Canon GL2 Review

The long-anticipated Canon GL2 miniDV camcorder is finally on dealers’ shelves and it’s a honey. Canon has made a significant number of improvements to the three year old (and now discontinued) GL1. Perhaps the most important is the addition of manual audio control.

The GL2 looks larger than its predecessor, and it is, but just barely. The overall length has grown by an inch and a quarter. The height and width remain the same. The new camera weighs four ounces less than the old one, and consumes about thirty percent less power. That’s quite an achievement.

The shape of the GL2 is reminiscent of the GL1, but the styling is sleeker. Gone are the white side panels, replaced with bright silver. I would have preferred a dark gray, like what Sony uses on its PD-150 (I’ve heard that Canon is selling a black GL2 in Japan). The viewing system on the 2 is much improved. Though the swing-out LCD screen is the same size, the resolution has been increased from 122,000 pixels to 200,000. The viewfinder works much the same as on the GL1, and has the same resolution.

The camera body is pockmarked with controls. On the left side are all the usual buttons: ND filter, A/M focus, Digital Effects, white balance and exposure (dial). New to the GL2 are a pair of custom setup buttons and the audio controls.

This is where the GL2 really shines. At the rear of the left side is an Audio Rec Level button to set the sound for manual or automatic. Above that are a pair of dials for each channel, L and R. In front of the LCD is a little window that displays audio level. Record level is also displayed, very clearly, in the viewfinder and on the LCD screen. The wheels that control the audio level are on the rear of the camera and are hard to get to, which is a good thing, because you don’t want to have your settings inadvertently bumped. Gone on the GL2 is the program setting wheel the GL1 used. Instead, there is a small switch that lets you go from “Easy Recording” mode to one of six positions: Auto, TV (shutter priority), Av (aperture priority), Manual, Sand & Snow (scenes with bright backgrounds) and Spotlight (scenes with spotlighted subjects, like a concert). You select the modes on the LCD screen or in the viewfinder, using the Select dial on the rear of the camera.

Up top on the GL2 you’ll find the On-Off switch, which lets you select Camera or Play. There is a pair of Record Search buttons, for quickly checking results or finding a cue mark. On the handle is a red Start/Stop button, a Photo button and an auxiliary zoom control rocker. This is useful if you’re using the LCD screen as a monitor and flying the camera around at odd angles. Just behind these is a cover that flips up to reveal the VCR controls. Canon has added an Audio Dub button and an AV Insert button for simple in-camera editing. The Index Screen button lets you display six still images at a time, and the Mix/Slide Show switch sets up a continuous display of still images.

At the front of the handle is a PCM stereo microphone. The quality is fine, but not outstanding. It’s good for general ambient pickup. Above that is the “Advanced Accessory Shoe.” This is a really neat feature. It’s got contacts for a speedlight, which is fine if you use the GL for shooting a lot of stills. But it also will power Canon’s new VL-3 Video Light. At three watts, it’s not very powerful, but would be useful to add a bit of brightness to faces and other close objects. You can even set the light so that it goes on and off as you start and stop the camera. There is also a connector for the Canon MA-300 XLR Adapter. I did not have one of these to test, but it resembles the XLR block that sits atop the Sony PD-150, with a pair of connectors, switches and a mike clamp. I’ll give you an update as soon as the VL-3 and MA-300 arrive.

On the rear of the GL2 are the manual audio wheels, the program select wheel and the Menu button. Getting familiar with the latter will be very important, because the menu system on this camera is extensive. Behind a rubberized panel are the input/output connectors. These include: LANC, USB, Firewire (IEEE 1394), A/V and S-Video. The basic GL2 kit comes with an S cable, a USB cable and an A/V cable with standard RCA Phono plugs on the far end. A Firewire cable is not included.

Over on the right side is the cassette loading door built into the handgrip, much like the GL1. The main zoom rocker’s speed can be preset in the menus to four positions, including Variable. There is a Photo button, a Card/Tape switch for switching record modes, and the familiar Standby/Lock lever with the red start/stop button. Forward of the cassette door is another connector panel, this one with a 5vdc output, a Mic input and a headphone output.

The lens appears to be the same as on the GL2 – 4.2-84mm f1.6/2.8. That awful continuously rotating focus ring is still there (though it has a stiffer feel than the GL1’s).

One aspect of the new camera that I wasn’t able to test, and may not be all that relevant for a majority of DJ readers, is the still photo capability. The GL2 can record up to 1488 x 1128 in a JPEG format. There is a slot on the left side of the camera that will accept a standard SD Memory Card (an 8mb card is included).

