camcorders

Canon HF M40 Review

A camcorder that isn't afraid of the dark.

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Introduction

The Canon HF M40 is the latest mid-range camcorder from Canon. With the same risky new sensor, this impressive bargain has great low light performance and a plethora of manual controls. The HF M40 retails for MSRP $699.99.

Design & Usability

The HF M40 is a more compact camcorder than Canon’s hefty flagship, the HF G10.

We found that it fits comfortably in most hands, with a reasonably comfortable hand strap and contoured surfaces. If you’re using the accessory shoe, you might have trouble finding a spot to rest your pinkie, but that’s become virtually status quo for consumer camcorders these days.

For one-handed operation, the zoom toggle and record button rest comfortably within reach, but you won’t find any other buttons or features intended to be operated with the right hand. The rest of the camcorder’s controls are accessed via touch screen or nestled within the LCD cavity. We regret the absence of the excellent focus ring from Canon’s step-up model, but we don’t miss the awkward control dial.

The Canon HF M40 is relatively easy to use, though the sheer volume of options may intimidate first-time camcorder owners.

The Canon HF M40 is relatively easy to use, though the sheer volume of options may intimidate first-time camcorder owners. A switch on the right allows users to activate a full Auto mode, which turns off nearly every other option in the camcorder. Some other auto modes are described in the Auto Mode section.

There are also two nifty little features that Canon has added in order to create a more accessible user experience: Video Snap and Story Creator. We describe both options in the Other Features section of this review. We’ve never found Video Snap to be particularly enticing, but we really like the Story Creator mode that Canon introduced this year.

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Features

An embarrassment of riches

The Canon HF M40 offers the user tons of different options for a simpler automated experience. While we appreciate the many efforts Canon is making to ease the way for beginning users, there are times when we felt there were too many auto options. Essentially, you can shoot in full auto, program auto, scene mode, or Cinema Mode. Those can be combined with Video Snap or Story Creator. If that sounds confusing, we don’t blame you.

If you want a bit more control than Auto mode offers, you can keep the camcorder switched to Manual, then choose Scene Mode from the function menu. This gives you access to a handful of programmed scenarios—a list of options that Canon has expanded since last year. You’ll still be able to do a manual focus or tweak exposure compensation, but the HF M40 will lock you out of white balance, gain, and image effects. Cinema mode applies a digital filter to your footage, while giving you access to every control except for image effects. Programmed AE is the most versatile auto mode, giving you full access to all controls except for aperture and shutter speed. Every mode can be used in conjunction with Video Snap or Story Creator.

You’ll have to use the LCD touchscreen for everything, but we certainly don’t miss the clunky control dial from the HF G10.

When it comes to automatic controls, the HF M40 performed quickly and accurately in most shooting scenarios. Auto exposure was sometimes very abrupt when moving from light to dark scenes, but we saw this on last year’s Canon models as well. AF/AE tracking returns this year and seems to work adequately, with the occasional loss of subject.

You’ll have to use the LCD touchscreen for everything, but we certainly don’t miss the clunky control dial from the HF G10. As with most touchscreen camcorders, we don’t like that your finger gets in the way when you’re making image adjustments, but touchscreens are becoming more and more pervasive, especially on entry-level and mid-range models. As for the extras, Canon provides optional features for face detection, backlight correction, auto slow shutter, and tele macro zoom.

Comparable Products

Before you buy the Canon Vixia HF M40, take a look at these other camcorders.

Performance

Decent all around, with very impressive low-light performance

The Canon Vixia HF M40 performed extremely well in our color tests, with very accurate colors and impressive saturation. Since this is a mid-range consumer camcorder, we expected to find unnaturally vivid colors (an aesthetic that many consumers enjoy). Instead, we found a nearly perfect amount of saturation, with colors that look very close to what we see in real life. Green hues were the most troublesome part of the spectrum for the M40. The HF M40 does not offer any color modes outside of its scene and Cinema mode selections, but it does offer the user some minor control over color depth, contrast, sharpness, and brightness. These controls are located in the Image Effects submenu within the main Function menu.

Quite frankly, we were blown away by the impressive performance of the Canon HF M40 in our low light video testing.

Quite frankly, we were blown away by the impressive performance of the Canon HF M40 in our low light video testing. Canon’s decision to lower the pixel count on its 2011 sensors turns out to be a wise one: sharpness is only slightly lowered, while low light performance took a huge leap forward.

The Canon HF M40 actually fared very well in our low light noise testing—likely another result of the sensor’s increased sensitivity. With consumer camcorders that typically increase gain automatically, noise is a common guest at the low light party. (Gain increases brightness, but also increases noise.) The HF M40 allows you to turn off gain through the manual AGC Limit control, but even with the gain set to auto, we found the footage had very little noise.

Canon is using the same Digic DV III processor from last year’s lineup, but has thrown a totally different sensor and lens combo into the mix for the Vixia HF M40. The new sensor did seem to take a bit away from sharpness, but the video looked excellent otherwise, making it hard to tell the difference between video recorded with the M40 and video recorded with the more expensive flagship model, the Canon HF G10.

Conclusion

It turns out that Canon’s gamble to put all new sensors into the 2011 consumer lineup has really paid off.

The flagship HF G10 put up impressive numbers in low light performance—without much of a penalty to sharpness. For just $699.99 (MSRP), you can get virtually the same stellar performance in the Canon Vixia HF M40.

For experienced users looking to get the most for their money, the HF M40 is a sure thing.

The HF M40 gets you a bit less in the way of manual controls, but there’s still plenty to offer here. There’s also a huge amount of auto modes to ease the way for beginners… perhaps too many auto modes. In our opinion, that leaves the HF M40 just out of reach for the raw beginner. For experienced users looking to get the most for their money, the HF M40 is a sure thing.

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