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Canon XF300 / XF305 Camcorder Review

Late to the Party
But Dressed to Kill

By Michael Reichmann and Chris Sanderson

Video DSLRs are hot. But, though the shallow depth of field that they can offer is appealing to film makers of all stripes, they are really lousy video cameras. Photographers and videographers are spending thousands to buy accessory gear so that these can focus and handle properly in a video environment.

This means that proper professional-grade video cameras remain very much in demand. The latest additions to the under $10,000 segment, which will appeal to independent film makers, documentary makers, TV news, corporate, and wedding videographers, are the Canon XF300 and XF305.

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The move to solid state video recording is now just about complete. Sony, Panasonic and JVC each introduced their memory card-based camcorders several years ago, and in some cases are now on their second and even third generation products. But what about Canon, the fourth of the big four in the professional camcorder business?

Maybe they didn't get the memo. Or maybe they got side swiped by the 2008 global economic downturn and insecurity in financial markets. Whatever the reason might have been Canon has continued with its tape-based camcorders in the face of an otherwise industry-wide rush to solid state recording.

But, as of early 2010 Canon smelled the coffee and announced the XF300 and XF305 camcorders. By late June these started to ship worldwide, and we obtained a full production review sample of the XF305 which we will be reporting on here. (We also subsequently ended up buying an XF300 – which should provide a hint as to what we think of it).

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What is It and Who is it For?

Though the XF300 is called a camcorder, since this moniker applies from cameras in the $200 to the $200,000 range it isn't terribly descriptive of its place in the scheme of things. Maybe one way of categorizing it would be to state that that it is among the smallest, lightest and least expensive cameras certified for broadcast use.

These can be fighting words, for though there is nothing "official" on a world-wide basis about being broadcast certified, within just a few days of these camera's first shipment in late June 2010 BBC Television certified the Canon XF300 and XF305 as "approved by the BBC for independent productions".

This means that full programs may be shot by independent producers and filmmakers using these cameras, rather than the small percentage of minutes allowed for other uncertified cameras, where their small size and convenience is only allowed for pick-up shots and special circumstances.

This is a huge endorsement, because many broadcasters around the world who don't have testing faculties comparable to those of the BBC emulate them and rely on the standards that they set. It should be noted that the new XF cameras were added to the BBC's broadcast approved list along with the Red One and Sony PDW 700 and 800, cameras which when equipped with comparable lenses come in at between $35,000 and $50,000.

The Canon XF300 and XF305 are currently available in the US and Canada for under $7,000 and $8,000 respectively.

So – back to the question of who the camera is for. This will run the gamut, from private individuals producing fine art film projects, nature and wildlife cinematographers, wedding and event photographers, corporate video producers, documentary shooters, news organizations – virtually anyone that requires a complete, self contained video recording system that weighs under six pounds and which comes in at under $7,000 – about the cost of a top-of-the-line DSLR.

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The Key Specs

Before we begin to look closely at what the XF300 does and how well it does it we need to note that its sister product, the XF305 is the identical camera, with three feature additions – an HD-SDI port, Timecode In-Out, and Genlock capability. These add approximately $1,000 to the XF300's price, and none of these are of much interest and use to anyone that isn't planning on working in a multicamera production environment. HD-SDI is desirable for getting a "raw" signal out of the camera to an external recorder before being compressed by a codec, but as will be seen, because of the XF300's very high data rate, robust codec, and large colour space, this is likely to be seen by individual cinematographers as much less critical than on some other camcorders.

Product Headlines

– MPEG-2 recording at up to 50Mbps

– An 18X Canon L series lens from 30mm – 530mm equivalent

– Three full raster 1920-1080p CMOS sensors

– 4.2.2 colour encoding

– Use of standard Compactflash memory cards

Let's look at each of these main features one at a time.

– MPEG-2 recording at up to 50Mbps

Because video needs to be highly compressed the nature of the codec used is critical, both for storage requirements and editing capability. The XF300 shoots at 50 Mbps, which is some 375 Megabytes per minute. An 8 GB card can therefore hold just 20 minutes of footage.

The most popular current compression codec for amateur (and some semi-pro cameras) is AVCHD. This is a very efficient codec but requires a lot of processing power to decode, and its only this year that some NLE's have been able to edit it directly. Most people prefer to edit a more robust format such a ProRes, but transcoding AVCHD can be time consuming, and not appropriate in a fast-paced production environment.

Canon's flavour of MPEG-2 is editable natively by many professional NLEs, with the exception of Apple's Final Cut Studio, where it is handed by a provided Canon plug-in. This plug-in connects to Log and Transfer for transcoding (optional) and importing.

Many people like to transcode to a robust editing format such as ProRes 422. The plug-in does this quite rapidly – about 3X real-time. But if you set Log and Transfer to import in Native format, rather than a flavour of ProRes, all that will happen is that the file will be rewrapped rather than transcoded. The time that this takes is the same as simply copying the files off the card in the Finder, and the file size turns out to be less than half that of ProRes 422. This is my preferred approach.

It should be noted as well that the XF300 and XF305's 50Mbps at Constant Bit Rate is the holy grail of minimum broadcast production standards. It is very rare for broadcasters to be happy with anything slower. That's not to say that the 35Mbps that some other cameras in the under $10,000 range aren't capable of lovely results, but they do fall below the threshold that some broadcast outlets regard as separating the species.

