Hands-On with the Canon XH A1
Any camcorder can give you a good image under normal conditions. But a great camcorder will give you the exact image you want in almost any situation.
Along with basic image quality, the most important aspect shooters look for in a professional camera is the customizable options available to them. Canon has long been known for providing as much manual control as possible, whether on its basic point-and-shoot digital still cameras or its top-of-the-line video camcorders. The XH A1 is no exception, going far beyond most cameras in its price range. At the same time, its pedigree as a top-quality HDV camcorder in Canon's prosumer lineup remains undisputed: Canon knows its business, and none of its video cameras enters the market without serious deliberation and a genuine regard for customer feedback.
It's easy, then, to take for granted the high quality of the XH A1's native 16:9 1/3" image sensors, or its wide-angle L-series 20x zoom lens, or the dual XLR inputs for professional-grade microphones. But within its sleek, compact design hides a beast in terms of image control and functionality. Whether it's the choice of shooting 60i, 30F or 24F in HDV or DV, or choosing between NTSC or PAL (when sent to Canon service factory service center for an optional upgrade), this camera can give you great high-resolution video. Add in smaller touches—like an interior battery compartment, and an SD card slot that allows saving profiles as well as capturing still photos at full 1920 x 1080 resolution—and this camera truly seems designed for the professional shooter concerned with both the size of the camera and the size of its price tag.
I've taken the XH A1 out into the field, and I have to admit it can handle almost anything you throw at it. To test out its low-light performance, I shot on a street at around 10:00PM without any additional light. (Keep in mind, this was not in NYC, this was on a street with only ambient light from the stores around me and one streetlight about 50 feet away). I was also using the Letus35 Extreme 35mm adapter combined with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens. With only 12dB of gain, the result was a very usable image. The colors were still very vibrant and the grain was not as noticeable as I had seen on my other camera, a Panasonic DVX-100A.
This was helped greatly by the camera's custom preset function, which is second to none in the realm of HDV cameras. Whether adjusting contrast via the gamma setting, master pedestal levels, or changing color saturation by increasing the red, blue or green channels, there's almost no customized look that can't be accomplished.
For event/wedding/documentary videographers, the XH A1 continues to keep the filmmaker in mind, fulfilling many requirements of professional and prosumer shooters. For instance, there's more to the camera's 20x zoom lens than just the great Canon HD optics. With its Instant Autofocus, iris ring and servo zoom, the XH A1 is more than capable of providing a smooth, steady zoom no matter the level of expertise of the shooter behind it. The placement of an iris ring on the lens barrel, meanwhile, makes a welcome addition to a camera this size, especially for anyone more familiar with larger, far more expensive, camcorders.
Exclusive to the Canon XH series is the Instant Autofocus system, which combines standard, through-the-lens autofocus with a separate sensor located beside the lens to judge and calculate critical focus under almost any conditions. While this feature is great for setting up a shot, note that the instantaneous focus change can appear jarring if done in the middle of a scene, and may seem robotic and unnatural compared to focusing by a human hand.
In variable and unpredictable lighting situations, the quality of a camera's auto modes can be very useful. The XH A1's auto modes not only allow you to shoot completely on automatic, but can also assign priority to aperture or shutter speed—adjusting gain, aperture or shutter as needed to maintain consistent image quality. As mentioned, the XH A1 works well in low light, aided by a gain setting that goes as high as 32dB. This level of gain should be avoided for the most part, unless conditions demand sacrificing image quality for getting any shot at all—which can sometimes happen, especially during night shoots or at poorly lit events. For sound recording, the two XLR ports on the side of the camera provide phantom power, line/mic level switching (for using a portable mixer), as well as auto level control.
Beyond the camera itself, there are plenty of accessories Canon has created over the years that can increase the XH A1's flexibility and capacity to perform in varied situations. First is the Canon ZR-2000, a lanc zoom remote control that was designed with the HDV series cameras in mind. Aside from the normal functions associated with standard zoom controls, this remote offers Canon-specific features such as zoom speed settings, on-screen display, manual/auto focus switch, AE shift, and instant access to peaking and magnification (which assist with focus). It is an especially great tool for achieving access to the camera's functions remotely, and to secure smooth and steady imagery from a distance.
|Canon ZR-2000 Zoom Remote Control
||Canon CH-910 AC Adapter Charger
For the "run and gun" shooter, the compact Canon CH-910 dual battery holder/charger can clip to a belt, and lets you keep recording while switching batteries or simply doubles your battery life by using two simultaneously.
To enhance the camcorder's 2.5-inch LCD screen, I liked implementing the Hoodman H-300 sun hood which includes a 2x magnifier that optically doubles the size of the screen while cutting down ambient light interference.
No matter how you look at it, the XH A1 is an impressive high-definition tool with a small form factor. But like any product—especially in the world of prosumer video—there are one or two tradeoffs. The biggest issue worth noting is that, like on many pro and prosumer HD camcorders, the manual control rings don't have "hard stops" at the end of their range—so you can't feel the physical end of the lens' focus, zoom or iris. The rings also can't be used simultaneously. But these are minor issues, none of which would stop me from purchasing or using the XH A1. Nothing is perfect in today's world, but this little camera comes pretty close.
To the broadcast and cinematography world, Canon is renowned for its image brilliance. And the Canon XH A1, with its high-end HD optics, robust image control and professional XLR inputs, remains a strong competitor in the high-definition world for great high-definition image capture.