You set the main controls via the familiar power dial that toggles you through VCR, automatic, TV (shutter priority), AV (aperture priority), full manual, spotlight, night, and easy recording modes. It took me awhile to get used to the operating controls. For example, there are five different white-balance related switches scattered throughout, up from two on the XL H1. That said, the controls are highly functional, with presets for the sun and incandescent bulbs, plus manual white balance and the ability to dial in a specific Kelvin color setting.
You control gain with an on/off switch and three-button gain toggle with configurable low, medium, and high settings. You control shutter speed via a simple dial, with iris adjustments moved to a dial around the lens. While familiar to SLR users, the control is now one of three (focus, zoom, iris) located within millimeters of each other in a 2.5in. span. Although they all have a slightly different feel, I found aperture easier to find and adjust when totally separate from other controls, as it is on the Canon XL H1 and XL2. The camera provides a two-step ND filter and configurable zebra pattern to assist setting exposure.
The XH A1 features a new Instant Auto-Focus (AF) system designed to quickly adjust focus to close to optimal, with the normal system perfecting the focus. As you’ll read below, neither the Instant nor normal auto-focus performed well in low light. For those focusing manually, the camera provides peaking and preview magnification buttons on the left body panel, but you can’t use the latter while shooting. You can press an auto-focus button to quickly engage that function, then revert back to manual. In the same area, Canon also provides a display button that lets you eliminate some or all of the onscreen text and other messages — a useful option.
Custom controls are very extensive and include gamma curve, knee point adjustment, black stretch and black press, master pedestal, sharpness, horizontal detail frequency, two settings for noise reduction, and color matrix and color gain settings. Many of these have cine settings to assist those transferring to film. There are also skin detail functions to soften detail in the face, a sky detail feature with a similar function, and color correction. This is easily the most customizable camera I’ve ever seen, and the description in the manual is unusually well written and helpful.