I performed two rounds of testing with the camcorder, an extensive series of lab and real-world testing that revealed an auto-focus problem that prompted me to return the camcorder for diagnostics. (At press time, Canon had yet to report the results of its own tests.) Canon was kind enough to send another camera for an abbreviated round of final lab testing to finish the review.
Specifically, particularly in low light conditions, the camera lost focus for a moment or two, becoming noticeably blurry, as you can see in the ballet footage below. Scanning the Web, I noticed two other reviewers reported a similar problem with the Instant AF that resolved in normal AF, which was different than my experience, since I used Normal AF for all shoots.
I sent some test footage to Canon that illustrated the problem, and we swapped camcorders. While I can’t duplicate the same test situation after the swap, some ad hoc testing in the lab with the second camera indicated that in low-light conditions, the XH A1 tends to lose auto-focus faster than other cameras that I compared it to, including the XL2.
The Canon XL H1 exhibited infrequent problems retaining focus. Click the figure to see a full size image.
During the first round, I tested the camera in my studio, primarily in manual mode, and then shot two concerts, a ballet, and several interviews. In lab resolution tests, using several test charts from DSC Labs, the XH A1 actually outperformed the much larger and much more costly XL H1 by a hair. Simply stated, the XL A1 produced the best resolution of any camcorder that I’ve ever tested. Low-light tests were similar between the XH A1 and XL H1, but the older Canon XL2 clearly produced less noise than either HD camera under similar conditions.
Test chart images where outstanding. Click the figure to see a full size image.
One of my test concerts was on New Year’s Eve, and it was an absolute contrast ratio torture test with men in black tuxes and white shirts, and the lead singer in black, all against a black background. Still, working in manual exposure mode, the XH A1 produced absolutely stunning images, with good detail retained at both ends of the IRE scale — good color in between and great contrast between the various shades of black.
I love the contrast in this challenging image. Click the figure to see a full size image.
Overall, if you frequently shoot using auto-focus, particularly in low-light conditions (weddings or other similar events), you should probably look elsewhere for your camcorder needs. Otherwise, for manual-only shooters, the Canon XH A1 is an exceptional camcorder, capable of extremely sharp images and wonderful contrast and exposure.