When you've been assigned to do an underwater shoot halfway around the world in a remote location, you want to make sure that the equipment you're bringing will work flawlessly. For Los Angeles-based director of photography James Mathers this meant making practice dives close to home, amid the underwater kelp forests of Catalina Island. A veteran underwater cinematographer, Mathers is experienced in using both film and digital video cameras beneath the waves. His choice for his most recent assignment, however, which eventually took him to Manokwari Bay, in Indonesia, was the Canon XL H1 HD camcorder. This HD camcorder gained his attention not only because of image performance and compact size but also because of what he calls its "fantastic versatility."
"No one owner/operator can afford to have every format and piece of equipment that might be requested, but the XL H1 HD camcorder goes a long way in helping you meet your needs with just one camera," Mathers declares. "You can record HD-SDI, 1080i, 24 Frame, 30 Frame, and 60i," he notes. "You can shoot in 16:9 or 4:3. You can also record in HDV and downconvert it right out of the camera as standard DV. This is helpful when you want the extra archival value of shooting in HD, even though you may not need HD at the moment. Editing in SD is much simpler, but your original tapes will be HD, so you will always have the ability to later finish in HD should it be necessary in the future."
"Every job has a toolset that is right for it, but with so much versatility, the XL H1 HD camcorder is right for many of the jobs that I encounter."
With his XL H1 HD camcorder encased in a watertight housing built by Gates Underwater Products, of San Diego, Mathers and his fellow divers headed to Catalina to evaluate the HD camcorder's underwater capabilities. "This was the first time this housing had been used and the first time, I believe, an XL H1 HD camcorder was on an underwater shoot," he comments.
"One of the main things I like about the XL H1 HD camcorder is its compact size," Mathers continues. "Underwater photography requires you to insert weights into your housing to achieve neutral buoyancy due to the air that is inadvertently trapped in the camera housing. The larger the camera, the larger the housing, and the more air there is. A full-size camera starts off being heavier, but also requires a lot of additional weight to achieve neutral buoyancy. That's okay when you're submerged, but it means that you have a very heavy camera when it comes time to haul it out of the water. With battery and support gear, the fully loaded housing could weigh close to 100 lbs."
The compact size of the XL H1 HD camcorder (which, with battery, weighs only 8.3 lbs.) meant that the combined total of its underwater housing and buoyancy compensating weights amounted to approximately 35 lbs. This not only made it easier to pull out of the water and handle on the boat, but also lighter and less expensive to transport when it came time to ship it to Indonesia. "A heavier camera would have been much harder to manage, especially in the small planes we used to reach this remote area of Indonesia. We would've been in bad shape if we hadn't used the XL H1 HD camcorder."
XL H1 Advantages
In addition to its compact size and weight, Mathers was also impressed by the XL H1 HD camcorder's low-light performance 100 feet below the surface as he photographed Catalina's underwater kelp forests. "The XL H1 was great," he notes. "It has good light sensitivity, which helps because there isn't a lot of sunshine penetrating the water once you get down to depth."
The one-hour length of the HDV tape cassette inside the XL H1 HD camcorder was another advantage for shooting underwater, Mathers notes. "Even though you can only stay at the depth we were working for about half an hour at a time, it's better if you don't have to open up an underwater camera housing any more than necessary. This is because each time you open a housing—no matter what brand or camera may be inside—there's always a risk that it will not be properly re-sealed. The XL H1 HD camcorder's one-hour HDV cassette gives you double the time between reloads compared to other digital formats, and about 12 times the duration you would get from a 400 foot roll of 35mm film.
"We had two cameras underwater and took advantage of Canon's Console software to set them up," he adds. "The XL H1 HD camcorder has a number of looks; you can save up to six settings in the camera and record even more to an SD memory card, which you can put into other cameras to match those same settings. You decide the look you want just once and then it's easy to match it. You can have a separate setting for every kind of look you want: underwater, dramatic, documentary, multiple-camera talk show, and more."
After his successful Catalina test, Mathers and crew brought their XL H1 camcorders to Indonesia, where they shot an underwater documentary that's now in postproduction. "The XL H1's," Mathers reports, "performed beautifully."
"Again, the versatility of the XL H1 HD camcorder is fantastic," Mathers reiterates. "It can work as a single documentary HDV camcorder, or as part of a multiple-camera set-up thanks to its genlock and time-code features, or you can record its HD-SDI output to an uncompressed outboard recording system at the high end if you want to do a film-out. It also has interchangeable lenses, which isn't something all HDV camcorders have. Because the XL H1 HD camcorder has almost the same form factor as Canon's earlier XL1 and XL2 camcorders, which have a longer history, there's a lot of interchangeable accessories already out and available for the XL H1. And now that Canon has a wide-angle HD zoom lens available, it makes it even more versatile. The XL H1 HD camcorder gets high marks as far as I'm concerned."