– An 18X Canon L Series Lens from 30mm – 530mm (equiv)

It doesn't matter how good the codec, or how many buttons, bells, and whistles the camera might have. If the lens isn't up to par, it's all for naught. Based on the specs, and especially our early testing, the 18X L series zoom which Canon has attached to the XF300 is a killer. Not only is resolution extremely high (easily able to support the 1000+ lines of resolution that the sensors are capable of), but freedom from optical aberrations seems to be as good as anything seen from Canon or anyone else. For Canon to designate this lens an "L" lens means it's their top team, and it shows.

The actual focal length is 4.1–73.8mm, f/1.6– f/2.8, making the factor to full-frame 35mm = 7.15X; thus giving the lens a range equivalence to 29.3–527.4mm.

At f/1.6, its widest focal range, this makes the lens one of the fastest in its class. It should also be noted that the lens is a true parafocal zoom, where focus does not shift as the focal length is changed.

– Three Full Raster 1920-1080p CMOS sensors

Many cameras, even expensive ones, do not have sensors that cover their full claimed spatial resolution. This is particularly true of CCD sensors, because of their higher cost of manufacture in large sizes. These camcorders typically use lower resolution sensors and res them up. The CMOS sensors in the XF300 are full raster, which means that they're full size and resolution for true HD video, and require no in-camera scaling.

– 4.2.2 colour encoding

For some this is one of the more obscure specs, but it is also one of the most important. 4.2.2 colour encoding is something that has rarely if ever been seen in an HD camera in this price range. You can read more about it here. It essentially means that the camera has twice the colour bandwidth of a more common 4.2.0 camera.

This robust colour signal lends itself to use with chromakey effects and heavy duty colour grading in post production. Most cameras in this price range are 4.2.0, which, simply put, means that while luminance information is given full bandwidth, colour information is given 1/2 the bandwidth.

– Use of Standard Compactflash Memory Cards

With the transition from tape to solid state recording the various camera makers have embraced different memory card technologies. Panasonic introduced proprietary P2 cards and Sony SxS cards. Both companies later embraced the much less expensive SD cards, either in new models or as afterthoughts, but concerns remain about the robustness of these in pro usage.

Canon took the sensible route of going with industry standard Compactflash cards (CF), which, when they fall on the floor are not so small as to be swallowed by the dog, as once happened to me with an SD card. (Sorry Boss – I'll have that footage for you as soon a Fido has finish pooping in the back yard). They are also much less expensive than robust proprietary formats such as Panasonic's P2 and Sony's SxS.

RED cameras also use CF cards as well, as removable card media.

The only stated requirement for the XF cameras is that the CF cards be at least UDMA Class 4. This roughly translates into a speed of 400X or higher.

But, unlike the SD card industry, CF card makers are lax in their labeling and it's sometimes hard to make sense of the various specs and ratings. My recommendation would be to stick to the top brands for reliability, including Sandisk and Transcend, and get the fastest cards available.

CF cards are currently available in sizes up to 64GB, but the sweet spot right now are 32GB UDMA cards at around $120 each. At the maximum data rate of 50Mbps the XF300 can record 80 minutes on a 32GB card. The camera takes two cards and is capable of relay recording, which means that as soon as one card is full recording automatically continues to the second one. Also, a full card can be removed while shooting to the second, transferred offline, returned to the camera, and formatted, all without missing a beat while the camera continues recording to the in-place card.

So, even for a concert recording, 160 minutes with two 32GB cards should be more than adequate, all for under $250 in reusable media. Moving to 64GB cards means more than five hours of continuous recording is possible at the camera's highest data rate. Should be enough for just about anyone.

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Ergonomics

The XF300 and XF305 have some 50 buttons, switches and levers. This makes them, of necessity, complex devices and given the range of features available in a contemporary pro-level camera there's little that can be done to reduce this complexity other than try for uncluttered design.

My overall feeling is that Canon spent the three years that it took to bring these cameras to market refining the design, because the XF camera have an all-of-a-piece feel to them. But, alas, all is not perfect.

I won't recite every control and its placement (you can download the manual and study up on it yourself), but after some extensive field use here are some critical observations.

The Focus Auto / Manual switch is right next to the PUSH AF button, as you might expect. But the Iris Auto / Manual switch is on a separate part of the body from the Push Auto Iris. Where's the logic in this? (These PUSH buttons are very handy for when you want to work in manual mode yet want to be able to have instant automatic settings without resetting the mode switch).

One of my other complaints is the On-Off-Media switch. It has a well implemented interlock so that it can't be slide by accident, but, by putting the OFF position between the record and the review settings it's almost impossible to go from recording to off without putting the camera into standby in the process. This really is an annoying design!!

This switch is so poor that it might be a good idea to make it a habit to pop the battery when storing the camera, otherwise coming back to a flat battery the next day is all too likely. Come on Canon – FIX THIS!


Click above for an edited 1 minute video that was
shot during camera testing, viewed in a new window .

We've Got Buttons

There are thirteen button on the camera that can be programmed with any of a multitude of different functions. This is great, especially the ability to individually program the camera's media playback buttons with shooting functions, which are redundant during recording in any event.

But sadly, Canon simply hasn't allowed enough of the important camera functions to be programmed. The ability to put the camera into a special shooting mode, such as slow motion, or frame animation, or time lapse, is programmed via the Menu system, as it perforce must. But actually activating it must also be done from within the Menu system, rather than one being able to program a button for the task. This is slow and cumbersome. One shouldn't have to go into the menu system while actively shooting.

