Video / Hands-on Review

Hands-On Review: Canon XC10 4K Professional Camcorder

         

When the Canon XC10 camera was presented at NAB 2015, I immediately became curious about it—joining many others who record their opinions on the great and all-powerful Internet, I couldn’t place my finger on the targeted end-users of this camera. The spec sheet lists 4K UHD recording at a whopping 305 Mbps from a 1" sensor to CFast 2.0 cards, C-LOG and other picture profiles from the EOS C series, a relatively small ergonomic form factor with a rotating side-handle, a few customizable buttons, a tilting LCD with touchscreen controls, a Canon hot shoe for flashguns, and a stabilized 10x (8.9-89mm f/2.8-5.6) manual zoom lens with autofocus. So, being as curious as I was about this camera, I decided to take it for a spin (or three) and try to see if I could determine its proper niche.

The Outside

When I first held the Canon XC10, it seemed a little larger than I thought it would be. It felt like a beefy interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera, with its sizable handgrip and a fat zoom lens. The camera is not large or bulky by any means, and is laid out intuitively, as far as the controls are concerned. Speaking of external controls—for better or for worse, there aren’t many. On the body of the camera are two customizable buttons (info display toggle and push AF by default) and an autofocus on/off control. The rest of the physical controls are located on the rotating handgrip. They include the third customizable button—set to punch-in focus confirmation by default—the menu button and navigation joystick, a locking rotary selector for the exposure mode, with classic Canon nomenclature denoting Scene Mode, Auto, Time Value (shutter priority), Aperture Value (aperture priority), and Manual. Just above those are the on/off button and the playback button, a rotary encoder for manual exposure adjustment, photo/video mode selector switch, and the big red Record start/stop button (doubles as the shutter button in photo mode). Ports on the body include a power input (the battery is charged through this input, and no external LP-E6 charger is included), a mini HDMI output, and a USB 2.0 connection, in addition to a 3.5mm microphone jack input. The headphone jack is located on the handle. Some people with large hands may find that the headphone cable sticking out the side of the camera interferes with their grip on the camera.

The lens built into the XC10 is a large zoom lens, which covers a very wide range of focal lengths in a 35mm full-frame equivalent of about 27.3mm on the wide end to a narrow 273mm when zoomed all the way in. The lens does not have a fixed aperture throughout the zoom range. It ramps down from f/2.8 at the wide end to f/5.6 at the narrow end. This was a slight bummer, as having exposure ramping while zooming in or out can be rather unpleasant. The zoom action is completely manual, with no motorized zoom rockers for slow zooms to be found here, just like most interchangeable lenses. The manual zoom action is fairly smooth and has the 35mm equivalent focal lengths clearly denoted on the barrel, corresponding to the zoom position. I personally like the manual zoom, but I’ll get into that later. Unlike the zoom, however, the focus system is by wire. That means that there’s no physical connection between the focusing ring and the glass elements inside the lens. This may not be to everyone’s taste, as the focusing action can seem a little vague, and it provides no possibility of a focus scale on the lens itself. I also found that focusing the lens requires more turning of the focus ring than is usually necessary. This is great for precise focusing (very important when shooting 4K) but pulling focus in the middle of a shot may prove difficult in some situations.

The overall build quality of the camera is solid. The exterior of the body and handle feels like it’s made from what I assume to be some sort of polycarbonate, similar to the newer EOS Rebel cameras; however, the lens—the outer barrel, at least—feels very solid, almost metallic to the touch, and definitely inspires confidence. The rest of the lens, including the interior extension that appears when you zoom in, is made from plastic, but like the rest of the camera, it doesn’t feel flimsy. The side handle is rubberized in places for a better overall grip. An LP-E6 battery housed cleverly inside the grip will last for about two hours, so keep charged spare batteries available, if possible, during longer shoots. The top of the camera body is home to a stereo microphone, which sounds relatively decent, a Canon hot shoe for professional flashguns (obviously only useful in the photo mode), and eyelets for the included camera strap for wearing around your neck. The base of the camera is reminiscent of Canon’s EOS C cameras, with a small foot protruding out from beneath the lens. This offers adequate gripping surface area for your left hand when shooting handheld.

