Canon XL1s Mini DV Digital Camcorder

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Film Nut Goes Digital

Dec 30, 2000 (Updated Jan 8, 2011)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Ease of Use:
  • Durability:
  • Battery Life:
  • Movie Quality:

Pros:Great Picture, Great Sound, Great Controls

Cons:Quirky lens

The Bottom Line: The XL-1 is an amazing achievement that puts professional capability and options into the hands of the consumer.It's a workhorse that can be relied upon in the field.


For years I have shot nothing but movie film. The video revolution has come and gone and, to this day, I still shoot Super-8 and Sixteen millimeter film. I've never had any burning desire to shoot video. I got a Certificate of Filmmaking at NYU SCE. I have made several short films and one professional 30 second TV spot- all on film. Film is great, and very expensive!

But something has happened recently. The technology for the marriage of film and video has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years. People are shooting 3 chip mini DV, editing by firewire, and either transferring the finished product to film, or using a "film look" program to simulate film without ever leaving the digital realm.

So I checked out such a film by European director Lars von Trier at my local art cinema. There before me, projected on the screen via 35mm film was a perfectly acceptable piece with a kind-of film/video hybrid look. Gone were the unacceptable raster lines of video-to-film projects of yesteryear. The film aesthetic I love was definitely there. "And just think of the decreased production cost," I thought.

So here I am with my one year old factory refurbished Canon XL-1, shooting my next project.

Number one: I love this camera! It's not perfect; but the quality of the image! Come on folks; it's outstanding!

The main thing I like about the XL-1, besides image quality, is the easy controls. This camera is very well thought out. That's a big reason why it's still at the top of the "pro-sumer" pack. There are actual buttons and dials! What a concept! Pop out a dial. Change your setting; and pop it back in again. Check your settings by looking at them! How refreshing in this call it up on the screen world. ( Actually the XL-1 does have a few settings that are on-screen/viewfinder. )

Every function of the camera, for picture or sound, has either a manual or an automatic setting. I really like that. If you choose to go automatic, there are various levels of automation to choose from; and that "AE shift" dial is great. In film terms, it's an effective plus or minus two stops from the standard auto exposure setting, in small increments. The manual gain control has five presets, from -3 to +12! That -3 setting is a great feature for improved picture quality in sufficient lighting conditions.

An interesting feature is the "Frame Movie Mode." This feature, in effect, allows you to shoot 30 digital still frames per second! When viewed in real time on playback, this mode has a sort of movie look. There is more down time between the frames than there is between the fields in the "Normal" mode; so quick movement appears a little more jagged- like motion picture film. Also, any one of these thousands of still frames can be clearly accessed.

Slower and faster "shutter speeds" ( than the standard 1/60th sec ) are a great in-camera effect, simulating electronically what the indicated "exposures" would look like in a motion picture camera. There are 27 speeds between 1/60th and 1/15,000th; and the "slow shutter" (1/30th, 1/15th, and 1/8th sec) is activated in the digital effect realm. Note: the digital slow shutter speeds cannot be used together with another digital effect or with the Frame Movie Mode.

The camera has interchangeable lens capability. This is a very good thing because the lens that comes with the camera: 16X ( 5.5mm to 88mm )optical zoom is quirky. Canon apparently opted to include the best optical spec lens it could, within this price range; even if it meant losing certain features like, for instance, lens focal length and focusing distance markings. You can't have them because this is not a "mechanical" lens. Manual zoom and focus rings are servo controlled. They never end up in the same place twice ( for a given focal length and focusing distance ). This makes it very difficult to do a rack focus shot. Also, under certain conditions ( auto focus off/ iris closed down ), the image may go soft for a second while zooming out from full tele to full wide. The Schneider lens on my Nizo Super-8 camera doesn't do that, for crying out loud! ( Generally, I do not like leaving the auto focus on; because, even if you are wide enough that your subject does not go in and out, you still may notice the background doing so as your auto focus goes fishing. To alleviate this, I usually leave the AF off and I use the instant auto focus button on the lens. )

There is also a 32X digital zoom setting available ( for emergency use only, in my opinion ). Here, the camera is really "moving in" electronically on the frame at full optical zoom; and the picture quality suffers.

