Digital Video Product Reviews: Canon Vixia HF11 high-definition camcorder
The subject of this review is the Canon Vixia HF11 video camera. This new digital video camcorder was released in September of 2008, and it was the first camcorder on the market that utilized the full AVCHD specification of 24Mpbs. The Canon Vixia HF11 records to internal flash memory, or a removable SDHC memory card. This video camera does not record to tape or DVD disc. The HF11 is a high-definition camcorder only, it is not capable of recording video in the old standard-definition format.
This Canon Vixia HF11 review will cover aspects of the camcorder that might be of interest to the so-called "prosumer" user, in other words, a videographer who might be getting paid to use this video camera for shooting things like weddings, or other events. If you are looking for a full listing of all of the Vixia HF11 specifications, try camcorderinfo.com, which has an extensive review of the HF11. Novice users will be glad to see that there is an "easy" button on the camcorder that works really well. Before we go into the main part of the Vixia HF11 review, here is some sample footage from a brand new HF11 that has some strange white flecks in it. Is this dropout of some sort? It doesn't appear to be paper or something similar blowing in the air. This footage is the full 1920x1080 high-definition frame size, and it has been re-encoded to bring the bitrate down drastically; however, you may still experience stuttering as the file plays. Be sure and use the full-screen mode on the player:
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Canon Vixia HF11
In the Canon Vixia HF11 photograph above, you can see various approaches for dealing with some of the more difficult aspects of shooting with small camcorders. The HF11 is fastened to a bracket, with an external microphone mount and a remote battery. While a bracket to hold the camcorder securely with two hands is helpful, you really need to brace the HF11 with something like the shoulder mount shown the second picture, and/or a Steady Stick type of camera support that has a waist belt to help relieve arm fatigue.
How about a discussion on the ease of use?
MANUAL ZOOM: None, and the rocker zoom switch is rather loose and squirrely. It's also a side-to-side zoom, which is counter-intuitive. Why didn't Canon use the front-to-back zoom that they have used before?
MANUAL FOCUS: The quickest approach is to simply point the Canon Vixia HF11 at the object being focused, with autofocus engaged. Without changing the focus point, simply put the camera in manual focus mode with the joystick. The focus button on your XL1s is sorely missed here. The HF11 will stay in manual focus mode even after being turned off. This is good.
MANUAL EXPOSURE: The HF11 will not stay in manual exposure mode after it's been powered down. However, you can keep it in manual exposure mode by putting the camera in standby, which happens when you close the lcd screen, with the screen pointing inwards towards the camera. Canon should have done a better job here.
MANUAL AUDIO: The audio levels are broken up in something like 16 different color-coded levels. There is a manual audio mode, and there is an attenuation setting, both of which stay set after the camera is powered down. Those functions work with an external microphone as well. The Canon Vixia HF11 records two channels of Dolby Digital AC-3 audio. Four channels of audio would be vastly preferable, but at this price point, one would think that it's too much to ask, but that doesn't explain the Canon failure to include four channels of audio on their flagship XL H1s.
MANUAL GAIN CONTROL: Non-existant. It's all done automatically by the camera.
MANUAL SHUTTER SPEED & MANUAL APERTURE: You can't do both at the same time. Take your pick of aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode, wherein you can set one parameter, and the camera sets the other automatically.
CCD vs. CMOS: The Canon XL H1s mentioned above lists for $8,999, and the Canon Vixia HF11 is $1,199. One of the tradeoffs here is in the imaging chips used to obtain the video picture, with this generation of CMOS/shutter interface being much cheaper, but having problems with something called "rolling shutter". If you google the term, you'll find plenty of examples of this picture distortion. In the Vixia HF11 review samples shown here, this major problem is somewhat mitigated by 1)keeping the shutter speed at 1/60th of a second, and 2)keeping the camera on a single plane angle when shooting fast motion. Don't wobble the camera up and down when you are quickly panning a shot.
