Canon FS 100 Camcorder Review

 

Ahh, what a cutie!
Ahh, what a cutie!

Iturned the big 3-0 in June this year, and whilst this heralds doom and gloom for many people, it was never really a concern for me. I've grown my hair, bought a motorbike and have a younger girlfriend; my midlife crisis was covered sometime in my late twenties. I was simply looking forward to the good wishes and, to be perfectly honest, large expensive gifts that such a landmark birthday attracts. I wasn't disappointed. Included amongst the generosity of my friends and family was something I've always wanted; a hot air balloon flight.

Balloon spotting for beginners
Balloon spotting for beginners

Now I've done a few product reviews and, strange as it may seem, I actually quite enjoy writing them. As such I offered to test and review a product in the rather unique situation of a hot air balloon basket. I was thinking that they might ask me to take a telephoto lens up, or a super-zoom digital compact. Just possibly, I thought I might have been asked to take a couple of compact binoculars and compare the aerial views through both. But no, I was asked to review the Canon FS100 compact camcorder.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm a stills-camera man, a photographer. Whilst I have a basic understanding of camcorders and what they do, I've only seriously considered picking one up when it looked like one of my friends/family/colleagues was about to do something funny/foolish/dangerous and possibly embarrass/humiliate/injure themselves in the process. £250 courtesy of You've Been Framed, thank you very much. Steven Spielberg I most certainly am not.

That said, the FS100 is not aimed at your amateur film maker. It's small, lightweight, portable and, allegedly, simple to use. In short, it is aimed at someone who might not have used a camcorder before, but just wants to record the odd bit of video on their holidays and at special events. In other words, someone much like me. I was up for the challenge.

Never before have I encountered anything quite as fickle as a hot air balloon (well, maybe once, but I won't mention her for fear of being lynched). The weather conditions have to be “just so”; there must be wind, but not too much wind; it mustn't be too hot, or too cold, or too wet. As my flight was booked for early morning in the middle of the British summer time, it may come as no surprise to learn that it was cancelled the evening before take off as the forecast was that the weather “would not be suitable for ballooning”. I was lucky, though, as they had a space on the flight the following morning, and this time the forecast was that weather conditions would be just fine. On the plus side, it gave me an extra day to familiarise myself with my new, albeit borrowed, toy.

The first thing to do was to check the contents of the camcorder box to make sure I had everything I needed and familiarise myself with the operations. I know we live in an age of technological miniaturisation, but I was still surprised by how small the FS100 is. The little Canon sat easily and comfortably in my hand with all the dials, buttons and switches within easy reach. The hand strap supplied holds the camcorder securely in the palm of your hand and the additional wrist strap can be added for extra security. As I intended to use the FS100 whilst hanging over the edge of a wicker basket suspended about 1000 feet in the air, I opted to attach this strap, lest a camcorder/ground interface put paid to any future reviews.

Canon FS100 Digital Camcorder
Small, compact and neat. I've owned bigger mobile phones.

The battery supplied needed to be fully charged at the first outing. After rooting around in the box for a battery charger and uttering a few choice words regarding our warehouse when I couldn't find one, I gave up and decided to have a flick through the instruction manual. One of the first things I learnt was that the Canon FS100 Camcorder is not supplied with a battery charger. It is however supplied with a mains adapter lead, and plugging this into the FS100 with the camcorder turned off and the battery in place charges said battery. Although this is no real problem when you only have one battery, if you were to purchase an additional Canon BP-808, there may be a scenario where you wish to use the camcorder with one battery while the other is charging. Obviously this is not an option if you need the camcorder to charge the depleted battery. Therefore, should you wish to invest in an additional Canon BP-808 battery, it is worth considering the Canon CG-800 charger to go with it.

Anyway, with my male pride dented at having had to consult the instructions, I put the Canon on charge and had a look to see what other gems of wisdom the manual could offer. It's worth pointing out that the Canon FS100 is supplied with 2 printed manuals; a thin one in English and a thick one containing instructions in 3 different languages. I believe these were French, German and Spanish, but they could equally have been Mongolian, Swahili and Klingon for all the sense they made to me. To be perfectly honest, the controls of the camcorder are straight forward enough that I probably could have fumbled my way through it without resorting to the manual. However, the information relating to the options menus was quite useful, as to avoid cluttering the flip-out LCD screen with icons, most operations have to be reached via a menu off a menu. While these are all reasonably straight forward, a quick review of the manual helps simplify things still further.

FS100: Joystick, Function, and Setup menus
Joystick Menu
Function Menu
Setup Menu

My only real complaint regarding the instruction manual is this; not until page 26 does it make any mention of memory card compatibility. Now, unlike its siblings, the FS10 and FS11, the FS100 does not have a built in hard-drive and records directly on to a Secure Digital (SD) memory card, but it is not supplied with any memory so an SD card must be purchased at the same time. Alternatively, you may have SD cards at home that you wish to use. After all, SD is increasingly common, with the majority of compact cameras now using this media.

