Opinion: Why the Canon XC10 is a big deal
Today Canon released the XC10, a camera that for all practical purposes is equal part a stills and a video camera. It promises to deliver not only both types of media, but an appropriate user experience for either type of shooting. It may be the first true 'convergence' camera.
Convergence. You’ve no doubt heard about it before. Still photography and video are on a collision course. In the future, goes the thinking, a camera will simply be a camera. Whether it shoots video or stills will be irrelevant because, of course, all cameras will simply shoot both. Well, it looks like the future may have arrived.
Updated: We have added additional information to the 'Final Thoughts' section to address some questions from the Comments thread.
|The Canon XC10 may be the first true 'convergence' camera.|
The photography and video worlds have been on a technological collision course for a number of years, thanks to the fact that they share so many technological underpinnings. These include extremely sensitive, high resolution sensors, powerful and energy efficient processors (largely driven by the mobile industry), and fast and inexpensive data storage solutions.
Historically, however, photographers and videographers* were two different sets of users: they had different areas of specialized expertise, did different types of projects, and dealt with completely different production workflows. Chances are good that if you were a working photographer you probably weren’t a videographer, and vice-versa.
As a result, until the last few years there wasn’t significant pressure to combine photography and videography tools into a single product class built with the intent to function equally well for both purposes. Most still cameras - even those with robust video features - were built around a basic design convention that was never intended to be used for shooting video, and most video cameras were built around a design convention never intended for shooting stills.
But we live in a multimedia era. Every media organization, business, and even individual photographer has multiple distribution channels to satisfy, including web sites, social media, television, and even print. These channels have to be satisfied quickly, and on a budget.
This point was driven home for me at a recent conference where I happened to speak with an editor from a well known media company with a presence across web, print, and TV. “Within a couple of years,” she told me, “the only photographers we will hire will be the ones who can also shoot and edit video for our web sites. We don’t have the budget to hire specialists anymore.”
This isn’t an uncommon scenario, and as a result, we’re seeing a fundamental shift in what it means to be a content producer. And of course, we will need tools that meet these needs.
We didn’t get to where we are today without some risk takers, trial and error, and a bit of good luck. One could come up with numerous examples of influential products that have moved the convergence needle in the right direction over the years, but there are a couple of significant highlights worth noting.
The Canon 5D Mark II was the camera that launched a revolution. It wasn’t the first stills camera to include video, and it wasn't even the first video-enabled DSLR, but it changed the expectation of what was possible. Launched by Canon mainly as a stills camera, at release it didn’t even have features that would be considered basic functionality for a serious video camera, such as 24p video. Then Vincent Laforet released his short film Reverie, and suddenly every budding filmmaker on the planet had to have one.
The 5D II was quickly adopted by everyone from indie filmmakers hungry for its big sensor cinematic look to video professionals looking for high production value, all despite the fact that the camera had terrible ergonomics for shooting video. The intense interest in the 5D II as a video camera caught Canon off guard a bit, but it established that a stills camera could create great video content, and that a single tool had the potential to satisfy the needs of both users.
|The Canon EOS 5D Mark II wasn't the first video-enabled DSLR, but it was the camera that put video on the map for many still photographers.|
Another big milestone on the march to convergence was the advent of mirrorless cameras, most notably the GH series from Panasonic. Beginning with the Lumix GH1 and continuing through to the current Lumix GH4, Panasonic embraced the mirrorless format and the benefits it provided to filmmakers such as built-in electronic viewfinders and the ability to attach virtually any lens ever made to its bodies. Other manufacturers followed this successful formula with mirrorless cameras such as the Sony a7S and Samsung NX1. Ultimately, mirrorless proved that you didn’t need a DSLR to produce both high quality stills and video. The emergence of accessories like the excellent Atomos Shogun just expand their abilities even further.
|The Panasonic Lumix GH1 quickly became a favorite among videographers thanks to its excellent video and mirrorless body that included an electronic viewfinder, as well as the ability to attach virtually any lens ever made via adapters.|
However, despite the fact that all these cameras had revolutionary video capabilities, they were all basically built around an SLR form factor optimized for still photography.
Enter the XC10
To a certain extent, the XC10 is our first glimpse at what we might see as the influence of Cinema EOS finds its way into Canon’s still imaging products, with features squarely aimed at satisfying both videographers and still photographers in a single body. In fact, the impression one gets is of a camera that could be taken into the field and used equally well for either still photos or video capture and that would provide a reasonably good experience for either.
