At first glance, the XH-A1 looks a little daunting. Its size and price positions it at the top end of the prosumer market and it definitely looks the part: it is riddled with buttons and switches in every conceivable location. If this intimidates you, you should probably consider a different camcorder, as this is only the beginning.
On the left side of the XH-A1 is a large dial used to switch the camera on and off, and select playback mode and various preset options, such as Auto, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Spotlight and Easy.
The lens is quite large and isn’t detachable. It has a 20x optical zoom but no digital zoom – as digital zooms always lower the image’s quality, this isn’t such a bad thing. The lens casing has three rings around it, which control the zoom, focus and aperture, although the last one only works when in Manual or Aperture Priority mode.
The XH-A1 has a lot of useful features, including the ability to create zoom and focus presets, which you can snap back to at any time. You can customise the zoom speed from variable to constant when using the zoom rocker buttons instead of the ring (located on top of the camera or to the right, above the grip). There are options such as Skin Detail to help improve the way people look on screen, Sky Detail, to lower the detail of blue areas, softening them, and Clear Scan, to stop TVs or monitors in shot flickering.
As this camcorder will be used by a lot of professionals, it has two XLR adaptors to connect high-quality microphones. However, it also has a mini-jack connection to enable you to connect a more consumer-level mike to it as well.
The image quality is absolutely excellent, on par with its bigger, and £2,000 more expensive, brother, the XL-H1. Even in low light, the image remained sharp and although the colours were duller – as was expected – they were still very distinguishable. It performs equally well in HDV 1080i and DV.
Keep your focus
Focus is often a problem with camcorders, especially in low-light conditions. To help resolve that, the focus is handled by two devices: a small external sensor chip calculates gross focus adjustments while the traditional internal mechanism does the rest. This speeds up the time it takes to focus and makes it snap into focus rather than get there gradually. If you don’t like it, you can switch it off and rely solely on the internal sensor.
To help with the focus, you also have two buttons on the left side of the camcorder called Peeking and Magnify. The former boosts the contrast to sharpen objects’ outlines while the latter is a 2x zoom. Both of these options only show on the screen and do not affect the image quality while recording.
These are useful additions as the LCD screen is smaller than expected (only 7.1cm) – probably due to the fact that it is stored on top of the camcorder rather than to the side. The advantage of this position is that when opened it feels much more comfortable, especially when carried using the top handle. Unfortunately its size is then dependent on the camcorder’s thickness.
The viewfinder isn’t that great either. This is mostly due to the fact that the eyepiece is made of a very hard rubber, which makes it uncomfortable to use for any length of time. Of course, you could always have an external monitor but that isn’t always a feasible option.
There are many more options available on the device via the screen’s menu system. Unfortunately, navigation isn’t easy and menus don’t loop back to the top once you’ve reach the bottom, forcing you to use the small and awkward navigation buttons more often than you should.
The battery door is also a problem: when hooked to the power adaptor, the door has to be kept open and could potentially get broken. It is also more of a hindrance when changing batteries than if it was attached to the outside as is the case with other camcorders of that class.
This camera is of such excellent value that most of the defects are quite minor in comparison. It isn’t for everyone, and definitely not for the novice user, but if you’re a professional filmmaker on a budget or a dedicated amateur you’ll absolutely love it.