Canon GL2 Mini DV Camcorder

Canon’s MiniDV prosumer GL2 is Canon’s much anticipated replacement for the popular GL1 camcorder. The GL2 has an MSRP of $2799, but you should be able to find it on the street for around $2400 or better. With the GL2, Canon did not make many changes, in fact the lens is reported to be identical to the GL1 so upgrading is questionable. The most obvious comparison for the GL2 is to the Sony DCR-TRV950 so throughout the review I’ll compare the GL2 to the DCR-TRV950. All in all, the GL2 is a great camcorder for recording video which gives you ultimate control over your picture, making it the perfect choice for the serious videographer.

Video Performance

The number of pixels put on the quarter inch CCD has increased with the GL2, from 270K to 410K. Although a lot of that is contributed to the still resolution, I believe that the increased pixels on the CCD do improve the picture quality. The picture is really professional quality, and very impressive, it’s really sharp. It’s a very hard judgment to make but I do feel that the picture that the GL2 produces is better than the TRV950. It’s very subtle and you’ll have to make the judgment yourself, but I also feel the GL2 excels in other areas that place it ahead of the GL2, making the slight differentiation in picture quality mute.

Front

Before we get into the deep evaluation of the camcorder, I’d like to take a tour around the GL2. Let’s start dead on with the front of the camcorder. The lens is a 58 mm L-Series Fluorite lens. Canon describes the advantages of this “professional” lens as delivering the ultimate in color clarity. Canon reports that the fluorite in the lens defeats color aberration. Also located in the front of the camcorder, raised above and extended out from the handle is the stereo microphone. In the middle of the left and right microphones is the IR receiver. Towards the top of the IR receiver is a red tally lamp that indicates whether or not the camcorder is recording. The tally lamp can be turned on or off.

The Right

The right side of the camcorder is pretty void of any features, which in my mind is a good thing. The tape loading mechanism is located on the right side, with the actual tape eject button located on the top, slightly recessed. The zoom rocker is also located on the right side. Hidden behind a removable (though still attached to the camcorder) rubber panel is the DC terminal, microphone input and headphone output. The DC terminal is for plugging the camcorder into the power adapter, although this can also be attached via a “battery” style power attachment in the back. I like the placement of the mic jack on the GL2 over the placement of the mic jack on the DCR-TRV950 where it is located in the front. I think it is best to have a mic jack on the side because then microphone wires won’t get in the way of your lens, however I guess by placing them on the side so close to the side strap, they will get in the way of your hand while you’re shooting. It’s really a trade off.

I have pretty small hands, but I felt that the right side “handle” was too small for me. When grasping the camcorder, my fingers fell beyond the zoom controls. When I pull my fingers back, there is a large space between the top of my palm and the handle, which makes it hard to really hold the camcorder stable. Also located on the top right is the photo button. It gives a nice click when you press it.

Back

The back right of the camcorder includes all the standard thumb-position buttons for easy access. The record button is surrounded by a rotating standby / lock switch. Right above the record button is a great Card / Tape switch that selects between still mode and video mode.

Still in the back of the camcorder, but located to the right of the battery slot is a multitude of ports covered by a rubber piece. Going from top to bottom is the LANC port, a mini USB port, the DV FireWire port, the Mini AV port, and lastly an S-Video port. The next area over is the battery connector. Something I don’t like about the GL2 is that the viewfinder has to be pulled out and up in order to remove the battery.

On the far left of the back side of the camcorder is a long vertical line of controls. The top most control is left audio manual control dial with the actual indicator on the back of the left side. The right audio manual control dial is located right below that. Below that is the menu button. The last dial on the back of the camcorder is the select dial. Some of the dials on the GL2 don’t make full rotations, rather you can move them slightly up or down a slight distance and then when to let go they spring back. I really like these dials. They allow for more acute control and variable speed control of features that would not usually be afforded such control, like exposure or scrolling through menu items. You can quickly click the spring back scroll dials and the camcorder will move up or down one value. When you have pressed the menu button, the select dial scrolls through menu options. When the recording mode is in the option side (not the easy recording mode) you use the select dial to scroll through different automatic exposure modes or switch into full manual mode.

Left

At the far back left towards the top of the GL2 are the indicators for the manual left and right controls with the dials located on the back. I really think these indicators I really great. The GL2 really beats out the TRV950 on manual audio control by far. The two dials with the indicators on the side are much better than the menu controlled manual audio control on the TRV950.

