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Technique

Le présent article n'est pas disponible en Français
April 2010

The Canon XF305 and XF300 camcorders represent a significant development leap in Canon’s highly respected line of professional camcorders. Capturing to Compact Flash cards using a new file-based recording format, and boasting a new 3CMOS sensor system, both camcorders incorporate a host of newly developed features. With redesigned controls for optimum ease of use, and support from all major NLE software companies, they fit seamlessly into the production workflow. CPN guides you through the key technologies of these class-leading camcorders.

Canon XF305 and XF300 - key features at-a-glance


  • Records MPEG-2 MXF files to CF cards at up to 50Mbps (4:2:2 colour sampling)
  • Comprehensive NLE support; Canon file management utility supplied
  • 18x wideangle Canon L-series HD Video Lens, with low dispersion and wide aperture (f/1.6 max.)
  • Three 1/3 type Full HD (1920x1080) Canon CMOS sensors
  • 10.1cm LCD (1.23M dots) with focus assist and waveform monitor; 1.3cm (1.55M dots) EVF - both 100% coverage
  • Variable frame rate recording (12-50fps)
  • DIGIC DV III image processor
  • HD-SDI, SDI and Timecode output, Genlock input (XF305 only)
  • Independent audio control with XLR outputs
  • Extensive customisation: 30 functions assignable to 13 buttons
  • Canon Professional Services (CPS) Video support

50Mbps MPEG-2 codec sets a new quality benchmark

The XF305 and XF300 camcorders mark both Canon’s switch to using flash memory as a recording format in its new professional camcorder range and a new level of recording quality for High Definition camcorders in the sub-€10,000 market segment.

The most significant difference between the XF models and their current competitors is the use of Canon’s MPEG-2 codec with a data rate of 50Mbps and 4:2:2 colour sampling. MPEG-2 is widely accepted for recording video in currently used formats, such as HDV and Blu-ray discs, but compared to HDV, for example, this version of MPEG-2 offers twice the vertical colour resolution and twice the data bandwidth. The improvement in High Definition image quality is nothing short of breathtaking.

Although the XF305 and XF300 aren’t the first camcorders to offer MPEG-2 recording with 8-bit 4:2:2 colour and 50Mbps, they are the first to bring this level of quality to a compact, sub-€10,000 camcorder, which was previously only available in professional camcorders costing double the price. The breakthrough is that the XF models are able to provide broadcast level quality in a compact, fixed lens camcorder costing little more than some competitor HDV models

 

Front left hand side view of the XF305 showing the new 18x L-series HD Video Lens, built-in mic, and START/STOP button underneath the lens.

Some established formats, such as HDV, use a 4:2:0 colour sampling for capturing colour in an image - this means that the two colour difference components in the video signal are sampled at one quarter of the frequency of the brightness component. Visually, this can still provide extremely high-quality footage for regular video projects, but for more advanced projects requiring colour grading, chroma keying, and other post-production, greater colour resolution offers better results.

The use of 4:2:2 colour sampling in the new Canon codec offers higher vertical colour resolution, which significantly improves the quality of changes made in post-production. Most significantly, when applying chroma key effects there will be less unwanted artefacts in difficult areas of the composited picture (such as around human hair) because the edges of objects filmed against the blue or green background will have been captured in much higher detail.

The 50Mbps data rate works in tandem with the extra colour information, providing twice the data bandwidth capacity that was available in HDV and significantly more than the other professional formats used in products at a similar price point. The video files from the XF305 and XF300 camcorders are stored in an MXF wrapper, which we will look at in more detail later in this article.

New Canon L-series HD Video Lens

To offer the best image quality in their class, the XF-series camcorders need not only a first class codec, but also first class components throughout the camcorder. Starting with the lens, we will look at the leaps in technology Canon has made to produce a class-leading HD camera system, including the 3CMOS sensor system and new DIGIC processor for the XF305 and XF300.

