Going in the Field, Underground and Overseas with Canon's Mid-Priced Pro ENG-Style Camcorder
If you live in southern California, mentioning “the 405” will bring up thoughts of the world’s worst freeway traffic, which many of us have to contend with on a daily basis. If you need to travel on the 405 to get to a shoot, you generally need to leave two or three hours ahead of time to avoid traffic or risk sitting in traffic for one or two hours to go 15 or 20 miles. Being able to associate positive thoughts with the number 405 is almost unthinkable, but Canon has given cause. I’ve spent three months with the XF405 on various shoots in California and Israel to test it out, so let’s dive in.
Before we start, note that the XF405 has some cousins within the Canon family. On the pro side, the XF400 is nearly identical, but is missing the HD-SDI output and is priced at about $600 less. On Canon’s consumer side is the GX10, which is basically the XF405 without HD-SDI, the XLR audio module/handle, the wired network connection, and the Canon MXF codecs. The only competitive 4K 60p camera I saw in this price/feature range is the Panasonic AG-UX180 at $2995. I haven’t laid my hands on it yet, but from its specs it’s about 30% larger, and looks like a pro camera — which can be positive or negative, depending on your situation.
The XF405 I received didn’t come in the normal retail box. Canon sent it to me in a nice-but-too-small Kata camera trolley bag. It did not come with many accessories — the top handle/XLR audio connectors, microphone mount, AC adapter, wireless remote, and instruction book. I ordered a second battery with my reviewer kit, which turned out to be a good idea. There was no media included, and there was also no battery charger. Without a battery charger, you must charge batteries on the camcorder while it is plugged into the AC adapter. There is no external mic included, so out of the box you have only the stereo mic built into the main body of the camera. To get better sound, I plugged an Azden SGM-250 in the mic holder into XLR input 1, and for some shoots, an Azden SMX-10 with 1/8” connector plugged into the main camera body, sometimes facing rearward to pick up my voice. The last thing I added to my kit was Halter Technical Scene Monitor compact headphones. (More on those little gems another time.)
Kingston Technology supplied six 256 GB high-performance SDXC cards that worked flawlessly during the review. I never got a speed warning as I had with other cards in other camera tests.
Reading the manual is a good idea. Not only do you need to get to know the camera’s many buttons and switches, but learning to navigate the Function menu — which includes the iris, gain, and white balance controls, etc. — and the camera set-up menu using the joystick and flip-out touchscreen are important to smooth operation of the camcorder.
The first thing I set up was the codec and resolution. You can choose between 4K and 1080 in 24p, 30p, or 60p, in both MP4 (H.264) and Canon MXF. If I wanted to record all day, I could set the codec as 1080p/MP4 and get over 15 hours and 30 minutes. On the highest quality 4K MXF setting, you can get over 3 hours and 30 minutes on the 256 GB Kingston cards.
The next thing I set was how the dual SD card slots worked together. You can set them to record in daisy chain, where one fills up then goes to the next; in parallel, where they both record the same thing in case one card fails; or one video and the other still photos. Since the 256 GB cards allowed for such long recording times, I used the parallel recording mode. One curious flaw with the dual-recording system is that only video can be recorded to both cards; for some reason, photos only record to the “A” card.
Audio set-up gives you a lot of flexibility. Depending on the codec you choose, you either have two (MP4) or four (MXF) audio channels. Channels one and two are the XLRs on the removable handle, and channels three and four are from the camera’s built-in mics or the 1/8-inch stereo input. Rotary dials to control the level of the XLR inputs are on the same unit. They turn counter-clockwise to lower the level, and clockwise to raise it, which is the opposite of every other camera I have owned, so I had to get used to that. The rotary dials are also on the smaller side and are obstructed when the clear plastic door that covers up all the switches isn’t closed. You can use the auto setting on either channel. I prefer manual, but the auto does a pretty good job. Levels for channels 3 and 4 are only adjustable through a menu, and that isn’t very practical, so the best thing to do is put them in auto mode.
One reality of the latest crop of cameras straddling the pro/consumer line is the lack of buttons or switches for controlling camera functions and adjustments. If you are shooting in manual mode, as most pros do, you will need to get used to hitting the Function button on the flip-out touchscreen. This opens up on-screen controls that let you adjust white balance, gain, shutter, iris, etc. The only manual controls on the camera are the zoom, a manual/auto focus button, a manual/full auto switch, and a lens ring you can set to control zoom or focus. I kept the default setting to focus. It wasn’t difficult to adapt to this, but it took some time. I recommend taking the camera out for practice shooting before attempting any real work with it. Out in the field, I put the XF405 through a number of trials including event video, ENG, reality show, and shooting vacation/stock video.
The first project we used the XF405 for was the only one where we used the HD-SDI port. I was doing a AV for a fundraiser dinner where my Sony HVR-S270 was the main camera, with a close-up shot on the podium. I set the XF405 to capture a wide shot of the stage for B-roll. This camera can’t output HDMI and HD-SDI at the same time, so make sure the menu is set to the correct spigot. FYI, the HD-SDI only outputs a maximum of 1080 60p, no 4K. That means that if you want to do a live feed of the 4K, you must use HDMI. Though I was using vastly different cameras, I was able to match the cameras for the shoot and live switch using Canon’s menu. My original plan was to use the camera’s wireless remote for zooming and start/stop, but the remote had such poor range you needed to be within arm’s length to use it. In the end, my tech’s 15-year-old son did it. Everyone was happy with the shots.
