Canon C300 first look review
Update: 17-1-2012 – The Canon C300 is now available for Pre-order from B&H.
Today I went along to CVP in Brentford London to have a closer look at the new Canon EOS C300. Announced on November the 3rd this new Canon S35 camera has received a lot of attention as well as a fair amount of criticism due to the combination of a much higher RRP than expected and some less than cutting edge specs.
The Canon EOS C300 was announced with a recommended retail price of $20,000 without a lens. Many DSLR users were expecting a camera that would compete with Sony’s FS100 but as it turned out a it’s closest competitors are the much higher end Sony F3 and the Red Scarlet, the later of which which was launched on the same day as the C300. Since the release there have been a lot of rumours about the price actually being less than $20k and it does seem as though this is the case with many UK dealers now listing it for pre-order at less than £10,000.
Like the Sony F3 the C300 records at a maximum resolution of 1080p to it’s internal cards. The C300 trumps the F3 slightly in this regard with it’s BBC approved 50 mbps XF codec but whereas the F3 has the ability to output a full blown 4:4:4 uncompressed signal to external recorders with the addition of a $3,700 S-LOG option the C300’s single HD-SDI port is limited to a 1080p 4:2:2 8bit output. This single limitation is seen by most as being the biggest weakness of the C300.
The Red Scarlet is a feature limited version of the Epic, the king of high resolution raw output with it’s 5K sensor and workflow. For my use though working with 5K or 4K raw footage would actually make my post production a lot more time consuming than it is at present and my clients would be unlikely to pay for that time. I moved away from having to transcode footage when I started using Premier Pro a year ago, I don’t want to go back to doing that again for every shoot. Should a project come along that needs super slow mo or 5K raw files I would definately rent an Epic. As a massive fan of slow-mo I’d love to shoot with an Epic, but both the price of that camera and the fact that it would increase my post production timescales are good reasons to look elsewhere. The Scarlet isn’t quite as attractive to me, you get all the workflow implications without the awesome 4K frame rates.
So what many see as the C300’s Achilles heel isn’t actually such a problem for me, I’ll be perfectly happy recording to the cameras internal compact flash cards at 1080p. The one specification that I was disappointed by though was that the C300 can only record over cranked 50 fps or 60 fps material at 720p. It would have been great if Canon had built the camera to do 1080/60 but much like the Sony F3 and EX range it means switching to 720p first.
I had a few reservations and questions based on ergonomics and functionality of the camera. How well would it fill the gap between my EX1 and DSLR’s? Things like exposure aids, audio capabilities and hand holding ability were amongst the list of things I wanted answers to so below is run down of what I discovered.
The C300 looks a bit different to most of the video cameras I’ve used before it, rather than the usual rectangular or square box with a handle on the top the C300 looks more like one of those palm shaped handy cams from a decade ago, albeit enlarged and a lot more sophisticated. Okay, that may be a little harsh comparison but it’s certainly very different and going by photographs of the product alone it’s very easy to think that the ergonomics are going to be hard to deal with. When I held the camera for the first time it actually felt a lot better than I expected. Everything feels very solid and nicely weighted.
Top handle and the monitor unit
A removable handle, LCD and mic holder assembly (monitor unit) bolts to the top of the camera, this again is a very different design and I was keen to check out how reliable and functional this was in use. I was a little concerned that carrying the camera around by a handle that was attached to a cold shoe was going to be a disaster waiting to happen, I’ve lost count of the amount of times things have dropped off my EX1’s cold shoes when I was least expecting it so it’s not a connection method I have a lot of faith in.
The top handle consists of two separate parts, the handle itself (handle unit) and then the monitor unit. The handle fits to the body of the camera via a cold shoe but it’s actually a lot more solid than expected. The handle makes contact with more than just the cold shoe itself and the bolt which is part of the handle passes through the cold shoe and tightens into a thread inside the C300 itself. This results in a very secure connection that certainly put aside my concerns.
The monitor unit can be connected either to the front or the back of the handle. One of my concerns was how you would mount an on camera light, the cold shoe at the front is used to hold the monitor unit so where would the light go? We tried to reconfigure the setup with the monitor at the back of the handle which was possible, the only problem though is that the shoe at the front of the handle is vertically mounted on the front edge so not practical to hold a light without some kind of adapter. An alternative would be to mount a cine arm further back on the handle to hold a light or to use a rotolight either on the lens or the mic but it’s something that could be an issue if like me you often use a cold shoe mounted litepanel.
The monitor unit connects to the main body via two cables with proprietary connectors. The connectors themselves feel very professional with a pull to remove locking ring. This is actually a very useful system as it would allow for the whole monitor unit to be relocated to rails or elsewhere on the camera rig as long as it’s within reach of the cables. The monitor itself looked great, easily on par with the one my EX1. The whole monitor panel can be rotated on the unit and has solid detents that it clicks through as rotated. The monitor can be flipped so that it’s either over or under the unit with the image mirrored accordingly. One slight annoyance is that you have to press a ‘mirror’ button on the top of the unit to flip the image, it doesn’t automatically flip in the same way as the LCD on the EX1.
