Company calls new camcorder its «last SD camera in this type of configuration»By Charlie White

Canon XL2 camcorder
(Click image for enlargement) Canon’s new XL2 DV camcorder

At an elegant and highly-produced press event at one of the finest hotels in New York’s Times Square, Canon introduced a new DV camcorder, the XL2. The successor to Canon’s highly respected XL1 and XL1S high-end consumer camcorders, Canon’s newest, and what the company’s officials call its last, standard-definition camcorder of its type proved itself to be an impressive new addition to the camcorder market. Stating the theme of the roll-out, «Total Control», Canon showed how the new XL2 gives shooters more control over every aspect of their image acquisition.

With its new XL2 camcorder ($4999, available in August), Canon answers the requests of many of its loyal shooters, bringing 24p, 30p and 60i frame rates to XL users, along with a choice of a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio and improved 680,000-pixel progressive scan CCDs.  With those three CCDs, the camcorder records at 962 x 480 pixels in its 16:9 mode, and the usual 720 x 480 pixels in 4:3 mode.

The new interchangeable lens, with its 20x optical zoom, is included in that $5K price, with Canon saying a lensless XL2 will be available «later this year» for $3999. This newest optically-stabilized lens from Canon gives shooters a f/1.6 to f/3.5 aperture with a long zoom capability that’s thus far unmatched in this price category. In its 4:3 aspect ratio setting, the 20x range offers the 35mm equivalent of 51.8mm to 1036mm, while in 16:9 mode, the range is 42.2mm to 844mm (35mm equivalent). For more about the specifics of the camcorder, see Canon’s press release here on Digital Media Net.

While clearly impressed with the new camcorder’s introduction and all the new features and controllability injected into the new XL2, reporters wondered why this new offering wasn’t a high-definition model, adhering to the HDV standard that Canon itself helped to determine. Said Michael Zorich, Marketing Director, Canon Photographic Products Group, «I do want to go on record as saying that Canon supports HDV. We’re a member of the consortium that worked on these specifications for the format, so it is our plan to come to the market with a HDV product in the future. I don’t have a timeline on that yet. However, what we think we’ve got with the XL2 is the very best SD [standard definition] camera that’s available on the market today for $5000.»


Zorich said he knows users are anticipating HDV offerings from all the camcorder manufacturers. «We’re aware that HDV is certainly the buzz word, because companies like Sony and JVC have made announcements of their plans to bring three-chip cameras to the market with the HDV format,» Zorich told Digital Media Net. He also hinted that the company is working on a new HDV camcorder, admitting that this XL2 is the last SD model Canon will introduce to this market space. «I’m very comfortable agreeing that this will in fact will be the last SD camera that Canon does bring to the market in this type of configuration. Really, our objective is to make sure that we can bring this kind of advanced image control and the open architecture concept into every product that we make moving forward at a price point that’s affordable.» Zorich mentioned that a number of pieces have to fall into place before Canon is ready to roll out its HD camcorder for this market space, while reassuring current Canon XL users that their investment won’t soon be obsolete. «When we consider the fact that moving to HD, which has its own different set of specifications than SD, we have to consider the fact that the lenses have to be different, but we don’t want to abandon the investment that the XL1 owners have made in the XL series lenses. So we’ve got to be very strategic in how we plan out the design of the product, and making sure that it’s going to be compatible so that nobody has to  feel that the investment that they’ve made in a Canon product is obsolete.»

Canon XL1S and XL2 comparison
Here’s the XL2 compared to the XL1S — the two share roughly the same form factor.

In the New York presentation, Canon’s Senior Vice President and General Manager Yukaki Hashimoto told the group of reporters and analysts that Canon will introduce an HD camcorder only when the time is right and the business model makes sense. He asked the audience to recall the days before Canon announced the initial XL1, finally making its debut almost two years after Panasonic and Sony had announced their first 3-CCD digital camcorders. Said Hashimoto, «Everyone asked me, ‘When is Canon going announce a 3-CCD camcorder?’ Today, I get a different kind of question, ‘When is Canon going to announce a 3-CCD HD or HDV camcorder?’ My answer remains the same today as it was back in 1997: Canon announces new camcorders in a timely manner — when we believe there is a strong business model to support the technology, a business model that is based on market needs and merits.» Hashimoto said a new HD camcorder wouldn’t be a practical tool for today’s videographers and filmmakers. «Surely, we could announce a new concept product, which would be entertaining but not very practical for serious image makers who need new, truly useful tools that they can integrate into their existing post-production systems now,» Hashimoto said.