Why have it this way? It just doesn't make sense.

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The Side Window

Canon has had a circular mono LCD window on the left of the body for some time on previous models. On the XF300 it displays current card capacities, battery, time code, and audio levels. All of this information may seem redundant and a bit of a stylistic affectation, as its available elsewhere. But when an assistant is standing to the left of the camera, the side with all of the controls, this is vital information, and indeed useful.

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Lens Controls

The major lens controls are focus, zoom and aperture. Let's look at each of them in turn.

Zooming is accomplished several different ways. The middle ring on the lens is a manual zoom ring with hard stops at either end. There is a switch on the main body that selects between manual zooming by turning the ring and the use of one of two rocker switches. Unfortunately you can't have rocker zoom control and ring lens control at the same time, possibly a real pain for those that are used to this capability on some other cameras.

There is a 1.5X "digital" magnification button. Because of the camera's high inherent resolution (especially in 1080 mode) the quality at this setting is surprisingly good. For those odd times that you need to reach out to the equivalent of almost 800mm this will do the job without the cost, weight and light loss of a glass accessory lens. (At this magnification there's often so much air shimmer that a bit of resolution loss is hardly noticeable – one of those cases where a theoretical disadvantage is in reality trumped by practicality).


Click the above for a 20 second comparison clip
in a new window

The image above links to a separate page which shows a comparison between using the 1.5X shooting magnification button on the XF300/305 and simply enlarging the image 150% in post.

To my eye the results in this example are identical, so why one might ask, would one do it in-camera when there's more flexibility doing it after the fact, and as needed?

The answer is that while enlarging the image 150% in post produces a very similar result, it also magnifies noise. Doing the magnification in camera does not. At gain settings up to +6db there is almost no visible difference, but at higher gain settings (used in low light for wildlife shots, for example) in-camera magnification is to be preferred as it will produce much lower noise.

A small rocker on top of the handle can be programmed to different zoom speeds, while the side rocker above the handgrip also has a variable rate capability – press hard for fast and softly for slow. How slow? Up to 5 minutes from one end of the zoom range to the other! The "feel" on this control is the best we have encountered on any camcorder.

I know a few people that find the slow engagement of the side rocker switch to be annoying, but this is what permits the extremely soft engagement and slow creep that the rocker allows, and so I'm willing to accept the trade-off.

A LANC controller can also be attached, which allows for a fourth means of controlling the zooming and focus capability as well as other features. Canon list the ZR2000 as their recommended controller, but just about any other LANC standard device will do. The advantage of the ZR2000 is its ability to control various Canon specific functions, but it's fairly expensive, and doesn't appear that rugged.

The camera is supplied with a small wireless remote control, useful for when the camera is in playback mode through a monitor. It also has Start / Stop and Zoom controls – which raises a pet peeve of mine. The XF300, like all cameras I've ever seen that have an IR remote, has its sensor on the front of the camera, which means that it's useless 95% of the time for controlling the camera when one is standing behind it. Wouldn't it make sense to have a second sensor at the rear? Seems to make sense to me, and every other videographer I've ever discussed this with, but obviously not camera makers.

Aperture can be controlled through an aperture ring toward the rear the lens, and there is a desirable three position gain switch, where each position can be programmed to a specific gain level from -6 to +33. This can be refined down to .5db increments. There is also an AGC position (auto gain control), which can have its limits set. But do be careful about turning it on, because you can find yourself outdoors, dialing in ND, while the camera happily keeps boosting the gain to keep the aperture the same. (+33db gain in bright sunlight anyone?)

I would have liked to see a custom function that disables the gain switch when ND filters are dialed in. These two Canon models are regrettably not alone in the characteristic.

Also to be regretted is that there is no physical scale on the aperture ring. The only way to tell what aperture you're setting is via one of the viewfinders. This will be a serious demerit in some user's eyes.

The focus ring has two major settings, achieved through a locking button found on the front focusing ring. When engaged the focus ring is a full manual control ring with end stops at infinity and at the lens' closest focusing distance. Focus can be set visually in feet or meters with the displayed scales.

When the ring is turned to AF/MF mode the distance scale disappears. One can now choose to still focus the lens manually, or allow autofocus to do its thing. In the M position one can use the PUSH AF button to achieve instant autofocus. Two levels of Peaking are available on the LCD or EVF, to aid manual focusing, actuated by a Peaking button just beside the AF/MF switch. Peaking intensity can also be customized.

There are also two Magnify buttons, one on the top handle and the other on the right hand grip. These magnify the view in the EVF or LCD by 2X, an aid when manually focusing. Much appreciated is that one can shoot with magnified viewing turned on, something that some other cameras do not permit.

Now for the bad news. The manual zoom control is fly-by-wire, meaning that though it is manually actuated by rotating the ring, it is still performed by motors. This means that a quick twist of the ring has a noticeable lag. Regrettable.

There is a Push Auto Iris button, useful if you find yourself in manual iris mode and want to have the camera set the Iris quickly and automatically. Note that if the shutter is set to the ON position, which means that you are selecting the shutter speed (which you usually will want to do), there will be an aperture bar graph displayed on the LCD or EVF showing the aperture set, with the center being the camera's recommended setting.

