Technical analysis of the new Canon EOS C300

Canon Cinema EOS C300

The Canon C300 is the first in the company’s new Cinema EOS line-up, a high end range of digital movie production cameras. The range will later be expanded say Canon, to include 4K movie cameras, a 4K DSLR, a camera for run & gun documentary makers (presumably with an auto-mode that the C300 lacks entirely) and a lower end offering priced for indie filmmakers.

The sensor

The new sensor in the C300 is not based on an existing DSLR CMOS. It breaks from the traditional bayer array where a single pixel is produced by averaging and interpolating colour data. Like Foveon technology the output of the sensor does not need demosaicing and instead of interpolating colour then de-bayering, the sensor has a separate red, green and blue photo site for each pixel – hence the 8MP count and the 1080p output. There are actually 4 photosites per pixel, 1 red, 1 blue and 2 green (green is dominant for better resolution). This is as true as 1080p gets and colour is improved as a result as well as resolution. It’s probable that the C300 will outperform the Sony FS100 and F3 for resolution at 1080p, it’s even probable that the C300 in 720p mode will out perform the Panasonic AF100 and FS100 in 1080p mode, but final confirmation of this is yet to be reported. Colour and resolution will be a strong point on this camera.

The analogue to digital conversion of sensor data is 8bit, rather than 14bit on the 5D Mark II. The codec, both internally and via HD-SDI is MPEG based and sadly 8bit not 10bit. Colour sampling is 4-2-2. Whilst this is a step up from a DSLR, it is much closer to the XF305 camcorder than, say, the Sony F3. In fact the image processor is taken directly from the XF305. The sensor is a strong point, image processor not so much in my view, but it is as good as it needs to be for most TV production jobs and movie studios.

Why not 4K?

Canon have a strategy here of getting into the industry with a very good HD camera for a wide range of applications, and then building the specs and coming out with a very serious Sony F65 competitor that is at least 4K. 4K really isn’t for general consumption, especially since so much TV and cinema is now viewed online or on ridiculously small laptop screens. In terms of TV it will be a long time before 4K catches on, because peoples living room walls are only so big. 100″ 4K TV anyone? Try getting that past your better half!

Why not 60p?

Canon say the sensor is capable of it but the image processor isn’t. The image processor is fan cooled with a heat sink and is already running close to its limits. Now the little Sony NEX 5N does 1080/60p but the Canon C300’s image processor has to cope with far more RGB data coming back from the sensor, and store it at a much higher bitrate than the NEX 5N does. Since the image is cleaner, sharper and more detailed each frame also contains more data than on the NEX 5N. Canon say they will add higher frame rates like 60p to future Cinema EOS cameras, because ‘the demand is strong’.

The good news is the C300 is PAL / NTSC switchable so you can use 25p in PAL regions and 24p everywhere else.

Dynamic range, highlights and latitude

Dynamic range is 12 stops. The native ISO of the camera is 850, similar to the Sony F3 and FS100. It is at ISO 850 where best dynamic range and noise performance is achieved, lowering the gain results in a steeper fall off from highlights but more dynamic range in the shadows. Raising the gain, obviously results in more noise but the image is usable up to around ISO 20,000 (+30db).

The camera has a built in ND filter – I have heard conflicting information over whether there is an electronic ND in there. Canon say it is standard glass, and it goes from 2 to 6 stop reduction (ND0.8 – ND2).

Low light performance

Canon claim a 54dB signal-to-noise ratio for the C300’s sensor which puts it slightly below the Sony F3 and FS100 which are rated 63db (according to Sony’s claims). Still this is very impressive and better in low light than the EPIC. The sample videos so far show a very fine film like grain at high ISOs with hardly any noise reduction being applied in-camera. Instead if you want a smoother look you can do better noise reduction in post with plugins like Neat Video. Most customers the C300 is aimed at will be using the camera with lights and on well lit TV sets, so whilst 54db isn’t ground-breaking it is very very good and more than enough for most people.

In the camera’s menus ISO or GAIN can be set for measuring and changing sensitivity. ISO is stills / film photography terminology whilst GAIN is appreciated by videographers. Cinematographers meanwhile use ASA which is similar to ISO. I am an ISO person so it is good to see that as well as video gain controls. Here is the full extent of ISO and gain on the C300:

  • 320 = -6dB
  • 640 = 0dB
  • 850 = 2.5db (native)
  • 1600 = 8dB
  • 3200 = 14dB
  • 6400 = 20dB
  • 12,800 = 26dB
  • 20,000 = 30db

Picture profiles

There’s no Techicolor CineStyle on the camera, instead there is the superior Cinema Canon Log. Here are the profiles in full:

  • Normal 1: Typical contrast and saturation; assumes viewing on TV monitor
  • Normal 2: Similar, but bright areas are rendered even brighter
  • Normal 3: Greater expansion of tones in shadow areas
  • Normal 4: Similar, but even more detail in dark shadows
  • Cine 1: Crisp, fairly vivid image, simulating ungraded motion picture film
  • Cine 2: Similar, but reduced contrast
  • C8: CINEMA Canon Log
  • C9: EOS Standard – Crisp, vivid image, similar to Standard Picture Style on Canon EOS HD-SLRs

Audio and design

The camera is of magnesium alloy construction – light but durable. XLR audio jacks are provided via the add-on monitor unit and top-handle. The camera itself features just a 3.5mm audio jack.

The pricing

The C300 is designed to compete with the Arri Alexa for TV production and film jobs. At $20k it is significantly less than the Alexa at $50k. This kind of pricing is not for artists, indie filmmakers so it only makes sense for when the production is part of a wider business plan and the equipment is an investment. It makes no sense for an aspiring filmmaker or lone cinematographer to splash down $20k (or even $10k) on a camera body! Canon will be offering much cheaper Cinema EOS cameras including a 4K DSLR later, and it is those that I will cover more of. Will the EF mount version of the C300 be cheaper than the PL version? According to Canon’s Larry Thorpe in an interview with DPReview, this hasn’t been decided yet.

There could be, but at the moment it seems probably not. At the moment we’re still working out the details. The list price is around $20,000 but it be another month or so [before details are finalized].