Canon XC10 Review: Hybrid theory

by | Sep 23, 2015

All new digital cameras, whether they’re considered to be primarily for still photography or video, are capable of producing both types of images. The ability to create either from a single camera is one of the biggest breakthroughs that digital photography has brought us.  However, no matter how high-end the camera, there are always limitations to this hybrid approach. Still cameras can produce amazing video images, but getting there can be awkward. The best DSLR’s can produce Hollywood-worthy, cinematic imagery, but they require lots of extra rigging, add-on equipment, and a bag full of lenses to achieve the same images and sound that a high end video camera can do with ease.

Conversely, a dedicated high-end camcorder produces great video with the push of a button, but the stills that it can capture will be lower resolution and quality compared to an SLR or other still camera. One of the issues here is that video requires far less megapixels compared to still photography, so high-resolution still image sensors have to employ “line skipping” or “pixel binning” to downscale to video resolution, while the highest quality video sensors are usually limited to the amount of pixels they need for video (which is about 2MP in the case of 1080 HD.)

This means shooters are caught in the middle, while producers are asking for both still and video from the same shoot at the same time. That can be difficult when the budgets are tight, the crew is small, and time is of the essence. That’s the gap that Canon tries to address in its latest offering, the XC10.

The marketing folks at Canon call this camera a hybrid, equally equipped to handle 12mp still images, and 4K video in one small package. Canon claims their target market for the XC10 to be video or photojournalists who require a small, nimble “one box” solution that serves both functions. This is a great idea, at least in theory.

My background includes more than 25 years as a video journalist. When I began my career, the cameras were huge, weighed as much as a small anvil, and cost more than a house.  They required a separate and almost as heavy videotape recorder, and a large complex cable that mated the two. The cameras were terrible in low light, and by today’s standards, equally terrible in a well-lit scene.

Thankfully, those days are over. All new cameras out there are light years ahead of where technology was just a few years ago, and it’s getting better all the time. The XC10 is another step in that evolution.  On paper, it looks perfect for the job:

  • 12mp stills
  • 4K video
  • 24-270  lens
  • Compact
  • Pistol grip

There’s lots of good stuff here; there’s no doubt about it. But as a VJ, the requirement is to move fast. More often than not, there’s only one chance to capture the scenes and sounds necessary to tell a story. That means eliminating variables. Extremely high quality video, audio and stills are mandatory. Achieving both has to be accomplished with a minimum of fuss and bother.

That “minimum fuss and bother” is where the XC10 is a bit of a letdown, and doesn’t quite live up to its promise of being a true hybrid camera. Technically, it’s a fine machine. It meets or exceeds quality standards by nearly every measure that one can put on paper or on a test bench. Unfortunately, that’s not where VJ’s work.

Video: Sony A7R II review shot with the Canon XC10. (Stills in the video are from the A7R II.)

My two-hour hands-on with the XC10 certainly cannot be considered a comprehensive test of the camera; but I was fortunate to be able to use it on location at Bullseye Glass Company, under a wide range of lighting and environmental conditions. I have to say, the video quality coming off the 1″ sensor is quite good—there’s a clear difference between it and smaller-sensor camcorders. It’s not just the objective things, like noise levels, but the subjective things, as well. The larger sensor affords videographers more control over depth of field, which helps isolate your subject from the background. Sure, it’s not as significant as what you can get on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but 1/3″ camcorders just don’t compare. My limited experience wasn’t enough time to uncover all the ins and outs of the XC10, but it gave me a good idea of what will and won’t work for your average video journalist. The XC10, for all it offers, has several key issues to be aware of.

First, there’s the audio. There’s only one input, and it’s a ¼“ mini jack. A mini jack is not balanced, making it susceptible to noise, hiss, and other audio problems that can be time consuming and difficult to solve even with good post production tools. Normally, these issues won’t crop up unless you’re running a long cable, but a mini jack has other disadvantages: it doesn’t provide phantom power and the cable doesn’t lock, meaning it can be easily yanked out of place if the wire gets caught on something. In video photojournalism, there’s often only one chance to get good audio, which is just as mission-critical as a good video image.

Again, for VJ’s it’s all about eliminating the variables. That’s where XLR audio inputs come in. They are balanced and shielded to avoid audio gremlins that can arise using a 1/4” jack, plus they can provide phantom power and offering locking connectors. Most pro cameras have 2 XLR inputs, one per channel, to insure that the audio going in is of the highest possible quality and allowing for two discreet sources, say a wireless lav mic and an on-board shotgun for backup.

