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Awesome camera but not for everyone
on March 23, 2012
There's no doubt that this is a great, well built camera. It is pretty much a five star item with only a few areas of improvement needed. The main question you should ask yourself is if this is the right piece of gear for you. Not only in terms of choosing between camcorders, but also whether you should get a DSLR over a Camcorder. This is something I will address under a separate paragraph below.
IS THIS A PRO CAMERA?
The first thing I would like to shed some light on is the "professional" aspect of the camera. As someone commented earlier, as long as you are making a living with something, you are a pro. Now would this camera be the filming tool of a professional? The answer is yes and no. Yes if you are starting your business, you are on a budget, you are filming mostly events, and you don't mind the few extra steps this camera demands for achieving high end results. If you are filming everyday and you have a real production budget, then you should look into something more robust and flexible.
While it can be used by pros, the camera squarely does not meet broadcast standards, which includes 4:2:2 color spacing, 50 mps codec, and interchangeable lenses (among other things).
That been said, this camera is absolutely not for beginners. It DOES possess all the functions and features of a professional camera, esp. for sound. So if you just want to film your kids at Christmas, your holiday at a resort, Disneyworld or some other stuff like that, this camera is not for you because you would waste your money for advanced capabilities you will never use. And you will find it way too complicated too for what you want to film. There are now plenty of affordable and rather excellent cameras out there for the consumer who wants to shoot in HD. The Vixia line or your mid-range DSLRs will do the job great. If you want a camera that meets broadcast standards and remains small and cheap, the XF100 is the way to go.
WHO IS THIS CAMERA FOR?
I think that this camera is a perfect tool for a few specific groups of people:
1) Serious and professional cinematographers who need to haul gear on their back to film an adventure movie in a remote jungle or a mountain area, or any kind of hardcore expedition demanding extreme portability;
2) Serious and professional cinematographers who are making a travel documentary with a lot of interviews and are traveling for multiple months, backpacking or on a bike or something, and want to have something portable and discreet;
3) Professional video makers starting their business and running on a budget;
4) Serious and intermediate to advanced video makers who shoot various short movies during their free time as a hobby. The learning curve for proper image and sound at the highest level is pretty steep. Once you have mastered all the functions and controls on the camera, you will definitely be able to produce images that will blow everybody away. The sound quality is as good as the microphones you will connect, and there's no limit there.
WHY I GOT THE XA10
I got the XA10 to film a documentary on carpentry in Pakistan. I have a full time job so I can only shoot during the week-end. I am still learning how to make proper videos so I could not justify spending too much on upgrading my gear to broadcast levels which would be at least $10,000-$15,000. When you do a documentary, sound is just as important as images, so XLR inputs were really critical for me. Because I travel a lot and also do mountaineering videos, the 2.2 pound ultra compact camera was also a key factor. The fact that you can even remove the handle makes it ideal.
The XF100, the XA10's big brother, is the obvious upgrade. If you want to shoot in HD near pro/broadcast level ("close" would mean different things to different people) but you are not too worried about sound yet, I suggest you look into the Sony NEX-VG line: they have large sensors and interchangeable lenses. Sony recently unveiled the NEX-VG900 which will have a full frame sensor. It will cost more, of course, but the full frame sensor is an exciting feature. They don't have XLR inputs but you can equip them later with add-on parts and modules. Also, DSLRs offer amazing image capabilities, but are limited on sound, although upcoming new models should address that, like the Sony a99, Canon 5D, 6D and the Nikon 600/800.
The image quality is very good. It is almost like when you walk into the TV section of a Best Buy store and you look at those crazy good images from a Blu-Ray disc and you go WOW. It is that clear. Keep in mind that the sensor in the camera is the same that you find in the broadcast level XF100. The colors are bright and vivid. The contrasts are sharp. The details of every shot are clean. The lens on the camera is pretty good, so what you film comes out clean.
I used the camera in a number of situations and what strikes me is how incredibly crisp and sharp the images are, along with contrasts and colors. It is very sports like, very vivid and bright. If you saw BBC's Planet Earth documentary, I would say the image is similar in clarity (but of course does not have its depth and color!) It is so sharp that in some cases it has the look of the image in the movie "3 Kings" with George Clooney. That is not a flaw in any way: this is just the style of the camera and it might please some but annoy others. For example, folks who love the smooth, flat-ish, velvety, and brushed up look of the 5D Mark II might find the image overwhelming. I like it and there's ways in post to edit the image to your liking. You could also manually adjust the camera to get more toned-down images.
I use Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 for editing the camera's footage and the program' s analysis reveal that there usually is minor accuracy issues with the luma (or Y/C) curves: it seems that there could be deeper blacks and more uniformity for the whites (they don't top nicely along the 100 mark). The inaccuracy is very subtle and can be easily adjusted in post. With regards to the RGB curves, I found that the spreads are nicely and accurately laid out. The skin tone line is also neatly where it should be, especially if you manually adjusted the white balance correctly when filming. So overall the image is good and accurate.