Located below the two manual audio are two small switches to toggle between manual audio and automatic picture and audio control. Moving towards the lens of the camcorder on the right side is the LCD monitor. A small open button pops open the 2.5 in. LCD screen. When you open up the LCD screen all that is hidden is a screen and one button. I really like Canon’s decision to make the only button that is hidden behind the LCD screen the on screen display toggle button which you are unlikely to use unless the screen is open. With decreasing space on every camcorder as camcorders get smaller, manufacturers have been hiding more and more buttons behind the LCD screen. Putting buttons behind an LCD screen is not only annoying, but it also means that you have to have the LCD screen open for certain functions, and if you’re trying to preserve battery life you want your LCD screen open as little as possible. I am a little disappointed that Canon did not place the LCD brightness buttons on the LCD screen like Sony did with the DCR-TRV950. Instead they are controlled in the menu. I find that to properly use an LCD screen I constantly have to adjust the brightness to get the best picture and to optimize battery life.

Located towards the bottom of the camcorder below the LCD screen is the SD slot. The SD card port is covered up by a door that folds up. I like Canon’s placement of the SD slot. On the Sony TRV950, Sony placed the Memory Stick slot on top of the tape transport which was really odd. To the left of the SD card slot is a tiny little white circle, and I have no clue what it is! I thought it might be a card access light but it doesn’t seem to light up when the GL2 is saving stills to the SD cards. Maybe it’s a reset button? Anyone know?

To the left of the SD slot is the custom preset button, custom key, white balance mode select and white balance set button. Right at the far right end of the left side of the camcorder is the exposure dial which is used to control shutter speed, iris and gain. I don’t feel the buttons bounce back enough. When you press them you’re not always sure if they click it or not. Because they are recessed (to protect them from accidentally being pressed) they are somewhat hard to press. The exposure dial is the same spring back type as the selection dial.

There are four rectangle silver buttons to the left of the LCD screen, with two above and two below the audio level meter. The top left button switches between manual and automatic focus. The top right button turns the ND filter on or off. The button two buttons toggle digital effects on and off and select which digital effect to use.

Top

We’ll start with the accessory shoe which is located towards the lens. Almost all of the buttons located on the top of the camcorder are located on the top handle, raised about an inch above the top of the camcorder. As you move towards the back the next two buttons you hit are the zoom toggle and the record start stop button, located next to each other. Below those two is a photo button. I love that Canon included buttons on the top handle, If you really want to do creative shooting you will inevitably hold your camcorder by the top handle an it is essential that you be able to toggle recording on and off and being able to control zoom is also very helpful. Sony didn’t include such controls on the top handle of the TRV950.

Located behind the photo button are the VCR control buttons which are hidden by a door that folds open to the right. I like that these controls are located on top of the handle as opposed to behind the LCD screen, however I’m really scared that the door is going to pop off. I think a sliding cover would have been a better choice. Hidden by the door going from the front towards the back of the GL2 are the stop / memory card index screen button, the rewind / memory card back button, the play / pause / mix / slideshow memory card button, the fast forward / forward memory card button, the record button, audio dub button and finally the audio video insert button.

Manual Control Where the Canon GL2 excels is in offering the user ultimate control over the picture they are recording. The best evidence of the respect that Canon has for the consumer regarding manual control is with the zoom. The GL2 has a very nice 20x optical zoom with a 100x digital zoom. The 20x optical zoom on the GL2 really beats out the 10x optical on the TRV950. Every camcorder has manual zoom. Of course the GL2 has manual zoom, but you are presented with a multitude of options. There are two zoom controls, one located on the grip and one located on the top handle. I do feel that the grip control is a little small and there isn’t much movement making slow variable speed zooms a little hard. However, within the menu you have the option of setting the speed of the zoom, variable, slow, medium or fast. As I mentioned earlier, you can even set the speeds of the top handle and the right side grip zooms independently! So if you really wanted precision, you could set one to really fast or really slow and the other to variable zoom. I think this would make shooting in live situations, where you almost always want to use a zoom, or shooting on fast on the go situations where you want to pop in and out very helpful.