The new Canon L-series HD Video Lens is the first point through which light enters the camcorder, and so it’s absolutely critical to getting a good image to the sensors. Canon has a long history in making broadcast lenses for TV and film work, and has applied much of this technology in the new XF-series fixed lens. The headline specifications offer a highly competitive 18x zoom, a wideangle starting at 29.3mm (one of the widest fields of view of any professional camcorder in this segment), and a resolving power of more than 1,000 TV lines.

 

Front right side view of the XF300 showing the audio inputs (centre, bottom) and ergonomic body design with enlarged zoom rocker and sculpted, weight-balanced grip, and cord clamp for an external mic.

To achieve such high specifications is only half of the story. Key to the success of any hand-held camcorder is its overall weight and balance in the hand, which is most affected by the weight of the lens. Using an optical system that combines glass lenses with Hi-UD, UD and UA elements a maximum aperture of f/1.6-f/2.8 is possible while keeping the weight of the lens (and therefore the camcorder) to a minimum. Hi-UD glass technology - never seen before in a professional camcorder - combines with the UD and UA elements to minimise chromatic aberration and resolve superb levels of detail. Because the lens is a lightweight unit, the weight distribution is a near perfect balance around the middle of the camcorder

Unbelievably, the lens technology in the XF-series camcorders has actually been adopted from the best Canon broadcast lenses. The 18x zoom equates to 527.4mm (35mm equivalent) at the telephoto end, so the user gets the flexibility of good wideangle and telephoto shooting without the need for extra lens attachments. The large aperture also means this lens is excellent for shooting in low light situations.

To reinforce the quality of construction, the new L-series lens incorporates glass ND filters for 1/4, 1/16 and 1/64 reductions in bright lighting conditions, and has a metal six-blade iris. The use of durable materials protects these important parts in tough shooting situations, such as strong sunlight, to offer videographers reassuring reliability.

Even the lens rings have been improved to make them more user-friendly for professional shooting. In Full MF mode, the focus and zoom rings can be configured to use rotational end stops for manual operation, offering excellent repeatability in operation when used with follow focus units. The focus ring also incorporates a distance marker, which is becomes visible when in Full MF mode. Canon’s Instant AF focusing system, which uses dual sensors to achieve fast and accurate autofocus, is also included for situations where using autofocus is more appropriate. Instant AF lends itself perfectly to HD shooting where even small focusing errors can spoil the effect of video being shown on large screens.

High sensitivity 3CMOS sensor system

With the XF-series Canon has taken the opportunity to move from the trio of CCDs used in previous camcorder models to three CMOS sensors. Each of these is a 1/3 type sensor with an effective pixel count of 2.07 Megapixels (2.37 Megapixels gross) - perfectly matched to Full HD video.

 

The XF305 and XF300 both employ three 1/3 type 2.07 Megapixel CMOS sensors to capture native Full HD video. The sensors also offer high-speed data readout to minimise ‘skew’, incorporate Canon’s noise reduction technology to help to deliver clean, detailed pictures, eliminate smear, and use less power than CCDs for increased battery life.

One of the key drawbacks of using CMOS technology in camcorders has always been ‘shutter skew’, which is something that Canon was keen to eliminate in the new XF305 and XF300 models. This has been achieved by using a high-speed readout from the CMOS sensors, so that video lines are scanned at twice the normal speed. Whereas a CCD reads all its pixels at once, traditional CMOS sensors scan one line at a time. As a result, lower lines in the frame are captured very slightly later than higher ones - this warps moving objects from top to bottom. With the new high-speed readout the XF-series’ CMOS sensors capture vertical lines accurately.

One of the main benefits of using CMOS sensors over CCDs is increased sensitivity for better performance when shooting in low light. Some competitive CMOS systems have been known to produce noisier images than their CCD equivalents, but in the XF-series Canon uses highly advanced noise reduction circuits built into the CMOS sensors to prevent this. It’s a technology that has been highly successful within Canon’s range of professional EOS DSLR cameras. A final advantage of using CMOS sensors is that they use less power than their CCD equivalents, prolonging battery life for longer shooting periods.

DIGIC DV III image processor

The next-generation DIGIC DV III image processor is the final part of the XF-series’ outstanding HD camera system, processing the video images before writing to the CF card. This has much greater processing power than the previous generation DIGIC DV II processor, enhancing tonal gradation and making colours and skin tones appear more lifelike.

