Review: Canon XF105 4:2:2 HD Camcorder
Posted May 31, 2011

Canon XF105Canon's second pair of MXF camcorders, the XF105 and XF100, shrink the size but keeps most of the features of their big brothers, the XF305 and XF305. As a follow-up to our review of the XF300 last October, here we'll take an in-depth look at the XF105. With the ability to customize the colorimetry of most any camcorder these days, what else does the XF105 bring to the production table? Among its many selling points are 50Mbps 4:2:2 recording, good audio control, and plenty of ways to directly access the most used features while you are shooting. Does the XF105 strike a good balance between "big features" and a "small camcorder?" Let's find out.

A True Pro Camcorder
When I reviewed the XF300, I was very impressed by the features, and the low-light performance the big lens provided in a mid-sized pro camcorder in the XL H1 tradition. The dramatically smaller XF100/105 is still a professional camcorder through and through- not a souped-up version of a consumer camcorder, which all the major manufacturers also offer.

The key differences between the XF100 and the XF105 are the addition of two BNC jacks on the XF105, which offer HD-SDI output and timecode/genlock capability. The XF300 and XF305 are distinguished by the same jacks. I had an XF105, but everything I tested applies to the XF100.

Moreover, with today's push for 3D, the XF100/105 also introduces the ability to use the optical image stabilizer as a 3D interocular adjustment for using two XF100/105s together. Unfortunately, I received only one of these camcorders so I was not able to test the 3D production capabilities of the XF105. But Canon has also offered an upgrade to the XF300/305 to enable those camcorders to do the same thing. This demonstrates the ability of these camcorders to be enabled with new features, and that Canon stands behind the XF series as professional production tools.

Hardware
When I took the diminutive XF105 out of the box, I was surprised both by how small it is, but how solid it feels in my hand. Even "suited up" at less than 3 lbs., it's clear this is not a consumer toy. The XLR/mic head is well thought out, the top handle features both a cold shoe and a 1/4"-20 thread hole for accessories. The eyepiece on the back makes the camcorder usable in bright situations, but I was not satisfied with the resolution (260,000 pixels), or the clarity of the viewfinder optics. The 920,000-pixel LCD screen, however, is beautiful. If you can use the glossy screen without glare issues, it offers excellent clarity and detail and copious camera information, which you can, of course, customize in the menus.

Canon XF105

The XF105's beautiful 920,000-pixel LCD screen

The XF105 features no fewer than 10 "numbered" user-assignable buttons, and an additional user-customizable button/dial combo. In addition, the single ring around the lens can be set for focus, zoom, or iris. Add to this the 26 other buttons and switches on the camera's compact body (not counting two zoom rockers) and you see that Canon has applied its experience making pro camcorders extends to this little guy. And as with the XF300, Canon has ditched the "mode dial" from its design vernacular, and that's a good thing.

Along the bottom left edge of the camcorder are separate buttons that make it easy to engage manual functions, as needed, while shooting. From front to back, you can toggle focus, iris, gain, shutter, and white balance. This is a capability I've always loved in the Sony camcorders I've had: I can be in the middle of a shot and tap any button to let the camera help me out. This simply wasn't possible with Canon's mode dial.

On the back edge you can toggle image stabilization, zebra, and a waveform scope. These back edge buttons, though labeled, can be changed to something you find you need more. The only issue I have with the customizability is that it applies to only a small selection of features that the camera offers. The list of customizable features includes Image Stabilizer, Powered IS, Focus Limit, Face AF, Select Face, Backlight, Spotlight, Tele-converter, peaking, zebra, WFM, magnification, TL-H58 (telephoto lens), WD-H58W (wide-angle lens), color bars, IR monochrome, IR light, markers, LCD setup, LCD/VF B&W, onscreen display, shot mark 1, shot mark 2, add OK mark, add check mark, timecode, timecode hold, audio output channel, audio level, wireless controller, photo, delete last clip, and status.

One other nit I have to pick concerns the little media doors. While the I/O ports have nice rubber covers, and the overall feel of the camcorder is pretty rugged, the little plastic doors that cover the CF cards, and the SD card, do not instill the same feeling of durability or protection. There are visible gaps around the doors where water, dust, dirt, other debris can get into the important electronic areas of the camcorder. This just seems out of place on what is otherwise a very solid-feeling camera. I expected rubber-gasketed doors with a solid seal when closed.

The XF105's handgrip is great. It's big and solid. But even with the decent 2450 mAh battery, the lens and XLR housing pulled the weight of the grip forward. Add a wide-angle or telephoto lens and you will certainly feel the torque on your wrist over time. Just once, I'd like to see a camcorder come "back-heavy" so that when we add a lens, barn doors, XLR accessories, a light, and so forth, it then becomes balanced.