Manual focus is controlled by a ring around the lens. The focus ring gives a fair about of tension making accurate focusing really easy. If you hold the camcorder like I prefer to when I don’t have a tripod by putting my right hand in the grip and cradling the lens with my left hand, your left hand falls right on the focus ring, with your thumb conveniently falling right on the automatic / manual focus toggle button. I am able to move my left hand thumb to the exposure dial to adjust the aperture, shutter speed and white balance.

Where the GL2 really excels in manual control is with the aperture control and shutter speed control. When you are in automatic shooting mode, you can use the exposure wheel to manually compensate the overall exposure (a combination of aperture and shutter speed) by setting the exposure lock. You can set the exposure lock from -11 to +5 with 15 steps in between.

To get full control over the shutter speed and aperture you switch the camcorder over to full manual control. You press in the exposure wheel to toggle through shutter speed, aperture and manual gain. The on-screen display shows the values of the four picture elements. The first in the list is shutter speed. The Canon can go from as low 1/8th of a second to 1/15,000 of a second with 29 steps of shutter speed control. The slower 1/8th of a second, 1/15th of a second and 1/30th of a second shutter speeds are new to the GL2.

Canon also added a really great new shutter speed control named clear scan. After you get to the 1/15,000 of a second shutter speed value, the next option is the clear scan shutter speed control. This shutter speed option is designed for adjusting the shutter speed based on the scan frequency of a television or a computer monitor. If you’ve ever filmed a computer monitor you might have noticed black lines scrolling horizontally on the screen. This is because the shutter speed of the camcorder is out of sync with that of the monitor. You adjust the clear scan screen shutter speed by going into the menu and selecting camera setup. The clear scan shutter speed is set based on Hertz (Hz) from 60.5 Hz to 201.5 Hz with an amazing 120 steps in-between. This is a really great feature. I think it’s a broader example of Canon including features that really add to the camcorder but don’t cost them anything to put in there, it really shows a respect for the consumer.

Pressing the exposure dial in once more switched control down to the aperture. You can set the aperture, or depth of field from F1.6 to F8 with 19 steps. The camcorder tells you the exact number of F stops on the on screen display. The inclusion of the numerical values is very helpful for the professional videographer. Although Sony gives you control over the manual exposure on the DCR-TRV950, they do not display the number of F Stops.

Pressing the exposure dial in one more time toggles the camcorder to manual gain adjustment. You can set the manual gain at 0 dB, +6 dB, +12dB or +18dB. Again you move through the options using the exposure wheel. I really like the added +18dB which helps in low light situations.

With white balance you have three standard options. Indoor, outdoor or complete manual. Two buttons control the white balance, The select button toggles between the three options. When you are in the full manual options, a button to the right of the select button sets the actual white balance.

You also have the ability to turn the neutral density filter on and off. No such feature is provided on the Sony DCR-TRV950. The ND filter is great for shooting bright scenes. Overall manual control is one of the areas where the GL2 really excels.

A feature I really love on the GL2 is the custom preset. Using this feature you can adjust the overall color gain, color phase, color sharpness and color setup level (brightness). Using the custom preset button on the side of the camcorder you can toggle the adjustments on or off. The custom preset options are really great for tweaking your video image even more, above the basic manual controls that the camcorder offers. It’s a really helpful feature.

Frame Movie Mode

The GL2 has frame movie mode which allows it to shoot 30 frames per second progressive scan video. The video is nice to get that movie look, but if you’re really looking for a high quality movie look, get Panasonics new 24 frame progressive MiniDV camcorder.

Optical Image Stabilization

The GL2 includes an optical image stabilizer, something the TRV950 lacks. When electronic image stabilizers came out, I always choose camcorders with optical image stabilizers over digital because digital image stabilizers often degrade picture quality. However, now the CCDs have higher resolutions than the actual camcorder’s output quality, the amount an electronic image stabilizer degrades the video picture is negligible. So is the optical image stabilizer better, especially when compared to the electronic one of the TRV950? I hesitantly say yes. It is very hard to evaluate image stabilization because the differences are so subtle, however I do feel that the optical image stabilization is much smoother. It seems you don’t get picture stalls (where you move the camcorder and the picture doesn’t move with you for a half or quarter second) with the optical image stabilization. Whether or not the video quality is better? In theory it is, however I can’t tell a noticeable difference in the degradation between electronic and optical image stabilization.

