Canon XL H1A HDV Camcorder Review

Ready, Aim, Shoot!

Whether you feel you’re ready to enter the professional realm of cinematography or you’re a serious amateur, Canon’s XL H1A is here to meet your expectations. The latest of Canon’s professional line is a loaded weapon that comes equipped with an HD 20x L IS III lens and a host of custom presets.

How Does It Feel?

At 8.8 lbs. (with battery), the XL H1A is a large camera. A powerhouse lens is always invaluable, but its weight can feel a bit front-heavy. When you shoulder-mount the camera, this weight can make zooming tiresome on a long shoot. The shoulder pad attachment doesn’t fit every shoulder. Actually, the designers don’t expect users to do much handheld shots with this camera. We found a tripod much better to support this type of weight. The round dial on the camera’s left side gives you control of manual, auto, playback and external control modes, plus shutter-priority, aperture-priority, Spotlight, Night and Easy Recording presets.

The in-camera menu lies beneath the peaking and magnifying functions, directly left of the menu dial. Two mic inputs are above the shoulder rest. Frame rate and video mode functions rest snugly under the viewfinder, along with a host of manual functions, such as white balance and standby. The headphone input is directly above the HDV/DV inputs on the handle. Playback functions feel comfortable on top of the handle. The standard rocker zoom sits above the hand strap at right, and the zoom speed function fits perfectly on the inside, awaiting the user’s thumb.

All A/V, BNC and S-video outputs nestle inside a latch opening with the A/V inputs, near the Li-ion battery pack. Directly in front is the cassette door. The viewfinder opens up halfway down to reveal the LCD display, which is a tad small for our liking. (This plus the front-heavy lens are nit-picking as this is a supreme camera.) Also included are a mic, remote control, battery pack, AC adapter, DC plate, 32MB SD memory card, one Mini DV/HDV tape, analog stereo audio cable, component cable, external monitor cable, shoulder strap, external microphone adjustment band, adapter holder unit, lens hood and shoulder strap.

Record Away

With the all-new HD 20x L IS III interchangeable lens, the XL H1A gives you more stability and impressive HD quality on this camera. Featuring the same basic focal length (38.9mm – 778mm), Neutral Density filters and Optical Image Stabilizer as earlier versions, the lens is reliable and very powerful, but, of course, heavy, as we mentioned before. Use a tripod!

Picture quality is very high with the three 1/3″ native 16:9 CCDs (1440×1080). This means you will get approximately 1.67 million pixels per sensor – leaving virtually no color noise and the ability to capture a vast array of accurate colors. The DIGIC DV II Image Processor supports a faster operating speed, which assists in creating more impressive color reproduction. The lens zoom ring, a handle zoom lever and the grip zoom lever give the cinematographer three options for controlling the zoom. We liked how the tiny handle zoom lever could be used for creative multiple -angled shots. Zoom speed is controlled with a dial located directly below the grip lever, which offers 16 levels of speed control – 5 minutes at the slowest setting and 1.2 seconds at the fastest. Zooming is very smooth, which is great for fast, chaotic movements or a gritty old-school martial arts fight scene! There is some zoom noise, but overall the motor runs quietly.

Focusing manually gave us a huge advantage, and you can customize with Canon’s new manual iris ring. With 1/16 stop increments, controlling exposure becomes very precise. The SuperRange Optical Image Stabilizer does its job well, even when you’re running with the camera on your shoulder.

In auto mode, the focus has a quick response time, both indoors and out. Motion doesn’t seem to fool the focus, and we found it held up well during pans and tilts. Without the assistance of a tripod, eliminating movement was impossible. Yet the XLH1A image stabilization saved us every single time.

Functional Thinking

Finding the perfect shot – the one that communicates the exact visual dialogue you want to get across – can happen once in a lifetime. With the XL H1A’s ability to store a customized once-in-a-lifetime setting on a memory card, you can now recreate the perfect setting in a heartbeat! This also allows you to move settings from camera to camera. So, if your partner in cinematic crime has found the best and gloomiest film noir stylized setting, you can now pop it in your camera and voil! You can store up to 9 customized settings on the camera and up to 20 on an SDHC/SD memory card or MultiMediaCard. This gives you a vast array of options and image control.

Adjusting Levels

Two-channel recording comes in handy for filming B-roll for docs and concerts. The XL H1A has two XLR inputs, commonplace for pro-level camcorders.

Like most shoulder-mount cameras, the mic placement settles just above the grip attachment. The mic offers mono and stereo modes, and we found the mic worked best at a range of about 4 feet. Obviously, the closer we were, the better the audio. What was noteworthy was just how clear our audio came out at a distance. Even from far away, voices were remarkably understandable and crisp, without pops and distortion. The motor noise was noticeable on playback, but not so that it drowned out what we were capturing. Manually, we had a host of options, including mic sensitivity selection, channel and recording volume. An audio limiter function eliminates distortion after a sudden sound spike.


Overall, the XL H1A is a very good and reliable tripod-steady camera. We’d advise against mounting it on a car to film a chase scene, as it can be so front-heavy. A universal shoulder-mount camera design is hard to nail; it won’t feel comfortable to everyone. The customized settings can create any look a shooter might need. At $5999, this one is well worth the price tag. It’s perfect for the cinematographer with a long list of corporate clients or for the independent filmmaker.


Format: HDV 1080i

Image Sensor: Three 1/3″ CCDs

F-Stop: 1.6

Optical Zoom Power: 20x

Focal Length (mm): 5.4-108mm

Focus: Auto/manual (lens ring)

Image Stabilization: Optical

Internal ND Filter: Yes

White Balance Control: Auto/manual/preset

Direct Iris/Gain Control: Yes

Zebra Stripes: Yes

LCD Monitor: 2.4″, 16:9

HD Focus Assist: Peaking, magnifying

Standard Mic Input: 2 XLR & 1/8″

VU Meters: OSD, LCD

Level Controls: Dial

Headphone Jack: Yes

Speaker: No

Analog Video In: Composite, S-video

Analog Video Out: Composite, S-video, component

FireWire In/Out: Yes

Analog to DV Conversion: Yes

USB (for Video File Transfer): No

Other Digital Video Out: No

Wireless Remote: Yes

Battery Charging: AC adapter

Form Factor: Shoulder

Tape Loading Orientation: Side

Accessory Shoe: Yes


  • HD lens
  • Endless customization
  • Highly-accurate color reproduction


  • Front-heavy
  • Small LCD screen
  • Can’t adjust the shoulder pad


Canon has given professional cinemaniacs a vast array of shooting options at an affordable price.

Tom Skowronski is Videomaker‘s Associate Editor.

Canon USA, Inc.

One Canon Plaza

Lake Success, NY 11042


The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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