Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Canon XF100 Plunge

A while back I posted an entry about some upcoming multi-media projects. I wanted to provide a follow up. I shot my last wedding on my JVC GZ-HD7 this past June.  After a few weeks of editing in post (using Final Cut Pro 7) I was pretty happy with the final product and handed it over to the bride, groom and their respsective family. There were some things that I wish could have been better- namely the lighting and audio levels of the actual wedding ceremony. The JVC camera does not have an audio level setting, and the low light has always been an issue.  As I previously mentioned, the camera also decided to blow out a couple of pixels- which is also a known JVC issue. After a little magic in FCP things got cleaned up as good as I could get them.  The important thing is that the bride and groom were happy- and that's what ultimately matters!

A lot of professionals will tell you that it's not the tools that get in your way- and that you can do a lot with them before you buy new equipment.  While that is certainly true (and disclaimer: I am not a professional, but I play one on TV) my experience dictates that gear can help make a decent photographer / videographer a much better one. For the past few years, I was convinced that I just needed to learn how to handle my camera better and that I'd get better results. There was a lot that I had to ramp up on, especially around manual settings, composition, lighting, etc.  But once you are armed with the basics and have a decent base of experience to pull from, a great tool will help you get much better results.  In my experience, both my Digital Rebel and JVC camera were limiting factors. I needed a higher ISO to get usable pictures for indoor photography (which the 7D greatly helped with- 3200 iso with no apparent noise on the 7D, vs. 800 iso on the Rebel with plenty of noise).  Once I did this, my pictures had the professional look I was trying to get indoors. Similarly, the JVC had the aforementioned problems and caused a lot of extra work.

So in early August, I finally decided to pull the trigger and order the Canon XF100.  This is the closest thing to a "professional" level video camera that I've ever owned. From a professional perspective it is considered lower end, but for someone like me who does this semi-pro/ part time it is a huge improvement and offers great functionality that you just can't get in a consumer grade camera. The first day that I got it home and played with it I was able to shoot video like I never had before.  The focus ring was very intuitive and I was able to easily change focus close up / background.  The JVC had this capability but it was difficult to use effectively. Conversely, the lcd screen on the Canon XF100 was good enough to see the focus and manipulate it.  You can view my first shots on my smugmug site.  Perhaps the best thing about this camera is the 4:2:2 color space / chroma sub sampling.  This is a huge pro feature-- and as far as I know, isn't available on consumer cameras. What this means is that the original uncompressed video signal is marginally reduced when it is stored- meaning there is little to no visual difference.  For a good technical explanation, check wikipedia.  Many consumer grade cameras (and even many semi-pro)  are using 4:2:0 which is 1/2 the horizontal resolution, 1/2 the vertical resolution of the original signal. It also tends to result in more artifacts.  4:4:4 is the "ultimate" subsampling, because it's the original signal.  I believe most of the 4:4:4 cameras start around $10,000 and are typically much more (such as the RED Scarlet X). Technical features aside- after using this camera for a few months I feel that it's been worth the investment and have been much happier with the end result.

In the spirit of Mac Adventures, I'd also like to talk about my experience with it on the Mac so far. It has been a good camera and works very well with Final Cut Pro 7.0.3. I've managed a few HD projects so far- including one that was about 25 minutes of footage (our pastor's 25th anniversary). Things went really well and, apart from a few odd things (such as an mp3 having some audio clipping in one spot that I just couldn't get rid of) I was happy.  I blame the issues on my upgrade to OS X Mountain Lion mid-way through the project.  On a related note, I learned that Canon doesn't officially support the XF Utility on Mountain Lion- which is the tool that imports the video from the CF card to your computer. They have been slow in rolling out an updated version, which is due in October. Fortunately, since I did an upgrade and already had the CF utility installed, things still work fine for me.  However, if I were to try and do a fresh install I'd be out of luck, since the software installer doesn't let you continue if you are running Mountain Lion.

I'm looking forward to getting a lot of mileage out of the XF 100. I've got a lot of soccer footage that I'm pulling together of my oldest daughter and her team- plan on surprising everyone at the end of the season with a video. This camera really pushes the limits on my MBP- so I've got some "future upgrades" planned, which I'll be blogging about very soon.

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