Shooting Modes

The GL2 has a multitude of shooting modes. The first mode which I really like is Easy Recording. In this mode, the camcorder takes control of everything. The camcorders has TV mode, where you have control over most features other than gain and aperture, Av mode where instead of control over shutter speed you have control over aperture. Of course, my favorite mode is full manual, where you have total control over everything, except you can’t set the exposure lock. Of course, in this mode you can set the shutter speed and aperture so not being able to control the exposure lock doesn’t matter. The last two modes are Sand and Snow and Spotlight. The first is self explanatory, but the Spotlight feature is great for shooting areas where there is strong contrast in light, specifically in an auditorium on a stage.

Handling

The one major thing that I feel is better with the Sony DCR-TRV950 over the Canon GL2 is general handling and control. The GL2 is certainly heavier and larger than the TRV950, which I really like. The extra mass is not too much that you’ll get tired holding it with two hands, but it has enough weight so that you can shoot stably. Button location is pretty good on the GL2. I felt that I could adjust the picture settings in full manual and record to tape at the same time while maintaining a steady shot.

Still Performance

The major upgrade of the GL2 over the GL1 is the addition of an SD slot of saving digital stills to. The Gl2 utilizes pixel shifting to achieve 1.7 Mega Pixel 1488 x 1128 resolution stills with the three 410K pixel CCDs. The GL2 only has satisfactory still performance. The stills are okay looking but I do believe that for overall quality, the TRV950 produces better pictures. The camcorder does not include a pop-up flash like the DCR-TRV950, although one is available as an addition accessory. Something I thought was quite annoying was that the GL2 cannot save digital stills to the SD card while you are in the tape recording mode. In order to save digital stills you must switch from tape mode to card mode. It seems that when you are in card mode it takes the camcorder an extremely long time to save the digital stills to the SD card, this possibly could be explained by the fact that the Canon GL2 has to use pixel shifting, and therefore do more processing to the images before they are saved to SD cards. The GL2 includes a USB port and includes a USB cable and software to hook your camcorder up to your computer.

Low Light

I would rate the GL2’s low light performance as excellent. When you throw the camcorder in to full manual, open up the iris, bring the shutter speed to 1/60th and turn the gain up to +18 dB you can get a satisfactory picture in a fairly low light setting, one that certainly beats the TRV950. The better still performance is most likely explained by the slightly larger CCD’s on the GL2 which are able to bring in more light per pixel than the TRV950. I really didn’t notice any grain until I kicked the gain up to +18 dB, and then it was only minor, certainly at an acceptable level. At +18 dB the grain on the GL2 is greater than what it is at +12 dB on the TRV950, but I feel that when they are both at the same dB level, the GL2 has less grain. Where the GL2 really jumps ahead of the competition in low light performance is with the aid of the custom preset. By maxing out the color gain and just slightly increasing the brightness, you can get a really visible low light picture. Now the GL2 doesn’t beat out the VX2000 in low light, but it does beat out the TRV950 in my opinion.

LCD / Viewfinder

The GL2 includes a 2.5 in. LCD screen, smaller than the 3.5 in. LCD on the DCR-TRV950. The screen looks fine. I of course would prefer the larger screen on the TRV950, however I do feel that the 2.5 in. screen is sufficient. The GL2 also includes a color viewfinder. I really wish Canon at least made a black and white viewfinder available on the GL2. They’ve really made a professional class camcorder here and it would be great if we could have a professional class black and white viewfinder.

Ports

The GL2 contains all the standard ports for connecting your camcorder to external devices. Transfer of digital stills is done through a USB port. The camcorder includes a single standard DV IEEE 1394 FireWire in / out port for transferring your video from your camcorder to your computer. The camcorder also has a mini RCA port with a cable which converts the mini RCA into full size RCA ports. The port can function both as an in and out pot just like the S-Video port on the GL2. The camcorder also includes mini 1/8 in. headphone out and microphone in jacks.

Audio

What makes the GL2 so great is that it seems Canon really concentrated on developing a solid video camera and not on adding bells and whistles. The GL2 gives you two ways of monitoring audio. The first is the on screen display which gives you a right and left channel audio meter. The GL2 also has the addition of the side audio monitor which also shows the right and left channels. The GL2 also offers many audio mixing options. The first is the manual right and left channel dials for adjusting volume which I mentioned earlier. When the camcorder is in manual audio mode you can manually adjust the recording levels of either the on-camera microphone or the audio coming in from the mic jack. As for audio quality, the on camera microphone is fine, I can’t tell a difference between it and the TRV950, of course the Canon offers you more recording options and monitoring than the 950 does.