The DIGIC DV III processor offers a second set of noise filtering for ultimate image quality - a feature that can be configured precisely in the Custom Pictures menus. It also incorporates Face Detection technology that works in conjunction with the autofocus systems to ensure faces in a movie appear pin-sharp. Faces can even be selected individually during shooting, so you can precisely control the face that should be the main point of focus.

 

Left hand side view of the XF305 showing control layouts, including Auto and Manual Iris control, separate power switch, ND filter settings, and a sliding shutter control instead of the dial on previous Canon camcorders.

The previously mentioned ‘Custom Pictures’ allow the camcorder user to finely tune the image captured by the XF305 and XF300. 26 sets of parameters can be adjusted, which are easiest to remember in three categories:

  1. The first group is concerned with colour directionality, depth and conversion.
  2. The second group focuses on light gradation and dynamic range.
  3. The third group focuses on edges and noise.

For example, using the new Custom Picture functions in the XF camcorders a cameraman may wish to tune the black gamma, low-key saturation, colour correction and selective noise reduction.

In certain shooting situations camcorders may be required to work with specialist accessories - for example, 35mm cinematic lens adapters or telecine equipment for reproducing movies from film. Often this means an image becomes reversed. To fit seamlessly with these unique workflows DIGIC DV III provides a number of Scan Reverse options: either switching the captured image from top to bottom or left to right. The power consumption of the DIGIC DV III processor is also lower than the previous generation too, for more efficient battery use.

MXF files for seamless production workflow

New video formats can sometimes cause issues at the editing stage, forcing a change in workflow to cope with the new file types. For this reason, Canon has chosen to use the industry-standard Material eXchange Format (MXF) file format for the XF305 and XF300 models, which is already used extensively in post-production workflows.

The MXF file is a wrapper for the MPEG-2 data stored inside, but has the advantage of being able to support metadata, as well as video and audio. Canon uses the OP1a variant of MXF, where the metadata can include ‘camera information’ such as lens f-stop and zoom level, as well as additional information to be added later by the cameraman, such as title and location. Metadata is increasingly important for managing large volumes of video data in a digital environment. The supplied Canon XF Utility allows the input of additional metadata into an MXF file using either a Mac or a PC.

 

Back right hand side view of the XF300 showing the 10.1cm, 1.23Mdot LCD panel flipped to the right side, connections with flaps covering them, the control layout and styling of the camcorder.

Canon XF plug-ins are supplied with the XF305 and XF300 for Apple Final Cut Pro and AVID Media Access. Working with Final Cut Pro allows video files to be transcoded into the ProRes 422 format, whilst working with AVID allows the video files to be used seamlessly. When importing files into Final Cut Pro, the user is offered the choice of transcoding to an Apple ProRes 422 codec or working with the files natively.

Canon has also worked closely with Adobe and Grass Valley to ensure their NLE software will support files produced by the XF305 and XF300. In addition to adding metadata, the supplied Canon XF Utility (for Mac and Windows) enables rapid review of media contents, basic playback functionality, and file backup.

So far in this article, we’ve focused on the XF-series’ top quality mode, recording Full HD at 50Mbps data rate and 4:2:2 colour sampling, which offers widespread compatibility with all the major NLE applications and an industry-standard workflow. But a number of other quality modes are also provided for seamless integration into other popular workflows. For example, there is also a recording rate of 35Mbps with 4:2:0 colour sampling and, finally, a 25Mbps data rate with 4:2:0 colour sampling is provided for compatibility with HDV workflows.

To meet the different preferences for HD broadcast across Europe, a couple of alternative shooting resolutions and frame rates are also possible. For example, a 720/50p mode is available for broadcast in markets such as Germany and Austria, or more generally for progressive shooting of higher speed action. For full compatibility with HDV, the 25Mbps data rate captures video with a 1440x1080 resolution. The XF-series camcorders even offer the choice of shooting progressive or interlaced footage in some modes.