Unfortunately, upon reaching page 26 you may discover that the card you intended to use is not suitable. Canon only guarantees that cards with a capacity greater than 512MB and with a speed rating of Class 2 (a transfer speed of 2mb/s) or higher can be used to capture video. If you want to capture stills, any SD card will do, but you're unlikely to purchase the FS100 just for still photos.

If you want to get some idea of what size card you ought to use, it's not until page 99 that any information is provided regarding how many images you get on various sized cards. As luck would have it, I had a Sandisk Extreme III 2GB SD card at home which was certainly up to the job speed wise. However, at the highest quality setting (XP) this would only record 27 minutes. The lowest quality (LP) would give me 77 minutes, but I opted for the regular quality setting (SP) which gave me 40 minutes and a better compromise in terms of quality.

The limitations in terms of card size and speed were certainly not surprising, but I do think this information should have been a little more prominent. Anyway, with the battery charging, the memory card loaded and initialised (the FS100's term for formatted) and the operational basics revised, it was off to bed early in preparation for the early start.

5:45am was the scheduled meeting time at the launch site. 5.32am was the time I rolled over in bed to check how much longer I had before I had to get up. 6 seconds later was the time I realised my alarm hadn't gone off. 2 seconds after that I remembered that I hadn't turned it on again after the previous flight was cancelled. By 5.33am both my children and Emily were up and out of bed. By 5.36am we were all in the car ready to go. 11 seconds later I was back in the house picking up the camcorder. 14 seconds after that I was back in the car and we were pulling out of the drive on the way to the launch site. A 4 year old boy, a 7 year old girl and an image conscious female in her mid twenties all up and out of the house within 4 minutes. Astounding.

Giant picnic hamper

If you're not a milkman, or a postman, or a paper boy, or a parent, or any other profession that requires you to be up and about at silly o'clock in the morning, you may not realise what a beautiful place the world is at 5.45 on a summers morning. It's quiet, still and incredibly tranquil. Then the pilot fires the burner, the roar sends wildlife scattering everywhere and 16 people scramble to get into something resembling a giant picnic hamper. I'd volunteered to assist with the inflation of the balloon, which essentially meant holding on to a long rope for dear life. So small and compact is the Canon camcorder that I was even able to film some footage with one hand whilst assisting with the other. Yes, I can multi-task. As a result, I was one of the last on board, so took up my position in the corner of the basket, removed the FS100 from my jacket pocket, secured the straps and prepared for lift off.

The Canon FS100 was the first camcorder I have ever used that did not have a regular viewfinder, relying instead on the flip out screen to view and compose the scenes. Occasionally this was difficult due to the low, bright sun causing glare on the screen, but as nearly all compact cameras are used in the same way, it's very easy to get used to and the FS100 does allow you to increase the brightness of the screen to help compensate. As we drifted up, up and away, I started to have a play with the various tools on board the camcorder.

In the video record setting there are essentially 2 different modes; Easy mode and Flexible Recording mode and you can switch between these modes with a simple button on the side of the camcorder. Put simply, the Easy mode means the camcorder does all the thinking for you. All you have to do is point, press the stop/start button and zoom in and out. The Flexible Recording mode allows you to change the camcorder settings to your preference. You can access all the menu functions and options, including a wealth of scene settings. These include Portrait, Sports, Night, Snow, Beach, Sunset, Spotlight and Fireworks, but as there was no In a Hot Air Balloon setting, I chose the basic Program AE mode, whereby the camcorder works out the exposure based on the available light, but I would still be able to change some of the other settings. There is also a Shutter Priority mode, where the user chooses the shutter speed and the camcorder selects the appropriate aperture. This was more than I wanted to get into on a balloon flight so ignored this setting altogether.

Amongst the other settings that Flexible Recording mode allows you to amend are Manual Exposure Adjustment, Manual Focus Adjustment, White Balance, Image Effects and Digital Effects. The White Balance offers the choice of Auto, Daylight, Tungsten, or a custom setting. The Image Effects allow you to change the colour tone of the recording and offer Vivid, Neutral and Soft Skin Detail, or you can turn these off altogether.

FS100: Image Effects Off, Vivid, and Neutral
Image Effects Off
Vivid
Neutral
FS100: Soft Skin Detail
Image Effects Off
FS100: Soft Skin Detail
Soft Skin Detail

Digital Effects include a Fade Trigger, plus the ability to record in Black & White, Sepia, Mosaic or Art modes, each flavouring the image in a slightly different way.

Black and White
Black and White
Sepia
Sepia
Art
Art
Mosaic
Mosaic
Digital Effects Turned Off
Digital Effects Off

You may have wondered if with all this playing around in menus I was actually paying any attention to being on a balloon. Well, yes, I was. The beauty of the FS100's size is that I could simply tuck it in to my jacket pocket when I wanted it out of the way, and whip it back out when I wanted to use it, which I frequently did as we floated further from Norwich and in to more rural areas where fields and hedgerows seemed to stretch for as far as the eye could see.

Somewhere over Norfolk
Somewhere over Norfolk

On a separate note, it's amazing how disorientating it is when you move away from roads and buildings and float over the unmarked countryside. Despite having lived in the area for the past 20+ years, I was struggling to recognize where we were. The thought did occur that were I to drop the FS100 over the side at this point, all I would be able to tell our warehouse manager was that I'd lost it “somewhere over Norfolk”.

