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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.

Where the XA40 Shines—and Where it Falls Short

Where the XA40 really shines is EFP situations where there isn't a lot of room to maneuver. At the end of December, a local synagogue had me interview people at their Chanuka festival about how they were celebrating the holiday. With larger cameras, it’s harder to move around in big crowds, and people tend to get intimidated by larger cameras. The XA40 allowed me to move about pretty easily. The Movo HM-M2 interview mic really worked well for this also, because of its extra length and sound quality. That is one of the reasons it is in the kit.

After having put the XA40 through its paces in various situations over the last few months, I really got to like the little camera. There are a few issues that one should be aware of. Battery drain is important to watch out for. I generally like to keep a battery on a camcorder, so if I have to be shooting something on short notice, like a UFO landing in my front yard, or Bigfoot rifling through my garbage, I can pull it out and shoot. I leave my Sony HVR-Z7u with a battery on it in my bag for months sometimes, and I will turn it on and it will have 10 hours of shooting time on it. You can't do this with the XA40. If you do, the battery will drain after a few days. At first, I thought the battery was defective, and bought some third-party extra capacity batteries. They had the same problem. Now I just don’t keep the batteries attached, in order to preserve their capacity.

Another battery issue comes up if you are using the popular Manfrotto-style tripod plates. Even the shorter-length ones block the XA40’s battery release, necessitating taking the camera off the tripod, then taking the plate off the camera to change the battery. This is not a super quick process. If you are doing a long shoot where you will not be able to switch batteries easily, try to use the AC adapter, or invest in the extra capacity batteries, that should give you about 5 hours. Another battery issue is with gimbals. I have been reviewing the Feiyu Tech AK-4000 gimbal, where you need the standard BP-820 battery pack, as the larger high-capacity batteries stick out too far and obstruct the Y-axis pivot.

On a superficial level, my clients are used to seeing me with a large ENG camera when shooting. Some clients insist that I use big cameras to impress their clients. One specified that I couldn’t use the much smaller XA40 because the “size wasn't impressive,” even though the image quality was.

Another minor issue is that while you can adjust most of the audio with the switches and dials on the handle, camera settings, aside from the focus ring, are done through the touchscreen menu. If you are like me, coming from a full-size ENG camera, it will take some getting used to, especially in sunlight, but I adapted to it quickly. If touchscreens are not your thing, you can use the tiny joystick near the record button to navigate the menus.

Unlike many other Canon camcorders and cameras, the XA40 doesn't have any Wi-Fi connectivity. As this is an entry-level 4K camera, Canon had to cut something besides the frame rate to get the price down. Many will not miss it though.

One more thing to consider is that due to the camera’s smaller size, there isn’t a lot of real estate for attaching accessories (Figures 4, 5, and 6 below). There is a cold shoe on top of the audio controls that I used for lights. One light that came in handy is a Dracast LED light that has additional cold shoes on the top, left, and right that allowed me to mount receivers for wireless mic systems on the light. Without that LED light, I needed to use one of K-Tek's shoe accessories to allow for additional mounting points.

Figures 3-5. A camcorder of the XA40's diminutive proportions can be awkward to accessorize.

If you’re looking for a camera to give you 4K capability, professional audio connectors, real audio controls, and a 20x zoom, there aren’t too many choices in the $1,500 range. The XA40 is also a good choice if you are looking for a B-roll camera for one of your more expensive cameras. If you’re willing to spend another few hundred dollars for a camera with a 1" sensor, you can get the Canon XA50 (which I haven’t tested yet) with many of the same features, except a 15x zoom rather than the XA40's 20x.

Overall, the Canon XA40 is a powerful, feature-packed camera that has very nice image quality in a small form factor. It has become my new travel camera. I have always kept a small camera with me in the trunk of the car, just in case I get asked to do a last-minute production. The XA40 and the accessories I mentioned earlier are my new camera kit for that use for that and most other ENG and corporate assignments.

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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.