When Canon experimented with HD functionality on their 5D MkII DSLR, they inadvertently made an evolutionary jump in video camera design, and probably spooked some big competitors to boot. A lot of people were dreaming of Canon experimenting with full frame DSLR sensors in their video cameras to finish the job off properly. Fantasies rarely play out as desired, but there is good news: Canon has stepped out of the shadows and wowed us with two new releases.
They’re off to a flying start; although only recently released, these cameras have already been BBC-approved for HD acquisition. The headline grabber is probably its 50Mb/s 4:2:2 recording codec, in MXF wrappers – precisely the area where the phenomenal EX1R falls short. But this isn’t the only head-turner: it features an awesome piece of glass, CMOS chips with improved noise-reduction and skew-elimination, over and under-cranking, a variety of gamma curves in picture profiles and, on the XF305, HD-SDI out, Genlock and Timecode.
There’s a constellation of quality cameras out there in sub-£7k space. Heading straight to the stars is a new hero, Canon. All hail Canon! Hot new releases XF300 and XF305 are… well… hot.
The first thing that strikes me about these releases is Canon’s bullish placement. As a handheld shooter, Sony’s PMW-EX1R is largely considered king in this range. The EX3, with all those additional pro features and its interchangeable lens option, is a perfect ‘cheap-studio’ option. JVC were aware of this when they released their GY-HM range, but their approach was more diplomatic – both price point and features are distinct. Like the EX3, the HM700 is also a ‘cheap-studio’ option but there are marked differences in features between the two cameras. And, at a grand cheaper, it definitely has a certain je ne sais quoi. The GY-HM100 on the other hand, is half the size of the EX1R, and half the price. For punters dreaming of the EX1R image quality without the budget, the HM100 was a nice option. And if a competitor licenses your proprietary codec to use on your cameras, how could you not be flattered?
Canon has done things a little differently. They’ve released the XF300 (which fundamentally lacks an HD-SDI socket) at roughly the same price as the EX1R (which includes it). And guess where the XF305 (with all those lovely extra studio-sockets) is being price-pitched? Yup, this should be interesting…
From the point of view of someone who likes Sony, and is a huge fan of the EX1R, I was really surprised – and impressed – by these cameras. The lens is magnificent. At 18x L Series lens 4.1mm to 73.8mm (35mm equivalent), the wide end is wider and closer on the telephoto then the EX1R. It’s also faster than the EX (f1.6 compared to f1.9), and has very little chromatic aberration. They’ve also taken note of the EX Fujinon design – a solid, manual/auto barrel with readings, an independent zoom ring and an iris ring.
The cameras record MPEG2 to MXF wrappers (Material eXchange Format) to Compact Flash cards (x300 speed, dual slots enabling clip relay). It records to a universal format, to a cheaper and readily available media – the compact flash card. But obviously the big news is the codec; 4:2:2 50Mb/s broadcast quality. At this level you can record 160mins of 1080p on a 64GB CF card. Although the MXF files take up a nudge more real-estate on the card, it’s half the price of SxS, so bangs-per-buck it records a higher quality picture at a significantly cheaper price.
Even with a broadcast quality codec in an industry-standard wrapper, Canon have actually been quite clever. Acknowledging the huge XDCAM EX & HDV market already out there, XF users have the option of recoding in 4:2:0 35Mb/s & 25Mb/s to fit in nicely to an EX or HDV workflow.
I’m going to jump ahead a bit here into post-production, since it’s the obvious advantage of the MXF wrapper. From a workflow perspective, it just works. With CS5 Premiere Pro, it’s simply a case of plugging in and you’re ready to cut. It’s the same with Avid (and although I’ve not tried, Grass Valley Edius). With Final Cut Pro, it’s a ‘Log and Transfer’ into ProRes but, like the SxS transfer, it’s a really quick process. In all cases, there’s no need to download drivers, or third party software to make it work (although there is the option of downloading browser software for quick previewing of clips).
Now we come to the chips: only 1/3 inch chips (but full 1920×1080). To be fair to Canon, this should be a bigger fly in the ointment than it actually is. With these specs, you’d expect a poor low-light performance, but it’s actually really good. This is partly due to the faster lens, but also due to integrated noise reduction circuits built into the CMOS sensors – technology that Canon have taken from their very respected EOS DSLRs (if not the actual sensors). As it pans out, the EX1R’s 1/2inch chips make it 1.5 stops more sensitive in low light – but the lens on the XF is half a stop faster then the EX. Add in the Canons superior noise to signal ratio on their CMOS, and the difference in low light performance is extremely close – perhaps negligible. Depth of field, however, is another matter. The 1/3 inch chips of the XF fall significantly short of the 1/2 inch EX chips in their ability to produce and control a beautiful, shallow depth of field.
