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December 21, 1997

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"My impetuous side won.  I ordered one of the 20 allotted to Newtonville Camera in MA."

A Man With XL-1


Canon's XL-1 main page:
- Specifications
- Product Info

Chris Hurd's XL-1 page

XL-1 Impressions
by Ross Lowell

I had a chance to handle Canon's XL-1 at Newtonville Camera and ask the Canon sales folk lots of questions. The camera was a prototype but a working one. None of us shot tape but we looked at footage shot the previous evening.

Did I like the camera?  Well, I debated the pros of getting one quickly ("delivery immediately after Xmas") or waiting for the next batch which may be months away, against the wisdom of never getting first-run products (paying for the right to test new products).  My impetuous side won.  I ordered one of the 20 allotted to Newtonville Camera in MA.

It feels like a rather professional, well thought out camera considering the price and the fact that is is distributed by Canon's non-professional division.  The manual control options are wonderful, even allowing override while shooting in several automatic modes, often the best of both worlds.

DV's notorious vertical smear seems greatly tamed for all but on-axis intense highlights.  Canon credits this to their pixel-shift scheme, but out-of-frame top and backlight smear-damage is undoubtedly also minimized by the substantial, square sunshade.

As Peter pointed out, Canon's optical stabilization system is remarkable. It deals with the low frequency movements (breathing, bouncing, swaying and heart beat) that Sony's system ignores.  And since it is not digital and presumably does not degrade the image, I will be inclined to leave it on at all times unless it depletes the battery excessively.

Automatic focus seemed a bit slow but I failed to test it thoroughly.

The XL-1 is front heavy used with or without their clever fold-up shoulder pad; one presumes their more serious accessory brace will help as will the shorter (3-1), wider-angle zoom expected out this summer.  Problem: if the optical stabilizer is in each lens and is added to the 3-1, the price will be -- you guessed it. But it will not be as useful in the shorter focal length ranges so may be left off or optional.

The main zoom control allows for exceedingly slow movement; its topside "duplicate" is one-speed-fits-all (too fast). It will take considerable time to learn where all the wondrous knobs, buttons and switches are located, especially with ones eye otherwise occupied.  But we should be grateful that Canon saw fit to include them and to group them logically.

My three biggest reservations:

1) The peculiar, distracting commotion caused by fussy, moving details (such as tree leaves) that is so characteristic of (all?) DV has apparently not been eliminated by Canon's engineers; too much to expect, I know.

2) Canon's elegantly sculpted, silver, black and red machine will help to sell the product but will not help to minimize our impact on subjects.

3) I will miss an LCD for the type of filming I tend to do. While the viewfinder, as Peter points out, allows for viewing at nearly arm's length, it is only useful for framing at that distance and not for focusing or seeing details.

These and other as yet-unknown problems may pale in comparison to the XL-1 strengths, at least for many kinds of shooting.  All tools are a series of compromises, design trade-offs (I know first hand, I used to design Lowel-lights).  Canon seems, on the whole, to have compromised wisely.

Ross Lowell

PS: XL-1 literature is available and largely duplicates what is on their site.

PPS: The much appreciated, internal neutral density filter looks to be perhaps a 9; 3 stops.

Disclaimer: Author's opinions are his own and do not in any way represent opinions of the editors.

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About the Author.


Director, cameraman, writer, inventor.

OH BROTHER, MY BROTHER producer, director, writer, cameraman

A sensitive six-year old explores his ambivalent feelings toward his younger brother.

Seven awards: EFFLA, Houston Film Festival, Golden Eagle and an Academy Award Nomination in the theatrical short category.

MERCHANTS AND MASTERPIECES director of photography
A feature length exploration of the great collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the motives of the collectors. Filmed in France, Spain, Egypt and at the Cloisters and Metropolitan Museum.

LIGHT OF THE GODS director of photography
The evolution of Ancient Greek Art from the "dark age" to the Golden Age of Pericles. Filmed on location for the National Gallery of Art.

SULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT director of photography
A one-hour film for the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of the Ottoman Empire. Filmed in Turkey.

WOMEN OF SUMMER director of photography
A feature-length documentary about the Bryn Mawr summer school for working-class women [1921 to 1938] ,whose vision of social progress still unites them. Filmed in the United States and the Philippines. Shown theatrically and on national television, it received numerous festival awards.

THE MONASTERY director of photography
A one-and-a-half hour A.B.C. special filmed entirely in a Trappist Monastery. First Place, Documentary Photography, National Press Photographer's Assoc.

PAVORRATTI AT JULIARD co-director & director of photography
Six half-hour films for television featuring Pavorratti. EFFLA Blue Ribbon.

SUDDENLY AN EAGLE director of photography
A television special for the American Bicentennial about the American Revolution. Peabody Award winner. Lowell received the "...rarely bestowed special commendation for outstanding photography" from the National Press Photographer's Association.

HOUSTON'S IGUANA director & cameraman.
On the set and behind the scenes with John Houston, Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. Golden Eagle Award.

WHILE I RUN THIS RACE director of photography
A feature documentary for VISTA. Academy Award Nominee

A YEAR TOWARD TOMORROW principal cinematographer
A feature documentary about the VISTA program.
Academy Award winner.

THE BALLOON TREE producer, director, writer, cameraman
A boy's adventures and misadventures in the big city. 35mm short, theatrical release. Atlanta Film Festival Award.

PREMINGER'S CARDINAL director & cameraman
A one-hour film for television with Otto Preminger at work on his feature The Cardinal.

MY CHILDHOOD principal cinematographer
A poignant study of the dramatically different childhoods of James Baldwin and Hubert Humphrey.
New York Emmy Award for cinematography.

FAULKNER'S MISSISSIPPI director of cinematography
A cinematic exploration of Faulkner's South, based upon his writings. Read by Montgomery Clift. Three National Emmy Awards.

TELEVISION SPECIALS director of photography
    THE BURDEN AND THE GLORY A John F. Kennedy memorial special.
    DEATH OF A FAMILY A Bill Moyers one-hour special.
    THE DELINQUENTS Two, one-hour programs for C.B.S.
    THE PRADO Segovia and other musicians perform in the Prado Museum.
    GEORGE SZELL The Maestro conducts for a Bell Telephone special.

TELEVISION COMMERCIALS   director & cameraman
Several hundred commercials over a fifteen year period.  Many won awards from the Art Director's Club, The International Film and Television Festival of New York and others.

Taught film-making courses at New York University and conducted numerous seminars

Starting in 1959, Lowell designed and patented a number of location lighting systems that are manufactured and distributed internationally by Lowel-Light.

In 1988, Lowell received the John Grierson Gold Medal for "...his contributions to the documentary film movement..." from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).

In 1980, Lowell received an Academy Award certificate "...for the development of the Lowel-Light systems for motion picture photography."

Directors Guild of America, International Photographers, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, among others.

AUTHOR: Matters of Light and Depth
Creating memorable images for video, film, a stills through lighting.

The Sunday New York Times: "Ross Lowell has spent his life learning and teaching about lighting... This book should be owned by everyone who has any kind of camera ... The reward for reading just a few chapters ... will surely be better pictures ... Mr. Lowell's writing ... has a lyrical and spiritual dimension that is inspiring  ..." John Durniak.

Peter Jennings, ABC: "I am still citing Ross Lowell as the sensitive character who knows what light and movement are all about. This book confirms it.

Written mostly by Bertel Schmitt.  Maintained by Alexei Gerulaitis.

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