Heath McKnight's XL H1 review at DVinfo.net
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Canon XL H Series HDV Camcorders
Canon XL H1S (with SDI), Canon XL H1A (without SDI). Also XL H1.

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Old July 23rd, 2006, 07:57 PM   #1
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Heath McKnight's XL H1 review

Pt. 1:

I had the opportunity, thanks the Chris Hurd and Geoff Senior at Canon, to take the XL H1 for a test-drive earlier this year. And I recently used the camera for a small project. So I figured, now is the time to do a review of the XL H1!

Normally, I try to do a camera review with Jon Fordham, my close friend who happens to be an accomplished DP and DIT in New York City. But Jon's gone big time, so it's tough to get our schedules to match. One thing to note, Jon did have a chance to shoot some tests in January and he liked it. I'll aks him post some thoughts up when he has time.

We also put the Z1, HD100 and XL H1 together and shot a basic "scene" of one of my students with three lights. We shot them in 50i/CF25, 24p and 24f. To be honest, the XL H1 and Z1, to my eye, looked very similar. The HD100 looked very filmlike, as did the others, but I did enjoy the HD100's handling of highlights quite a bit. Unfortunately, since Apple's Final Cut Studio STILL doesn't support 72024p or 24f, I have no video/stills to show. Yet.

Anyway, I took the time to put the XL H1 through some rigorous tests and will be putting up 60i and 30f video and stills as soon as I can, and 24f when Apple updates FCP. So what are my thoughts?

It's a very nice camera, and like the HVR Z1/PD150 and 170 and HVX200/DVX100a, it reminded me of its DV camera counterpart, the XL1. I'll be honest, I haven't used the XL2, but from what I've seen, it handles like an XL1s but with native 16x9, 24p, etc. But if you're familiar with the XL1-2 series, you'll be all right going to the XL H1. But there are some things to keep in mind, and I'll touch upon them soon.

Before you read the review, check out the XL H1 specifications, which will help you out.

The camera is laid out and looks just like and XL1/2 camera, and that's comforting for someone that used an XL1 for 4 years. The lens is nice and can be removed, but make sure you use an HD-calibrated lens. HD doesn't handle shooting with SD lenses or lens-adapters. The lens also has the neutral density filters ring on it (nice), stabilizer and auto/manual focus switches. Also, to use the zoom manually, there's no button or switch to turn off the zoom rocker. That's cool. What's uncool is a lack of zoom or focus number markings on the zoom/focus rings.

Also found on the lens is a way to set up a preset for either zoom or focus, but not both at the same time. You can set up something like a zoom in or out from specified points, or a rack focus from one subject to another. One thing to note, you can't do the opposite (once you zoom in, that's it, etc.), just one move. And only one thing, focus or zoom, not both at the same time.

You can control the speed in the menu, but it's only got three choices, slow, medium and fast. This is similar to the Shot Transition feature on the Z1, which is far more powerful and allows you to do focus, zoom, etc. You can even do rack focuses from one subject and back to the other (there are two options you can set up, vs. one with the XL H1--ie, zoom in is one button setting, zoom out is the other). And the speed control is better, too.

Most of the controls are on the left side of the body, and set up pretty much like the XL DV cameras. Except you can flip the two switches to shoot in either HD or SD (two flavors, 16x9 or 4x3), and another to shoot in 60i, 30f or 24f. Also, you can send the XL H1 back to Canon's factory, and they'll set you up with 50i and 25f for a fee (I think it's $500). Not too shabby!

There are two ports for the viewfinder, one for the standard EVF that comes with the camera, and another for a FU-1000 Monochrome CRT Viewfinder Unit (that costs $2000!).

Since HD is focus critical, you need to be aware of how peaking and the magnification works. Peaking draws an outline around objects as they come into focus (you can do this while recording or not, and it doesn't go to tape). Magnification doubles the image to help out with focus, too, but you cannot do this while recording.

Shutter speeds range from 1/3 all the way up to 1/15,000th of a second. But if you want to use a shutter of 1/48 or 1/24, that can only be found in 24f mode. For 1/50 or1/25, it's in 50i/25f frame modes.

Gain and white balance settings are exactly like the XL DV series of cameras, with some extra options than before (at least vs. the original XL1). You can also set the color temperature by switching the knob to "K."