There's a bevy of I/O on this little camcorder: In addition to the XF105's HD/SD-SDI, and Genlock/TC BNC jacks, both the XF100 and XF105 have HDMI out, XLR audio and 1/8" audio inputs, Component out, Composite AV out, USB I/O, and a remote jack that is LANC-compatible. More on the USB jack later.

Lastly, Canon offers add-on hardware accessories including a replacement screw thread plate, and the add-on Tripod Adapter TA-100. The company has offered this on many of their pro camcorders for years, and I think it's a worthwhile investment because it mates with the front of the slide-in plate for many other professional on-shoulder camcorders—enabling secure, solid, and fast lockdown of the camcorder. I find this much more reassuring than a single 1/4"-20 threaded bolt.

Lens
The XF105's integrated 10x lens does well. It's nowhere near as big and impressive as the XF300's 18x light-sucking hunk of glass, but it does pretty well on its own. The major limiting factor here is the 10x zoom factor. Aside from Canon's 3x wide lens for the XL series camcorders, I think this 10x is one of the shortest zoom lenses Canon has put into a professional camcorder.

Canon XF105

The XF105's integrated 10x lens

Though it is 30mm-304mm in 35mm terms, I've seen smaller camcorders offer longer reach (Panasonic's 16x DVC30 comes to mind). But I'm sure that Canon struck the best balance possible between the optical quality and size constraints. For shooters who must have a larger lens, there's the much larger XF300.

But what the XF105's lens lacks in reach, it makes up for in capability. Canon augments the normal optical image stabilization with a "powered" mode, and it's amazing. Handheld shots zoomed all the way in look like tripod shots with the Powered IS.

Canon XF105

Along the bottom left edge of the camcorder are handy buttons that make it easy to engage manual functions while shooting, including Iris, Gain, and Shutter.

The camcorder's light gathering ability is also good. Starting at f1.8, it scales smoothly up to f2.8 at the telephoto end. It revealed no portholing in my use-meaning this zoom range avoids the pitfalls of serious image degradation if they tried to push it to a 12x or 14x.

The XF105 features several autofocus modes as well as a full manual (servo) mode. But most interesting is that the autofocus allows manual override. By this I mean that when I was shooting B-roll and the camcorder picked the wrong item to focus on, I just grabbed the focus ring and twisted it to focus on what I waned to see sharply. No need to toggle between manual and auto. This is very convenient and much appreciated.

When I enabled the colored "peaking" to clearly define what was in focus, I was able to tone the color down from the default and this enabled me to see, with red highlights, what was in crisp focus according to the camcorder. Unless you're looking at the image pixel for pixel on a fairly big external monitor, any little LCD monitor will give you only an approximation of what is actually in focus. Only the image-processing chip in the camera knows for sure where the sharpest contrast is, and the Peaking effect lets that chip tell you where the focus is.

To provide a point of comparison from elsewhere in the prosumer HD camcorder world, I pitted the XF105 against my Sony HDR-FX1. In the resolution test, I pointed both cameras at a well-lit resolution chart. Unfortunately, what the two cameras showed on their LCD monitors, and what they actually recorded, was slightly different, so the images do not match precisely. But you couldn't compare the two cameras' resolution anyway since HDV-based FX1 records less resolution, only 1440x1080-compared to the XF-105's 1920x1080-and with half the XF105's 50Mbps data rate.

But you can still glean several things from this chart. First is that the XF105, while using a considerably smaller lens than the FX1, does leverage the full-resolution chip and higher data rate to record more real resolution. The CMOS-based XF-105's rendering of the horizontal and vertical plumes is not only cleaner and crisper, it extends further and then fades nicely into a wash of gray.

Canon XF105

Resolution chart comparing the 1920x1080 CMOS HD footage from the XF105 with 1440x1080 CCD HDV footage

There's little to no color fringing in either image, and only the circles in the bottom right show moire rearing its ugly head-with the diagonal portion of the circle lines on the XF105's CMOS chip, and with the vertical portion of the circle lines on the FX1's CCD. The CCD's problem is also clear in the top-right test: The tightest vertical lines get the color moire treatment.

The XF105's CMOS chip does show rolling shutter as demonstrated by similar fast pans executed on both cameras. I had to increase the shutter on each camera to 1/250 in order to get a crisper shot because the image at 1/60 was just a blur. While the CMOS chip does "slant the truth," the distortion is not excessive-meaning that you have to work a bit to make it happen.