Integrated noise reduction isn’t the only development Canon have added to their CMOS sensors. One of the big disadvantages of CMOS chips is the rolling shutter, which can result in ‘skewed’ images on fast-panned shots. So another nice feature of the XF CMOS sensors is their high-speed readout – video lines are scanned at twice the speed to eliminate the skew. And it actually works!
From a personal point of view, a much bigger issue is the lack of HD-SDI output on the XF300. Canon have gone ahead and grouped this port along with the more obvious studio features such as timecode and genlock, and all of these are only available on the XF305. Technically, I guess Canon doesn’t feel it’s necessary on a camera that is already shooting to a 50Mb/s codec. Technically, it’s not. But for anyone shooting an EX camera to either a Nanoflash or a Ki Pro, they’ll be only too aware of how much better shooting to 100Mb/s is compared to 50Mb/s, let alone shooting at 280Mb/s. Acquisition should always be done at the highest possible rate, so in this respect, an HD-SDI port is still advantageous.
Canon gives us an array of features; some you’d hope for, some you’d expect, and then others…
A really nice addition is the ability to customise and save picture profiles (a few gamma curves, Knee, Detail, Colour Matrix etc). Following Sony’s lead, to compete with the EX range it was an important feature to include, giving operators the option to turn a nice picture into a stunning one, and to tweak to a preferred personal look.
There’s a respectable Optical Image Stabiliser, in three settings (standard, powered and dynamic), and the XF300 over/undercranks – but only in stages so can’t be set to any specific fps like the EX. It sports a nice big LCD screen, with a high resolution of 1.23 million dots, has a really sharp image and it flips out both ways.
Then we have DIGIC III with Face Detection system (not to be confused with Face Recognition system. Although if you’re slightly paranoid, you probably shouldn’t rule that out) – this is more technology taken from their stills cameras. I’m sure there are benefits to this in terms of signal processing, but I’m a bit old fashioned on ‘Face Detection’ technology ‘to ensure pin-sharp faces’ – it seems somewhat superfluous on a pro-handheld.
Now to move on to the flaws… we’ve all got them. Downsides I’d flag are the build quality and the general ergonomics. The build quality – which certainly isn’t bad – is let down by a few twangy bits, and isn’t up to the EX level. Some components feel plasticy compared to the EX. Worse still is the tripod base plate – a single ¼” threaded hole in a small plate. This was a misjudgement made by Sony on the original EX1 before it was revised. If too much is attached to the camera, it will break. And it will be expensive.
Ergonomically, if I wanted to be a train-spotter about it, there are also a few niggly bits. For me, some of the buttons were just a few millimetres in the wrong direction. But my main complaint is the weight/balance/grip. It weighs quite a lot, and because of the huge lens, it’s front-heavy. The side hand-grip doesn’t rotate around, and isn’t designed well enough to counteract the natural direction of the camera – which is front-down and to the left. Not ideal.
I should reiterate though, that neither of these downsides are fundamental, and they’re more of a testament to the EX1R rather then a criticism of the XF. Sony has a heritage of great build, and the EX1R has the advantage of being an incisive revision of an originally well-designed camera.
These are fantastic cameras. Canon have put some careful consideration into these products and done very well, so now customers buying a 5k camera will also have to put some careful consideration into their final choice. Which is best? Like a football match, there’ll be fans in each camp debating this until the next game. And there will no doubt be some long pee-ing contests online.
If you throw a Nanoflash or Ki Pro into the equation, the EX1R and its ½ inch chips is still king. If these are not an option, and you NEED 50Mb/s specifically for BBC broadcast, it’s not even a choice. But it gets much trickier if you fall between these two lines. The bulk of cameras out there in this price range are being used for corporate, live-events and education. The truth is, both XF & EX cameras are very capable tools, and both more than adequate for the job.
Remember, there’s a whole stack of other options out there. For example, cameramen looking for a high bitrate for HD broadcast (although not approved by the BBC) could save a fortune with the Panasonic HPX-171 – HD-SDI, recording at 100Mb/s 4:2:2 and is lightweight – an important factor on long shoots. Consider your workflow, consider your potential market, then decide which team you want to support. Canon have stood tall and surprised everyone with a pair of remarkable cameras that, at very least, are of the same standard as Sony’s kings.
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