The menu is in a slightly different place than I'm used to, but it's got all the things one needs. Control of the camera, including a way to set up different Custom Presets (up to six in camera, another 17 with a memory card, though Canon claims up to 20) to change looks, etc. You can name them, but when you call them up and turn them on with the buttons located under the handle. But, the names don't appear, only the CP #, so remember which is which! And one more thing, you can't change it while recording or set up the CPs.

You can also set up two Custom Key short cuts, like turning Zebras on or off, changing the viewfinder to black and white for easier focusing, etc. Of course, I went with Zebras and the black and white EVF.

The Aspect Guides are cool, because if you're shooting widescreen films, it puts up a guide for 2.35:1 or even 1.85:1! Nice! I know filmmakers like Frederic Haubrich masked a Z1 for 2.35:1 and cropped in post (ahh, just the good ol' days of native 4x3 DV cameras).

Of course, you'll still need to crop the shot in post, but it's nicer than trying to put black gaffer or grip tape over the small viewfinder, even if it does pop off. (No LCD, unfortunately.)

I like that you can record up to four channels of audio through the two XLR ports on the back, plus the RCA jacks (four there).

Another nice thing is bars and tone (1 khz, -12db or -20db), but it's a two-step process to bring up the bars. The button also doubles as a black or white fader, and once you select it, you have to turn it on. I like one-step color bar buttons (like the Z1, HD100, DVX100, etc.), but it's easier than going through the menu, like my old XL1.

Heath McKnight
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Old July 23rd, 2006, 07:58 PM   #2
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Pt. 2:

Okay, moving on, right below the XLR inputs is an uncompressed HD component out (no audio). Since it's analog, you'll need to use something to convert it, like a device from Miranda. You can bypass the HDV codec with this and convert it to, say, HDCAM or DVCPro HD. Or use an HD card and capture it on a bunch of LARGE hard drives.

And, of course, what makes the camera REALLY sexy: the uncompressed HD SDI output! WOW! Like the component out, you can do uncompressed HD, only in digital instead of analog. I recommend using the similar mini-workflow mentioned above to get the most out of it. (Again, not audio out). There's also Gen-Lock (SMPTE) and a timecode in and out ports (SMPTE). All are BNC connections.

Firewire allows you to down-convert to 480i or stay in HDV, like the other HDV cameras, so that's cool. But many of us recommend capturing and cutting in HDV then do a down-covert to 480i. The quality is much better than doing a down-coversion from the camera to the NLE.

Other ports include the four RCA audio, one RCA video, and an S-Video. Plus headphones. Can't forget to monitor audio while working, right? Of course.

I like that there are three record on/off switches, one on the right grip/handle, one on the top handle and both of those include a photo button (goes to a memory card vs. tape like on the XL1) and a zoom toggle/rocker. The third record button is on the left side, in front of the little part of the camera where the shutter speed and menu select/iris control and menu set buttons are. Reminds me of a pro-end camera, like a DVCam or a DVCPro unit.

Speaking of zoom control, I dig that you can control what type of zoom. If you use variable, you can use the right grip/handle's zoom rocker like many cameras: push it lightly, it goes slow, push it hard, it speeds up. Or you can set it up to only zoom at one specified speed, which you can also set up (slow to fast) no matter how hard or soft you push it. The controls only work with the grip rocker, keep that in mind. And the controls are right there, above the record button.

Okay, so what about the lens? We've come back to it again. I have issues with it, like I did with the XL1's lens. I noticed some issues when zoomed in, usually some slight chromatic abberations (not as bad as the XL1). Plus, the lens, being a 20x (wow!), can cause images to seem distant in the background vs. foreground, like the XL1. For example, a shot of someone with their hand out when the camera is wide: the hand looked huge, but their bodies looked further away than normal.

And when I'd walk around with the camera on my shoulder, even with the stabilizer on, it didn't look as good as other cameras with their stabilizers on. But, I like that it's shoulder-mounted. If you do go hand-held, keep the stabilizer on and keep the camera's zoom wide. But a lot of those issues are dealt with via the 16x lens. Visit http://www.usa.canon.com/app/html/XL...essories.shtml for more information on this and other accessories.

One other thing, I kind of wish there were a few more F-stop options. Though I like to keep my aperture around F2 to F2.8, and I recommend not going higher than F4 with cameras that have 1/3 inch CCDs, knowing I have it is nice. Minor, minor complaint.

