Canon XF305

Another 1/3″ camera? Seriously?

I realise, I’ve promised a blog about “digital cinematography” and so far I’ve only delivered reviews of two “camcorders” that “digital cinematographers” in 2012 wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I’ve just been covering events recently — hence i’m briefly back to camcorders and fixed lenses and deep focus with noisier images and all that awful stuff. (And while I’m stuck shooting with an XF305, another guy is shooting on a C300, which I might write a post about if I can get to handle it a little more).

Anyway. The XF305 is quite a nice camera. There’s not an awful lot to complain about, and I much prefer it to Sony’s Z5 (not that this is saying much). It’s a larger, heftier camera than I imagined based on the pictures, at least as large as an Ex1 and I feel like it’s heavier as well. For the most part, if you’ve used an Ex1 or a Z7 or any equivalent camera, you’ll have 90% of this camera figured out before you start (which is to be expected on a “camcorder” really).

Now here’s the problem. Everything that I like about this camera is borrowed from other typical camcorders. The button layout, the design and build quality, etc. It’s all good, but it’s all exactly what you’d expect from any of these sorts of cameras. And while the XF305 borrows a lot, there are a few glaring omissions that I find quite problematic. In short, anything that can be considered “unique” to the design of this camera is something that I don’t like, and that I wish they’d just borrowed from an Ex3. For starters, there’s no nib attached to the zoom ring, so say goodbye to your crash zooms. The zoom ring is also (of course) fully electronic — there’s a significant lag to your zoom movements, and the camera constantly attempts to turn your “quick crash zoom to get focus” into a long, graceful zoom shot. Urge to kill. Rising.

Similarly, the aperture ring is electronic with no hard stops, and again this infuriating “smooth effect” creates a delay when changing exposure. There’s probably a way to configure the responsiveness of the electronic zoom and aperture rings, I’ll be using this damned camera for the next week so I’ll see what’s possible there. But even if I can configure these parameters, nothing compares to the responsiveness of fully mechanical lens controls.

My last lens-related complaint: the zoom ring is too stiff. What this means in practice is that when I want to crash zoom and focus, I’ve got to turn, turn, turn the zoom ring and it’s very easy to accidentally brush against the aperture ring and change your exposure inadvertently at the same time. (as you can see in the picture, the zoom and aperture rings are set closely together)

Ok. That might be enough lamenting about electronic lenses for now. My only other problem with this camera (for now at least) is the design of its menu buttons. After years of using Sony Z and Ex cameras, I’ve become very used to the little scroll wheel that you push in to select different items. I think it’s a great system, very intuitive, and once you’ve found the scroll wheel, there’s no reason to take your hand away from it to find other buttons. I have to confess, I’m fairly new to Canon camcorders, so perhaps the design of the XF305 is nothing new. But I don’t like it. You’ve got your scroll wheel, a separate “select” button to the left of it, and a “cancel” button to the left of that. So what you used to do with one button on a  Z1 now requires 3 separate buttons on the 305. I’m sure you get used to it, but it feels so clumsy. And in the dark, trying to keep track of where your hand is on a camera that’s coated in tiny buttons… it’s a pain.

Oh yea. One more problem. (of course there are more!)  You know the handgrip/zoom rocker thing on the right side of the camera? This one can’t rotate at all. It’s fused in position with its zoom controls facing up towards the ceiling. On an Ex1 or whatever, you could rotate the grip forwards, so that the zoom controls faced straight out in the direction of the lens. I found this really convenient for covering runway shows where you’re constantly panning and zooming backwards with each model. With the zoom rocker pointing up to the ceiling your wrist has to bend so that you can reach your fingers up to the controls. Sucks.

So. Remember what I said at the start? “The XF305 is quite a nice camera. There’s not an awful lot to complain about…” Yea. I take that back.

Sony HVR-Z5

Alright. I know it’s 2012. No one uses 1/3″ cameras anymore. You shoot your amateur short film with a 550D, a kit zoom lens and a cheap LED panel now, end of story. None of this 1/3″ 3-chip HDV tape-based, anamorphic pixel crap any more, to hell with tapes. But anyway. Despite my sweeping statements, I quite like Sony’s HVR-Z cameras, and when you’re covering events you’ll find these cameras along with (vastly superior) Ex3s and XF305s. But the Z5… the Z5 makes me angry. I’m fine with the Z1, I’m even more fine with the Z7, but the Z5 makes me want to kill people. I want producers, and non-camera people who organise shoots and often order cameras without consulting the camera operators to know that the Z5 is *not* just a better version of the Z1.

What’s changed? The introduction of a new “G Lens” with an extremely long 20x range. This sounds great in theory, but what I really hate (this will probably become a recurring theme on my blog) is that the focus ring is no longer mechanically connected to the lens — it’s all electronic. I don’t know why they do this, since it’s surely simpler to make it all mechanical, but you can turn the focus ring around and around forever without it hitting a hard infinity stop. Turning the ring must register sensors in the camera, which in turn electronically control the camera’s focus. “Why is this so bad?” You ask. If you’re used to shooting with DSLRs and Canon EF lenses, it sounds like just another day in the park (not sure where that analogy came from). Well, there’s more to it. As you zoom in, the camera automatically adjusts the sensitivity of the focus ring so that you don’t need to turn it around as much as you would if it were mechanical. The guys at Sony really are lovely people, making sure our wrists don’t get tired when we’re zooming in to focus. I’m sure some people must love this feature, but for me it perfectly epitomises the concept of “film rage”. You can’t turn it off. There’s a lag between your turning of the focus ring and the actual focusing happening. The sensitivity of the focus ring changes depending on your focal length which messes with my mind, and my most important point is that it is completely impossible to perform repeatable focus pulls on this camera! As soon as you zoom in or out slightly, the focus ring’s sensitivity changes and you’ve lost your marks. And if you turn the ring past infinity, again you’ve lost your marks. Yes I know, it’s only a 1/3″ camera and everything should be “pretty in focus”. And I know, the Z5 is designed for documentaries and events coverage where there are no repeatable focus pulls anyway. But it’s something to be aware of, and for me, a massive deal breaker. The wonderful “G lens” also stops down dramatically over the course of its zoom range, down to f/5.6 from memory, which severely limits it in low light situations. And my last point against this camera is (I think this is correct, if not please flame me) that the zoom ring has no nib that you can grab onto to quickly crash zoom and focus. If I was shooting a documentary, I’d want the process of getting critical focus to be as fast as possible, and the slow electronic zoom ring combined with the laggy electronic focus ring would frustrate me to no end. But that’s just me.

To anyone looking at shooting short films or advertisements on this camera (there won’t be many people in this boat but it’s possible), please look at using a Z1 or a Z7 instead. You’ll have real mechanical lens control in addition to the *optional* electronic “smart” AF modes, so focus pulls will be easily achievable, and no one will want to kill anyone.