About the interchangeable lens capability: It should be noted that several lenses are now available for the camera, including a wide angle ( 3.4mm to 10.2mm ) 3X zoom lens from Canon, and a fully mechanical 14X manual zoom lens ( 5.7mm to 80mm ). This manual zoom lens connects to the camera body electrically for all the goodies; but I don't think it has the image stabilizer- a function that works great in the 16X original lens. An available adapter also allows you to use Canon EF lenses; but be aware that these lenses will have an effective focal length 7.1 times greater than they do on your 35mm still camera! Also be aware that all these lenses and accessories cost- plenty! ( relative to the original purchase price ) There are also various front mounted adapters for the lens; but why did you buy interchangeable lens capability in the first place?

It should also be noted that the XL-1 is now available, new, in various configurations: 1)The original package: color viewfinder, 16X optical zoom 2)color viewfinder, body only 3)black and white viewfinder, body only 4)color viewfinder, 14X manual zoom , and 5)black and white viewfinder, 14X manual zoom. If I had it to do all over again, I think I would go for number 5, because this configuration is most compatible with my intended use for the camera. As it is, I will be getting the 3X wide zoom first. ( The 16X simply doesn't go wide enough. The 14X manual is worse in this respect. )

The sound capability of the XL-1 is superb: 2 channels of 16 bit, or 4 channels of 12 bit digital. Because of my film background, I like to set record levels manually; but I quickly learned that if you hand a microphone to someone, use the auto level. It's very quick and therefore unobtrusive; and it's mandatory especially for amateur microphone technique. The available shoulder mount/XLR mike adapter is great. I usually bring an Audio Technica shotgun mike with me, that plugs into the XLR input and can be used on or off the camera; but, in case I don't bring it, I have made an extension cord for the supplied on camera mike that works well. As of this time, I do not have a wireless setup.

Another thing I noticed: If you're doing a setup that may take some time and are using manual settings, it's a good idea to press the standby button before the camcorder shuts itself down after five minutes or so. That way, you won't lose all your settings; which is what happens when it shuts down on its own! You can also work with the tape transport drawer popped out ( conditions permitting ), or with the tape removed, averting shutdown. There are also ways to have the outer door closed with an un-threaded tape inside, thus preventing shutdown; but these methods involve loading and unloading procedures that are not recommended. Of course, when it's time to shoot- well, you know- you have to re-load the tape properly.

Speaking of which: A major mistake that many beginners make with the XL-1 is the method of closing the tape transport. You must push in the transport ( which holds the tape ) first, then close the outside door, in a two step process.

Not a perfect setup? Correct. Great video? Correct again. I recommend the XL-1 to anyone who wants the best picture for the money, can appreciate the fine, well thought out controls, and is willing to deal with the drawbacks mentioned. As I said. I love my XL-1. The quality of what ends up on the screen is my priority.

( By the way, if you can find one, the factory refurbished model I bought worked out great. I saved $700 on the price! I'm sure the guts were new; and the camera included all the latest updates: viewfinder less sensitive to sunlight damage etc. )

Oh, and about the prospects of transferring my latest project to film? Now I find that the best way to do that is to use a PAL version of the XL-1 and set it on Frame movie mode. Oh well, I'm getting to like the "normal" video from my XL-1 more and more.



Update: It is now January, 2011 and my XL-1, with thousands of hours on it, is still going strong! 
Amazing camcorder!!! 
But, I'm afraid it has become somewhat of a dinosaur in an HD world.
I still shoot with it, though.
  


Recommend this product? Yes


Amount Paid (US$): 3,200
Recommended for: Professional Videographers - Broadcast Quality Videos

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