Class-leading 10.1cm LCD and EVF

Key to filming great HD movies is a large, clear LCD for accurate framing and achieving sharp focus. The 10.1cm (4 inch) LCD on the XF-series camcorders is class leading in size and resolution with 1.23M dots, and it features 100% frame coverage. Both camcorder models also have a tiltable Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) of similar high specification, with a large 1.3cm viewing area and 1.55M dots resolution. Both the LCD and EVF can be adjusted for brightness, colour, contrast, sharpness, and backlighting, with black and white modes also available.

 

Back left hand side view of the XF305 showing LCD panel flipped on to the left hand side, two CF card slots (A and B) at the back of the camcorder, and the 1.5Mdot Electronic Viewfinder.

The fold-out LCD panel has been positioned to the front of the camcorders, underneath the carry handle, for more ergonomic hand-held usage. The LCD can be positioned on either the left or the right of the XF305 and XF300 camcorders for more flexibility when in tight shooting situations. The panel is rotatable and can be angled 35 degrees further towards the front for when the operator is unable to position himself directly behind the camcorder, or to make LCD more visible to the director.

Alongside the physical enhancements to the LCD and EVF, on-screen information has been improved. A waveform monitor and a vectorscope can be enabled as additional display components inset within the frame. The waveform display provides an analysis of image brightness, and can also be used as an edge monitor for fine-tuning the image focus - the larger the peaks on the display, the more sharply focused the image is. The built-in vectorscope aids hue and saturation balancing as well as offering an additional check for white balance configuration.

The LCD can display enhanced peaking, magnifying and zebra functions to assist with manual focus and exposure. During manual focusing, the peaking function now provides four different colour options and two configurable activation levels. The magnification focus assist feature presents a closer view of the centre of the frame for more precise adjustment. For manual exposure, two levels of zebra are available to help to tune exposure more objectively - a cameraman might set one for monitoring exposure on skin tones and the second to monitor overall exposure. Zebra 1, Zebra 2 or both can be displayed simultaneously.

Variable frame rate shooting

For greater creative flexibility both XF-series camcorders can be under-cranked or over-cranked using the variable frame rate mode. Options range from 12 to 25 frames per second in 1080/25p mode, and from 12 to 50 frames in 720/50p mode. By setting the Fast or Slow Motion option before shooting your footage it can be played back with either the fast or slow motion effect applied direct from the camcorder.

 

The XF300's connections include VIDEO 2, headphone socket, remote, HD/SD component out, 3.5mm AV jack, USB and HDMI OUT.

 

The XF305’s connections on the back right of the camcorder also include HD/SD SDI, Genlock, and Timecode.

Time lapse recording

For stop-motion videography two new modes have been added to the XF-series. The Interval Recording mode helps with capturing slow-moving events, such as flowers growing, by recording two, six or 12 frames at a time, with 25 different time intervals available. The second mode is Frame Recording, which will also capture two, six or 12 frames at a time, but only when the record button is pressed - this is ideal for applications such as stop-frame animation.

Cache Recording/Pre-REC

With the use of flash memory as a storage medium, it is possible for the camcorder to continually buffer footage from the sensors, keeping three seconds stored at all times. This is called the ‘Pre-REC’ function in Canon camcorders, but is also known as ‘cache recording’ in professional camcorders. Pre-REC is useful for field situations where the cameraman may be surprised by sudden events happening. In Pre-REC mode, each time the record button is pressed the buffered three seconds are tacked onto the beginning of the clip. So, if you react a second or two too late after an event, you will still capture the required moment.

Three Image Stabilization modes for stable handheld footage

An Optical Image Stabilization system is used in all Canon professional camcorders, but the new XF-series now features three Image Stabilization modes for different shooting conditions - Standard, Dynamic, and Powered. The Dynamic IS mode builds on the power of the Standard mode, and is specifically designed to counteract walking motion for steadier HD shots. The Powered IS mode uses technology adopted from Canon binoculars, and steadies an image at the telephoto end of the zoom by counteracting shake when the Powered IS button is pressed. This mode is recommended for steady shots, but not for panning.

