Canon XF205 Camcorder Excels at Manual Shooting

Lens is operator-friendly
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The best thing that’s happened to cameras in the past 10 years is the banishment of tape drives to the scrapheap of video history. Everything about solid-state digital recording media is far superior to videotape, including size, weight, reliability, power demand and cost, and the gulf widens every day. Good riddance to videotape!

The Canon XF205 HD camcorder is so over the videotape era that it gives you three slots for memory cards and supports two different kinds of memory. If that wasn’t enough—the XF205 is also a joy to use.

FEATURES

The Canon XF205 is an HD camcorder that can shoot 1080p/60 video at bitrates up to 50 Mbps, including full 4:2:2 quality. It is intended for professional applications, such as ENG, documentary production, commercial and entertainment video production, as well as corporate/government video projects. The amount of features packed into this camcorder is astonishing, and I was able to only scratch the surface of its capabilities during the pleasant two weeks I had with the unit.

Starting at the front of the XF205, it features a 20x non-removable optical zoom lens that has an aperture of f1.8 to f2.8 over the range of the zoom. There is a lens cap integrated into the lens hood, and three rings on the lens to manually control focus, zoom and iris. Of course, focus and iris can be automatically controlled as well, and there are two rocker switches for motorized zoom control.

Through the lens, light is focused on a single 1/3-inch sensor, but that tells only part of the story. The sensor is actually underscanned so that the XF205 can do electronic image stabilization in addition to optical stabilization built into the lens. Together, these make for exceptional stabilization for handheld shooting.

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The author shoots with the Canon XF205 at an event at Dulles Airport in Virginia.

There are two viewfinder/monitors: a 3.5-inch unit that flips out from the body and a 0.45-inch one in a huge eyecup. Both have 1.23-megapixel resolution, which is state of the art in viewfinder image quality.

Audio is well served on the Canon XF205, with two XLR connectors that support mic/line level and phantom power for mics, full manual audio control for audio, a built-in stereo mic that can be assigned to either (or both) channels, an unbalanced mic input and a headphone output. There’s also an included shock mount for a shotgun mic.

All manner of outputs and professional connectors are somehow packed onto the XF205’s small body, including SDI, a monitor output on a BNC connector, genlock/sync out (BNC) and a timecode connector (also BNC). There is a full-size HDMI connector, as well as a 3.5mm connector for audio/video out—which I can’t imagine gets used often. Finally, there is an RJ45 network connector that can be used to transfer files out of the XF205.

On the subject of file transfer, the XF205 supports WiFi to move video files off the camera.

Physically, where there are no connectors on the XF205, there are switches. There are switches for everything, giving complete control over the all aspects of the image from video level to white balancing. They are clearly labeled and have good tactile feel, but everything is a little small… in keeping with the small overall package.

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The back of the camera has a well for a battery. My review unit came with a 37-Wh battery that could power the XF205 for four hours. On top of the camera is an easy-to-grip handle with a coldshoe mount and a 1/4-20 screw hole to mount accessories.

There are many more features built into the Canon XF205, including infrared shooting capability and a built-in neutral-density filter. However, there simply isn’t space to list them all here.

IN USE

So the Canon XF205 has all the connectors and controls that you will want for professional operation of the camera inside and outside a studio. That’s a good thing, and I don’t want to take anything away from that.

However, my primary impression of the XF205 has to do with its lens. This camera has a nice lens with a manual focus ring that I wanted to glue my hand to and never remove—it felt that good.

Likewise, the 20x zoom goes wide enough at the wide end for good stand-up interviews, and tight enough at the telephoto end to work well for nature shots. I couldn’t get as close as I wanted to an eagle that was 1/4-mile away, but it was recognizably a bald eagle. For the abundant wildlife in my back yard, this lens was a joy.

There is a bit of purple fringing when zoomed all the way in on high-contrast scenes, but it is not a major artifact. Meanwhile, the 1/3-inch sensor combined with this lens makes for pleasing depth-of-field shots, with creamy out-of-focus backgrounds that I didn’t know you could get with a 1/3-inch sensor.

There is a big zoom ring on the lens that can be operated manually, but the servo zoom rocker makes smoother zooms. If you had an external zoom attachment, that would probably beat the servo zoom’s operation, but I was pleased with the operation of the included servo zoom and its rocker.

One limitation to the 1/3-inch sensor is that it quickly gets noisy in low light, but that’s similar to other recent small-sensor cameras that I’ve tested. Compared to cameras from 10 years ago, the XF205 gets shots in low light that would not have made the cut in older cameras.

The flip-out 3.5-inch monitor is clear and bright, but it’s no match for full sun. The eyecup viewfinder works great in the sun, and is every bit as sharp as the flip-out screen. One problem with keeping your eye glued to the small viewfinder on a hot day is that it will fog up. The glass probably can be treated with an anti-fogging compound, but I didn’t have any on the field shoots I did.

The camera has a setting for peaking, which made it really easy to see when the focus was right on. There are also a variety of zebra settings for overexposure, which helped a lot when it came time to adjust exposure manually.

Ergonomically, the Canon XF205 has a comfortable handle on top and a contoured hand rest for the right hand. This hand rest—which has the servo zoom rocker and a start/stop button—can be quickly rotated to accommodate your shooting style and high/low shooting. Although that adjustment works wonders for right-hand comfort, there were times when I wished the XF205 had a shoulder mount. After a couple hours of carrying the camera around, it would have been nice to use my shoulder to support the camera.

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Accessories, such as this Marshall monitor, fit easily with the Canon Xf205's accessory mount.

I did most of my shooting with the camera set for 35 Mbps MP4, and it looked excellent. Although this is 4:2:0 encoded video, it works perfectly in my editing system and produces flawless results. However, I don’t do any keying in my finished projects.

The XF205 also supports 50 Mbps MXF MPEG-2 4:2:2 files, which is probably what you want to use when you are shooting for broadcast and elaborate editing requirements. Frankly, I couldn’t see the difference between 35 Mbps MP4 and 50 Mbps MPEG-2, so I went with the lower bit rate.

At 35 Mbps, a 16 GB SD card lasts for about 60 minutes. Interestingly, MP4 files are recorded on an SD card, while MPEG-2 files are recorded on Compact Flash cards. (The XF205 has two Compact Flash slots and one SD slot.) I’m sure there’s a reason why you want Compact Flash in a camera like this, but I’m partial to the size and affordability of SD memory: As I write this, a 64 GB SDXC card costs less than $40 at good online retailers.

One other comment about the Canon XF205 is that it has a turn-on time of several seconds. After I lost a few shots thinking I was recording when the camera had not yet completely fired up, I simply left it on if I thought I would be shooting. With 240 minutes of run time on the battery, you will be tired long before you run out of power.

MORE INFO PRODUCT: Canon XF205 Camcorder

LIST PRICE: $4,000 (street)

CONTACT: www.usa.canon.com

SUMMARY

This is a camcorder and I haven’t said all that much about the quality of the images it makes. Therefore, let me say that the Canon XF205 makes excellent video, easily holding its own for ENG, commercial and industrial shooting. What really stands out on this camera is its lovely lens—this is one non-removable lens that never made me wish I could swap it with something else.

Couple the lens with a nicely capable imaging system and every manner of connection and control you might desire, and the Canon XF205 works out to be a fine product at a reasonable price. It was a pleasure to use the XF205… returning to my own camera is giving me a case of lens envy.

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