Give this noob some basic info on prosumer video cameras.
April 24, 2007 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Questions about buying a video camera in general and some specifics about the Canon XL1....

Suppose I want to pick up a good used camera to muck about with and my budget is us$1200 - $1800. What would you suggest I get? I know next to nothing about video as everything I've shot has been on film (Bolexes, Canons, B&H, Eclair, etc.).

I'm interested in making films not shooting home movies so am looking "Prosumer" I guess (ugh, hate that word)--something broadcast quality.

I have a Mac and want to import to it, of course, though I'm sure most will output to firewire, yes?

What are some good sites to check out for basic things to look for and/or be wary of?

In addition, is the Canon XL1 worth getting in this day and age or is that camera a little long in the tooth?

Finally, when buying a used camera, what's the best way to test it if you're buying from an individual rather than a store that may have a return policy or rental-check?

posted by dobbs to Technology (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you're purchasing a used camera from an individual it would be prudent to have it looked at by a service center in your area. The main thing you're looking for is the estimated life remaining on the heads and the drum, a $1200 camera is going to be less of a deal if you suddenly have to spend $500 on a repair.

Most cameras will also have an hours meter in their menus that will show you hours powered on and hours in use. If you google specific model numbers you should be able to find service guidelines for the particular model.
posted by bcnarc at 4:16 PM on April 24, 2007

If you're making a film, then you want the best gear that you can afford. You can usually find this by renting, rather than buying. Check out local video pro shops; they will have lots and lots of XL1s and more than likely a pro or two who will help you make decisions.

The XL1 is excellent if you don't mind being SD res and DV only. DV is a little long in the tooth, and all these tape-transport cameras are going to die of tape problems over time. That said, the XL1 can also stream out via the firewire port without a tape loaded if the transport is dead, so you could just run a wire to your laptop with, e.g., DVRack loaded on it.
posted by felix at 4:20 PM on April 24, 2007

Don't get an XL1. Get an XL2 if you can afford it - it has a 24p frame rate feature that makes the image look much more like film. Also, if you just wait awhile, there will be a whole slew of HD cameras soon to hit the market (or so one is led to believe) that might fit your needs.
posted by billysumday at 4:58 PM on April 24, 2007

Just to give you a heads up, the last XL2 I used had focus problems when the iris was wide open. Zoomed in, got focus, zoomed out and boom, out of focus. Would *only* happen when you were wide open. Made getting lowlight shots frustrating. Maybe others have had better luck.
posted by starman at 5:12 PM on April 24, 2007

Personally I disagree that DV is that "long in the tooth;" it's just fine for standard-definition, which I think is fine for 95% of content if you're going for television. When shot well, with a decent camera, it can certainly be "broadcast quality" (a bit of a vague standard). Unless you really think that you need HD, and you specifically know which 'flavor' of HD you want, I wouldn't spend the money, particularly given the good deals to be had on SD gear being sold by early adopters. (To be honest if you were looking to drop a load of money I'd spend it on an editing deck first, and then think about a high-bitrate SD format like DVCPRO before I went to one of the over-compressed consumer HD formats like HDV. But that's just me.)

Anyway, the Canon XL1 is definitely a solid piece of gear. But with that said, it is a few years behind the bleeding edge, so you should look at it compared with some of the newer variants like the XL1S and see if there's anything you need. Personally I don't see much too new there (no ext. timecode, no XLRs), although the improved low-light could be worth something to you.

If you think you're only going to ever use the included lens on the Canon, then you might want to look at the comparable Sony products like the VX-2000 and the PD150, the latter of which has XLR ins. If you're doing any semi-serious video work, having pre-amped XLRs might save you the cost of an adapter and field mixer to use an off-camera mic.

