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TechTalk: A Look at the Canon XA40 4K Camcorder

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.

In this TechTalk, we’ll look at the Canon XA40. It's a compact, 4K, entry-level camcorder. Last year I reviewed the Canon XF405, which has a 1" sensor. The XA40 is the XF405's little brother. It has a smaller 1/2" sensor. It does suffer a little bit in low light, but overall it delivers a comparable image. If you're in good lighting, you'll do pretty well with it. The XA40 is not a cinema camera. Canon makes some great cinema cameras, such as the C100, 200, 300, 500 and their DSLRs are great for doing cinema. This is a video camera. It's not meant to do cinema. You can do news or documentary. If you're looking for shallow depth of field, this is not the camera to do it. What it does is great video for lots of situations.

Powering the XA40

The XA40 ships with one BP-820 battery, but you'll want to get a few of them. On Amazon I got the equivalent of a BP-828, which is quite larger than the standard battery, and will give you a about a three-hour runtime, where the included 820 will give you a little under two hours of runtime. I'd definitely stock up on the 828s.

One issue with batteries on the XA40 is that when you do put the battery onto the battery mount and you attach one of the popular Manfrotto tripod plates, the QR plate will completely block the battery release. So keep in mind that if you're going to be shooting for a long time--like if you're recording a seminar or a lecture--you should try to plug in somewhere, because you're not going to be able to access the battery release during that time. It's completely blocked. That's another good reason to get the aftermarket extra-length batteries,

The XA40 is Canon's entry-level camcorder, and it does come with a power supply that you plug into the wall. But it does not come with a separate battery charger like some of their higher-end cameras like the XF705. But that's a much more expensive camera--$7,000, as compared to $1,500 for the XA40. But you can get a mobile charger for about $5 on Amazon. The one I bought is from nixxell, but they're all pretty much the same, probably coming out of the same factory because they've got the same design. If you want to charge batteries while you're using your camera, this is the most inexpensive way to do it, because--without going out and buying an extra charger--the only way to charge batteries is on the camera itself while it's not running.

Audio Controls

One of the things I really like about this camcorder is, coming from a pro camera, it's nice to have the audio controls on a little handle on top that also has XLR inputs on the other side, and the mic mount right there. This does let you do things that, on some cameras, you'd have to search through a menu to do, and that's really tough when you're on a shoot doing things on the fly. With the XA40, you can right to the top handle and adjust the volume, Mic, Line, Phantom Power--whatever you need to do. If you don't need to look so professional, you can put the XA40 into handle-free "consumer mode."

Every so often we're all asked to shoot something where maybe they don't want professional video people. Unscrew two bolts, the handle comes off, and--boom-you're in consumer soccer mom mode. Nobody's going to know that this isn't the consumer camera. You can take it on vacation like this and if you need better audio, you can still use the internal 1/8" mic jack. Screw the handle back on, you're a professional again.

Pros and Cons of Choosing Such a Compact Camera

Is it fair to compare the XA40 with a pro camera more than twice its size, like my Sony HVR-S270U? It is, because the reality of life in video production today is that people are doing different things with larger cameras and smaller cameras. For the most part, camcorders like my S270U are dinosaurs. This is a 13-year-old camera that I helped Sony design in 2007, and it's really a great camera. One of the reasons I still use it, aside from the excellent image quality that it still puts out, is that, at least for me, working for clients in California, sometimes they just want the big camera. They say, "I want something that looks impressive, so when my audience and my clients are there, they see you with the big camera and they know I'm a big shot, not a little guy with little things." If they want the big camera for the image, you have to go along with this.

Even though the S270U is 13 years old and shoots HDV internally, I do keep it up to date by attaching a Blackmagic Video Assist, and it records ProRes via HD-SDI. But if I've got to run and gun, I prefer a smaller camera like the XA40, and if I have to shoot in low light, the S270U is still is a bit better. The 3-CCD design still has better color separation, from what I've seen, in lower light than the XA40.

The XA40 really is a good little camera. If you're just getting started, they're inexpensive, selling for around $1,500. For run-and-gun outdoor shooting, or working indoors with good light, I have no problems with this camera. I highly recommend it.

Related Articles
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.