Canon XF

My impressions of the Canon XF 100 camcorder

[updated 2012-11-23 and 2012-12-15]

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Several months ago I got a Canon XF 100 camcorder to replace my trustworthy Sony HDR-XF1. The smaller size and reduced weight were important arguments - high resolution sensor and tapeless recording finally convinced me.
The XF100 served me well during a four week tour through the west of the U.S. and on other occasions. So this may be a good time to write down what I liked and what I didn't like so much of Canon's new baby.

The image on the left shows the XF 100 in front of it's older "brother", the Canon XM2 (aka GL2).

What I like

  • Image quality is great and even better when you don't run the camera with out-of-the-box settings but rather improve the custom parameters (there's a plethora of settings to play with - see below).
  • The image sensor delivers true Full-HD resolution. Neither up- nor down-scaling is required (both often have a negative impact on image quality).
  • The camera records MPEG format and offers a wide choice of resolutions and frame rates. The MPEG format is well suited for video editing on a computer - much better that the competing AVCHD format.
  • The bitrate goes up to 50 Mbps and compression artifacts are not an issue.
  • Color resolution is either 4:2:0 (960 x 540 pixels) or 4:2:2 (960 x 1080 pixels). That's a perfect match to the color resolution of the Bayer-pattern image sensor (960 x 1080 pixels on the green channel and 960 x 540 pixels on each the red and blue channels).
  • The lens has a useful focal range, especially the wide end is good (equivalent to 30 mm). Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is not an issue. Distortion is low on the wide angle side and practically invisible over the rest of the focal range.
  • The optical image stabilizer works great (even better than the stabilizer on my Sony HDR-FX1). Be careful with the 'dynamic' setting, though, as under some circumstances it will create an artificial wobble-effect.
  • The camera does time-lapse (interval) recordings over a wide range of time settings. Unfortunately it can not capture individual frames. The lowest setting records two images per instance (there are higher settings to record more images). It is important to switch off all automatic functions (white balance, focus, gain, iris, shutter and the image stabilizer) when recording in interval mode. Otherwise visible "jumps" can occur in the movie when one of the automatic functions decides to shift its settings.
  • The camera has XLR-audio inputs with a full complement of manual settings.
  • Color temperatures can be entered directly in Kelvin which is great in special lighting conditions (as long as you figure out how to do it - I always have to consult the manual first).
  • The camera uses relatively cheap and sturdy Compact-Flash recording media.
  • It is small, compact, handy, relatively light weight and unobtrusive.
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Click on the image above to see a collection of time-lapse recordings made with the Canon XF100.
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This is a test video of outdoor daylight scenes with the Canon XF100. It was created with the camera settings at their default and is not color corrected in post production.
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Click on the image above to see a short film of the Karlsruhe christmas market. It demonstrates the night shot abilities of the XF 100.
Custom Picture Profiles
Here are two custom picture settings I am using most of the time. They are in part inspired by Alan Robert's BBC settings.

"Finished Video" setup:
Great for razor sharp images that look fully finished the way they come out of camera.

Custom Picture - Gamma: Cine 1
Custom Picture - Black - Master Pedestral: -5
Custom Picture - Color Matrix - Select: Cine 1
Custom Picture - Gain: 15
Custom Picture - Color Matrix - R-G: -8
Custom Picture - White Balance - G Gain: -5
Custom Picture - White Balance - B Gain: -5
All other settings are left at their default.

"RAW Film" setup:
Great for maximum flexibility in post processing (color correction, color grading, sharpening).

Custom Picture - Gamma: Cine 1
Custom Picture - Sharpness - Level: -10
Custom Picture - Sharpness - H Detail Freq.: 8
Custom Picture - Sharpness - Coring - Level: 12
Custom Picture - Sharpness - HV Detail Bal.: 5
Custom Picture - Color Matrix - Select: Cine 1
Custom Picture - Color Matrix - R-G: -8

All other settings are left at their default.

Important: When recording 24P or 25P frame rate the camera defaults to a shutter speed of 1/25. This is plain wrong and needs to be adjusted manually to 1/50 (equivalent to 180° angle) or otherwise motion is blurred.

