A hands on look at the Canon C300

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Ethics statement: I am not paid by Canon. I went to check out the C300 today on my own time (and a damn parking ticket for my trouble!) so I could see what it was like and report back here. I hope to do a review in the next 10 days where I can share my opinion on it. As always, fair and unbiased. 

So November the 3rd is about 4 weeks ago now. The day both the Scarlet and the Canon C300 were released. The Scarlet looks like an exciting camera, despite some shortcomings, it has 4k and RAW. Two superb features. But it is not a cheap camera once you get what you really need, not bare minimum, but a proper set up to shoot and do post…I detail that more in my recent post here.

When the C300 was announced, I was underwhelmed…why? Well I like the look of the actual camera and the images out of it looked great, but it was 3 things. 8 bit out. 720p slow motion and most of all the price tag. $20k. Making it out of reach of pretty much most indie shooters out there.

The good news is that the price seems to have been slashed right down. Although no official street price is actually out. I am hearing about 13K Euros, $13k. Way cheaper. At this price, it is suddenly a contender again. Although only against the F3 really, not the way cheaper FS100 and AF100.

Honestly the Scarlet and the C300 seem like two different cameras for two different markets to me. The Scarlet is aimed squarely at the lower budget narrative crowd (though not the micro budget as it still costs a lot) whereas the C300 feels to me like a great large sensor broadcast camera. The specs meet the minimum broadcast standard for the majority of big HD broadcasters. 422 50mb/s in camera which the F3 does not do (420 35mb/s)

Today I popped into London, along with my rather sexy moustache, to see the C300 on the first day of its little roadshow across Britain. I wanted to get my hands on it and of course shoot with it. That will have to wait a couple of weeks when they said they will get me a camera to test out and review for a couple of days. Today was really a chance to sit down with one of the developers, Yoshifumi Satake from Canon Japan and Nick Millen from Canon Uk,  to understand its features more and to actually feel it in my hands.

Me with C300 developer Yoshifumi Satake

I was actually pleasantly surprised when I held it. It felt quite nice in my hands, compact and with a nice weight to it. The jutting out lip under the lens actually felt like a natural place to put my hand whilst holding it. It’s also where the threads are for tripod plates, making it more balanced centrally rather than placing the threads directly in the centre of the camera.]

The lip under the lens...

It was a great opportunity to ask first-hand lots of questions to Canon and get certain aspects of it cleared up. So this is what I learnt…

The 4k sensor captures 444 but the camera records 422 full HD. It is apparently a much better way to capture a full HD image than from a native sensor. It was explained to me via some nice napkin drawings by Yoshifumi Satake in Cafe Nero where we took the camera to chat, I wish I had kept them for reference.

Napkins!!

Yes, it only outputs 8-bit out the HDMI and SDI out (both work at same time)…it’s a real shame I cannot use my kipro mini to record gorgeous 10 bit ProRes images with this camera, just 8 bit. Again it was explained to me how the image quality was still maintained over 8 bit with more napkin drawings, but it went so far technically over my head it narrowly missed a passing plane coming in to land at Heathrow!!

Watch out planes!!
More napkins!!

SFX genius, Magic Bullet creator and all round nice fella Stu Maschwitz explained this is not all bad on his blog…

“Again, a pro of this camera crops up to dampen this con: The C300 is not a noise-free camera. Its noise is, in fact, quite lovely and cinematic. Noisy images don’t have to be as high-bit-depth as clean ones to look good. And a very gentle denoising pass can promote C300 footage to 16-bit without much loss in detail.

The C300 is crippled in ways that one would not expect from a $20,000 camera, but it is also empowered in ways usually reserved for much more expensive rigs. It uses a 4K sensor to make its HD images, meaning that all its internal processing is 4:4:4. It kills in low light and when it gets noisy, the noise looks like film grain.”

Now I cannot vouch for any of this as I have not examined any footage of the camera yet. I did shoot a couple of shots on their pre-production camera in the cafe just to check out the record buttons, but I didn’t take any footage home with me. I don’t want to do that. I want to do a full on proper real world test where I can put it through its paces in all aspects and see just how good this 8-bit looks.

I own a Canon XF105 so I know how good the 50mb/s 422 XF codec is, and that is what we have in there . It is the bare minimum for HD acquisition but it at least reaches it. Neither the F3, FS100 or AF100 do this internally. So this is a big plus. Of course, recording to an external recorder will make it better, but it will never be more than 8 bit, but as Stu says, if the noise hides the 8 bit then…

It’s a world camera. It shoots 23.98p, 24p (for film out), 25p, 30p in full HD. It also does interlaced. Yuck. Over-cranking up to 60p is done by dropping down to 720p. A real shame that. Again I will see how it actually looks soon. My XF105 was region locked to 25p. I paid £350 to get firmware onto it to make it shoot 24p as well. It’s nice that we have a world camera here, and so it should be for that price and if it is to compete with the F3 which has a similar price.

 

 

IS works a damn treat on the camera. I shot with the Canon L 70-200mm F2.8 IS Version II and at the end of lens I was shaking all over the place on my end handheld, but it was looking pretty damn solid on the screen. Damn that IS is good on that lens!

