Bobby Love's Canon XL-1 Review
SW Engineering
Film & Video Production
Video Tidbits

This article was originally distributed via email in February 1998 through the DV-L mailing list and is republished here by permission. The following content is copyright (c) 1998 by Bobby Love. -AJW


Bob's incomplete review of the Canon XL-1 for those who may be interested. I had the camera for less than one week and spent about 3-4 days learning most of its features. Many buttons and manual overrides, lots of potential for making a mistake if you are not careful. Some of my complaints you have read from others elsewhere, many you don't see people bothering to report about and certainly will not be reading in any  magazine reviews. This list is by no means complete but covers some of the things that impressed/depressed me at first. I compare it to my Sony VX-1000 since that camera was one of the first 3-chip DV cameras on the market over two and a half years ago. Canon has had plenty of time to take it apart and decide how to make it better. They made many improvements and dropped the ball on some others. Read my review and rent, borrow, or buy, and decide for yourself!


REVIEW: The Canon XL-1 has many "manual" improvements over the VX-1000 and that is the main reason for me to want to upgrade. But with all the folks on Compuserve and the Internet singing its praises, very few have taken the time to fully critic the unit. Here are a few of my current dislikes:

Example #1: A true ENG professional camera is heavy but most of the weight rests on your shoulder and they are usually balanced enough to allow for right arm only shooting when you are not zooming or focusing. Consumer/prosumer camcorders like the Sony VX-1000 are small and light enough to hold for periods of time with one hand and with the optical stabilization you can get pretty steady shots. With two hands you can shoot all day without breaking a sweat. You may have heard the XL-1 is front heavy, it is, but it also tends to lean to the left and puts added pressure on your eye in the rubber eyecup. Handhold this for a half hour non-stop concentrating on your composition and you will start to see the short comings of this out of balance camera. You simply cannot hold this camera with one hand as you can the VX. You must support it from under the lens. This brings up another problem, try not hitting either the manual focus or zoom rings. Hitting them will over ride their setting and screw up your shot. I'm working on a somewhat uncomfortable way of holding it just underneath the mount where you can reach the manual f- stop and shutter dials. Holding this camera for any length of time is no fun.

Those that say the short zoom due out this summer will make it more balanced are still going to have two lens choices and we all will probably want a 16X on the camera most of the time choosing the short zoom now and then! Okay the review is not in on the optional shoulder mount since I don't know of anyone that has gotten hold of one. This may help with the balance, we'll have to wait and see, but it does cost another $200-250.00.

EX. #2: There is no control for viewfinder color adjustment like on the VX. So you can be stuck with the color from the factory. I asked this both on C.S. and the Internet and found: 50% that took the time to write back were not happy with the color of theirs. Others had not even noticed and many did not write back at all. The one I had was very magenta/pink and was therefore useless for judging colors and was very distracting. Canon made a big mistake here! There is a small screw adjustment under the viewfinder for "brightness".

EX. #3: There is no menu for adjusting the colors that are going to be recorded as you can do on the VX. This is a minor complaint since one could do this latter given the right equipment.

EX. #4: The famous Canon optics. This is a very subjective part of my review and quite unscientific, because I did not have enough time to do a true lens chart test. I did not see a dramatic difference between the recorded images between the two cameras. I looked at some indoor/outdoor footage on both my 8" Sony field monitor and my new Panasonic 27" T.V. going into its S-Video jack. For all the weight and supposedly better glass of the Canon lens, the Sony holds its own, though only a 10X zoom compared to the extreme range of the Canons 16X (a very nice improvement).

NOTE: And for those still arguing if the VX-1000 lens is plastic, it is not, it is glass. I was sent an E-Mail over a year a go when I wasted my time trying to track down another dumb unsubstantiated Internet rumor. The author is a well respected magazine writer/reviewer that you have probably
read at one time or another. His VX-1000 met with an accident and the lens was trashed and taken apart. He verified first hand that it is made of glass. I'm not going to argue the merits of glass versus plastic lens design, only want to bury another stupid rumor. The same is true of the supposed improvement Sony never made to the VX-1000 cameras over the serial number of 50,000. You can waste a lot of time trying to track down these rumors only to you can never find their sources. Sometimes it is just a disgruntled customer trying to get back at a company! Moral, don't believe
everything you read on-line, do your own homework.