Next, I took the XF405 on vacation to Israel. Going tourist, I removed the handle that had the XLR inputs. It makes the camera look more like the consumer GX10 and take up a lot less space. We took it to some challenging locations, like retired bunkers on the Syrian border where you could, on some days, see their civil war, and hikes through Nimrod’s Castle and the Israeli Navy museum, where you get to walk through a retired submarine, frigate and a number of other dark, narrow venues. While the XF 405 is not as compact as its smaller HD-only sibling, the XA15, I was able to get into some very tight places that I wouldn’t be able to navigate easily with the Canon EOS C200 or my Sony Z7U. On vacation, I used the still-photo function quite a bit. There is a virtual button on the touchscreen labeled Photo that will capture an 8 megapixel still without shooting video. Unlike my Sony cameras, you can’t take any stills while in video mode.
The photos do look great, and I took several hundred on the trip. One cool thing was that, though I had visited the Western Wall many times in the past, the XF405 helped me see Hebrew writing on stones that I had never noticed. The camera’s high resolution and its 15x zoom lens made it possible for us to discover something I hadn’t seen before.
At one point I was helping a sister-in-law do some video and stills for her website. We shot the video with the XF405, but found it too awkward for still product shots. I wound up using Canon’s XC10, which looks more like a DSLR than a camcorder and is much better for taking stills.
While touring the Ammunition Hill Museum in Jerusalem, you get to walk on the actual battlefield that consisted of narrow trenches and bunkers from where Jordanian snipers used to shoot at people in the Jewish Quarter from 1948 until 1967, when Israeli paratroopers took it at great cost. Since it’s only around two feet wide, walking around with a large camera would have been difficult. The XF405 was compact enough to easily get around the maze of bunkers, trenches and pillboxes and get great shots. Not too long ago, you needed to sacrifice quality and features for compact size. This is no longer true.
Up in northern Israel, we hiked Nimrod’s Castle, a huge structure built by Muslim invaders around 1270 CE that includes King Nimrod’s castle and a fort. It is surprisingly well preserved. Even on some of the lower levels, where rooms were only lit by a small window or an archer’s port, I got great images. Following the afternoon there, we drove a few kilometers to the west to a former military post on a mountain near the Israel-Syria border. It is now a tourist destination with a coffee shop you can explore and a view into Syria. Using the XF405’s 15x lens I was able to get some nice shots of a Syrian border town a few kilometers away. Though we heard some artillery when exiting our car, there was no fighting to observe. (The following day, a nearby Syrian drone was shot down.)
Another good test of the XF405’s low-light capability was at the Israeli Navy Museum in Haifa. You can board a retired submarine that is dimly lit and not exactly spacious. If the XF405 was small enough to easily do a production in the tight quarters of a submarine, it can pretty much fit anywhere. Again, it delivered impressive results.
Back home, my first shoot was a bit more mundane. I shot a big 70th birthday party that had non-stop entertainment, musicians, a hypnotist, two comedians, and other people giving the guest of honor well wishes for about three hours. They had everything from a Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator, to a Chasidic rabbi to one of Howard Stern’s show regulars. I shot this in 1080p 60, which was good enough for the final product.
There was no real starting and stopping of recording, so I was really worried as I only had two batteries and the battery meter was dropping fast. (I was more worried about running out of batteries with the XF405 than I was about my 15.5 MPG Suburban running out of gas in the middle of the desert going from Los Angeles to Phoenix.) So I was very concerned about needing to change the battery while something important was happening. This is not usually a concern with my Sony HVR-Z7U, where batteries can last eight to 10 hours on a charge, so budgeting battery time for a camera is new to me. In the end I lucked out and did the quickest battery change of my life during a change of acts on stage. Because I didn’t know how long the show was going to be, I left the camera on a wide shot for a couple minutes and put the battery on a third-party charger I got on Amazon for $5. If I needed to change batteries again, I wanted the first battery to have as much of a charge as possible. In the end, the second battery was enough to finish the job, but it was close. If you intend to record theater performances, seminars, weddings, or conferences where you are shooting long segments at a time, you will need to invest in at least an additional three or four batteries and a portable charger to be safe. I would even check into external third-party power solutions, as using the bulky AC power supply on a shoot is generally not an option. The one I got came with adapters for a car and European AC plugs.
Next, I used the XF405 on a spec show project called The Cave Diaries I am partnering on with actress/comedian Dana Jamison, where we explore caves and abandoned structures and leave diaries for people to write in. Later, we track them down and interview them. Dana is the on-camera host and co-producer, and I am the cameraman/DP, editor, other co-producer, and sometimes off-camera comic relief. We started shooting the show with Canon’s XC10 and it worked very well. We did lament not having a servo zoom, but it worked. We tried moving up to the C200, but it was just too bulky for going on miles-long hikes, getting into narrow places and being on ledges. The XF405 has worked out perfectly so far.
