By Neil Bennett | on August 18, 2004
Pros: Excellent lens. Better balanced than the XL1/XL1s. Great widescreen capture. Huge range of accessories. High level of manual control. Progressive capture with film-style gamma curve.
Cons: Expensive. LCD screen poor. Viewfinder unbalanced. No markings on lens.
The XL1 holds special significance for the DV-based filmmaker, corporate video producer, enthusiast or documentary maker. It was as revolutionary as Adobe Photoshop or the Mac Classic for delivering creative power without enshackling you with its costs. It was also instrumental in the rise of other types of low-budget production – but we won’t go into that right now.
XL1 owners have been asking for the XL2 for some years. 2001’s XL1s was a comparatively minor upgrade. In the lifetime of the XL1 and XL1s we’ve seen the arrival of camcorders styled after broadcast rigs, and a multiplicity of features aimed at low-budget filmmakers. These include high-res CCDs capable of true 16:9 capture, progressive capture, and changeable gamma curves that can mimic the look of film.
Though the connections between the components that make up the XL2 are the same as the XL1 – so all of your old accessories will still work – the ergonomics of the standard set-up are much improved. The XL1 is front-heavy, thanks to the large 16x zoom lens. The XL2 ships with a new 20x fluorite lens, which is even longer, but is much better balanced. An extended shoulder stock – along with the lens – makes the XL2 noticably heavier than the XL1, but the improved balance is worth it.
Lefties like me will be less impressed with the new viewfinder, though. It’s more flexible than the XL1’s – able to move forwards and backwards, as well as sideways – and flips up to reveal a two-inch LCD screen, but using it in the left-eye position overbalances the XL2.
The LCD screen is small and unusable under strong lighting. However, it’s perfectly adequate for on-location playback, where the viewfinder alone doesn’t allow more than a single viewer.
The XL2’s insides have changed even more than its exterior. Alongside the high-res CCDs, and progressive capture and cinema gamma-curve functions, the XL2 has more manual controls than many true pro-DV, shoulder-mounted models. Canon says this should allow you to finely tune your look on-set, rather than in post. We’d dispute this – fine colour correction is always better done in post – but the ability to get usable footage in unpleasant situations is a definite bonus.
To test the XL2’s filmmaking cred, we took it on a gritty short-film shoot alongside an XL1 and the XL2’s biggest rival, Panasonic’s DVX100AE. We shot some documentary-style, behind-the-scenes footage as well. The shoulder-mounted XL2 was more comfortable for long periods of off-tripod use than the handheld DVX100A, but didn’t allow for the same Festen-style intimacy or freedom of movement. Menu setting the DVX100AE was much quicker, though the XL2’s large viewfinder made framing daylight-based shots a swifter process. Changing preset modes was faster using the DVX100AE’s wheel for its six scene modes than the XL2’s two custom keys.
Manual focusing was efficient on both camcorders, though we preferred the DVX100AE for the markings on its focus ring. Both models offer a sluggish auto-focus in 25P mode, though the XL2’s isn’t as sloth-like as the DVX100AE.
The captured footage from both cameras was largely impressive. The XL2’s hi-res CCDs produce very detailed widescreen images, though we also liked the results of the DVX100AE’s choice of seven gamma curves. In close quarters, the DVX100EA’s wide-angle lens is much appreciated, but you can buy a wide-angle lens for the XL2.
It’s this flexilibility that makes the XL2 the best camcorder we’ve seen that doesn’t have at least a 1/2-inch lens mount. The only problem is it’s priced like one – the XL2 is approximately the same price as JVC’s broadcast-level DV5000E with a base 14x Fuji lens, and over £1,000 more than the DVX100AE.
The price limits the appeal of the XL2 to independent filmmakers who want more options that you get with the DVX100AE – such as the ability to attach Arri film lenses – or XL1 users with investments in XL accessories. For these users though, the XL2 is a cracking buy.