In terms of buying them from a private individual, although it's likely that they've had less hard use than one bought from a pro (where I used to work, we used to toss XL1s around like handi-cams, since they were only used for B-roll during interviews; main cameras were all Beta SP), they're also less likely to have had their regularly scheduled maintenance. I'd check the hour meter and ask to see maintenance records -- if they won't or don't provide them, and the camera has enough hours that it should have had them, deduct the cost of a few service appointments. The first link (above) has a list of the acceptable "wear and tear" defects according to Canon, including number of dead pixels -- your best test is to shoot some video, including of a clean white screen and #5 grey field, and then view it on a good monitor and see how it looks.

Honestly I don't think I'd ever buy video gear directly from another person; it's just too likely to be abused, have problems, or be stolen -- I'd pay the extra to get it from a reputable dealer's used selection (like B&H or comparable West Coast stores). But YMMV.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:14 PM on April 24, 2007

The XL1 or XL2 are pretty good second hand units - avoid Sony cameras - I've had several Sony cameras die from fairly average use (mainly shoddy inputs and more recently a bent tape transport - they're incredibly flimsy).

You're used to relying on framing through the eye piece so the Canons (try to get the XL2 - for this reason) is not going to be an issue for you (most pro-sumer DV cameras have fold out screens, the Canons don't).

Another excellent feature of the Canon is the ability to change the lens - particularly when shooting wide angle (avoid using screw on wide angle "lenses" - they're shit).

The XL1/2 does native 16x9 - this is the minimum requirement in shooting broadcast - make sure you check the unit is capable of this prior to purchasing - the Sony PD150 only offers interpolated 16x9 which degrades the image quality (you're better letterboxing).

I wouldn't suggest renting unless the rates where you are are very reasonable - these cameras still go out for between $150-$220 per day here. I would, however, suggest renting the same type of camera you're intending to purchase prior to actually purchasing it - just makes sense.

You might want to consider getting a camera capable of switching PAL and NTSC - the rationale here is that PAL is closer to 24p (at 25 frames per second) than NTSC (30 fps) - the image size of PAL is also greater than NTSC - so slight increase in image quality.

A good site for user reviews is:
The D Word
You need to register, but if you're a film maker, you'll have no problems (no cost) - these are pro documentary makers, so very high quality/no conflicting interest reviews and forums.

Firewire is pretty much standard in the pro-sumer range.

Check out this thread for additional stuff, also.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:15 PM on April 24, 2007

Starman - the old zoom in get focus and pull out is really a bad idea, particularly when you're shooting wide open (minimum depth of field) - zoom optics aren't as superior as fixed lens optics, I wouldn't judge a camera based on this.

It does demonstrate the issues with focus on DV cameras - which hasn't been effectively resolved IMO, having been a stills photographer I'm overly anal when it comes to focus, if only a split field focus indicator could be built in to video cameras, all life's blurry moments would be happily resolved.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:43 PM on April 24, 2007

I'm curious - when you say you want to shoot 'films' - do you mean narrative stories @ the 90+ minute length? Or take stuff you shoot and go to film?

You'll want an XL/1 or XL/2 (or any camera with a detachable lens). A prime lens with a short depth of field will give you the 'look' you want.

DV is compressed heavily (HDV even more so...); broadcast quality doesn't exist anymore. DV has been shown on broadcast lots and lots.

DV, HDV, DVCPROHD and some flavors of DVCPro50 all have firewire in/out.

At your pricing, you're getting a used XL...or a new HDV camera. Is HDV a compressed PITA? Yup. But it's cheap. And HD. For 'broadcast'- you'd probably have to get it dubbed to HDCAM
posted by filmgeek at 8:49 PM on April 24, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your answers.
posted by dobbs at 5:44 AM on April 25, 2007

Starman - the old zoom in get focus and pull out is really a bad idea, particularly when you're shooting wide open (minimum depth of field) - zoom optics aren't as superior as fixed lens optics, I wouldn't judge a camera based on this.

With the XL2 it seemed like more of a defect than a limitation of the lens. Just a heads up, since I'd never seen that happen on any other camera.
posted by starman at 8:33 AM on April 25, 2007

Yeah I just read about that in Kadin's post - but it's not limited to the Canons - the Sony's suffer from it as well.
posted by strawberryviagra at 5:02 PM on April 25, 2007

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