In a couple of the caves, we got a chance to try the infrared mode, with built-in infrared illumination. It was the best I have seen on a camcorder yet. The black-and-white images are sharp and detailed. If you are somewhere where using a light is not allowed, this feature can be a life-saver. Where we had modest lighting from the sun peeking in from small holes in the cavern roof, the XF405 did very well,in regular shooting mode.
I am always concerned about using any “video gain” in dark rooms. I instruct my camerapeople to not use it. I’d rather they adjust the shutter from 1/60 to 1/30 for better low-light performance. If they do need it in an emergency, they are not to go over 6 db. On most pro cameras I’ve used, gain introduces noise to the footage, even at 6db. The XF405 is in a different league. I hooked it up to the 40-inch HDTV in my family room, turned the lights down and zoomed the XF405 in on the inside of an open computer case. Without gain, the image was way too dark. I kept boosting the gain until the image looked bright enough, which was at 25 db. Checking it on the 40-inch screen, there was no visible noise. I tried boosting the gain farther, until I could see noise, and that was at 35 db. That low light performance is very impressive in a video camera. Obviously, Canon’s low-light sensitivity has trickled down from its high-end DSLR and cinema product line.
Most of the time, the XF405 was on a monopod or handheld. It got a bit dirty, scraped, dusty, dropped and “sunbaked.” The show follows the host as she hikes on dusty trails and climbs up mountains, visiting various caves and remote locations. The camera survived a number of collisions with trees, rocks and cave walls (it can be dark until you turn on the IR). At one point someone left the camera, mounted on a monopod, leaning against a cave wall while I was looking at our next set-up. I heard a crash and found the camera on the ground. It fell about four feet, but there was no damage.
On another shoot, it was a balmy 108 F at the start of the long hike up to the Caves of Muntes on Scorpion Peak in California’s San Fernando Valley. There, we met one of the “cave diarists” for an interview by a cave entrance by a cliff. Midway through the interview, a little yellow icon started flashing on the touchscreen. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a thermometer. I had not seen it in my review of the camera manual. I stopped recording for fear of killing the camera and shut it down to cool off for a few minutes. After restarting the camera, it took two or three minutes before it appeared again. At that point, the interview was really interesting so I said, “Screw it. This is a product review for StudioDaily, so if the camera cooks, it cooks.” In the end, for all the warnings, there was no performance issue with the camera or any problem we noticed on the Kingston SDXC cards. The camera specs say maximum operating temp is 113 F (for the GX10, it’s 104 F). Checking in with Canon, we were told it was an internal heat warning, but not to worry about it. OK — but then, why warn us?
My final shoot was shooting for Mark Alyn Communications, recording UFC champion Brian “T-City” Ortega’s foundation giving out martial-arts scholarships to deserving kids. The shoot consisted of the ceremony, martial-arts demonstrations, and interviews with the scholarship winners. The camera did get a few looks of disbelief, as the client was used to seeing me with a more “professional looking” (bigger) camera. I had to assure them that this was not something I purchased on a Best Buy special. I educated them that many of the smaller pro cameras out today will replace the larger Betacam-size rigs they were used to seeing at press events. Its small size allowed me to go from room to room, making set-up changes very quickly. And the client was very happy with the footage.
The only area where the XF405 suffers is in battery life and lack of battery charger. I think a camera at this level should include a charger that isn’t the camera. Luckily you can get a third-party charger for $5. It wouldn’t be my go to camera for long continuous events like weddings or long lectures, due to the short battery life. It is extremely durable, compact and has great image quality, so with enough batteries, you can do great things with it. If I wind up purchasing the XF405 or XF400, I will be buying a minimum of 3 or 4 batteries to go with it.
In conclusion, I was really impressed with the Canon XF405, as it can fill many roles in the production environment. It’s not a cinema camera, and it’s not meant to be. It can be used in reality show production, sports, small TV studios, and ENG very easily. The flexibility the XF405 offers as far as audio inputs, video outputs, video codecs, dual SD card recording, where you actually record 4K to the SD cards and not more expensive C-Fast media or external devices, make it a great choice for many types of jobs.
If the XF405 sounds good but you don’t need the HD-SDI and would like to keep $500 in your pocket, check out the XF400, which is the exact same camera without HD-SDI. If you want to save about $1,000 over the XF405, you can get the more consumer-oriented Canon GX10, which has all the features of the XF400, but without the top handle/professional XLR audio inputs, only the 1/8” stereo input and a jack in case you decide to purchase the top handle later.
If, on the other hand, you need all the features of the XF405, but covet additional bells and whistles like HDR, more efficient H.265 recording, 12G-SDI, HDMI 2.0, and the kind of real switches, buttons and lens rings that professionals are used to, Canon has announced the XF705, to be released in September at an MSRP of $7,999. The only downside is you lose the ability to impersonate a home-video shooter by taking off the handle and pro audio module. (It even includes a battery charger!)
But I don’t think you can go wrong using the XF405 for most TV/video production applications. I don’t look forward to giving it back to Canon.