The XA10 records the footage in the AVCHD codec, which has both advantages and shortfalls. AVCHD codec is a compressed version of your images (like JPEG compresses photos) which will result in some quality loss - not much, but still there is some quality loss, the most visible aspect being some distortion at the far sides of the image when the footage was taken when the camera was oscillating both vertically and horizontally when the subject had a lot of movements or details. The solution is simply to film on tripod or with any form of stabilization. AVCHD is also one of the most efficient compression codec out there (at the moment) so while some quality loss is going to occur, as with any compression, it is less bad than others. If you want to record non-compressed or RAW footage, you'd have to look into a whole different and muc more expensive setup than this. AVCDH is also known as MPEG-4 or H.264, making it the most commonly used codec on web-based video communities and editing software, so you will not have to buy super high-end editing programmes.
THE RATTLE (NON) ISSUE
The handle DOES rattle if you shake the camera but the mics you will plug into the XLR jacks will not pick up the sound (esp. if unidirectional) and in over 70 hours of filming I have not noticed the sound. The only way to hear the rattle would be by using only the camera's built-in mic, keep the XLR handle on, and literally jump or run around with the camera, which is a shooting setup that makes no sense and would result in unusable footage anyway. Also, why would you use the built-in mic if you have XLR inputs? If you do want to do that, you can remove the handle, and the problem is solved. So the rattle thing is really not an issue and I think that people who complain about it have yet to understand how to use the camera.
DEPTH OF FIELD
Crazy shallow depth of field (DOF) is extremely popular at the moment (There's f/0.95 lense coming out at photokina!) but achieving shallow DOF with the XA10 is difficult. The aperture can be set at a maximum of 1.8, which is plenty for shallow DOF, but because the zoom control is electronic, it can be a bit difficult to control the DOF when moving the camera in a hand held situation. Also, the out of focus areas / background is not blurred with the same smoothness that you could get with a 1.8 lens on a DSLR with a larger sensor. But with some fiddling of the camera settings and practice, you should figure it out, but it will remain difficult to achieve.
FEATURES THAT MATTER 1: IMAGE
There are many advanced features that will allow you to get really good images: Zebra lines for zoom / exposure levels, automatic exposure gain control, manual exposure, manual shutter speed, manual aperture, manual white balance, peaking, auto gain control, backlight correction and a y/c vector scope (luma curves). I found that the image transmitted to the LCD is a correct representation of what is filmed and reliable enough to use for adjusting your filming setup.
Believe it or not, the infrared function is great. At first I ignored it as a gadget for attracting consumers but I tried it a few times out of curiosity and it produces very interesting footage and the quality is not bad at all. Try filming someone smoking a cigarette in the dark: you can see everything clearly and the cigarette will light up in a beautiful flare.
FEATURES THAT MATTER 2: SOUND
The two XLR inputs and controls will provide you with the opportunity to record sound at professional/broadcast levels, depending on what microphone you use. I like to have one mic (channel 1) one the camera with another one (channel 2) near the sound source (a 25 foot xlr cable is good enough I think).
The built-in mic is ok and has advanced features for quite a lot of control, but it is not to be used if you're aiming for broadcast sound standards. It can work pretty well if your sound source is close to the camera and if there is very little sound interference around it, but the sound is not amazing.
There is also a mic jack you could use for a 3.5mm mic or wireless mic. This 3.5mm jack input is very useful and it can be manually adjusted with the camera's equalizer settings (boosting of low, high or mid level frequencies, depending on what you are recording). You can also mount both XLR mics and a 3.5mm mic on the camera and by the press of a button on the handle you can switch from one sound recording system to another. So sound is a major strength of this camera.
The camera is very small, lightweight, compact, easy to carry, easy to mount on a tri or monopod, easy to set up, and easy to activate. On top of this, it is solidly built and feels sturdy. If you plan to climb a big, remote mountain, this is the camera to buy. Or if you want to use it for travel documentaries, you can easily carry it around and not freak people out when pulling it out from your bag - it does look like a handycam, which is great for not attracting attention. If you don't need XLR sound, remove the handle and you have a tiny device (then it becomes pretty much the same as the Vixia HF G10).
You can store 64GB on the camera's hard drive and some more on two SD cards. That's almost 9 hours of filming at the highest quality level. Plus it is all flash data so importing the footage to your computer is fast and does not require transcoding or anything. Plug and Play. MiniDVs are now a thing of the past.
The LCD screen is good and accessing the menu for all the functions and control is not perfect but with practice it becomes a straightforward thing. There is an HDMI OUT output option so you could use a separate screen if you need a bigger reference monitor.
This is great value for money. As far as I am concerned this is a small revolution. When you think how much capability this little beast packs up, it is impressive. I mean, XLR inputs, full HD, full manual controls, good codec, huge storage, super compact, etc.
If you film for television, you can record at 60 frames per second interlaced, which is good, although I would assume that people buying this camera will use the internet for distribution, so the 30 fps progressive will be preferred.
MAIN NEGATIVE POINTS
The recording speed is set at a maximum of 30 frames per second (progressive) so there's no slow motion capacity here. That is really too bad. Also, the camera is region locked, so the US model is set at 24p/30p/60i and the Europe+Asia model at 24p/25p/50i.