BTW: For those waiting for a manual zoom and reading this camera has one, don't get too excited. I found it impossible to do more than a "slight creep" with the manual zoom control. Like most prosumer cameras all the controls are internal within the lens and are some sort of "servo/electrical" controls, meaning that when you twist the zoom ring the lens reaction is unpredictable. It moves slow sometimes and depending on how far you twist is can move very fast and far. The rings move around 360 degrees without stopping. Okay for short zooms but not what you may be used to on a mechanical zoom found on high end (read expensive) professional ENG cameras. Personally I wish there was a way to disable it so that I could not accidentally hit it while reaching for the focus ring and thereby changing my composition. Now, with that said the zoom servo/rocker switch is a huge improvement over the Sony VX-1000. As many may know doing a zoom with that camera is a true test of patience since it has five speeds that the rocker arm goes between as you press the button. The XL-1 comes very close to a pro-unit once you get used to it and is the way to go if you must zoom during your shot. NOTE: I also have to mention that although I'm glad to see an interchangeable lens system and would probably want the short 3-1 zoom (coming out this summer), I can't get too excited about being able to use the Canon EOS lenses. You have to remember there is about a 7X factor when figuring what a DV lens might correlate to in terms of millimeters on a 35mm camera for comparison. For example the Sony VX-1000's 5.9-59mm lens is equivalent to a 42-420mm lens on a 35mm still camera. This means that all the short focal length EOS lens are already covered by the zoom range you get with the camera. A 20mm EOS lens will look like a 140mm lens on your DV camera. Not to mention the $500-600.00 price tag for the EOS-XL mount adapter and the price of the prime EOS lens if like me, you don't own any. We all know prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses so if you own the EOS ones and have deep pockets by all means you can take advantage of this feature. For many this may not be a real selling point. I will say, that it might be nice to rent the adapter and the great Canon 300mm lens making it a 2400mm lens on the XL- 1 for a shoot that might require such a long telephoto shot! Just food for thought.

EX. #5: The XL-1 is much larger than its competitor the VX-1000 and calls attention to itself. You now look like you are a professional and in certain instances you may have difficulty getting access. Whereas the Sony always looked like a home/consumer camera and people let their guard down not realizing the quality of the sound and video you were capturing. Another down side is I now have to buy a much larger bag and larger lens accessories (series #9 filters work nice with a 72mm-Series #9 adapter).

EX. #6: There is no viewfinder "focus helper" like on the VX. Now some may argue that you don't need one. But in low light I sometimes relied on that "dot" focus helper and it was a nice Sony feature. The one that looks like this in the viewfinder < 0 >.

EX. #7: Canon designers felt there was no need to include two items in your viewfinder when playing back in the camera. They are, gain settings and white balance settings. THIS OCCURS ON PLAYBACK IN THE XL-1 ONLY! If you playback your recorded video and press the datacode button on the remote you will only see F-Stop, Shutter Speed, Date and Time. The information has been recorded on the DV tape and can be seen on the Sony VX-1000 and
DHR-1000 DV deck! To some this is no big deal, but if I'm in the field and go back an hour later to review something I shot, it is nice to be able to see what white balance and gain setting were in effect at the time. You might need to know this to match a shot later on or if you think you made a mistake and are wondering why your colors are off, or there appears to be a lot of video noise. Most people may not miss this feature at all, but the fact that is recorded on the tape and is viewable when using the VX-1000, is a dumb omission of potentially important information. Especially if you find yourself using the camera in some of the automatic modes where both white balance and gain are controlled by the computer!