The GL2 also offers the ability to dub audio onto tape which you have already included, also known as audio insert. You may only dub audio to tapes which have been recorded in the SP mode with 12-Bit audio. MiniDV has the feature of four channel 12 bit audio which very few camcorders have utilized in the past. The audio dubbing feature allows you to record on the third and fourth channels of previously recorded tape, without recording over the original first and second channels. The audio mix feature of the GL2 allows you change the audio levels of both original audio and dubbed audio during playback. The versatility of the audio recording on the GL2 is great, especially for in-camera editing situations. The one feature which I wish they had included on the camcorder would be the ability to record on all four 12- bit audio channels on your first recording.

Other Features

The GL2 includes many other features which enhance it. Canon was very generous in including two eye cups with the camcorder. The first is a standard eye cup for most shooting situations. The second eye cup is an extra large one which gives more shielding from light is perfect for very sunny situations. The GL2 includes digital effects including fade, wipe, overlap, black and white, sepia, art, mirror, mosaic, strobe, and trail. You also can display SMTPE standard color bars on the camcorder for calibration purposes. It’s great because you should always record a few seconds of color bars to each tape you record. You can toggle a zebra pattern on to detect over exposed areas. The threshold can be set at 80, 85, 90, 95 or 100 IRE; the TRV950 only gives you two options. To access all these features easily, the GL2 includes a custom button which you can assign to different functions. The GL2 has a digital pass through option so that the camcorder can convert analog video coming in through either the S-Video or the RCA port to digital video outputted through the FireWire port on the fly. The GL2 also can do both audio and video insert editing, where audio or video is laid on the tape over previously recorded audio or video. Finally the camcorder has a title mix option where you can insert titles from the SD card onto previously recorded audio.

The GL2 includes a neat interval recording feature. Using this feature the camcorder can record .5, 1, 1.5 or 2 seconds of video at intervals of 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes or 10 minutes.

Compared to the Sony DCR-TRV950

When making the likely comparison between the TRV950 and the GL2, I would choose the GL2 hands down. The GL2 offers better manual control which is the main reason I would choose it. The clear scan, the display of F stops, the +18 dB gain level, the neutral density and the really great custom preset option equip the videographer to tweak their picture to get the best possible. Now if you don’t know how to use these features, they are absolutely useless to you, and it won’t matter which camcorder you choose!

The GL2 has larger CCDs, .25 in. versus .21 in. However, the TRV950 has a smaller LCD screen, 2.5 in. to 3.5 in. In the more subjective category, I really believe that the GL2 gives a better picture than the TRV950, although the difference is slight. The real reason you will be able to get a better picture out of the Canon GL2 is because you are afforded a lot more control over the picture elements. In addition, I feel the low light performance of the GL2 is superior to the TRV950. I do feel that the TRV950 is easier to handle. Although the GL2 is heavier, which I like, I feel some of the button placement is awkward and I feel the lens is hard to cradle.

Improvements over the GL1

Although I’ve covered these features earlier in the review, I felt it would be helpful to explain all the upgrades of the GL2 over the GL1. The CCD’s have more pixels, 410K in the GL2 per CCD versus 270K in GL1. The GL2’s most obvious improvement is in the digital still category. The camcorder can record 1.7 Mega Pixel stills to the SD card and transfer those stills to the computer via a USB slot, while the GL1 had no such option. The GL2 also includes an advances accessory show for attaching accessories such as a flash.

Conclusion

The GL2 is really for the serious videographer. The camcorder doesn’t have many bells and whistles, and when it does, they are hidden in the menu where they should be! The manual control is great, far superior to what the Sony DCR-TRV950 provides. The camcorder gives you manual control and actual values for your picture controls like f stops. The picture is really sharp. This camcorder is about shooting video, and that’s what a camcorder of this price should only be about. The excellent low light performance really puts the GL2 over the top. If you’re looking for a serious camcorder with great manual control and one that will put out a great picture, go for the GL2. I am constantly annoyed by manufacturer investing money in useless features instead of working to improve the video that the camcorder shoots. Although I love the TRV950, and it’s a great camcorder, the GL2 just clearly does videotaping better, and I’d strongly suggest you go with the GL2.

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