What I don't like

  • Regardless of the relatively high price point: This camera comes with just one image sensor. And that sensor is only a CMOS type - not the better CCD type. Not surprisingly, recordings of test charts show the infamous moiré-pattern (spatial aliases) of single-chip bayer pattern sensors. I must admit, however, that in real life filming situations I never noticed aliases and despite of the mediocre technical basis image quality is really good.
  • The ND-filter can not be engaged or disengaged by pressing a button so you can not use it to play with the depth-of-field. Instead, the ND function is curiously linked to the iris setting (it auto-engages after f/4 is reached). It is doubtful the camera has an optical ND-filter at all. Very likely this is just an electronic attenuator - there is no clicking sound nor a visible step in image brightness when the filter is engaged as in other cameras. At least the auto ND-function can be turned off entirely by a menu option. This requires pressing 11 buttons during the process.
  • The viewfinder is really, really bad. It has a low resolution (only some 380 by 210 pixels), the visible image is small and the colors are inaccurate. The mechanical construction of the viewfinder is unfirm and the dioptric adjustment lever tends to reset itself from time to time.
  • The LCD screen is also not perfect. Although it comes at a higher resolution (app. 720 by 410 pixels) it is far from displaying HD quality. Under bright lighting conditions the reflective surface of the screen makes viewing difficult.
  • Although the camera handles time-lapse recordings quite well it can not record slow motion. The frame rate maxes out at 60 frames per second and even that can only be recorded at half the resolution (720p). The upcoming 1080p50 (1080p60 in the U.S.) format is not available.
  • Handling the camera (menus, knobs, joystick, switches) is quite a mess. The manual controls are mostly small and fiddly. The frame rate, for example, can only be adjusted by the joystick so the LCD screen has to be opened first. The large silver dial is entirely useless as it only reacts to slow motion movements. Turning the dial at normal speed is ignored and shows no effect. The last firmware update improved performance of the large silver dial a lot so it is really useful now. The menu structure is confusing and unclear. All in all, Canon did a pretty lousy job with the user interface.
  • Automatic white balance is not always spot-on: From time to time I noticed a nasty color cast. If there are intense colors in the scene (sunrise or sunset, for example) the white balance tends to "correct" that and produces a flat and dull image. My old Sony HDR-FX1 had an automatic white balance that was so good I never really noticed it any more - it would record almost any situation just as I saw it with my eyes. The XF 100 isn't quite that perfect.
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A theatrical performance shot in very low light with the Canon FX 100 (100% reproduction). You can see pronounced noise in the black background.
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The same shot (albeit from a different angle) done with the Sony HDR-FX1. There is noticeably less noise in this image.

  • The overall design and manufacturing quality could be better. While not really bad in absolute terms the quality is below Sony's standards in comparison. For example, the display hinge is weak and unfirm, the housing feels like plastic, the knobs and joystick are small and shaky.
  • The beginning of each new recording is aligned with "even" logical block numbers on the memory card (whatever that means - Canon offers no further explanation). As a consequence there are always memory gaps between adjacent clips and chip cards can never be filled up to their true capacity. It is annoying to see a 16 GB chip card that should be holding 57 mins of recording time become "full" after just 43 minutes. The remaining space is still available on a computer but can not be used by the XF 100. I have tried a dozen 16 GB cards but was never able to record more than 12 to 13 GB on any of them. The average loss of more than 20% recording capacity is considered "normal behavior" by Canon's service in Germany and Japan. This, of course, is not an issue when recording only a few, very long clips.
  • The file structure created on memory cards is a complete annoyance. Why Canon doesn't collect all the clips in just one folder is beyond my imagination. All photo cameras act that way but the XF 100 is very different. Each MXF video clip resides in an individual folder that carries the clip's name. Those folders are then collected inside another folder that is named 'CLIPS001' and that folder is pointlessly wrapped in yet another folder named 'CONTENTS'. Canon's logging software requires an exact replica of this structure (down to the name of the memory card: 'CANON XF') or otherwise it will not find the media. The same goes with Apple's final cut software. This is 80s computer technology at it's worst… BTW, Sony's free "XDCAM transfer" application handles Canon's MXF files nicely regardless of their location inside a folder structure - highly recommended! After the latest update MXF files can now be opened directly in Apple's Final Cut X in combination with Canon's free plugin.
  • Time-laps recording is not as flexible as I had hoped for. In Fast Motion Mode the lowest setting is 12 frames per second. On the other hand, the quickest setting in Interval Recording Mode is 2 (simultaneous) frames every second. So there is a large gap between the two: If you'd like to record anything like one frame a second, or two or five real frames a second you are out of luck.
Conclusion
The XF 100 is a small, lightweight and handy little camcorder that delivers truly great images. What more could you want? Well, how about a better mechanical quality, a good view-finder, three sensors and a switchable optical neutral density filter? Compared with the offerings from other manufacturers the current price level (some 3.000 €) seems rather high. Then again, I couldn't find any other camcorder with a similar size that would convince me more than the XF 100.

[Addenum 2012-12-2] Be sure to browse the
Video Compression Comparison. I have compared all the various resolution and bitrate settings of the XF 100.