This brings us to the final bit on the exterior of the camera: the screen. The LCD screen on the back is bright, sharp, glossy, and most excitingly, a capacitive touchscreen! Canon has one of the best touchscreen implementations around. Since it’s capacitive (like most smartphones) it’s very responsive to even the slightest touch and it makes menu navigation a breeze. It almost makes up for the lack of physical controls, but not quite. The XC10 has been criticized for not including a built-in EVF, and while it would have been nice in concept, I don’t see anywhere it could have been placed without compromising the form factor. Not all is lost for bright situations, as Canon has included a clip-on loupe, reminiscent of some aftermarket accessories. It’s shaped in a slightly odd zig-zag fashion to make room for the reflective mirrors inside, but it provides a decent viewing platform as long as you don’t look too far up or down to see the mirrors reflecting. Yet more criticism has been pronounced regarding distortions in the image when viewing through the loupe. While I did notice very slight barrel distortion, I was able to ignore it and continue shooting, knowing that the distortion would not seriously affect my composition or appear in my footage. Overall, using the camera in the hand, with or without the loupe, felt relatively natural without anything else mounted; occasionally I shot using the Sennheiser MKE 400 minuscule shotgun microphone, but that weighs next to nothing.

The Inside

While the exterior of the XC10 is cool and all, what’s inside is what will define this camera when all is said and done. Beating at the heart of the XC10 is a 1" sensor, which outputs 4K UHD. That’s not so special right off the bat, but whereas most of the XC10’s competitors operate in the 8-bit 4:2:0 color sampling, the XC10 itself records in 8-bit 4:2:2. This means more color detail, less aliasing and spillover on certain color borders—most noticeable in the red channels—and cleaner chroma-keying. I noticed that images coming out of this camera were sharp and had smooth gradations without any unpleasant exposure cutoff in the highlights, or color casts. 4K recording is available in 23.98p and 30p (on the NTSC version of this camera) and more frame-rate options are available in lower resolutions. Moving down to 1080p, frame rates of up to 59.94p become accessible. And in 720p resolution, super-slow motion can be achieved with the 120p option. My shooting rarely calls for slow-motion shooting, but in my tests, I found this mode to be rather soft when compared to the standard frame rate images recorded by this camera. Therefore I can only recommend the high-frame-rate recording in a last-resort or special-case scenario. I recorded most of my footage using the 4K mode at the highest bit-rate option of 305 Mbps. 205 Mbps is available and still maintains the 4:2:2 color sub-sampling, but I had no shortage of CFast media so I wasn’t worried about the extra space. A 64GB CFast 2.0 card will hold about 27 minutes of 305 Mbps footage and about 37 minutes of 205 Mbps footage.

Regarding memory: on the back of the camera, underneath a plastic, spring-loaded door, are the memory card slots. Normally I welcome the sight of dual card slots, but the configuration on the XC10 left me scratching my head a little. The XC10 accepts CFast 2.0 cards and SDHC/SDXC cards. While this means that you can get by on less expensive media while you acclimate to the new CFast workflow, you will be limited to HD resolution when not using CFast 2.0 media. Usual benefits of dual-slot configurations, such as relay and backup/proxy recording, are not available on the XC10, and mysteriously, HD footage cannot be recorded to CFast cards despite the speed of the interface.

Something I noticed when filming with the XC10 was a small amount of air being ejected from the left side of the camera by the LCD screen. I suppose the hard work the sensor and the processing units do inside the camera generates a fair amount of heat. While I was shooting I didn’t notice any fan noise leeching into my footage, especially if I was recording dual-system sound, but if I placed my ear right up to the vent, I could hear the whirring of the fan pretty clearly, so it may be picked up by the microphone in nearly silent environments.

The XC10’s lens features Canon’s optical Image Stabilization (IS). I kept IS on while I was shooting handheld, to smooth out any excessive movement. The IS wasn’t jerky and it kept my footage steady and smooth. When recording in HD, another option becomes available, Dynamic IS. This crops the image slightly, but it augments the already powerful IS system in the lens for an extremely steady image when handheld. It works best when held steady—I’ve seen sudden movements cause blur artifacts to appear in an image. In most cases, I found the standard optical IS to be sufficient, so I left that on all the time.

While shallow-depth-of-field imagery isn’t really the forte of the XC10, due to its relatively small sensor, having any sort of selective focus outdoors with any camera these days can be difficult without the use of a neutral density (ND) filter. Having an internal ND filter is very convenient on bright days, and Canon included one in the XC10. When engaged, the ND filter provides some light attenuation, but not enough to keep the lens at f/5.6 on a sunny day. So, while I was filming outdoors, I chose to stick with my Tiffen IR Variable ND.