There is NO autofocus on this camera. I was told this was a conscious decision to steer it more towards proper camera operators than the 305 has currently. A lot of 305s are being used by shooting producers, which is doable due to the small sensor, although there is no real replacement for a proper dedicated cameraman, just my thoughts. Super 35mm is a whole different ball game. This camera encourages skilled operators to use it and that is admirable. There is a small wi-fi adaptor which transmits a low frame rate version to your computer. If the lens is set to autofocus, you can actually change the focus remotely. A nice feature, not exactly a wireless follow focus but a way of changing focus remotely if you cannot get to the camera if it is say, on a jib or perhaps you just want to mess with the operator and tell them they are shit for not getting anything in focus 😉

Iris…this is interesting. Both the RED Epic and Canon DSLRs change the iris in 1/3rd stop increments. Too big a jump for smooth changes in exposure whilst recording. The C300 has a feature called “fine iris” which I played with and was able to get much finer increments that the 1/3rd stop (there is also a 1/2 th stop one). I counted 2 clicks between some 1/3rd stop increments and 3 clicks between others. I will get this confirmed with the exact fraction from Canon shortly, but it looks more like 1/8th stop increments-ish. It’s not as smooth as a proper cine, ENG or de-clicked still lens but way better than the 1/3rd stop. When I played with the MTF services EF adaptor for the FS100, F3 and AF100 at IBC in September, their adaptor which was pre-production, gave you 1/8th stop increments too. It does make a big difference, especially, if like me, you shoot a lot of actuality where light changes and you have to go with it.

The electronic ND confused me when I heard about the camera. I did not understand what electronic ND could be. It was cleared up pretty fast when I found it was simply an electronically switched filter. It flips ND onto the sensor rather than rotate it around like a traditional filter wheel, which takes up a lot of space when they have to cover such a large sensor. It’s a pretty neat solution. You get 2, 4 or 6 stops of ND via the two buttons.

Build quality was quite superb, it looks plastically until you hold it, then it feels solid. It’s a metal frame and the front is made of magnesium to avoid any flex between the lens and the body.

The view finder wasn’t actually too bad! It’s the same as the one on the XF305 and with peaking and the magnify button (which works whilst recording too) making it easy to keep focus. If you use it in its minimal configuration and with a not too heavy a lens, it’s actually not too bad to hold even without a rig, that lip at the front really does come in handy here. Of course it you do want to do more longer handheld stuff then a rig would be useful.

There is no built in microphone at all. If you want to use XLRs then you need to add the (included) top module onto it. This does make the camera heavier and less sleek. It also gives you the LCD monitor to use. The Audio, Video and controls are sent via two proprietary cables. If you don’t want the bulk you can just use the 3.5mm jack like on a DSLR, it’s certainly better than nothing and coupled with a mic like the Rode Video Mic Pro you will get good sound, (I am assuming) you can still change the levels and of course it has a headphone socket!!

Headphone socket!!

The camera has a base sensitivity of 850 ISO which is pretty damn good. Lowest it will go is 320, highest is a crazy 20,000 ISO. I am told by people who have used the camera it’s actually pretty good and the noise is very filmic at this level. Again, until I try it for myself I cannot say for sure.

There are two versions. An EF and a PL version. Same price. The mounts are not swappable.

The side handle is detachable and feels way more robust than the similar FS100 handle.

It has a gamma curve called C-Log which gives you a lovely flat image and a very nice dynamic range of 12 stops. I was told this was maintained all the way through to 20,000 ISO. Impressive if that’s the case. There are loads more options for gamma curves and other picture profiles, there is even a gamma curve which replicates the standard picture profile of the 5DMkII if that’s your bag.

There was a nice RGB histogram, vectorscope and a cool feature called Edge monitor which shows you via a histogram all along the bottom of the screen what is in focus and what isn’t. The higher the levels the more in focus you are. Neat.

Any button with a number is assignable to a different function. There are lots of them. I believe, with the top monitor, a whopping 15! This is achievable as the playback buttons, which are of course useless whilst recording, can be assigned to do things whilst in live mode. You could almost do with a removable skin so you know what’s what. I don’t recommend using a silver sharpie to write what you have assigned them to! 🙂

Battery consumption is pretty impressive. Not quite as good as the FS100 which can get about 8 hours off of one NPF970 battery, but with the larger battery (which are the same as the XF100/105 batteries) you can expect around 300 minutes of use. Not bad!

So my first impressions were very positive. Of course I haven’t done the most important thing, shoot with it…that will be soon. The proof is always in the pudding!

The release date for the camera is scheduled for January 2012. Not that far away at all!

After spending time with it today, it is clear that this really is a camera for a whole different market than the Scarlet which really is aimed more at narrative. This, as I said earlier, looks like a great broadcast 35mm workhorse camera. Not saying you can’t shoot movies on it, it’s the broadcast spec that is key with this camera and it’s for that use that I can see this being snapped up if the image is as good as I have heard.

Stay tuned for the full review with footage coming in December. Also my Sony A77 review, in association with HireACamera.com is coming up too…

Fish eye on the iphone with the Olloclip, with Nick Millen on the right.

 

 

 

 

Nice peaking...I mean histograms!!