You can also take note of the fast image change wreaking havoc with the HDV compression in the top half of the image. The top part of the fence is riddled with compression artifacts. There's excessive color blocking in the green of the tree as well. In the lower portion of the comparison image, you can see that doubling the data rate for the MPEG-2 stream to 50Mbps does wonders for the image. There's a fine grain to the XF100's image, but it more looks like film grain and there's no JPEG blockiness that I can see.

Canon XF105

Fast-pan comparison between CCD-based HDV from the FX1 and CMOS-based HD from the XF105

Audio

The XF105's built-in stereo head also has two XLR jacks and a bevy of audio adjustments for auto or manual adjustment, line level, mic level, and phantom power, and the ability to individually select the built-in microphone or the XLR jack for each channel. There is more audio adjustment in the menu system. Metering was conveniently shown on the LCD, and there's a dedicated headphone jack in addition to AV, HDMI, and SDI outputs.

The best part is that this camcorder, barely larger than a DSLR, outputs video on all four outputs simultaneously. You can also enable and disable the onscreen data as you see fit. You can manually set the component and SDI to HD or SD. However, HDMI settings are negotiated with the monitor you connect. If the HDMI goes to SD, the SDI will also be SD. When converting from HD to SD, you can choose Squeeze, Letterbox, or Side Crop. The conversion setting appears to be one setting for all SD outputs.

The XF105 conveniently allows you to individually choose your audio, like a wireless external input on Channel 1 and the built-in mic on Channel 2. But if you plug any audio into the 1/8" jack, that's all you get. The entire XLR/built-in mic block on the camcorder is cut off. With such a small camcorder, I was hoping for individual channel flexibility without having to use big XLR plugs and cables. That wasn't the case. So I brought the XLR adapter for my wireless mic, and a wired lav. Though it looked a little funny with all that stuff hanging off the front of the handle, the PCM audio the XF105 recorded was clean and clear.

Canon XF105

Selectable audio channels on the XF105

The menus let you activate a limiter so hot signals won't clip into distortion. You can even boost or pad the native sensitivity of the jacks ±12dB. You can set one input to go to both channels, so you can record one input at two levels (further protecting it from clipping, or a high noise floor). And, lastly, because the video you see on the camcorder's LCD screen is delayed from real life because of compression time, the XF105 lets you delay the audio you hear so it is in sync with the image on the camcorder's screen, or you can leave it alone so you don't hear an echo from what's occurring in the room.

The other audio issue that bugged me was that adjusting headphone audio level is buried in the menus. Assigning a button to that task means you merely call up that menu. Then you have to move your hand around the camcorder and use the 4-way pointer on the LCD screen to actually adjust the volume up or down. This is unnecessarily convoluted.

When I delved into this further, I found that there is no physical volume control for the headphone monitor output by default. I could assign the small front dial to be the volume control, but that would leave me without a dedicated iris control. I could switch the focus ring to iris control, but then I would lose manual focus. It's an annoying "give and take" that could be avoided.

Volume control is already assignable, so it would be great to have the ability to assign "volume up" and "volume down" to individual buttons of my choice. Since there are 6 assignable buttons that come empty, there are plenty to choose from. This way, I keep my separate iris control, separate focus on the lens ring, zoom on the rocker. And, without ever entering a menu, I could tap button 7 to turn up the volume and button 10 to lower it. In the "deck control" button area, button 7 is right over 10. They are easy to find by feel, and direct manipulation makes it easy to adjust what I hear.

Lastly, even with Sony V6 over-the-ear headphones, I could not get the headphone volume appreciably louder than the room audio coming direct to my ears. Even at its maximum, the headphone volume is just not loud enough for my tastes. If you're in a noisy situation and trying to critically assess the audio from a distant wireless lav, you'd better get some sound isolating, in-ear headphones.

Menus
The XF105 has a comprehensive menu system that bears a lot of resemblance to the one in the XF300/305. This is another example of the XF100/105's pro-camcorder lineage, as opposed to other small camcorders, which grow up from consumer camcorders, and get a few professional features grafted onto the existing menus. Those hybrid menu systems are confusing and often make you change settings in two different places. In particular, when I reviewed the JVC HM100 in February 2010, I found that format changes forced you to reboot the camera. The Canon XF105 let me change the camera to any format, frame rate, or data rate and, in the blink of an eye, it was ready to shoot.

Speaking of blinking eyes, one menu item that caught my eye is the face detection. Just like with still cameras, a box appears around a face that the camera recognizes and the camcorder focuses on that face. Considering how much video primarily shows people talking, this is a fantastic feature. I've enabled it, it works, and I leave it on.

