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The Canon XM2 is the middle child of the camcorder world. Often sighted as too expensive by true amateur point-and-shoot users, yet overlooked by the budding Spielberg who leap straight to its older brother the Canon XL2. So is this camera a stop gap in the pricing war, or are there other reasons to consider?
If you're looking to get high quality picture definition from your camcorder then nothing short of 3CCD will do, and the XM2 delivers. When a camera records an image, it does so by using a light sensor behind the lens that takes the place of the film in traditional cameras. By focusing the light on this sensor an image can be recorded, but the size of the sensor dictates how sharp the image quality and colour reproduction can be. With suppliers and consumers determined to make consumer electronics smaller and smaller the advent of 3CCD allows the sensors to stay at a measly 1/3rd of an inch, but an optical prism is used to split the light into the primary spectrum red, green and blue. Each of these colours is then sent to its own sensor, enabling the image sharpness to be increase by 300% (3 times) and the colour reproduction to be much closer to real life.
The next thing I noticed was the size. Although it is much larger than many consumer units on the market, concessions made to pack every feature possible into the micro housings causes two problems. First off, the smaller and lighter the camera is, the harder it is to hold steady and control when handheld. Whereas the larger XM2 is easy to cradle between two hands and evenly balanced both side to side and front to back, making pans, tracks and tilts very easy to achieve smoothly. This may sound like I confused the two, but no. The smaller a camera the more it will react violently to the slightest knock, to the extent that some microcamcorders will actual bounce in time to the pulse in your finger tips!
Picking up the manual I had a moments panic that everything was about to get complicated. Although the manual had clearly been translated directly from another language without much care for grammar or simplicity, a combination of exhaustive index, plentiful diagrams and a bit of fiddling and I had soon mastered the major functions.
The inclusion of a focus ring immediately got me smiling. Most cameras are purely auto focus and those that do allow for manual focusing do seem to make it their mission to cause as many problems with that as they solve. Instead the XM2 offers a rubberized ring around the lens that makes for quick focus pulling and absolute delight. In fact, had they included a little more resistance and some end stops I would have said it is the best one I have used on a non-professional camera. One good tip is to use the auto focus to get your picture sharp, and then switch to manual focus. That way as you pan to follow action the lens wont hunt for focus (going blurry and then clear), just as long as your subject doesnt move too close too or far from the lens.
Sticking with the lens I think it is important to note here that the success of the Canon lens is well known in stills cameras. The only company to still make their own glass, even Sony have had to admit defeat and team up with Carl Zeiss to produce their latest range of camcorders in order to equal the Canon clarity and reproduction. I cant reiterate strongly enough how brilliant this lens is. So much so that I will tell you that from the £1400 price tag, upon inquiring about a replacement glass for the lens I was quoted £1000, the vast majority of the purchase price. That said I would recommend you make use of the 58mm filter thread and buy a cheap (£10) UV filter and just leave it on to protect your lens. Then if you do accidentally knock it against a wall or hapless subject you will be fishing out £10 for a new filter and not £1000 for the fix.
The unit also has a built in stereo microphone which allows for recording of ambient sound along with your pictures. On most small camcorders they are token gestures to avoid a return to the silent movies of old, often delivering muffled or crackling unbalanced audio. Well there is some improvement here with a good solid quality powered mic. In the camera menus you can also choose settings to optimize recording events/music, voices, and a windshield that helps to cut out wind noise against the mic. All in all it is ok, but if you are picky about your sound I suggest you get yourself an external powered mic to avoid the possibility of picking up the tape motor sound when filming in quiet locations. This really isnt too noticeable unless like me you intend to take the camera underwater. Once it is secured inside my IKELITE housing it cant help but pick up the whirr from the motor. Because of the headphone style jack used for inputting from an external mic you would need to purchase a switching box to plug in professional XLR mics, however I have found the RODE videomic to be an excellent alternative. Powered by a 9v battery this cartoid mic really improves the sound reproduction of the XM2 and brings it much closer to the clarity and crispness of the picture.
If you feel up to it you can also switch this camera to partially or even fully manual. What this means is that you are in control of functions normally deemed too complicated for the end user, like shutter speed and iris. By taking off the training wheels you can achieve a lovely filmic effect with the shutter speed, day for night shooting with lights and the exposure control (I have tried and tested this), exact white balancing, tweaks to colour phasing for when you are using mixed light sources, and most handy the clear scanning functions. What this means is that instead of getting those horrible lines that roll back and forth when you film a computer or TV screen, the XM2 will allow you to match the frequency of the camera with that of the screen, thereby eliminating the flicker genius! An additional bonus feature is a built in ND or Neutral Density filter. This allows you to significantly reduce the glare from bright sunlight and achieve well exposed shots even in the brightest conditions.
Battery time is about 1 hour with the one that comes in the box, even less if you use the LCD viewfinder instead of the colour viewfinder. I purchased the largest battery available for the XM2 which is referred to as the 5 hour battery. Not cheap at approximately £100, but well worth the investment. It turns a good camera into a truly wonderful camera. I have had well in excess of 8 hours standby time out of this battery and easily filmed for 4-5 hours using the LCD screen an added bonus when you begin to explore the time-lapse shooting mode.
The hot shoe is great for mounting lights or the external mic, but be warned, adding that and the wide angle lens converter does make the unit very front heavy another good reason for upgrading the battery.
Now just so you dont think Im being paid by Canon to be uber nice I will pick up on a couple of things that could have been done better with this model. First off is the terrible grainy effect you get in low light conditions. The auto sensors will activate the built in gain boost when you are in low light and your choice is to live with the image degrading and to invest in some lights, but I doubt your kid would ever forgive you for turning up at their school play with a bunch of 800w lights. Canon clearly know this is a problem as they have included one function that saves this unit the spotlight setting. This overrides the cameras desire to expose as much of the picture as possible, and in doing so enables the camera to be used in these settings, but it really does lose a lot of picture quality.
Second gripe with the XM2 is the insistence of adding pointless features like sepia, ghosting and mosaic style effects that have incredibly prominent buttons, considering you are much more likely to need the colour bars or image stabilisation function that some trippy effects! But that said they do include a customisable button that you can assign a plethora of features to, avoiding getting lost in some of the lengthier menus.
I could go on for hours expounding the virtues of this camera, but I think I will surmise by saying that it massively outperforms the lower priced units available in terms of images reproduction and sound quality, with an added level of functionality that you can grow into as you gain experience using aperture and filters. Just as light and easy to carry and use and its competitors it is a clear winner if you can afford the elevated price tag. Comparing it to its higher priced cousins it also performs exceptionally well, holding its own through the stunning glass quality in the lens. Now with the advent of HD cameras I would suggest that the SD (standard definition) XM2 will give you just as good a picture as the higher priced XL2 and the pro-sumer camcorders from Sony, so if youre not looking for HD, dont waste the extra cash going for the higher models.