As previously mentioned, there are three ND filter positions in addition to OFF, and a warning will appear in the viewfinder if you need to dial one in because the light level is too high or too low. You can also set the camera so that the aperture will not adjust below the lens' smallest aperture that will put the lens into diffraction. Very nice!

Speaking of which – the aperture that Canon regards as the beginning of diffraction is f/9.5. My sense is that it is actually around f/8, and so for the best resolution I would try and keep the aperture larger than this. F/5.6 appears to be this lens' sweet spot.

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Full Auto vs. Manual

There is a Full Auto switch which is handy for run-and-gun style shooting, where setting aperture, shutter speed, gain, white balance or anything else can get in the way of grabbing the shot.

Note that autofocus is not included in the Full Auto setting. This has to be set separately, and of course the mechanical ND filters will need to be dialed in as needed.

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White Balance

Of course there is a Auto White Balance position, but also two preset positions and the ability to set WB to defined points (Daylight and Tungsten) as well specific degrees Kelvin. There is a push WB button that not only sets the white point but also can program it into one of the two preset positions.

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Viewfinder and LCD

Both the LCD and the electronic viewfinder are truly excellent. The LCD found under the front of the top handle is a generous 4" in size, and swings both to the left and right of the camera, something not usually found in this price range. It has a resolution of 1.23 Megapixels.

The EVF has 1.55 Megapixel resolution and is similarly among the best that we've seen. It has a large rubber eyecup that is removable, very comfortable, and provides excellent light isolation. This is an EVF that really can be used for focusing.

There is a user option for using both the LCD and the EVF simultaneously (camera assistants will appreciate this), and each can also be set to B&W mode for viewing, which some users prefer.

My only complaint in this area is that the LCD does not fold flat – sideways against the camera body. It does fold out at 45 degrees though, which again will be appreciated by an assistant.

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Stabilization

There are three optical image stabilization modes – Standard, Dynamic, and Powered. Canon describes Standard as being appropriate for lower shake situations, Dynamic as best for when walking and shooting relatively wide, and Powered for when shooting hand held at long focal lengths. Powered is cautioned as not appropriate for when the camera is being panned or tilted.

There is a labeled IS button on the side of the camera which activates Standard IS by default. I was disappointed to note that to activate the other two IS modes one has to go into the menus. It would have made a lot of sense to have all three modes (including Off) be available as a cycle on the IS button, but that's not the case. (Canon does this cycling with the waveform and scope settings. Why not with IS?). Another design mystery.

Since I find myself using Powered mode most often I've programmed it into the IS button instead of Standard mode, and have placed all three modes onto the first three playback controls on the top handle.

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Picture Profiles

The XF300, as with all professional video cameras, allows for a broad range custom picture profile settings. The camera allows nine different profiles to be saved within the camera and a total of 20 profiles on the SD card that is used for this purpose. (The SD card slot is found in the hand grip).

There are three provided profiles (in addition to the camera's default settings), two of which are Cine Gamma settings. A huge number of image quality controls may also be set, including Gamma, Pedestal, Black Level, Black Gamma, Low Key Saturation, Knee, Sharpness, Noise Reduction, Skin Detail, Color Matrix and a wide variety of Color Correction parameters. The user manual does a pretty good job of describing each of these.

Picture Profiles as well as all non-mechanical camera settings may be saved to the SD card, but there's a gottcha. A big one!

Canon only allows one profile "file" to be saved to an SD card. This is fine for the Picture Profile settings, because up to 20 of them can be combined in a single saved setting. But the other camera settings can only be saved once.

Why Canon? Why? I need to be able to set the camera up for a variety of different shooting situations, from run-and-gun, to outdoor nature and landscape, to studio interviews, to low-light, to time lapse. Each of these requires numerous differing settings, which are time consuming to make and user-error prone when working quickly. Especially since you don't allow most of these to be programmed on custom buttons, even though you provide more than enough of them!?!?

My solution to this egregious design oversight on Canon's part is to buy a handful of inexpensive low capacity SD cards and save a different camera setup to each one. This is less error prone than doing a series of manual settings when working in a hurry, but wouldn't be necessary of Canon had done its design job properly.

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Scopes

Canon provides three different types of scopes on the XF300 – Waveform, Vectorscope and Edge Monitor. These are called up sequentially via the WFM button. When used properly these are very handy for evaluating and setting exposure, colour saturation and focus respectively. Each of the scopes can be configured to the user's needs.

These scopes do not show up on the EVF; only the LCD.

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Frame Rate Changes

The XF300 / 305 are able to shoot at both 1920 X 1080 and 1280 X 720 HD modes. In 1080 it does 60i, 30p, or 24p, and in 720 mode 60p, 30p and 24p.

One of the things that I greatly appreciate from an operational point of view is that the camera doesn't need to "re-boot", the way so many do when changing between HD modes, and also different mode footage can be mixed on the same card and played back in camera, again without rebooting or making any operational changes.

To anyone that regularly switches back and forth between modes, as I do, so that the superior temporal quality of 60p in 720 mode can be intermixed as slo-mo with 24P footage in 1080/24P, this flexibility of transition is something to be treasured and Canon is to be congratulated, because some other camera makers stumble on this.

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Shutter

Full control over shutter speed is available though a switch at the front left of the body. In the OFF position the camera will simply use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the frame rate – 1/60th sec in 60i, 1/30 sec in 30P and 1/24 sec in 24P. This is likely a switch position few will use.

