Review: Canon Vixia HF11 AVCHD camcorder
This inexpensive consumer camcorder makes surprisingly good HD images.
By Adam Wilt | January 12, 2009
The HF11 with LED video light illuminated. Above the LED are the flash and the instant-AF window.
The $1199 Vixia HF11 ($850 street price) is a one-chip CMOS consumer HD camcorder recording 1080-line AVCHD to flash memory, either its own internal 32 GB buffer or an SD / SDHC memory card. It lacks a viewfinder; it offers no manual control other than a fiddly little joystick and a short-throw zoom rocker; it has limited image tweaks, yet its CMOS sensor and "DIGIC" image processor yield remarkably good images, and its high-bitrate AVCHD codec records those images as faithfully and transparently as do codecs on much more expensive, professional camcorders. Yes, it's a great little vacation cam, and if you're willing to work within its limitations, it can also serve professionally.
Why look at the HF11?
At MacWorld SF 2008, I saw some video at the Canon booth that I assumed had been shot with one of their three-chip pro camcorders, like the XL H1 or XH A1. Dvinfo.net's Chris Hurd, who was working the booth, told me it was all shot with one of the HF11's predecessors, the HF10 or HF100. I was taken aback; the pix looked far too good for a single-chip consumer camera. Only one shot, a pan across a field of grass, showed any noticeable blocking artifacts from low-bitrate AVCHD recording.
The HF11 came out last August, bumping the maximum recording bitrate from 17 to 24 Mbits/sec—the first camcorder to offer that option, the highest bitrate available in AVCHD.
Looking at the HF11 lets us answer two questions: can a sub-$1000 consumer camcorder produce an HD image suitable for professional use, and is AVCHD capable of recording that image with sufficient quality for professional consideration? The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is "yes".
The HF11 is a sleek black chunk of camcorder, a cylindrical lens housing extending back with a rectangular lump on the left for its flip-out LCD screen. With the stock battery, it's under a pound in weight, just over five inches long, just under three inches wide, and two and half inches tall. As befits a high-end consumer camcorder, the HF11 is finished in multiple shades and textures of black, with tasteful chrome touches; it's a pleasure to look at (and photograph, grin). It's elegant rather than flashy, and even with its reflective accents, it's small enough and dark enough that it won't attract too much attention.
The front has a 12x zoom lens behind a rectangular anti-flare mask, and a 37mm screw fitting for filters or wide-angle attachments. The HF11 uses an internal shutter-style lens cap that opens automatically when the camera is turned on in shooting mode. On the left are an instant-autofocus sensor window, a vertical flash for the HF11's still camera mode, and a blue-white LED video light (!), all of which will be blocked by any add-on lens adapter or hood. A pair of mics sits below the lens.
The left side is dominated by a 2.7 inch flip-out LCD, which can rotate 270 degrees from straight down to straight forward. Behind the LCD are an SD/SDNC card slot and a multipin component connector (which looks identical to the mini-D-shell connector on many Sony HDV camcorders, except for a keyed notch in the shell that prevents using a Sony cable). A slide switch releases the SDHD access door, while the component plug rests behind a pull-out door tethered to the camera with a plastic leash, as are all the other pull-open covers on the HF11. An "Easy" pushbutton containing a light blue LED enables the camera's "auto everything, just trust me" mode of operation; another pushbutton clears the LCD of data clutter (leaving only the record/pause indicator) and shows battery info when the camera is shut off.
Left side, screen open, Easy mode engaged.
The LCD panel has a row of multifunction membrane buttons and a four-way joystick. The menbrane buttons display the function menu, and provide start/stop, zoom, and backlight control buttons while recording, and transport controls during playback. The joystick is used both for navigating the menu system and for selecting between the various parameters that can be manually controlled, and controlling them.
The rear of the camera has pull-off, tethered covers for the 1/8" mic jack, a 1/8" dual-use jack for either A/V output or headphones (menu selectable), and a coax jack for the AC adapter. The stock battery, good for about an hour of recording, fits flush with the sculpted rear surface; higher-capacity batteries (roughly speaking, a two-hour and a three-hour battery) stick out the back when used. There's a dedicated start/stop button on the right edge, where your thumb rests naturally.
Operator's view of the camera. Joystick menu is displayed.
The right side of the camera has a four-position mode selector dial for recording or playback of stills or video, and mini-HDMI and mini-USB 2.0 sockets behind a pull-off cover. The side of the camera forms a comfy handgrip and has an adjustable, padded strap.
Right side, dial set for movie-shooting mode.
Atop the camera are the side-to-side zoom rocker, the on/off pushbutton and LED, a "Photo" pushbutton for use when the HF11 is put into photo mode or for grabbing a still frame while shooting video. At the rear is a slide-off cover over Canon's proprietary "mini advanced shoe", for Canon's own VL-5 video light or DM-100 stereo directional mic (but not anything designed for the "advanced accessory shoe", or for a standard shoe mount).
Component cable and SDHC card on the left, composite+audio and headphones in the rear, USB on the right.
The underside of the camera has the battery release and the tripod socket—but no socket for an anti-rotation pin. The tripod socket is so far forward (to avoid sticking up into the SDHD card socket) that there isn't room for an anti-rotation pin socket (which would stick up into the mic compartment), so you need to ensure that any tripod used with the HF11 either lacks the pin or allows the pin to be retracted or removed.
Underneath: the tripod socket and the battery release.
The camera comes with a stock battery and AC adapter/charger (which charges the battery on the camera), as well as cables for USB, AV, and component connections. An HDMI cable is not included, and as the HF11 uses a mini-HDMI socket, it may take some looking around to find a matching cable. Both Mac and PC software are provided for simple still image management and editing; I didn't use either one in my tests.