What about the image? Surprisingly, even with the "mysterious" 24f and 30f (24 full frames, 30 full frames), those two settings looked quite a bit like 24p and 30p. What's really interesting, to my eye at least, is that the 24f looked very similar to the HVR Z1's 50i with CF25 and 30f looked almost exactly like the Z1's 60i with CF30. As a matter of fact, the XL H1 and Z1's images look very similar, though I'm not trying to say the mysterious manufacturer of the CCDs are Sony. The cameras just have similar looks.

By the way, visit Chris Hurd's excellent page on the XL H1 which explains more about the "f" frame rates a bit more, and the sensor, the Digic DV II (second generation as of the camera's release to now). Particularly visit this page.

One more note, because the camera has a true 1440x1080 sensor, it has more pixels than the native 960x1080 Z1 sensor, but both cameras look great, and both go to 1920x1080 quite flawlessly.

Okay, so what are my final thoughts? I'll break them down into pros and cons.


1. Lots of manual controls, including very extensive Custom Presets, along with frame rates of 60i, 30f, 24f and the optional and not-too-pricey 50i and 25f with 1/50 and 1/25 shutter speeds thrown in to boot.

2. Option to shoot in HDV or SD (16x9 or 4x3).

3. Both a component and an HD SDI uncompressed HD output, allowing you to bypass the HDV codec (keep in mind, you'll need a Miranda device, along with either an HD capture card for digital capture to hard drives or just the Miranda to go to DVCPro HD or HDCAM).

4. Four channels of audio.

5. Gen Lock, Timecode in/out.

6. Shoulder-mount.

7. Control of the zoom.

8. 1440x1080 native sensor.

9. PC NLE support now for 24f and HD SDI.


1. Cost; it's $9000 for just the camera, not including a warranty, extra batteries, the Miranda device (around $2000) to help translate what's coming out of the HD SDI output, the $2000 FU-1000 Monochrome CRT Viewfinder Unit, etc. And, if you add up renting a pricey HD deck per day, or buying TONS of huge drives (think terabytes), the cost might be, arguably, around renting a VariCam with a couple of lenses.

2. The lens; though nice, I still have issues with the image (when wide, things in the foreground seem a lot closer than those in the background) and some slight chromatic aberration when zoomed in. Plus, the stabilizer can create some strange visuals when going hand-held or shoulder-mounted.

3. No native 24f/HD SDI (or 720p24) support in Apple's Final Cut Studio. Yet.

Overall: I love the camera, and my complaints are somewhat minor and can be fixed. But not the cost, which is around the price of two Z1s or 1.5 HD110s. I think this is a great camera, and has a lot of potential. One has to wonder if they'll make a total hand-held version without the HD SDI output but with full manual controls and balanced XLR inputs and have it cost under $5000, with all the same features (like 24f, Custom Presets, etc.). I guess that would be the GL H1, heh heh heh. Sorry, I digress...

I'll try to get some 60i/30f video and stills to Chris Hurd and, when Apple's Final Cut Studio can handle JVC's 24p and Canon's 24f features, I'll throw up 24f video and also video from our mini-shoot out from earlier this year (I'll leave the Z1 footage as 50i/CF25 and also have an optional 24p conversion, too).

Heath McKnight
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Old July 23rd, 2006, 08:01 PM   #3
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ps-One more thing, I look forward to shooting a short film with the camera, and Jon Fordham as my DP, in the near future. I just want Apple to get the 24f support in FCP!

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Old July 23rd, 2006, 09:51 PM   #4
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Our own Pete Bauer provided me with some extra info (thanks, Pete!):

- You're speaking only of the Mac HD-SDI (and 24f) support, but a lot of H1 users have PC solutions like Cineform's Wafian or ProspectHD, or uncompressed to a RAID array via AJA Xena cards directly into Premiere Pro. I don't think that HD-SDI solutions for this camera are any different or more expensive than any other high end camera that has an HD-SDI output, so you'd probably take some criticism for painting the additional cost for uncompressed in a negative light for the camera, when it is a high-end pro feature for a low-end pro price. HDV can be edited natively in PPro and Vegas on a fast PC, or at most, an extra $500 for Cineform AspectHD (for PPro) or ConnectHD (for Vegas) for a DI (Digital/Direct Intermediate).

- On the custom presets, if you set the camera to record settings along with still pictures, the number of presets you can retrieve and load is limited only to the number of pictures (and attached custom presets) you can fit on your SD card.

- A helpful hint for folks: the EVF not only can be set to color or B&W, but you can adjust the contrast, brightness, sharpness and color saturation in-menu so the peaking can be made to stand out more or less, to the shooter's taste with a brief tweak or two in the menus.

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