Canon XF105

The XF105's face detection feature

That's just one of several innovative features in this little camcorder. Another is the ability to simultaneously record your footage onto two different CF cards at the same time. This is excellent for the freelance shooter who needs to hand off footage as soon as the shoot is done, or on a big shoot where having a backup is critical. It takes a moment to get used to both CF activity lights going red for record, but it soon becomes comforting. And there's no external box required to do it-how's that for convenience?

You can also shoot at a different frame rate than you record. So if you want slow motion, you can shoot 720p60 at 50Mbps, but record that into a 720p24 file. This gives you clean, in-camera, true slow motion. Unfortunately, the p60-to-p24 conversion is possible only when shooting 1280x720, not 1920x1080. You can also shoot as few as 12 frames per second; this may come in handy for those who are shooting the next pirates movie and want their swashbuckling hero to appear to fence faster than he did while doing it safely in front of the camera.

I used this camcorder on a NASA-TV shoot in Florida. I was far from the office, but I expected to shoot only 30 minutes of interviews and some B-roll. So I brought only the battery for power. The launch was scrubbed, and there was a press conference. I had the opportunity to download the NASA-TV conference about the scrubbed launch to my camcorder as a HD QuickTime file. I connected the camcorder to the computer on site and was stymied to find that unless the AC was connected to the camcorder, I couldn't write data to the media cards, only read them. There ought to be a menu item to defeat this protection when I really need it in the field.

Image
In terms of in-camera color profiles, I counted a boggling 77 adjustable items for white balance, black balance, noise reduction, color matrix, skin detail, sharpness, knee, and the like. Truth be told, I'd expect most people either to find a basic setting they like right out of the camcorder, or find a "flat" profile on the web and load it into the camera for heavy grading in post. If you want to try to grade your footage in-camera, you can, but I think it's quite possibly the most difficult way to do it. There's so much good software to do this so easily in post-and what's more, with this approach you really utilize the full 4:2:2 data you are collecting in camera.

I tested the XF105's 4:2:2, 50Mbps stream in a very simple way: I exposed a face brighter and brighter until most cameras would have been clipping the skin tones, and then I did some simple grading in post to bring the face back down to normal levels. Compared to 4:2:0 HDV, would the XF handle the "crush" better, and would the 4:2:2 recording give me more color detail to recover the face out of the highlights?

Well, I think the results speak for themselves. Not only did the skin tones not crush, as is typical of HDV camcorders in this price range, but when I graded the blown face back to 65 IRE, it fared many times better than did the same face shot on HDV. Sure, the XF105 is no Alexa, RED, or F23. But it is a complete 50Mbps 4:2:2, full HD camcorder priced at $3,000. The only thing that may beat it is a DSLR, but I think DSLR users know that by the time they add the accessories to do what this camcorder does out of the box, they've blown well past $3,000.

Canon XF105

Image comparison of 4:2:0 HDV footage from the FX1 and 4:2:2 HD footage from the XF105 at 86 IRE, graded to 66 IRE

What the XF100/105 and XF300/305 don't provide is that shallow depth of field that many independent moviemakers crave to give them the "feature film" look. While Canon was the company that pushed DSLR filmmaking with the release of the 5D Mark II in early 2009, only Sony and Panasonic have put large chips into new camcorders. Canon is eerily quiet. We can only hope that this means that there will be a high-end XF camcorder that features a DSLR chip, with all the other camcorder features we need, without requiring to add on a half-dozen accessories to make it just as usable for field production.

Conclusion
Aside from the 10x lens, the XF105 features everything I'd want in a camcorder I'd purchase to replace my HDV field production gear. I've been facilitating quick-turnaround shoots with an external FireStore recorder, and keeping the HDV tape as the archive till the project was finished editing and delivered. But now with dual in-camera media recording (now also available in the XF300/305 with a firmware upgrade), these camcorders deliver full HD recording, all HD formats, in-camera fast and slow motion recording, and dual flash media recording.

The instant and easy access to toggle between manual and automatic for focus, iris, gain, shutter, and white balance all along one line on the camcorder is something I've long become used to. Add the amazing Powered IS, zebra, waveform, and all the other features I mentioned in such a compact package as the XF105-all without burying the battery inside a door like the XF300/305-and I'm sold.

If it weren't for all this HDV tape I have archived ... you'd see my HDV camcorder on eBay before this review even goes to print.

Anthony Burokas (VidPro at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications has shot award-winning corporate video internationally and recorded events since the days of 3/4" tape. He is currently technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America and resides just outside of Dallas.