The camera looks a bit like a baby C100 and includes a video friendly rotating handle and a detachable rear viewfinder for eye level use. Where still cameras with video have historically been a compromise in ergonomics the XC10 is clearly designed with video ergonomics in mind, though the shape should lend itself equally well to stills photography as well.
|The Canon XC10 aims to deliver a good ergonomic experience whether you're shooting still images or video.|
Under the hood a 1-inch sensor promises to deliver 12 stops of dynamic range in both still and video modes while capturing either 12MP still images or video up to 4K (UHD) resolution. 12MP isn’t exactly a headline number these days, but it’s a perfectly adequate resolution for many purposes, particularly the ones Canon is targeting the XC10 at such as electronic news gathering (ENG). In addition to the 12MP image capture the XC10 is compatible with EOS accessories such as Speedlite flash units and remote controllers. It also includes Wi-Fi to get content off the device and into users’ hands quickly (another valuable component for multimedia professionals).
The video side of the camera comes along with some impressive specs: 4:2:2 8-bit color at bit rates up to 305Mbps in 4K (50Mbps in 1080). It also includes a built in ND filter (a critically important feature for achieving proper shutter speed) as well as Canon Log gamma, Wide DR, and EOS Standard picture modes for flexibility in post production and matching color with Cinema EOS cameras. It also includes 5-axis image stabilization, though IS only works up to 1080 resolution.
Who’s it for?
If you're one of those people leaving comments along the lines of 'too expensive!' and 'Canon has lost its way' then rest assured - this product isn't for you. It’s not surprising that Canon is specifically highlighting the XC10’s utility to news agencies and multimedia journalists (a description which covers a surprisingly large swath of media these days). After all, these are people and organizations that have regular need to produce multimedia content, often quickly and with a minimum of gear. Think of a reporter who must rush to the scene of a news story and take still photos for a story on a web site, capture video interviews with eyewitnesses, and live tweet images — all while on the move and on a deadline.
Even DPReview would benefit from this type of camera. When we attend a trade show to bring you industry news we need to gather still images for news stories as well as video content such as interviews and product demos. A camera that does both of these well in a compact package would be very attractive to us.
Another potential use for the XC10 is high quality drone videography. At less than 5 inches in every dimension the camera is sized right to be mounted on medium to large drones. It’s a bit heavy at just over two pounds, but that includes a 10X zoom lens. Assuming the quality is there, this lightweight, high spec combination could prove tremendously useful for commercial aerial photography.
|At less than 5 inches on a side the XC10 could be attractive to multimedia professionals who need a lot of tools in a small, lightweight package. It also has potential for applications such as aerial drone photography.|
Ultimately, the XC10 could prove to be a compelling tool for anyone who needs to create both still and video content from a single device, be it for artistic, business, or other reasons. However, it may not be the tool many enthusiast photographers are looking for. It only has a 1-inch sensor so it likely won’t be a replacement for a camera with a full frame or APS-C chip, but it’s versatility may prove very effective for certain applications.
To see the future, we need only look at the present.
If the old adage of “what costs $50,000 today will cost $5,000 in a few years” is true, we don’t have to be too imaginative to see where technology is taking us because it already exists. Although it may not be on the radar of many still photographers, within the professional motion picture industry a high degree of technical convergence between stills and video already exists, albeit at a relatively high cost.
For example, the RED Epic Dragon is a professional cinema camera whose price starts at around $25,000 and goes up from there. Potentially way up, depending on what accessories are attached to it. This isn’t the type of camera you’re going to throw in your pack for hike, but what’s interesting to look at is the technology convergence going on inside.
|The RED Epic Dragon can capture 6K video at 100 frames per second in raw format. Technology from cameras like this will eventually find its way to prosumer and professional photography equipment.|
The Epic Dragon can capture 6K video at up to 100 frames per second with 16+ stops of dynamic range. Not only that, but RED cameras capture raw video. The result is that every frame to come out of the camera is a 19MP raw image file, similar to a raw file from a DSLR.
Think about that for a second. Imagine the implications for photography.
It may be a few years before we see this level of performance find its way into prosumer and professional photography equipment, but the day will arrive. It’s not a matter of 'if', it’s a matter of 'when'.
What does this mean for photography?
Let’s do a thought exercise. Close your eyes and imagine a future where a camera like Epic Dragon will fit in your hand. Then ask yourself a few questions:
Think of the type of photography you do. Would it change the way you shoot?