In the Auto position the camera will set itself to a shutter speed between 1/24th to 1/60th, depending on the frame rate used, and 1/500 sec. If you like a non-filmic "TV" look then be my guest. But if you want motion to appear "natural" and more filmic then the next settings are for you.

These next four settings are – Speed, Angle, Clear Scan and Slow Shutter. Speed is probably the one you'll use most as it allows setting an appropriate shutter speed for the frame rate that you're using, This should usually be 2X the reciprocal of the frame rate, ie; 1/48 sec for 24FPS, 1/60 sec for 30 FPS, and 1/125 sec for 60 FPS. This creates the most appropriate motion cadence for each shutter speed, and is equivalent to a 180 degree shutter, which is the historical standard for film-based cinematography.

For those weaned on film cameras one can also set the shutter in degrees, between 11.25 degrees and 360 degrees, which is the same as setting a particular shutter speed, except that it's relative to the frame rate being used. So, for example, a 180 degree shutter can be set, and this will provide 1/48 sec at 24FPS and 1/125 sec at 60FPS without additional user intervention.

Clear Scan can be set between 60 Hz and 250Hz, and is used when filming a scene that has CRT monitors (remember those?) to avoid interference banding and flicker.

Finally, Slow Shutter allows setting a shutter speed between 1/4 second and 1/30 second, depending on frame rate, to allow for longer exposures in night shooting. Of course motion will be blurred, but for stationary set-ups or special situations it can be very effective.

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Special Recording Modes

There are four additional recording modes beyond those mentioned so far; Interval Recording, Frame Recording, Slow & Fast Motion and Pre Recording.

Interval Recording

This allows automated shooting of frames at fixed intervals. These include every 1 to 10 seconds in one second intervals, every ten seconds up to one minute in length, and once a minute up to every ten minutes. This is used for highly accelerated motion such as a flower blossom opening, clouds moving across the sky, star motion at night and the like.

Frame Recording

This mode allows recording from a single frame to a small group of frames every time the shutter is pressed (preferably remotely released to avoid camera shake). Useful for Claymation and other forms of animation.

Slow and Fast Motion

This allows shooting at a variable frame rate, between 12 FPS and 60 FPS while the camera is set to its desired frame rate. This then produces either slow motion or fast motion in your final footage, depending on whether this speed is faster or slower than your set shooting speed.

Note that speeds over 30 FPS can only be set when shooting in 1280X720 resolution.

Pre Recording

Pre Recording sets the camera so that it is constantly recording to a three second memory buffer. When you actually press the shutter release the camera starts recording from that moment but it also includes the previous three seconds. This way you can start shooting and still capture something that happened prior to pressing the shutter release.

Damn it Canon – why don't you allow settings like this to be assignable to buttons? Having to wade through menus for these controls is a crying shame on such an otherwise well designed camera.

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1/3" vs 1/2" Sensors

For some users it will be a disappointment that for all its goodness the XF300/305 uses 1/3" sensors. My response to them is – get over it.

2/3" and larger has been regarded as the sensor size required for full broadcast use. Over the past few years 1/2" has become accepted as providing full production level quality, with the Sony EX1 and its variants leading this charge.

But the FX300/305 uses 1/3" sensors, (though it should be noted, they are in good company along with some pretty terrific pro-level cameras such as the Panasonic HPS-370).

You'd think that this long into the digital revolution we'd have learned that yesterday's truths may not hold tomorrow. The rate of technological change is such that we can't simply make assumptions based on past experience. We'll often be proven wrong.

Canon chose to use 1/3" sensors knowing that they'd be up against the EX1's 1/2" sensors, but did it anyhow. The reason is clear, as will be seen when we do some side-by-side comparisons. By using smaller sensors Canon was able to use a smaller lens for equivalent coverage, with all of the ancillary benefits that this provides.

While it's true that a larger sensor (all other things being equal) will always trump a smaller one, unless the "other things" are indeed equal, all bets are off. Add a superior lens, a faster lens, better noise reduction, a higher bit rate, a more robust colour space, superior image processing, and it's possible to actually make a smaller sensor outperform a larger one.

Has Canon pulled this off? We'll soon see. But I will mention what is so often overlooked in both still and video digital comparisons. Image quality is a composite of factors, and just comparing specs, or one feature or another, tells us nothing useful. Not to stress an analogy, but the best cookies result not just from the use of quality ingredients, but as importantly how well they are baked together.

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Audio

The XF300/305 has a built-in stereo microphone in the handle and also a mount for a shotgun style mike (not provided). The mount is worth mentioning because it has two notable aspects, one positive, one negative. The good news is that the holder's mount is designed to "give" when stressed, which means that the rough-and-tumble in the field that the protruding mic usually receives will likely not break it off.

The bad news is that the mount is designed for large diameter mics, not the narrow ones most people use. It's easy enough to insert a bit of foam rubber to make a fit, but Canon should have designed this with a bit of forethought for the gear that people actually use.

There are two balanced XLR connectors, and each of these can be set to Off / Line / Phantom Power, and Line One and Two can each be set to internal or external input. Pretty standard stuff.

The mic level settings are well designed though, with two small setting wheels, and a lever for each that has On / Auto and Lock positions. This is a much more clever design that the guarded wheels which are so often difficult to set and all to easy to accidentally mis-set.

On the audio front my only complaint is that when the "Instant Reply" button is pressed there is no audio from the headphone jacks – video only is displayed. Why? I want to be able to review the audio as well as the video. Is the audio not equally important? This is a major boo boo on Canon's part.