The only way to get XLR inputs into the XC10 is to add them via a third-party preamp/mixer that connects via the ¼” jack. That adds bulk, expense, power issues (add-on preamps usually require a separate battery) and another potential distraction for the run-and-gun journalist.

As for that “built-in” stereo mic on the camera? All cameras today have them, and they’re all just barely OK. Certainly not suitable for use in a professional environment, and even as a backup should be for last resort only. I don’t bother to factor them in at all when I test a camera for pro level VJ use.

Secondly, there’s the lens. Much of the criticism of the Canon XC10 has been aimed at its fixed 24-241 lens.  For many photographers, “fixed lens” translates to “limiting.” They feel hamstrung by the slower maximum aperture and set focal length range, which may make it harder to achieve the “look” they desire.

A photojournalist’s world is a bit different. They need to operate fast. Most often, they don’t have an assistant to manage lenses, and would likely miss the shot in the process of switching in the first place. In journalism, a fixed lens can be liberating rather than limiting. With a fixed lens, the VJ knows exactly what focal length he or she has to work with, and can operate accordingly. As long as the lens has both a decent focal length range (the lens on the XC10 does) and is reasonably fast (f2.8 on the XC’s wide end is fast enough; f5.6 on the other is just marginally ok and ideally would be a stop faster), you’re good to go.

So, what’s the problem? The XC10 is manual (non-motorized) zoom only. Speed and efficiency are the issues. A VJ requires a multi focal length lens to not just be quick to adjust, but also smooth as butter. The Canon lens does zoom smoothly as far as non-motorized lenses go, but it pales in comparison to zoom lenses controlled by a servo. This limitation can be a frustrating problem in the field. Scenes in which a zoom from one focal length to another are often incorporated in VJ work. An electronic servo connected to a handy rocker switch is the best way to go with a fixed lens video camera, which not only improves smoothness, but also allows for different zoom speeds.

Though size and weight were clearly a big consideration when designing the XC10, the tradeoffs can be worth their weight in gold. Incorporating XLR inputs and a servo zoom are two prime examples.

When it comes to focusing, AF on the XC10 works fine, but as technically advanced as autofocus is, I have yet to see as system capable of reading a photographer’s mind. There camera simply can’t know when I’m going to switch subjects, or what exactly I’ve targeted as my focal point. That means I usually rely on manual focus. Unfortunately, manual focus on the XC10 is slow, ponderous, and instills no confidence that the resulting images will be as sharp as today’s photography and 4K video demand. Again, manually focusing quickly and accurately are critical in video journalism work.

Finally, the viewfinder/LCD screen is a bit of a mixed bag. The XC10 has a million-plus dot tilting screen on the back of the camera.  It’s bright, reasonably accurate, and the colors seem true enough. For those of us who still like using a viewfinder, a detachable plastic unit that clips onto the screen is included. It seems like a pretty reasonable compromise; use the screen for set shots on interviews, reviewing footage, or during set-up, and switch to the snap-on viewfinder when running and gunning in the field.

The problem with the XC10 system is that it’s not intuitive or easy to get the unit on or off. Secondly, removed, it would be very easy to lose or break; the build quality is just OK.

A far better approach would be to make a viewfinder that flips up out of the way when not needed, and can secondarily be detached when necessary. We’ve seen plenty of cameras that offer both viewfinders and LCD displays while not sacrificing compactness, and that just seems to make more sense.

In the end, it’s the footage that matters, and the XC10 does well enough producing both types. Canon is to be applauded for tackling the daunting task of creating a camera that will satisfy the ever increasing demands of both quality and versatility in a small, easy to use package.

Sadly, I suspect engineers had far more input into the design and feature set than their potential end users did. It’s hard to not look at the XC10 and feel that Canon designed it to be eye-catching, the get people to do a double-take and exuberantly ask, “What is that?” As much as I wanted to love the XC10, it’s just not quite there yet. But it does hold promise, and lots of it. The 1” sensor offers a fantastic balance between image quality and overall product size. As far as compromise cameras go, this is perhaps the one with the least negative trade-offs in either direction. Should Canon decide to continue developing the XC10 into future versions, it’s my hope that they’ll listen to their target market more carefully, and include the changes they suggest that could easily propel this kind of camera from just OK to truly great. I could live with many of its idiosyncrasies if it just had the major features I need: XLR audio and a powered zoom.

 

Editor’s note: You can blame Daven for the ridiculous title of this review, which references the debut album of the once-revered, oft made-fun-of rock band, Linkin Park.

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