Would it affect your creative choices?
What things could you do that you can’t do today?
If we buy into the idea that photography is about the 'Decisive Moment', what are the implications when we gain the ability to capture all the moments in the scene? It’s an interesting question we may all get to explore some day.
The XC10 is no Epic Dragon, but it's still early days for convergence cameras. What the XC10 can do is capture 4K video, each frame of which will give you an 8MP image, and as we’ve seen from other cameras a frame from a properly exposed 4K video stream can produce an impressive image perfectly suitable for many purposes. Of course, you can also attach a Speedlite flash to the top and go take stills with with it. It promises to be adept at either application, and that's the whole point.
Although there has been a lot of movement towards convergence, with consumer stills cameras gaining increasingly advanced video features, this shouldn't be taken to mean that there's no difference between professional stills and professional video equipment. It's easy, from a photographic perspective, to look at the basic specs of the XC10 and compare it to video-capable consumer cameras such as the Panasonic FZ1000 and Sony RX10. Yes, they all have long zooms and 1"-type sensors, but that doesn't mean they can be substituted for one another.
Although the basic components may look similar, the devil is in the detail of the implementation. Even without giving consideration to the handling and form-factors of the two products, it's important to recognize the gulf that exists between being able to shoot 4K and being able to shoot high-end 4K. The FZ1000, for instance, can capture UHD 4K but does so at bitrates of up to 100Mbps, and records 4:2:0 color (meaning only two pieces of color information per 8-pixel block). By comparison, the XC10 shoots 4:2:2 data in the more pro-orientated XF-AVC format at bitrates of 205 or 305Mbps. This may seem like a small difference, but it could well be the difference between broadcasters accepting your footage and rejecting it.
|Canon XC10||Panasonic FZ1000||Sony RX10|
XF-AVC Long GOP
|2X oversampling for HD video||Yes||-||-|
|Professional picture modes||Canon Log gamma||-||-|
|Wi-Fi||Operate camera and transfer images from a web browser or mobile device*||Mobile device (app)||Mobile device (app)|
|HDMI out||Yes, 4:2:2 10-bit**||Yes||Yes|
|Built-in ND filter||Yes||-||Yes|
*The ability to operate the camera and review and transfer images/video through a web browser on a computer is advantageous when many images need to be transferred and processed through a downstream workflow.
**We have asked Canon to confirm this spec
We also don't yet know how durable the build-quality of the XC10 is, however given that Canon is targeting the media and ENG (electronic news gathering) markets it’s very likely that it’s built to commercial standards (it would also explain why such a small camera weighs over two pounds). That would imply that it’s intended for day-in, day-out professional use with predictable reliability throughout its duty cycle. Professional DSLRs that need to meet this threshold of durability, where professionals expect them to work every day without fail, don’t fall far from the same price point. Would an FZ1000 last long in the hands of a working professional putting it through rugged use every day (because that's not the task it was designed for)? The FZ1000 is a camera you might pick up at Best-Buy; it’s unlikely you’ll find professional media organizations shopping for cameras there.
Looking at it from a photographer's perspective, Canon's XA20 camcorder's specifications sound like they should be matched by a mass-market superzoom. A tiny 1/2.8"-type sensor, 27-576mm equivalent zoom and 1080 output doesn't sound particularly impressive, yet the XA20 has an MSRP of $2,500 and sells for around $2,000. The XC10 is aimed at a similar group of run-and gun buyers (though offers a different balance of features: a larger sensor but no XLR audio connectors), and in that context the price isn’t out of line. Also, it’s worth noting that the XC10 is designed to match the look of Cinema EOS cameras, potentially offering a high build quality, yet lower cost alternative to something like a C100 or C300 but whose footage could be intercut with those cameras.
The XC10 represents an important step on the path to convergence between the still and video imaging worlds, though it’s important to recognize that it’s an early step. Canon tends to be very deliberate in its product development and has smartly aimed this camera at a category of users (such as media) for whom the combination of features, specs, and physical size make a lot of sense. It may not be the camera that enthusiast stills photographers are looking for, but it might be the best example yet of a 'convergence' product that facilitates both still photography and video with equal emphasis on both.
So in summary: we’re very much looking forward to getting our hands on one and giving you a full report of how it works...
*I use the word videographer, though I’m essentially referring to anyone doing motion picture work.