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Batteries

The camera comes with a 5,200 MAh battery. It is claimed to provide between 185 and 355 minutes of either playback or recording at maximum data rate. There is a larger accessory battery, the 7,800 mAh BP-975, which I recommend as the preferred choice for a second battery because of its extra capacity. Both of these batteries are of a new "intelligent" design, which allows the camera to accurately forecast remaining capacity, charge state, and which have four LEDs embedded to show the state of charge when outside the camera.

Previous XL series batteries may also be used, the BP-950G and BP-970G, but these do not have the "intelligent" features of the new batteries.

One of the things that I appreciate about the XF300/305 design is that the batteries fit within a closed compartment at the rear of the camera (even the largest ones). This is an esthetic issue as much as anything else, but I imagine that there is an extra element of water and dust resistance along with this design choice. Many competitive camera have their batteries simply hanging off the back.

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Gain and Sensitivity

I measured the XF300 as having a sensitivity equivalent of ISO 125 at 0db gain. This is quite low for a pro-grade camcorder, but is to be expected given the use of 1/3" sensors.

Camera makers are, of course, free to declare 0db at whatever level they wish. Usually this is at the sensor's lowest sensitivity level. Though the XF300/305 display a very clean image at 0db, as can be seen in the test clip linked below, -6db is even cleaner, which therefore means that the camera's true native sensitivity is about ISO 64.

It's a testament to Canon's noise reduction prowess that in most shooting situations even +6db (ISO250) is seen by most viewers as very clean.


Click the above to see a comparison of the
-6db, 0db and +6db settings on the XF300
in a new window.

In mid to highlight tones there is little real-world difference between these three settings. But if you look carefully at the dark bottle in the bottom-center of the frame you can clearly see the difference that these settings make.

Also have a look at this noise level comparison between the XF300 and the Sony EX1, as described later in this review. What is seen is that the XF series appear to have about a one stop noise advantage over the EX cameras, at the same numeric gain setting. So, if you ignore the gain numbers and simply go by comparable noise characteristics at various sensitivity settings one can argue that the Canon and the Sony are roughly matched in terms of noise when used at similar light levels.

After our testing I found that by setting the FX300 so that gain switch position L is -6db, M is 0db, and H is +6db I am able to handle a decent range of light conditions at the flick of a switch, and all without any need to be concerned about noise, and with a reduced need to dial ND filters in and out.

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Wait – There's More

Canon's years in the tapeless camcorder wilderness paid off. They've added just about every desirable feature that other manufacturers have, and a few more besides. A few of these, in addition to everything listed above are...

Face Detection

For run-and-gun shooters face detection may be just the ticket. I have not used it (here or on any stills camera), as it just isn't something that I need for the type of work that I do, but it may be worth a try in some situations, and there's no harm in having it available for when needed.

Stills

If you program one of the 13 programmable buttons to be a Stills button then you can take a still photograph while filming. You can also do this when playing back footage, also using the Photo button on the included wireless remote control. Stills shot will be the same resolution as the video – no hokey interpolation applied. You can do that in Photoshop later if you wish, or need to. Stills are saved to the SD card.

Scan Reverse

If you are using a 35mm DOF image converter such as a Letus or SGBlade you'll appreciate that the XF300 has a "Scan Reverse" feature under Custom Functions, so that the image will be horizontally and vertically reversed. This save the need to purchase a version with a prism inverter, saving money.

The list goes on, but that's enough for now. If you want to learn about all of the camera's features, big and small, you can download the manual.

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Performance and a Comparison with the Sony EX-1

There's little doubt that the XF300/305 are excellent cameras. Canon didn't wait three years to produce something less that the best it could, and the BBC didn't certify the cameras within a week of their first shipment without first satisfying itself as to their excellence.

But, anyone looking for a camera in this price and feature range will invariably compare them to the Sony CineAlta EX series, which have dominated this market segment for the past few years. This is especially true since the EX have 1/2" sensors, and inquiring minds want to know how they stack up against the 1/3" sensors in the XF series.

Chris and I have owned a couple of EX1s almost since they first appeared, and have been using them to produce our travel documentaries and training videos. Chris in particular is very familiar with these camera's features and foibles, and after having spent countless thousands of hours editing their footage, produced in conditions ranging from the studio to the outdoors, and from Antarctica to the Namibian Desert, he is also very familiar with their handling and the footage that they produce.

In mid-July Chris and I spent a day shooting a variety of subjects to try and discover how these cameras compared under a range of shooting situations, subject and light conditions. We compared the cameras in a number of different ways, some objective and some subjective.

But, as I've discovered over the years, doing camera comparisons (still and video) for magazines and the web is a mug's game. No matter how carefully one sets up a comparison, someone will find fault with it. Why didn't you do this? Why did you leave that out? You're a biased ass because....

So, after reviewing much footage, realizing all of the things that we did right, as well as wrong, I've decided to only show a small number of comparisons, though I'll report anecdotally on what we saw.

Handling

This is, of course, highly subjective. Chris has been cursing the hand-holdability of the EX1 from day one. It's unbalanced in the worst way. Now, we know that the new EX1R has addressed this to a great extent, but we don't own one of these, since we already have two early model EX1s. I suggest that you try both brands for yourselves to see how they feel in your hands.