The HF11 fits comfortably in the right hand, with the index finger on the zoom rocker and the thumb poised over the start/stop button.
The Canon Vixia HF11 is a compact handful of camera.
There is no viewfinder—there's no room for a viewfinder—so the LCD must be used. When the camera's on/off button is pressed, the camera turns on in a power-saving standby mode; opening the LCD powers the camera fully up into record-ready mode, so you can rolling within one second of opening the LCD.
Operation is fairly simple: ensure the four-position dial is in video-recording node, push the start/stop button, and away you go. The side-to-side zoom rocker allows zooms ranging from 2-30 seconds, but the lever is quite sensitive, so a smooth zoom takes a very gentle and careful touch. Pushing to the left goes wide, pushing right zooms in; compared to the action of most pro zooms this seems reversed. If the zoom is too touchy, you can set the zoom to use one of three constant speeds, or use the membrane buttons on the LCD for a fast, fixed-speed zoom.
What, you wanted more control? It's available, though you have to work for it. Normally, the camera is in fully automatic mode, varying shutter, gain, aperture, and focus as it sees fit (it'll even go into slow-shutter mode in low light: 1/30 in 60i and 30p, and 1/12 in 24p), but you can also put the camera in to Tv mode to manually set the shutter speed, or Av mode to fix the aperture. The selected setting appears in the LCD, along with the mode indicator. You can then lock the overall exposure and then adjust it manually with the joystick: press the joystick in to display the pop-up joystick menu, push down until the "EXP" menu is shown, push up to lock or unlock the exposure, and when locked, push right or left to tweak the setting.
VF data with exposure compentation bar, Tv mode at 1/24th second, clip #52 on internal memory, recording time left, headphones & stabilization enabled, horizon line and manual audio level displayed, MXP recording format, and joystick menu. Not shown: remaining time on battery, because the camera was on AC power at the time.
Other shooting options are selected and adjusted the same way, such as auto/manual audio level, rec review and last-scene deletion, turning the video light on and off, focusing, and adjusting headphone levels. It's a very compact interface, but obviously not one well suited to on-the-fly operations; it's best to consider it a way of setting up the camera before a shot rather than using it to change settings while recording.
Normally, the camera uses through-the-lens auto-focus as well as Instant AF using a separate sensor; the latter is very good (perhaps too good) at detecting an out-of focus condition and instantaneously snapping the focus to the right point. Instant AF can be disabled if you'd prefer; the TTL AF is slower, but less jarring. Autofocus hunts continuously, so even static subjects will show slight focus pulsing in AF modes.
Manually focusing the camera can be done with the joystick; the HF11 has a focus assist feature that blows up the image in the LCD 2x to allow fine focusing. But pushing the joystick side to side ramps focus at a fixed speed, so it's difficult to obtain fine control.
I found the best way to operate focus normally was to let Instant AF grab the focus, then lock it with the joystick to prevent hunting.Of course, if you need to follow focus during the shot, that won't work; I let the camera take charge rather than trying to track focus changes with the joystick control.
Pressing the FUNC. membrane switch brings up the menus, which let you tweak the camera's operational modes and the look of its images. Among them:
- Tv: Fixed shutter speed, variable aperture and gain.
- Av: Fixed aperture, varying shutter speed and gain.
- Cine mode: tones down color and detail settings; fixes knee at 70%.
- Portrait / Sports / Night / Snow / Beach / Sunset / Spotlight / Fireworks: optimizes the camera for the specified situation.
- White balance: Auto, manual WB, daylight, tungsten, shade, cloudy, and two fluorescent settings.
- Image Effects (e.g., looks): off (contrasty, saturated, and sharpened), vivid (more saturated), neutral (less saturated), low sharpening, soft skin detail, and custom (in which you can set saturation, contrast, skin detail, and sharpening yourself).
- Digital Effects: fades, wipes, sepia, B&W, and "art" (posterized color).
- Recording quality (discussed below).
- Simultaneous still image recording: on/off, size, and quality.
- Self timer on/off (provides a 10-second delay for recording).
- Digital Zoom off / 40x / 200x.
- Zoom rocker speed: variable or three fixed speeds.
- Autofocus mode: Instant AF or normal, TTL AF.
- Focus assist (magnification) on/off.
- Optical image stabilization on/off.
- Frame rate: 60i, PF30, PF24.
- Auto slow shutter on/off.
- Mic attenuation on/off and wind filter on/off.
- Headphones jack,or AV output jack: one or the other!
- Component output: 1080i or 480i.
Going into the custom setting of Image Effects lets you tweak saturation, contrast, skin detail, and sharpening, but as befits a consumer-oriented camera each setting has only three variations: -, normal, and +. While some may miss the finer granularity of seven, fifteen, or 199 separate steps in each control, I found that the three variations were nicely spaced, and that setting each one to its "-" position reduced things from the contrasty, crisp, colorful, consumer-oriented "Kodachrome" look to a much more natural appearance that worked well when intercut with other cameras.
There plenty of other settings, too, mostly dealing with photo mode and playback / memory mangement. Download the manual for the complete listing.
The HF11 also operates as a still camera, shooting 4:3 or 16:9 still pix from 640x480 up to 2048x1536. It has spot, center-weighted and full-frame evaluative metering modes, flash, and even a playback histogram (though not a live histogram) for checking exposure. The HF11 can grab stills at up to 5fps in continuous mode, and it can snap stills while recording video, too (though not with the same level of control as in stills mode, of course; you're simply grabbing a still of the current video frame, at either 1920x1080 or 848x480 size).
next: Performance; Conclusions...
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