The HD DSLR Killer?

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Way back in 1997 (light years in the digital video world), Canon released a landmark camera, the XL-1. The three-CCD, standard-def camcorder was wildly popular with indie filmmakers who were drawn to professional features like interchangeable lenses, a high-quality viewfinder and XLR inputs—all in an affordable priced-to-own package. In the low-budget filmmaking world, it was the “industry-standard” camcorder to make movies with.

Flash-forward to 2008 with Canon releasing the XH A1 handheld HDV camcorder, which was used to great effect by filmmakers Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine on Crank: High Voltage (2009). Working with a mid-sized studio budget with cameras you could purchase at Best Buy, the filmmakers were able to deliver high-energy, high-quality HD that held up reasonably well on movie screens.

The Canon XF300 is a tapeless camera with a fixed lens that captures full 1920×1080 resolution. It contains a new MPEG-2, 50 Mb/s, 4:2:2 codec.

But things have changed. In the past year or so, Canon has turned the camcorder industry on its head by leading the HD DSLR revolution. Many indie filmmakers (including myself) sold their traditional camcorders and bought Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs and EOS 7Ds to capture cinematic images because of their monster-sized sensors. If you can work around the limitations of the HD DSLR system, some feel the images captured can almost rival film. Because of this, camcorders containing small, 1/3-inch-sized sensors have taken a back seat, and it might just take a blockbuster camcorder to steal the spotlight back from the HD DSLR.

Unlike Sony (who seems to deliver multiple camcorders every year), Canon has moved a little slower in the professional camcorder space. At this year’s NAB, Canon presented its latest professional camcorder—the new XF300—a tapeless camcorder with a fixed lens that delivers full HD (1920×1080) resolution, contains an exciting new codec and captures data to CompactFlash cards. Like the XH A1/G1 before it, the XF300 has a brother, the XF305, which has HD-SDI output, genlock input and SMPTE time code input/output terminals that allow the camera to be used for live events and multi-cam shooting.

"In the past year or so, Canon has turned the camcorder industry on its head by leading the HD DSLR revolution."

So is it a blockbuster? I recently had the opportunity to shoot with a Canon XF300, and the camcorder didn’t disappoint. Still, a lot of Canon users were a bit disappointed to learn that Canon wasn’t employing a larger sensor inside the camera. One of the reasons it didn’t use a larger sensor—such as a 1?2-inch CMOS—was because Canon wanted to employ a longer 18x lens. Fixed lenses on larger-chip models tend to be shorter (typically, a 13x lens) and aren’t as fast.