While it is possible to achieve some subject-background separation, the background won’t be blown out of focus like an image created on a full-frame or super-35mm sized imaging plane.
 

Wi-Fi and C-Log Gamma Profile

One of the coolest things that Canon implemented in the XC10 is Wi-Fi. Even though the browser-based controls are very simple, I liked the fact that I could use my iPhone as a confidence monitor. Keep in mind, the video feed over the Wi-Fi connection demonstrates noticeable lag time, so it’s not like you can replace a professional monitor with this setup. However, I found this utility most useful when I filmed a live concert and placed the XC10 up on a balcony to get a view of the entire stage. While I was downstairs filming in front of the stage, I could periodically check to make sure the camera wasn’t moved or accidentally shut off during the concert. What surprised me was the strength of the Wi-Fi signal. I had done work with action cameras whose Wi-Fi signal would fizzle out if I walked farther than a couple of feet away. The XC10’s Wi-Fi signal, on the other hand, reached all the way across the concert venue.

A C-Log image from the XC10 graded only using FilmConvert’s Kodak Vision 3 preset.
 

Despite the XC10 not truly being a part of Canon’s EOS C line of cameras, on the bright side, it seems to have inherited some of the picture styles associated with that line, not the least of which is the C-Log gamma profile. Shooting with C-Log provides flexibility in post production, allowing you to create a personal look for your footage to fit the production. While some other log profiles are difficult to grade, I’ve always found C-Log to be a real treat, as it’s usually pretty easy to get a nice-looking image. I also tried using Filmconvert, a tool I highly recommend for getting film-like results from your videos, with success. The dynamic range provided by the 1" sensor graded with smooth highlight roll-off and natural colors. Other useful picture profiles include the Canon EOS Standard profile for matching with Canon’s DSLR standard picture profile, and the Wide DR profile for extended dynamic range and color, but without using a log curve.

A graded image from the XC10, originally recorded in C-Log.
 

Post Production

All files recorded on the XC10 end up in Canon’s MXF wrapper. Because these are dense files, I converted them to ProRes for editing and they played back fine, even over Firewire on my old MacBook Pro with Final Cut Pro 7. Newer NLEs like Premiere Pro CC and DaVinci Resolve 12 will have no problem with MXF files. If you didn’t know before this point, 4K files take up a lot of space, so be sure to have a fast hard drive or SSD with ample room before editing. If you are going to be shooting a larger production, I would bring along some hard drives; you will probably have to empty your media frequently.

Image Quality

Taking a look at the images I captured, I was very pleased, overall. In bright light the videos were sharp, detailed, and colorful in 4K and 1080p settings. I didn’t see any disturbing artifacts sometimes found on DSLRs, like moiré or aliasing. Dynamic range, as I stated before, provides a smooth gradient from shadows to highlights without dropping off too quickly at either end of the spectrum. The only time I had issues with the footage was in very low-contrast situations where the 8-bit footage didn’t have enough information to reproduce a full range of tones. In low light, the XC10 struggles a bit in 4K mode, with noise starting to creep in at around ISO 1000. 1080p mode however, remains relatively noise free, going to around ISO 3200. The 1080p footage is down-sampled from the full 4K image portion of the sensor, for a very smooth and detailed image with reduced noise, compared to the 4K mode.

The XC10’s internal codec preserves smooth highlight-to-shadow gradations, even after grading.
 

Conclusion and Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed my time with the XC10. It was easy to use, intuitive and, most importantly, produced excellent results. This can be a professional-level tool, and it is priced as such. However, there are a few nitpicks which, when summed up, do mount to some level of confusion. Focus-by-wire, ramping zoom aperture, a minimum of customizable buttons or physical controls in general, and a lack of dual-slot recording are a few of these nitpicks that must be weighed against the pros of having gorgeous 4:2:2 MXF files in 4K and HD, robust media options, picture profiles from the EOS C line, Wi-Fi control, and a large zoom range—all in a small and ergonomic form factor.

I liked the camera, regardless of these shortcomings. While I was working with it, I had very little in the way of complaints once I started to work my way around the camera. Many people on the Internet like to yell foul when the announcement spec sheet doesn’t live up to their expectations. I can’t say this camera is for everyone, or anyone in particular, for that matter, but if you are interested in some great-looking images coming from an ergonomic camcorder that is always ready to shoot when you are, I highly recommend giving this camera some serious thought.