The XF300 is a larger camera than the EX1. It also weighs 5.8lbs vs the Sony's 5.25lbs. Yet remarkably, it feels lighter, possible because of its better balance.

Control interface is a highly subjective matter. Both camera's have their strengths and their weaknesses. I've been very critical in the preceding review of some of Canon's design decisions. You'd think that with three years to observe what the competition was doing they'd have refined the user interface of the XF300/305 even more than they have.

The EX1 also has its own foibles, but this isn't the place to innumerate them. There's lots available online about this elsewhere.

Resolution and Lens Quality

Both cameras produce very high resolution images, but those from the Canon subjectively have an edge over the Sony. But. without shooting resolution charts this can't be validated. In any event, I shoot the real world, not lens charts, and when judged on a 30" Cinemadisplay or a 46" Panasonic plasma screen images from the XF300 are hands-down the highest resolution that I've yet seen.

Pixel peepers may wish to do their own comparisons.

Though we didn't do any side-by-side comparisons for issues such as flare or CA, the Canon certainly appears to be first rate in every observable lens characteristic. There is some barrel distortion at the wide end and a bit of CA on the XF300, but that's understood in a lens this wide.

Picture Quality

Picture quality is a catch-all that encompasses not just lens performance but also colour rendering, noise, dynamic range, sensitivity and more. Not having a testing lab at our disposal it's only possible to discuss this in the broadest terms, because these factors are so closely intertwined when it comes to subjective evaluation that they're hard to separate.

We should also point out that with so many factors influencing overall image quality, it was hard to know whether to use custom picture profiles on each of the cameras when doing comparisons. Chris' experience with the Sony EX1 is that its unmodified rendering isn't that great (to his eye) and that a custom profile is almost a must to get the best possible picture.

The XF300 has only been on the market for a short while, and I know of no Custom Profiles that are available, unlike for the EX1, for which there are a great many. The only Canon profile that I'm aware of is the one suggested in Alan Robert's BBC test report, and frankly it produces a flat looking image – very good for serious grading, but not that appealing out of the camera. I'm getting used to it, because like a raw files with stills it allows for a high degree of control in post processing.

So – what to do? In the end we decided that we would compare both cameras without profiles. Each camera was set to its default rendering – for better or worse.

Both cameras were set to the same numeric colour temperature, measured off a gray card, and exposure was set so that zebra was just visible at 80% on the same part of the frame. Shutter was set to 1/48 sec (for 24FPS) and this lead to us confirming what others have seen – that the Sony EX1 seems to have about a one stop advantage in sensitivity at 0DB gain – if you go by manufacturer's settings.


Click the above for a brief comparison of the
XF300 and the EX1 at 0db, +6db, and +12db gain
in a new window.

The test footage linked above should speak for itself. At 0db the cameras are quite comparable. At +6db the Canon is slightly cleaner than the Sony, and at +12Ddb noticeably so. For this reason I would judge the EX1's greater sensitivity (due to its larger sensors) to be effectively countered by Canon's superior noise reduction. No significant difference in dynamic range was noted, in this or other tests.

But, even at 0db there is some noise in both camera's images, especially in the quarter tones. This caused me to investigate the -6db setting on the XF300, which indeed did generate a slightly cleaner image. (This can be seen in noise level test clip shown earlier).

I've therefore decided to program my camera with the Gain switch's L setting to -6db, M to 0 db and H to +6db. The lower setting not so much for its very slight noise improvement but also as a way of avoiding having to dial in ND to keep a wide aperture for narrower DOF, and to avoid diffraction in bright light conditions. And, +6db is, in my opinion, clean enough not to worry about, and I would even use +9db in many instances without needing any noise removal. The XF300 is that clean.

Other Factors

We tested sensitivity to "flashing" issues when footage is shot in the presence of electronic flash (such as at a concert), and both cameras display it. What concerns some people is that CMOS sensors, because of the way that they scan the image tend to show a partially flashed frame, which is less appealing than a completely flashed one.

Shooting at a slow shutter speed (1/48th sec) makes this much less of an issue, and neither camera showed this to be a particular problem. At higher shutter speeds it might be, but our perspective is that this is not something to be overly concerned about for most shooters.

Image skewing is another negative characteristic of CMOS sensors, and our tests showed both cameras to be comparable in this regard. Unless a fast shutter speed is used, motion strobing is likely to be far more noticeable artifact than skewing (jello), and good cinematographers know how to cope with this in any event. Not something that we worry about overly.

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The Bottom Line

The Canon XF300 and XF305 are excellent new entries in the medium-cost pro-level camcorder marketplace. Their combination of features, image quality and build quality make them a very strong competitor against comparable offerings from Sony, Panasonic and JVC.

Like all products, they're not perfect. Canon is to be praised for producing such a well-rounded and high performing product in the light of the strong competition. But, they are to be roundly criticized for some of their more obvious oversights, such as the lack of aperture markings, no audio during instant review, the truly dreadful On/Off switch, and some of the other user interface deficiencies noted above. Canon isn't alone in producing great products that also have glaring flaws. All camera maker are guilty of this – it's just now Canon's turn to have their feet held to the fire.

What's truly amazes me is the question – what was Canon doing during its three years in the tapeless camcorder wilderness? It's not exactly as if the XF300/305 were rushed to market. Surely Canon had the time to show some prototypes and pre-production samples to a few cinematographers for comment. Didn't they?

