the controls and switches on the camera are unusually accessible and clearly labeled. Another nice detail is the way that when you have to resort to the in-viewfinder menu options, the controls are conveniently arranged behind a curved, sliding panel that surrounds the hand-sized, round power-exposure mode selector wheel. I especially like useful extras like the viewfinder "Eye Point" switch which lets you select "Near" or "Far" depending on whether you have your eye on the viewfinder or want to hold the camera away from your eye (for example, to hold the camera over your head or at floor level.)

Not only is the 16X optical zoom the longest zoom lens in this category, but I also found the zoom controls to be exceptionally smooth including the flexibility to "creep" slowly or zoom very quickly. I was also pleased to see the headphone output jack mounted for easy accessibility right on the back of the handle, and it comes complete with a playback level control (which is also not available on the other camcorders in this category).

The unusual power-exposure mode selector wheel (or dial) includes a full selection of presets as well as a manual option. Custom exposure controls include both a handy side-mounted dial for custom Iris settings, and a separate round knob under the handle for "AE Shift" which will add or subtract light from the settings that are provided by the automatic exposure system.

The only serious design limitation I found is that this is clearly a right-handed camera. Unfortunately, lefties are not likely to be comfortable with the XL1. On the other hand (pun intended), even though I'm right-handed, I prefer to put my left eye on the viewfinder; and this exception is easily accommodated with a simple twist of the XL1's large professional style viewfinder.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTOR
For me, as a video pro, another issue which has been raised by the smaller, yet high-quality DV camcorders is their seemingly amateur appearance. While this is strictly a subjective (and even irrational) appearance or image issue, some clients might wonder about my professionalism if I show up with a small consumer-sized camcorder. I like the fact that, despite the extra size and weight, the XL1 has a very professional (even serious) look.

In fact, this DV camcorder is sized more like a 16mm film camera than a consumer camcorder. Bottom line, it looks radically different than any camcorder I've ever seen. (Because of its large handle, Videography editor Brian McKernan likes to call the XL1, "the weed wacker." When I first saw it, I thought of it looked like a small chain saw.)

Canon also points out that the white, black and red color scheme also makes it distinct from conventional camcorder designs while they also use the XL1's large white surfaces to provide reflective heat reduction under hot conditions.

In any case, for so'me videographers, there will certainly be psychological perks to the XL1s unusual style. Few video pros will mind showing up with such a hot-looking piece of gear; however some may prefer a less conspicuous appearance and the ease of portability that's provided by smaller cameras.

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Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at jon@combridges.com
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