Moving along to the optical block, here we see real improvement. The GL2’s three 1/4″ chips have seen a resolution boost from 270,000 pixels to 410,000 pixels (each). Minimum illumination seems to be about twice as good. I equivocate here because I did not have a GL1 to compare the GL2 to, and the published specs say the older camera’s minimum was 6 lux, while the new one is .37 lux with the camera shutter set at 1/8th. If I did the math right, I figure the GL2 at 1/60th (normal) should be 3 lux. But I’m willing to be wrong.

What wonderful new features does the GL2 have, besides manual audio?

Well, its shutter now goes down to 1/8th. That gives you a neat, useable blur effect (but bear in mind that if you shoot with lower than 1/60th speeds you must be fully, unequivocally committed to the look – there’s no “fixing it in post”).

There is a “Clear Scan” feature (like on the XL1S) that lets you adjust the shutter rate to match computer monitors. This has been around on expensive “big” cameras for about a decade. You can dial in 120 frequencies from 60.5Hz to 201.5Hz. Clear Scan is very useful when you’re shooting computer screens (though you have to hope that all those in your shot are running at the same frequency, otherwise you will still get some flicker).

Like some of the Sony miniDV cameras, the GL2 has a time-lapse feature (they call it Interval Recording). You can set it up to record for 15 frames, 30 frames, 45 frames or 60 frames every one, five or ten minutes. You can get some great effects with time lapse, and I’m glad to see that Canon put this on the new GL iteration.

Canon added color bars to the GL2. You get to it through the Digital Effects buttons.

The Custom Setup system is interesting. When you open the special menu for Custom Key, you have the ability to preset certain camera operating preferences, like viewfinder zebra settings (5 percentages), zoom speeds, and some audio controls. If you open the menu for Custom Preset, you can alter the basic camera setup; adjusting color gain, color phase, sharpness, and level.

So how well does the GL2 work?

When you first pick it up, it has a solid, though “plastic-y” feel. The controls are logically grouped. I found that the Focus A/M and ND Filter buttons were easy to push accidentally if you use your left hand to support the camera.

For most shooting, I prefer to use the eyepiece. The image is bright, though not as sharp as I’d like it to be (even with adjusting the diopter). The LCD screen is noticeably sharper than the one on the GL1. Both show a variety of information, including audio VU meters, tape time, battery time, zoom position, ND in-out, and more. The LCD draws almost a watt more power.

The audio system was fine. There is a little bit of noise in both channels when there is no microphone connected and the pots are turned up in Manual mode. I don’t think you’ll ever notice it once you hook up your mics. The GL2 is certainly much quieter than the Sony VX-2000 in Manual. I used a BeachTek DXA-4 XLR adapter and an Electro-Voice 635A stick mic for my tests. As I mentioned earlier, the audio controls may seem awkward at first, but I grew to like them..

My one audio complaint is the lack of headphone volume. I believe it’s very important that the photographer be able to hear everything that is going on, especially in noisy locations. This is vital for getting good sound. I tried the headphone jack with a pair of Sony MDR-7506, which are Videosmith’s recommended phones. With the GL2 volume set at High, incoming audio seemed too low for critical monitoring. I switched to a pair of Sennheiser 2200’s, and at High could barely hear anything. Perhaps if you shop around you can find a pair of “cans” that work better (and if you do, please let me know).

Whereas I would have put the GL1 and the Sony VX-2000 in the same class, what Canon has done with the GL2 makes it a serious competitor to the Sony PD-150, which uses 1/3″ chips and costs about $1000 more. We made some side-by-side comparisons.

From an overall sharpness point of view, I’d have to say the GL2 and the PD are about equal. The Canon’s smaller chips actually have more active pixels than the PD-150’s. (and don’t forget that the Canon lens is 20x, and Sony is just 12x).

In terms of sensitivity, the Sony has an edge on the Canon, but not much. At higher gain settings, the Canon is a somewhat more noisy than the PD-150.

The colorimetry of the PD was more true to the subject. The GL2 seemed over-saturated. We did not, however, try making any changes to the Custom Preset to see if we could get the two closer. It would certainly be worthwhile to try backing off the Color Gain setting, and perhaps fiddling with the Color Phase.

Canon has done a great job in bulking up the features without bulking up the camera. Taking into consideration the price difference between the PD-150 and the GL2, I think the Canon came through with flying colors. If budget is an issue, I’d definitely recommend the Canon. And I much prefer the GL2 to the VX-2000 and PD-100A. While the XL1S was but a step away from the XL1, this new GL2 is a giant leap over its predecessor.