Now, with that off my chest I can report that after testing the review sample of the XF305, we decided to buy an XF300, primarily for Michael's personal use in producing future documentary videos. Why? Simply because notwithstanding some design errors the camera's overall image quality is stunning. The lens especially is a winner.

Chris will continue to use our two EX1s, because as good as the new Canon cameras are, they aren't that much better than the Sonys as to make trading-in worthwhile. At least not for another couple of years, and then who knows what will be available? RED might even have shipped the Scarlet by then :-)

The real bottom line is that after testing, we decided to spend our own money on an XF300. Product reviews doesn't get much more affirmative that that.

____________________________________________________________________________________

What's Next, & What About Scarlet, Video DSLRs,
and The Large Sensor Camcorders Coming Later This Year?

No one doubts the remarkable effect that the RED One camera has had on the video and film production marketplace. This camera has revolutionized the production industry, and deservedly so. But this is a much higher-end segment of the market than competes with cameras like the XF300.

But the long-promised Scarlet would likely have been right on the money, if it wasn't still missing in action. RED has now tuned down the hype machine and gone very quiet about the Scarlet, so it's hard to know when (if?) it will come to market. It looks to be priced competitively with cameras like the XF300 and EX1, but until its actually purchasable and can be tested and compared, it's a chimera at best.

Panasonic and Sony have recently both announced large sensor (4/3 and APS-C) sensor professional camcorders to become available before year's end. How they shape up in terms of image quality and features is an exciting prospect to consider. Certainly their much large sensors will give film makers the shallow depth of field that they are after for narrative film making, but at the cost of much larger, heavier and more expensive lenses as compared to 1/3" and 1/2" sensor cameras. Because of their much shallower DOF these will also be much more difficult to shoot with for non-narrative projects. There is no free lunch.

Keep in mind as well that while shallow DOF is attractive for narrative movie making it is not always what videographers want. In the documentary, news, corporate, and event markets its often the exact opposite that is needed – deep depth of field.

As for video DSLRs, they will continue to have their place for film makers who want shallow DOF for story telling purposes, but will be quickly supplanted by real large sensor camcorders beginning early next year. The cost of the accessories needed to make DSLRs work in a production environment will likely add up to the cost of a dedicated large sensor camcorder, and with a lot more bulk. Amateurs without the need for production-featured gear will of course continue to use them. Video capable DSLRs will therefore continue to appeal whenever their small size and low cost are part of the shooting and purchasing equation.

There are a great many choices currently available in video cameras, depending on ones needs and budget. The Canon XF300 and XF305 fill a valuable niche in today's marketplace and are strong competitors against what's currently on the market. As for tomorrow? We'll see. But tomorrow is coming very soon.

August, 2010

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About Michael Reichmann and Chris Sanderson

Michael Reichmann is the founder and primary author of this site, and needs little introduction to regular readers. You can read more about him here. But in addition to his familiar CV as a still photographer, author, and educator, readers might be interested to know something about his background in the video and motion picture industry.

Michael worked for nine years on staff at CBC Television in Toronto during the early days of the introduction of colour television. He subsequently worked for several years in the feature film industry. Following this he was the first Product Manager for JVC Video in Canada, and then Canadian Marketing Manager for several years in the professional video division of Panasonic in Canada.

Chris Sanderson has been a commercial film and video director for more than thirty years and has won numerous awards. Chris has spent most of his career making television commercials for N. America and Europe. He was awarded a Gold Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival in 1981, and became well-known for multiple award-winning work with children and animals. His work has interrupted regular programming in many countries and languages.

Among his non-commercial directing work, Christopher directed the '92 EMMY-nominated Alligator Pie, a 50 minute Children's Special aired on the CBC. The show was also a GEMINI nominee and won the Best Production for Children at the Yorkton Festival in 1992.

Since 2000 Chris has been the producer of The Luminous Landscape's Video Journal, a video magazine now on its 19th edition, and also all of LuLa's numerous training and video tutorials. Chris also has extensive experience as both a camera operator and editor, with particular expertise in Final Cut Pro.

Chris currently uses a pair of Sony EX-1s for production of Lula's commercial videos. Between them Michael and Chris currently also own and use several other video cameras including a Sony SR12, Panasonic TM700, and JVC HM100. A Canon 7D and Panasonic GH1 (Mod 13) are also used for shallow DOF work.

 


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Concepts: Camera, Shutter speed, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Photographic lens, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Camcorder, Aperture

Entities: this reason, the Sonys, Panasonic, BBC, JVC, Apple, Sandisk, sec, PUSH, EVF, UDMA, Chris, a commercial film and video director, Michael, Stills, mike, Michael Reichmann, Lula, Christopher, Alan Robert, SD card, frame rate, focus ring, White Balance, NLE, Bit Rate, AVCHD, remote control, Auto White Balance, image processing, wireless remote, CMOS, Canada, US, SD, HD, Toronto, CBC, Yorkton Festival, HM100, Europe, America, Antarctica, Namibian Desert

Tags: cameras, card, sensor, button, video, shutter speed, image, sd card, camcorder, sony, standard, frame rate, aperture, camera maker, mode, image quality, video cameras, market, CMOS sensors, profiles, footage, show, minutes, design, picture profiles, gain switch, nd filters, noise reduction, data rate, Sony EX1, small, xf camera, zoom, camera settings, pro-level cameras, cf cards, film makers, slow shutter, large sensor, 1920-1080p cmos sensors