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Review: Canon XA40 Compact 4K Camcorder

The XA40 is a feature-packed compact professional camcorder that can get you into shooting 4K 30p for around $1,500. It's small enough to fit in a lunchbox, yet it has enough features that professional camera people coming from a traditional ENG camcorder won't find themselves wanting for much.

The Canon XA40 is an entry-level professional 4K/UHD camcorder, in a small package. Canon announced four compact camcorders at NAB 2019: the XA40, XA45, XA50, and XA55. These are considered entry level 4K as they shoot a maximum of 4K 30p and are less expensive than their XF400/XF405 cousins that shoot beautiful 4K 60p. Being limited to 4K 30p uses less processing power, making them less expensive to make. The 400 series uses 1" sensors, as does the XA50 and 55. The XA40 and XA45 have smaller 1/2.3" sensors, making them even less expensive. All the models mentioned that end in a “5” have 3G HD-SDI out. Otherwise the XAs are very similar to the 400 series in features and operation.

The XA40 (Figure 1, below) is a professional version of the Canon Vixia HF G50. The main difference is the XA40 has a detachable handle with professional XLR connectors, dial audio input level control and a host of other switches that make audio record settings a lot easier to use and pros can't be without.

Figure 1. The Canon XA40

Out of the box, it looks just like the Vixia HF G50, but attaching the pro audio module/handle gives it a whole new look and profile. If you need to look “less professional” you can simply remove the handle, and no one will know you are a pro. The XA40 allows you to use the two XLR audio inputs as well as the camera’s onboard mics or the 3.5mm stereo mic input on the camera body, for a total of 4 channels. You need to enable the 4-channel mode in the menu. Not many cameras at this price point can do that.

The camera section has a 20x lens that is the 35mm equivalent of a 29.3–601mm. It has a single 1/2.3 UHD CMOS sensor. Working together, the lens and CMOS have an optical image stabilization system, which has a “dynamic mode” that employs assistance for roll and tilt electronically. Video and stills are recorded to SD cards in the dual slots on the left side of the camcorder. They can be set up for redundant or chain recording. There is also a Sony LANC jack for attaching a zoom controller.

One thing I will point out at the get-go, is that the XA40 is primarily a newsgathering, corporate, medical, event work camera. It’s not a “cinema camera” with shallow depth of field. If you’re looking for a 4K cinema camera, this is not it. If you’re looking for a Canon with the cinema look, go for the C200, 5D Mark IV DSLR, or their new mirror-less offerings. That said I was very impressed with the XA40's capabilities for the price.

Accessorizing

If you need to travel with a camera, you will benefit from the camera’s small size., but you need to add a few things to the XA40 before you can get shooting. In the box, you get the camera, the handle with XLR audio, a small battery, and a power supply. There is no battery charger. You need to charge the battery on the camera, until you get one. The standard battery lasts 100 min. I solved this problem via Amazon where I got a third-party travel charger for $5 and third-party 2XL batteries (Canon BP-828 equivalents) that last for 300 minutes each for $29.95.

To protect the lens, I added a Tiffen UV filter for $7.

I don't like using built-in mics, except for emergencies, so I added an Azden SGM-250CX short shotgun. I have an SGM-250 (regular-sized shotgun mic), but it is longer than the XA40 (Figure 2, below). For interviews, I added a Movo HM-M2 interview mic. I also tried out Azden's new and improved digital wireless lavaliere mic, the Pro-XR, and the Movo digital wireless lavaliere mic, the WMX-1. All these mics will be discussed in an upcoming review. For most of my recording I used Kingston 256GB SDXC cards, which gives you more than 3 hours of 4K 30p or over 13 hours of 1080p60 record time.

Figure 2. The Azden SGM-250 is longer than the XA40.

Field Testing

To get acquainted with the camera, I took it with me on my summer vacation to Israel. In the past, I had brought a Sony FX1 and a Sony HVR-Z7u, which are great production cameras, but not for traveling light. Last year I brought the Canon XF405. With its 1" CMOS sensor and small size, it was the best performing compact pro camcorder I have used. I did worry that the XA40 with its smaller 1/2.3" CMOS the image and low-light performance would suffer. While low-light recording was not nearly as good, in good light it worked very nicely. Although in low-light situations you could boost the gain on the XF405 to 33dB before you saw noise, the XA40 would get noisy at 13dB.

I got the XA40 last summer right before I went on vacation to Israel, which is a great place to test and get acquainted with cameras. There I got to try it out at several outdoor activities, such as the beach, archaeological sites, and off-roading, most with good light. Extreme low-light places like caves were a bit much for the 1/2.3" sensor to get a decent image. In those areas, you can use the infrared mode and get sharp black-and-white video, or use a video light. I brought a Litras Torch 2.0, a rechargeable light that’s about the size of a GoPro Session. The Litras helped get a good color image in really dark areas with a subject within 6-8 feet of the lens. I also really liked that I could use the XA40 as a still camera also. It takes very respectable 8 MP stills (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. A still taken with the XA40 at Mitzpeh Ramon, Israel's "Grand Canyon" in the Negev desert

Shooting Conference Presentations

On returning to the States I used the XA40 as a B-roll angle on a shoot. The image cut nicely with my main camera, a 3-chip 1/3” Sony HVR-S270u. Postproduction made it better. The first shoot I did with the XA40 was a lecture in a well-lit, mid-sized conference room. I recorded it at 4K 30p, and left it on a wide angle. I edited it on a 1080p sequence in Premiere Pro, where I was able to reframe the shots as needed and edit in Power Point slides. The footage was very clean and sharp.

The second shoot where I used it as the main camera was a lecture with Dr. Robert Epstein, who recently testified in front of Congress about how Google and Facebook could swing elections. Unfortunately, the venue switched rooms and put us in a darker room farther back. This time I wasn't as impressed with the footage. Even with good light, and gain a little higher than expected, I wasn't impressed with the video. It reminded me of video from my old Panasonic AG-456, which was also a single-chip camera from the early 1990s. It was very flat, noisy, and didn't “pop.” With postproduction I was able to make the footage passable, but I had to really massage it. If I had used the XF405 with the 1" sensor, the image quality would have been better on that shoot.

Shooting Interviews

Once you understand the XA40's limitations, you can get some very good results with it. Incorporating that knowledge, I used it to record a few interviews at the Future of Video 2019 conference, talking about issues in the OTT world.

All of these interviews came out great. Since then I have also used it to shoot myself doing some DIY videos in 4K at my dining room table. There the light also wasn’t great. With the camera being much closer to me, the lens was at its widest angle, allowing the iris to be all the way open, letting more light in for a brighter picture.

Related Articles
Compact, prosumer 4K cameras like the Canon XA40 and XA45 pack enough professional features that they're well worth considering for pro producers who need to travel light or with a compact kit. Choosing such a camera also means accessorizing it with properly proportioned compact audio gear--like the options we'll explore here.
Marc Franklin takes an up-close look at some key features of Canon's XA40 compact 4K camcorder, and assesses its pros and cons for professional and run-and-gun work.