December 21, 1997
I had a chance to handle Canon's XL-1 at Newtonville Camera and ask the Canon sales folk lots of questions. The camera was a prototype but a working one. None of us shot tape but we looked at footage shot the previous evening.
Did I like the camera? Well, I debated the pros of getting one quickly ("delivery immediately after Xmas") or waiting for the next batch which may be months away, against the wisdom of never getting first-run products (paying for the right to test new products). My impetuous side won. I ordered one of the 20 allotted to Newtonville Camera in MA.
It feels like a rather professional, well thought out camera considering the price and the fact that is is distributed by Canon's non-professional division. The manual control options are wonderful, even allowing override while shooting in several automatic modes, often the best of both worlds.
DV's notorious vertical smear seems greatly tamed for all but on-axis intense highlights. Canon credits this to their pixel-shift scheme, but out-of-frame top and backlight smear-damage is undoubtedly also minimized by the substantial, square sunshade.
As Peter pointed out, Canon's optical stabilization system is remarkable. It deals with the low frequency movements (breathing, bouncing, swaying and heart beat) that Sony's system ignores. And since it is not digital and presumably does not degrade the image, I will be inclined to leave it on at all times unless it depletes the battery excessively.
Automatic focus seemed a bit slow but I failed to test it thoroughly.
The XL-1 is front heavy used with or without their clever fold-up shoulder pad; one presumes their more serious accessory brace will help as will the shorter (3-1), wider-angle zoom expected out this summer. Problem: if the optical stabilizer is in each lens and is added to the 3-1, the price will be -- you guessed it. But it will not be as useful in the shorter focal length ranges so may be left off or optional.
The main zoom control allows for exceedingly slow movement; its topside "duplicate" is one-speed-fits-all (too fast). It will take considerable time to learn where all the wondrous knobs, buttons and switches are located, especially with ones eye otherwise occupied. But we should be grateful that Canon saw fit to include them and to group them logically.
My three biggest reservations:
1) The peculiar, distracting commotion caused by fussy, moving details (such as tree leaves) that is so characteristic of (all?) DV has apparently not been eliminated by Canon's engineers; too much to expect, I know.
2) Canon's elegantly sculpted, silver, black and red machine will help to sell the product but will not help to minimize our impact on subjects.
3) I will miss an LCD for the type of filming I tend to do. While the viewfinder, as Peter points out, allows for viewing at nearly arm's length, it is only useful for framing at that distance and not for focusing or seeing details.
These and other as yet-unknown problems may pale in comparison to the XL-1 strengths, at least for many kinds of shooting. All tools are a series of compromises, design trade-offs (I know first hand, I used to design Lowel-lights). Canon seems, on the whole, to have compromised wisely.
PS: XL-1 literature is available and largely duplicates what is on their site.
PPS: The much appreciated, internal neutral density filter looks to be perhaps a 9; 3 stops.
Disclaimer: Author's opinions are his own and do not in any way represent opinions of the editors.
About the Author.ROSS LOWELL
Director, cameraman, writer, inventor.
OH BROTHER, MY BROTHER producer, director, writer, cameraman
A sensitive six-year old explores his ambivalent feelings toward his younger brother.
Seven awards: EFFLA, Houston Film Festival, Golden Eagle and an Academy Award Nomination in the theatrical short category.
MERCHANTS AND MASTERPIECES director of photography
LIGHT OF THE GODS director of photography
SULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT director of photography
WOMEN OF SUMMER director of photography
THE MONASTERY director of photography
PAVORRATTI AT JULIARD co-director & director of photography
SUDDENLY AN EAGLE director of photography
HOUSTON'S IGUANA director & cameraman.
WHILE I RUN THIS RACE director of photography
A YEAR TOWARD TOMORROW principal cinematographer
THE BALLOON TREE producer, director, writer, cameraman
PREMINGER'S CARDINAL director & cameraman
MY CHILDHOOD principal cinematographer
FAULKNER'S MISSISSIPPI director of cinematography
TELEVISION SPECIALS director of photography
TELEVISION COMMERCIALS director & cameraman
JOHN GRIERSON GOLD MEDAL
AUTHOR: Matters of Light and Depth
The Sunday New York Times: "Ross Lowell has spent his life learning and teaching about lighting... This book should be owned by everyone who has any kind of camera ... The reward for reading just a few chapters ... will surely be better pictures ... Mr. Lowell's writing ... has a lyrical and spiritual dimension that is inspiring ..." John Durniak.
Peter Jennings, ABC: "I am still citing Ross Lowell as the sensitive character who knows what light and movement are all about. This book confirms it.