Price: around £2,500 plus VAT
If there’s a central principle behind the XL1S, it’s that old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. It’s been years since the original XL1 was released to waves of appreciation, and since then it has gained the sort of fanatical following from hobbyists and pros alike usually reserved for obscure American indie bands. No doubt the same devotion will be placed upon the XL1’s successor – the XL1S – as Canon has stayed true to everything that made the XL1 so desirable, while both improving its capture quality and making it easier to use. At first glance, little appears to have changed. The lens, camera body, viewfinder, directional microphone and shoulder pad look exactly the same, and with the exception of a few extra dials and buttons (plus the extra squared off S to let you know the difference), the two models are indentical. It’s the internal workings that have been upgraded to put the S in the XL1S. Component parts In these areas, the lack of change is a bonus. One of the XL1’s main selling points was its componentized make-up, where you could replace any of the pieces outside the main body such as the lens, viewfinder or mic with better or more specialized components – or add extra functions such as lights, filters or even a full underwater set-up. Such was the XL1’s popularity, that plenty of third parties got involved giving the XL1 the most number of accessories of any camcorder on the market. The XL1S does nothing to change this. Using almost the same body chassis, the XL1S allows upgraders to use all of their old lenses, adaptors and other parts they’ve splashed out on over the years and gives newcomers access to a huge range of accessories the moment the camera is released. Redesigned CCD So what’s changed in the last three and a half years? If you took a screwdriver and prised open the chassis you’d find, apart from that you’d have ruined your warranty and probably broken your camera, that quite a lot’s different. Essentially it’s a totally new camera with a redesigned CCD block – even the tape transport chassis has been given a work over. The three CCDs – one each for of red, green and blue – still have the same specs as the XL1. They’re still a third of an inch in size and built of 270,000 pixels – but Canon has boosted the signal-to-noise ratio by four decibels. The result of the new block is instantly noticeable. Even with basic footage and automatic settings we could see the difference when we compared our shooting results with materials captured from the XL1 as part of the last Digit Labs group test in January 2001. Colour definition is much better, and we even found we could move the camera much faster without picking up artifacts. It still has the same problem with high-contrast lighting, more so than its main competitor Sony’s PD150 (itself the replacement for the XL1’s old nemesis, the VX1000), but the picture quality is more than good enough to ensure its use in broadcast work for the foreseeable future. If you do have to deal with high-contrast or too bright/too dark situations, though, the XL1S has a few tricks up its sleeve to help you out. First is a new feature that imprints a zebra pattern in the viewfinder over any over-exposed areas. This works very well and, once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself using it to check just what that sky’s doing to your picture on many occasions. There are also proper SMPTE colour bars that are easy to select. If you’re shooting in low-light conditions, there are tools here for you too. There are two additional gain settings, +18dB and +30dB. The former is pretty clean, similar to the +12dB setting on the XL1, but the +30dB setting is only really worth it if the final production can handle severe amounts of noise. Put simply, you’d have to filming Blair Witch or Badgerwatch for this to be usable. The new manual controls don’t stop there. To start with there are three manual white settings. You can also set colour shift (towards red or green), picture sharpness, colour gain (none to full) and black levels (for shadow control). Each of these have plus or minus six steps, which is more than enough control even if you want to line the XL1’s picture with that of other cameras you shoot with. There are also three new memory settings that allow you switch between you choices for indoors and outdoors, for example, very quickly. Other new arrivals include 16:9 guide lines, index point recording and DV device control. You can also turn the LCD viewfinder’s heads up display on and off – or to B&W for better contrast viewing (though it can’t match Canon’s own CRT B&W viewfinder option). Plus there’s a ClearScan feature for filming computer screens – though this is very fiddly to set up. The menu system has been shifted around, which was necessary, so that you now move up and down the menu using the iris wheel and select by pushing it. While this is an improvement on the previous system, the menu button’s still a pain to find while looking through the viewfinder. Accessorize Canon has added some extra accessories, which XL1 users can also buy even if they don’t want to upgrade. A manual 16x zoom lens offers focus, zoom and aperture scales – and includes a powered zoom, automatic iris and two built-in ND filters. There’s also the MA-200 microphone adaptor cum shoulder harness that adds four XLR audio inputs and a BNC video connector. However, this makes the camera feel huge and bulky. The XL1S regains the top of sub-£5,000 video camera market, nudging out the DVCAM-based PD150 from Sony by the virtue of its picture quality, manual options and interchangeable lens and accessory system. Although you can still pick up the (officially-discontinued) original XL1 for well under two grand, the XL1S is more than worth the extra £500.