People keep asking me for camera recommendations for travel videos and adventure films.
Here’s one: the Canon XC10.
(With a few accessories, on which more later.)
Both Leon and I are shooting on this camera right now. Indeed, we’ve both worked our way through the exact same progression of cameras over the years.
Then came the Canon XF100, which was the main camera for Walking Home From Mongolia, Into The Empty Quarter, Karun, and The Last Explorers. It’s a true time-proven workhorse; still made and sold today.
We both made brief forays into DSLR-land, Leon with a Canon 5D MkII, which was the camera that really put DSLR filmmaking on the map, and me with a Nikon D90. As camera ops, however, we found them frustrating to work with compared to ‘proper’ video cameras, and so got rid of them.
I next bought a Sony NEX-7, hoping that this compact digital stills/video camera with interchangeable lenses would finally solve the problem of a do-everything adventure travel camera for cinematic movie making and top end stills.
It didn’t. The damn thing overheated after 7 minutes of filming. Sony refused to repair or replace it, saying that this was “within the acceptable range of performance” of the camera. Cough-bullshit-cough.
So we went back to the XF100.
Then the Canon XC10 came along.
Several theoretical aspects of this camera caught my eye. It’s small, light, shoots broadcast-legal footage, and looks totally innocuous. It’s obviously designed for handheld use by a one-man crew. Reviewers agreed that – given the fixed lens, sensor size, and the price point – the image quality was outstanding.
Given the kind of films I make and the environments I operate in, this all sounded a bit too good to be true.
As well as that, it would be future-proof, shooting 4K footage at 305Mbps (though I doubt I’ll be using this feature).
Oh – and it’s amazingly good value for money. In fact, it costs less brand new than the second-hand resale value of the XF100!
I took the plunge and bought one.
On first impressions it looked like a medium-sized stills DSLR with a zoom lens attached – a so-called ‘bridge camera’ – but closer inspection revealed that its design and the layout of its controls shared much with that of a traditional camcorder.
There are obvious family resemblances to the C100 and all-conquering C300, which makes sense when you consider that Canon have positioned it as the baby brother of these cameras within their Cinema EOS line.
The most obvious departure from standard DSLR ergonomics is the twistable left hand grip, which when combined with the tilting LCD screen allows the camera to be operated at a variety of heights relative to the user, rather than having to hold the camera up to or in front of your face, as if taking a photograph with a traditional camera.
(Experienced camera operators will tell you that this flexibility in handling is paramount when you’re dashing around trying to get a variety of shots to build a sequence. This was always a major drawback of DSLR videography for run-and-gun filmmaking.)
Canon also supply a loupe viewfinder which attaches securely to the LCD, which also tilts up and down in the same way you’d expect to find on a professional camcorder. While this limits the use of the touchscreen menus, there’s a joystick placed under the right thumb which does the same job.
The internal software of the camera has also been built with video in mind, and videographers will find all the features they’d expect to from a serious video camera, including built-in (physical) neutral density filters, professional colour profiles including a Canon Log style profile for getting the most out of the camera’s output in a grading suite, embedded timecoding, and more.
As mentioned, the camera puts out broadcast quality footage in a massive range of formats, and for future-proofing can also shoot in 4K (i.e. four times the number of pixels per frame as Full HD), which looks set to begin overtaking HD in the next few years, at least for digital cinema releases and (increasingly) online video on Youtube et al.
Unlike DSLRs, the lens is not interchangeable, meaning you are limited to the 24-240mm (i.e. 10x) zoom lens built into the camera. This is an acknowledgement of the camera’s true purpose, which is as a tool for no-nonsense filmmakers who are more concerned with capturing a good story than playing around with interchangeable lenses – video journalists, news gatherers, and… travel and adventure filmmakers.
Sure, interchangeable primes and shallow depth of field are great for eye candy. But factual filmmakers who want to capture real-life stories have been shooting on cameras with no-nonsense fixed lenses for as long as video has been a thing. Manufacturers therefore have lots of experience building cameras with fixed lenses that represent an excellent balance of quality and versatility. The XC10’s lens (and in-camera lens correction software) is no exception, as a look at some demo footage online will demonstrate.
This close integration between lens and camera has also allowed Canon to develop one of the best optical image stabilisation features I’ve ever worked with. Shooting handheld at the long end of the lens, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the camera was on a tripod. Quite remarkable, and perfect for speedy footage gathering on the road or trail. (You also get a focal distance readout on the LCD, which I personally find enormously useful.)
There are three custom-assignable buttons on the XC10, two on the lens barrel and one on above the joystick on the back panel. I’ve set these up to control the ND filter (as I shoot almost exclusively outdoors in direct sunlight), focus-assist magnification, and powered image stabilisation (again, a very useful feature for the adventure filmmaker).
A quick note on accessories. Standard advice when buying filmmaking gear like this is to spend half your budget on the camera and half on accessories. Since the lens is fixed, you might revise this to 2/3 on the camera and 1/3 on accessories – of which the non-negotiables are an external microphone, a tripod, spare batteries, and lots of memory cards.
There’s no XLR input on the Canon XC10 for pro microphones, but this can be resolved with aftermarket accessories. Or, you can plug a Rode VideoMic Pro straight into the 3.5mm microphone input jack and record any other audio on an external recorder (e.g. with a SmartLav connected to a smartphone in your subject’s pocket).
Both Leon & I are shooting with the VideoMic Pro atop the XC10. (Don’t forget to add a wind gag for outdoor use.)
Memory cards are a bit funky in the case of the XC10. 4K footage is recorded onto CFast 2.0 cards, which are eye-wateringly expensive. HD footage, on the other hand, is recorded onto much cheaper SDXC cards.
While I don’t plan to use the 4K function, I opted to buy the camera as a bundle with a single 128GB CFast 2.0 card thrown in, just in case I wanted to shoot 4K at the long end of the lens and crop in even further in the edit.
Then I stocked up on good-quality branded 32GB SDXC cards for day-to-day shooting.
We’re a bit better off in the battery department, as the XC10 uses the same LP-E6/LP-E6N batteries as the popular Canon 5D and 7D DSLRs, meaning that aftermarket batteries are abundant and cheap, as are additional chargers. (I ordered a few from Hong Kong on eBay. While older LP-E6 batteries won’t charge in-camera, they’ll work fine to power the camera on their own.)
The Canon XC10 has got lots of reviewers confused. That’s no surprise, because it genuinely represents something innovative. Take what else you read about this camera with a pinch of salt. It’s not perfect – more assignable buttons and dials would be nice – but no camera ever is.
For now, and for my style of shooting, the Canon XC10 is the best adventure travel filmmaking camera I can imagine.
Expect a full review later in the year when I’ve got a pile of footage to show for it. There’s much more on the subject of adventure filmmaking to come this year, so keep your eyes peeled or subscribe to the newsletter.
At the time of writing, Canon are doing £50 cashback on the XC10 – that’s a couple of extra memory cards, so don’t forget to claim it if you buy one.