Ergonomically designed controls for optimum ease of use

The XF305 and XF300 camcorders offer total comfort during extended shooting periods due to their thoughtful design. The handgrip is in the middle of the camcorder’s centre of gravity to ensure optimal balance, and the grip has been rounded for greater palm comfort. There is also a recess specifically positioned in front of the zoom rocker as a strain relieving rest for the little finger.

The main operating controls have been repositioned in response to user feedback, so the switch layout is now similar to that used on models from other manufacturers, making it easier for experienced camcorder users to pick up an XF-series camcorder and start shooting. For those users that require dedicated control layouts, there are 13 buttons that can be assigned with one of 30 functions. Custom button configurations can be saved to an SDHC card for easy transfer between different camcorder units - ideal for cameramen who often hire equipment for a project. In harmony with the button layout, the menu has also been given a structure and hierarchy in line with familiar industry standards.

 

The optional 0.8x WA-H82 Wide Adapter offers a 23.4mm angle of view when attached to the XF305 or XF300 camcorders.

Connectivity

The XF-series camcorders support a range of industry standard audio and video connections. Starting with video connections, both camcorders offer an HDMI output, an RGB component D-connector (HD and SD output), a BNC composite output (SD output) and a 3.5mm AV jack (SD output).

The audio connections include professional-grade twin XLR jacks with switchable +48V phantom power and a headphone jack. The built-in stereo Microphone can be used in conjunction with an external microphone for recording two channels of audio.

The XF305, the higher specified of the two models, also offers HD/SD-SDI connectivity and BNC connectors for Timecode (input and output) and Genlock. The connections are aggregated on the rear of the camcorder body, protected by sturdy rubber covers.

A LANC terminal allows for connection of compatible cabled remote controllers. An infrared wireless remote controller is supplied in the box.

Professional enhancements

For professional use, the small touches can often make all the difference to making shooting projects easier. The XF-series has both front and rear tally lamps, making it easier to see at a glance whether the camcorder is active from any angle. A screw thread in the top carry handle can be used to support a range of professional accessories - for example, an external monitor, a video light or a DTE recorder. The main tripod screw in the base of the camcorder can be replaced with an optional TB-1 Tripod Base fitting with a 3/8in thread to suit the tripod head used for mounting. Overall, the build quality of the camcorder has been made suitably tough to withstand daily use by video professionals.

A new informative battery system has also been adopted, so that users can see at a glance whether the batteries are ready to go. The new Li-ion batteries have a built-in LED ‘fuel gauge’ for checking the level of charge. The bodies of the XF300 and XF305 also feature a similar fuel gauge for checking the charge when the batteries are in the camcorder. If the camcorder is connected to the external DC power supply batteries can be replaced without turning off the camcorder.

Although there is now no need for continuous swapping of batteries to find a charged one, which should save valuable time, the previous generation of Canon battery packs from the XH and XL series camcorders can still be used.

 

The BP-955 battery pack comes supplied with the XF305 and XF300. Like the optional BP-975 battery pack it features an LED charge indicator to show how much power remains.

The benefits of Compact Flash media

Continuing the theme of a seamless shift in workflow, the XF-series uses standard Compact Flash (CF) memory as its recording media. This is one of the most well established formats of Flash memory, and is widely compatible with standard card readers - it is also one of the most cost-effective memory cards per MB. Compact Flash cards are readily available in high capacities, although CF cards supporting UDMA and writing speeds of 40Mbytes/sec or more are recommended, particularly when you are recording in one of the high-speed modes.

The XF305 and XF300 models incorporate two CF slots, to maximise recording duration. Up to 160 minutes of footage can be stored on a single 64GB CF card at the highest 50Mbps setting, and more at the lower data rates available. Relay recording is also possible, so filled CF cards can be exchanged for empty during a long shoot, allowing for an extremely long recording session with sufficient memory cards. It is also possible to copy files between cards in the two slots, thus facilitating backup without a PC.

Alongside the CF slots, the XF305 and XF300 camcorders also integrate an SD memory slot. This is not used for recording video although it will capture still images from video during playback. As previously stated the SD cards can store metadata, Custom Picture information and custom button assignments. This makes them invaluable for backing up the camcorder configuration or transferring custom settings between camcorders.