PICTURE QUALITY: When the light is good, the HF11 puts out a great picture. If you are coming from the standard-definition DV format, you'll be really impressed. The HF11 lens isn't real wide or long, and it does have CA issues, but the overall bang for the buck with this camera is incredible, compared to what you could get just three or four years ago.
AVCHD vs. HDV: When you are looking to buy a camcorder, you'll have to make a choice between those two high-definition video recording formats, and the author recommends AVCHD. The older HDV standard is based on the MPEG-2 format, which is the same format used for standard-definition DVD authoring. When you are shooting in HDV, you are typically acquiring footage at a lower bitrate-per-pixel than you'll probably be delivering your standard-definition DVD at, which is not good for picture quality. With AVCHD on the Canon Vixia HF11, you can shoot footage at roughly the same bitrate as HDV, but the H.264 codec you are using is far better than the MPEG-2 codec that HDV uses.
EDITING AVCHD/H.264: This is currently a problem area for many people, because your average computer is not powerful enough to easily edit AVCHD at the full framerate it was recorded at. Of course, this is the same situation that video editors were in back in the '90's, when you had to purchase an expensive card to edit Hi-8 footage. When the DV format arrived, computers were too slow to play the footage back at 30 frames per second. Then, as now, you had to spend some money to keep up. These days, you'll probably want a quad-core computer at the minimum, and you'll have to update your editing software to the latest version that has full AVCHD/H.264 support. What you might want is something called "smart rendering" where the program re-compresses only that part of the editing timeline that has changes in it.
Canon Vixia HF11 batteries
The factory Canon Vixia HF11 battery is a lithium-ion "Intelligent" battery, which means that your lcd display has a minute-by-minute countdown of how much recording time or playback time there is. Batteries with this capability are of course very expensive, and it's not clear that there is an aftermarket source for these Canon Intelligent li-ion batteries. Since the Canon Vixia HF10 appears to use the same batteries as the HF11, there is a bit of a roadmap for you to follow when it comes to buying cheap camcorder batteries from places like Ebay. Vixia HF10 users are reporting that the cheap aftermarket batteries won't tell you how much of a charge is left, but they are far cheaper than the Canon OEM camcorder batteries. However, reliability issues are a concern for some users, who remembers the Apple Macintosh batteries that caught fire a few years ago? Sony ended up recalling nearly 10 million li-ion laptop batteries.
In the Canon Vixia HF11 photo above, there is an NIMH AA battery pack powering the HF11. NIMH batteries have a lower charge density than the li-ion batteries, and they don't hold the charge for long periods of time. However, they are cheap and plentiful, and if you have a few of them laying around, this might be an option. First things first, though, the Vixia HF11 battery charger can only charge when the battery is in the camera, there is no battery mount on the charger itself. The HF11 battery charger is rated for 8.4 volts, and the HF11 camcorder is pretty picky about the voltage range that can be used to charge the battery. NIMH AAs are rated at 1.2 volts, and they typically have 1.4 volts with a fresh charge. So six NIMH AA batteries is probably the way to go, but since they won't last all that long, you could wire up a second battery pack in parallel. What you see in the photo is a mockup run, and there are a couple of wooden slugs with wires in the last two bays. It might be cleaner to use a pair of 3 bay battery packs instead of the single 8 bay.
So while the AA battery pack won't perform the charge function for all that long, it will run the camcorder for quite awhile with no factory battery installed. When the voltage on the battery pack is too low or too high, the battery light on the Canon Vixia HF11 will start flashing very quickly, about two flashes per second. When the battery charge function is working correctly, the light flashes much slower, and it goes on solid when the battery is fully charged. With no battery in the camcorder, and a measured 7.4 volts(very low!) on the battery pack, the author was still able to record video at the lowest 5Mbps bitrate. Recording at the maximum 24Mbps data rate might require more than 7.4 volts, however. The point is that when the voltage on the external battery pack is too low or too high to perform the charge function, you can still use the HF11, even when the factory battery is completely discharged.
The second page of this review covers the and the external mic mount for the Canon Vixia HF11.