EX. #8: The Internet mike rumor addressed. I've read the rumors that the mike on the Canon XL-1 is the same as a Sennheiser MKE300! But after seeing and using both I can report the following, the two mikes have nothing in common. First the Canon is stereo, the Senn MKE300 is mono. The Canon has two plugs one for sound (the stereo miniplug), the other for power from the camcorder. I don't know how one could even use this mike off the camera body! The Senn used a single watch type button battery. The Canon mike is made solidly of some sort of metal and you cannot remove the windscreen. If the foam was damaged you may have to take the mike apart to replace the windscreen. The Senn was an all plastic mike with removable windscreen. Now I'm not saying Senn did not make the mike for Canon, but I doubt they would farm out this work especially to a company that makes mostly higher end more expensive mikes. I will say, that just by the way they are both designed physically, that there is no way there is a MKE300 hiding inside the small diameter of the Canon mike. This is another of these insidious Internet rumors that people enjoy starting, maybe Canon employees. For what it may be worth the Canon mike does sound good, and in my opinion better then the onboard Sony VX-1000's. But what you don't hear people talking about is that even though Canon copied the mike mount from ENG shoulder
mount cameras, the hard rubber clamp that holds the mike transfers any "hits" to the camera right to your sound track. I did a very simple test of tapping the tripod and could hear every knock transferred through the system to my headphones (this would include footsteps on a hard wood floor). If you are hand holding and are very careful its a usable setup. Since I value my sound and like to use the left and right tracks separately most of the time. I will still be using my Beyer short shotgun in its shoe-mounted shock mount on top of the viewfinder. For running around with a stereo mike the Canon is fine, but nothing to get excited about.

Summary: What Canon has tried to do is make a cross between a true shoulder mount ENG camera and a camcorder. I think they were very successful. But instead of jumping on the "how great" this thing is bandwagon, I think it makes more sense to point out its weaknesses. Everyone should be made aware of just what they are buying. By trading in the VX-1000 for this camcorder one has to make some hard decisions and a few compromises. Ideally we would all have enough money and business to keep both. I do not, but I'm very torn, and hope I don't regret selling the VX-1000! I could shoot with that camera with one hand all day. Is the Canon XL-1 an improvement, yes, in many areas. Is it perfect, no, a few steps back in other areas. Judge for yourself, but never buy from a place that has a "no return policy" like J&R
in N.Y.C., unless you can use a $4500.00 store credit!

NOTE: This review has intentionally in no way taken up the debate on the DV format versus any other format. It was written for those who may be considering buying the new Canon XL-1, from someone that has used both it and the Sony VX-1000. I apologize for not feeling it is as complete as it could be especially the lens tests. I'm sure the Canon lens would have proven superior in actual tests and Canon is known for making high quality lenses. How much difference will you see, may become a subjective argument that others can argue about on the Internet for months. I hope this review was informational and helpful to some! Good luck. Bob.

BTW: Not that I want to spread rumors, but logic tells use that this one may be a good bet. I've read that Sony is going to discontinue the VX-1000 (maybe a reason to hold on to one if you have one) and come out with an answer to the Canon XL-1. It will probably have and interchangeable lens system (Sony can sell more lenses too). The big part of the rumor is that the lenses will be made by the German company Zeiss. Should you wait? I can't answer that, but part of the rumor is, it won't be out any time soon. But as much as I hate rumors, you can bet Sony won't just stand on the sidelines as Canon sells camcorders like hotcakes! Bobby Love

Contact Bobby via email

 His email is "BobbyLove at compuserve dot com", but you'll have to type the "BobbyLove" yourself.
This is necessary to avoid having spammer's webcrawlers snuffle his address and send him unwanted junk.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Adam J. Wilt and Bobby Love.
You are granted a nonexclusive right to duplicate, print, link to, frame, or otherwise repurpose this material,
as long as all authorship, ownership and copyright information is preserved, and a link to this site is displayed.

Home SW Engineering Film & Video Production Video Tidbits >DV<

Contact me via email

Last updated 30 March 1998.