The image can be a little noisy when shooting in very low light (I mean, dark places) but you could manually adjust that or add a spotlight or two. Now low light can mean different things to different people. This camera will do well in most low light condition but is definitely no match for 5 digit ISO settings now available on some DSLRs. In any case, my opinion on low light capacity is that a camera is a device that captures light so if there is no light, you should either not shoot or add light.
The headphone jack is not conveniently located on the camera and its output is not loud enough, making using headphone difficult. To deal with that, the audio levels can be monitored on the LCD screen. The good thing about the internal mic and the 3.5mm mic input is that you can manually set the maximum audio levels to your desired recording input (for example you can set it to -12db and it will never record louder than that). Unfortunately, and this is a bit of a bummer, you can't set the maximum audio levels for the XLR input and you have to use the "minimum" to "maximum" control dials on the handle, which is ok if your sound source is stable but difficult to manage if sound goes quiet then loud and quiet again. This is kind of annoying.
Below are areas where improvement would be welcome. None are real deal breakers because you can find your way around them with practice.
The auto focus is bad. This is the cameras' main flaw. What happens is that the auto focus will slightly change from parts of a scene to another during certain filming situation: when you are zooming in a lot on a subject that moves or when a certain scene has a lot of details (like a Persian tapestry or something). It confuses the camera easily. This can be overcome by using the manual focus or with some of the auto-focus assistance features like face detection (which works well) and focus tracking (you can lock the focus on a moving object and the camera will keep focusing on it while the object moves - this also works pretty well). The focus assistance feature in manual mode is good. You can also pre-set your focusing for scripted scenes.
Zooming. There are three ways to zoom: a small lever on the handle; a bigger lever on the camera's body (which has also variable speed control) and the remote control. All three can be customized in how they zoom. It takes practice but you will end up being able to have relatively smooth zooming but it will never replace the good old, manual, efficient and easy way to focus with a lens's ring, and that sucks. But again, you will learn how to get around it.
Pretty much all functions and controls are only accessible from the LCD screen. You have to go through the menu to find what you need and then adjust everything on the screen. It is really annoying in the beginning but with practice it become fast and easy.
DSLR or XA-10?
It depends. If you are going to do lots of run and gun, if you need extreme portability, if sound is important, if you are making a travel documentary (with sound), if you want to film longer scenes, if you are a one man show and if you want to just open the camera and within a minute start filming, get an XA-10.
If you don't mind rigging your DSLR with a mountain of add-ons, are going to film heavily scripted material, if you want every shot to be artsy following careful planning of every scene, if you want to shoot in low light, if your shoots are going to be short, if sound is not going to be critical, then you might want to get a DSLR. There is no doubt that a quality DSLR + lense will achieve an overall better picture. The problem is that you will spend way more money on gear and also way more time setting your stuff up than just using the camcorder.
To be honest, the ideal is to have both. It is does not make much sense to say that a camcorder is better than a DSRL or the other way around because they are two different systems doing different things. The best device will be the one that best meets your filming needs. I am going to use my XA-10 as my primary filming tool then add a DSLR to get my creative, artsy shots that will be integrated into various parts of the documentary. This means I will need to grow an extra pair of arms or something. The more gear you have, the more work and time you need to rig your stuff for a given shot.
WHAT OTHER STUFF YOU WILL NEED
Computer: You will need a powerful computer to edit the footage and also a blu-ray disc writer. The quality of the footage is so good that it won't fit on a DVD unless you reduce the quality. Be sure to have the appropriate video card, for example an Nvidia if you are going to use Premiere Pro. Files are huge so get an extra large hard drive and external hard drives for backup. A computer screen capable of 1080 HD will be pretty much essential - that's at least a 24" screen. I recommend two screens: one for editing and one for full screen playback.
Battery: The battery that is included lasts a bit less than 2 hours. You should get the 819 battery for about 60$ on Amazon and that will give you about 3-4 hours of filming. There's number of third party batteries available on Amazon but have not tried them.
Mics: get two (or more!!!) XLR mics. You can mount one on the camera and have the other attached to a 20-25 foot cable that you can put near your subject or sound source. Sky is the limit with mics so choose wisely. You might also want to get the Canon WM-V1 or the Sony ECM-AW3 wireless Microphones; they are not perfect but they help to film a person talking and walking around while you shoot.
Editing: You should be able to edit footage without too much problem on Apple Imovie or Microsoft's Windows Live Movie Maker. However, I recommend you look into Premiere Pro, Final Cut or other high-end editing software for advanced image and sound control.
Get a polarized lens for sunny outdoor shoots and also a couple ND filters.
I strongly recommend this book that you can buy on Amazon for like 25$: "Professional Results with Canon Vixia Camcorders: A Field Guide to Canon G10 and XA10 [Paperback]" by Warren Bass. The book is hugely informative and you will learn very important film making skills on pretty much every single page.
The pros far outweigh the cons. The value for money is awesome. Could be the dream camera for certain people for certain situation. I suggest you check out this video where a professional reviews the camera. I find the review pretty accurate and objective: [...]