In a hands-on session, immediately obvious was an impressive new feature in the XL2 — its new multifunction color viewfinder. The finder flips up to expose a 2-inch LCD monitor, and it can be physically moved forward or backward. With its new built-in shoulder cushion, the XL2 feels perfectly balanced, and it’s a great convenience to be able to move that viewfinder backward or forward, and swing the eyepiece out of the way if it’s not a bright day or for off-the-shoulder shots. There’s a new crosshair center marker inside, as well as a 16×9 letter box display, along with control of brightness, color, sharpness and contrast, with three indicator lights showing record, shutter and gain. You’re given the option of having all this info fully displayed in the finder, partially displayed, or if you find all these indicators distracting, you can choose to have them completely turned off.

Clearly the XL2’s most sophisticated additions are its customizable cine settings. New for the XL2 are 11 different adjustment parameters, including Gamma, where you can choose the Normal mode for a traditional video look or Cine for a film-like look. Then there’s Color Matrix with Normal and Cine choices for controlling the hue and the saturation of the image. Also included is Knee, for adjusting image highlights, and for that there are three settings: Low, Medium and High. Black Stretch has three settings, where you can control the depth of black in the image. Then there’s Vertical Detail with two settings, to record either for viewing on a TV monitor or a PC screen. You can also adjust Coring, which helps to minimize video noise to reduce fine detail offered in six different steps. In addition to the Sharpness control, Noise Reduction reduces noise introduced in low-light images. Color Gain helps gives you alternatives from no color at all (black and white) all the way to highly-saturated color effects. Color Phase lets you control the degree of red or green in the image, and Film Grain adds a slight degree of graininess to the image for a «film-like» effect. But the XL2 doesn’t stop there — there are 14 additional configuration features including Master RGB, Master Pedestal and Skin Tone Detail. Even better, all these manipulations can be saved into three different memory settings that can be instantly recalled or transferred from one XL2 to another via FireWire.

Another unusual concept incorporated into the XL2 is its software, which Canon plans to open up for developers to modify and enhance. Canon is going to make available a software developer’s kit (SDK), allowing third parties to write specific software  programs that control functions like zoom, focus, record, and have total control over the image, that can be controlled from a PC as the video is being recorded to tape. This could create a cottage industry for camera control via an external computer, according to Canon.

As part of the demonstration, Canon shot a variety of video scenes with the XL2, including a musical documentary setting, a sitcom, a night sequence of a convertible full of attractive ladies cruising through Times Square, aerial footage, a wedding scenario, and others, all shot in a variety of frame rates and all captured in the higher-resolution 962 x 480, 16:9 format. The Canon spokesman said all the segments were produced without any post-production color correction. Using the extensive image controls incorporated into the new camcorder, each scene had its own subtlety, with all looking as good as I’ve ever seen MiniDV footage. The 24p sequences, while looking somewhat filmic with their slower frame rate, didn’t quite look like film to these eyes, though. Even so, the quality was remarkable for an SD camcorder.

Perhaps it was because of the high-rez Sony wide-screen monitors Canon chose for the demo, but all the footage was nearly-HD quality. Certainly if Canon showed the audience the same video side-by-side with HD, shot with the same high level of expertise, the difference between the two would be readily apparent. But to the trained eye without benefit of direct comparison with anything else, the quality and customizability of the new Canon XL2 was exquisite.

If you’ll allow me in inject my subjective opinion at this point: I’m just wondering if all this control is really necessary. I mean, isn’t it better to do all this color correcting and adjustment of blacks and such in post, especially given all the sophisticated color correction tools included with almost every editing package on the market? And what if you have some late-night creative inspiration while shooting that ends up looking silly once you get back to the real world, the edit suite? You’ll be stuck trying to undo all those magnificent shadings and color effects with your post-production color correction gear, if it’s even possible. That said, we’ll check this one out and give you the full low-down as soon as we get our review unit from Canon.