Of course, being 1000 feet above the ground meant that one feature of the FS100 I was in an ideal position to test was the zoom. Like many camcorders, the Canon FS100 offers an incredible amount of zoom in such a small body. The optical zoom alone is up to 35x, and this can be increased to 45x in Advanced Zoom mode, whereby the camcorder processes the image digitally to produce a larger image, allegedly without any deterioration in quality. However, this pales into insignificance when you take into account that the maximum digital zoom achievable with the little FS100 is a whopping great 2000x! The down side of this is a very noticeable drop off in image quality as the image is artificially enlarged.

No zoom
No zoom. Maximum image quality.
35x Optical Zoom
35x Optical Zoom. Maximum image quality.
45x Advanced Zoom
45x Advanced Zoom. No noticeable loss of quality.
Optical and digital zoom
Optical plus Digital Zoom. Quality starts to drop.
Full optical and digital zoom
Optical plus higher Digital Zoom. Quality very poor.

Because of the abominable quality that the digital zoom produces, I elected to turn this function off, meaning that whilst I was on the balloon, the FS100 was limited to the 45x Advanced Zoom.

As the balloon drifted through the early morning skies, the light mist covering the landscape was gradually burnt off. The patterns in the landscape created by farming became clearer and the colours bolder. A fox creeping up on some pheasants would have been captured on the FS100, had the pilot not fired the burner just as I switched it on, the roar from the flame sending the pheasants squawking into the air and the fox scurrying back in to the woods.

By the time I stowed the Canon away in preparation for landing I had amassed a seemingly endless amount of footage and could have quite happily carried on. Unfortunately our 1 hour flight time was up and a suitable landing field had been spotted, so all cameras and camcorders had to be put away as we crouched down in the basket and assumed our landing/crash positions. As it turned out, we needn't have bothered as the pilot set us down with the lightest of touches; I've had rougher landings getting out of bed in the morning.

The image quality the FS100 produces is pretty good. For the kind of use it's likely to be put to as a video version of a point and shoot compact, the footage is easily good enough to be played back on a TV for all your friends and family to see. Sure, it's a long way off professional movie making standard, but as I said near the start of this review, the Canon FS100 camcorder was never meant for that purpose. The only real quality issue is with the still images the camcorder produces. With images weighing in at a miniscule 0.9 mega pixels, is it really worth having this function? Bearing in mind that most people have a digital stills camera anyway, and that nearly all mobile phone cameras exceed this resolution, I'd have to say probably not; I just can't see the need.

So here's the result of my foray into movie making, courtesy of the Canon FS100 Camcorder:

* Please note this video has been compressed to allow playback online and does not represent the maximum image quality.

As you can tell, the clip has been subjected to a little bit of editing, all using the Image Mixer 3 SE software supplied with the Canon FS100. However, whilst the camcorder itself was simple and intuitive to use, the software was anything but. Although it operates in a similar way to other editing software I have seen and used, the actual functionality is pretty poor, with several basic features missing and some existing ones made harder and more complex than they need to be. I'm not a software expert and this is not a software review, so I won't go in to too much detail here, but what I will say is this; if all you want the software to do is copy the video from the camcorder to the computer and then from the computer to disk, then the supplied Image Mixer 3 SE is just about enough. However, if you are likely to want to edit your films, including cutting, dubbing and adding effects and transitions, do yourself a favour and get some additional software such as the Adobe Premiere / Premiere Elements or Pinnacle Studio packages.

I have to say I really fell in love with the little Canon camcorder. It's probably not the smallest or lightest model available and there are certainly HD camcorders out there producing better movies. But the Canon FS100 is just really, well, friendly. I enjoyed using it.

Before I went on my balloon flight I had to explain to Emily that she would have to pick me up from the landing site.

“What do you mean?” she replied.

I explained that the support vehicles would follow the balloon and that she should follow the support vehicles.

“Why do they follow the balloon?” was her response.

So I went on to point out that the balloon was quite big and that it would need to be collapsed, packed up and put back on the trailer wherever it landed.

“But why do they have to follow it? Why don't they just wait for it to comeback?”

It turns out that Emily thought that the balloon took off, flew around for a bit, took in the views, and then landed back where it took off from. I pointed out that as the direction of travel was entirely dependent on the direction of the wind, there was no means of choosing a destination in advance.

“Don't be daft, surely they can steer it?”

No, Emily, they can't. It was only after several friends she trusts more than me told her the same thing and showed her a few internet articles that she reluctantly accepted the truth, even if she thought it was a “daft way to travel”. For those of you that are unaware, Emily is not my 7 year old daughter. Emily is the younger girlfriend that I mentioned at the start of this article and at 25 years old, should know better.

Still, between us we learnt 3 new things that day; Emily learned that you can't steer a balloon like a helicopter, we both learnt that although you can't steer a balloon, you can spin it on its axis, and finally, I learnt that I actually quite enjoy this video lark, so much so that I'm very tempted to purchase the little Canon FS100 camcorder myself.

I think there may be an ex-demo one about to go into Bargain Basement...

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