Button / control layout
The buttons on the C300 are highly configurable from the menu’s but I thought I’d run through the standard button layout as its actually very logical and well thought out. I’ll describe each side in detail…
Starting from the top on the left side you have the main power switch where you can choose either the camera or media modes. Additionally there’s a lock position on the main power switch which can be used to prevent accidental control changes whilst recording. Below the power switch towards the front of the camera we have the ND filter controls and then behind those is a column of four buttons that control LCD features. At the top is a ‘MAGN’ button which magnifies the image in the monitor to allow critical focus either prior to or during recording. Below that are the PEAKING and ZEBRA on / off buttons and the WFM (Waveform) button which cycles through the various waveform display modes.
Further back from the LCD buttons is another column of three buttons, at the top is DISP / BATT. INFO which enables and disables camera data on the LCD, below that is STATUS which activates a display showing the current modes and options selected on the camera and lastly a CUSTOM PICTURE button that allows you to select the picture profile.
Canon have provided two dials on the left side of the camera, the upper of which is a SELECT / SET format allowing both rotary selections and setting by pressing the button in the middle. Anyone familiar with EOS DSLR’s will recognise that these input dials as a common amongst Canon’s DSLR’s. The lower ‘Control Dial’ is assignable and Canon suggests using this for ISO/Gain.
Below the input dials are two more buttons, the first is a record review button allowing you to play back the last clip recorded. The rec review feature is limited in that it does not play back the audio and cannot be used while the camera is in one of it’s special record modes. Not having audio during rec / review is a shame as it’s always reassuring to know that your audio as well as your picture have recorded correctly.
Next is the white balance button, this provides a lot of options including DSLR like presets for daylight, tungsten etc, A & B custom settings allowing you to store two custom presets and the ability to dial in Specific K (Kelvin) settings.
Finally at the bottom are a pair of headphone volume control buttons. Also notice at the very bottom an air intake vent for the cooling system.
The back of the camera is packed with goodies. At the top is a second single colour LCD panel which again harks back to the cameras DSLR heritage. On the left of the LCD there’s two small buttons, the top one activates the backlight on the LCD and also cycles through two brightness levels if you press it repeatedly. The lower FUNC (function) button allows you to to highlight shutter speed, white balance and ISO settings on the monitor which can then be set using the various input selectors on the camera.
Below the function button is a recessed record start / stop button, and then a group of three menu navigation buttons in the form of ‘MENU’ to call up the menu, a small four way joystick controller for navigation and a ‘CANCEL’ button for closing menus and sub-menus. The middle section of the back panel holds the twin CF card slots, each with an access LED which lights red when the the card is being accessed and green when the card is selected but not currently in use.
There’s a small SLOT SELECT button on the right of the CF card slots allowing you to select which card to record to. Above the slot select is a tiny camera reset button which could only be used with a paperclip or something similar. At the bottom is the Battery door which can be closed when using standard batteries or removed if using Canons larger BP-970 or BP-975 batteries.
The right side is home to a multitude of communication ports all with nice chunky snap on covers, most of which can be removed if you need easy access to the ports. Starting from the top we have the EXT 1 & 2 connectors for the monitor unit, below those are a remote port and an HDMI type A which is the full size HDMI connector unlike DSLRS which have the smaller type C .
The next column of connectors (starting from the top) include the familiar pro video BNC connectors in the form of SYNC, GEN LOCK, TIME CODE and an HD-SDI port. Below those are a headphone connector, power input and an SD card slot which is used for storing still images.
The rest of the right side is relatively sparse to allow for the use of the hand grip. The hand grip connector itself can be fitted with a cover when the grip is detached, cleverly the cover is contoured to allow your thumb to rest on it when holding the camera with no grip fitted. Above the grip port is a stereo 3.5mm mic input and a second focus tape hooking point. Also on the upper side is a small cover marked WFT, this is used to connect the Canon WiFi dongle to allow remote WiFi control. Note also more air intake vents above and below the grip connector.
AT the very bottom of the right side is a small panel secured by a screw, behind this panel is a manual override for the electronically controlled ND filter mechanism. If the electronics fail somehow a small phillips screwdriver can be used to operate the filters in an emergency.
The C300 comes with either a Canon EF of PL mount, these are not interchangeable. Both versions are shown below and other than the obvious mount differences they both contain a single Rec Start / Stop button at the bottom. That makes four Start / Stop record buttons in total!
Looking at the top of the C300 we can see the cold shoe and the thread within the shoe that allows for the fitting of the top handle. On each side are threads for the removable focus tape hangers. Further back are a pair of strap loops and a threaded hole that allows the WFT attachment bracket to be fitted.
Although there’s just one connection plate it does feature two different thread mount holes as well as a locating pin for tripod plates that use them. The group of five mounting points around the attachment plate are to allow Canon’s TA 100 Mounting plate to be fitted.
The C300 is fitted with a 3/8″ tripod base as standard but it also ships with a 1/4″ tripod base as well allowing you to swap them if you use 1/4″ tripod release plates.
The Hand Grip
The hand grip that can be fitted at any angle and uses a 3.5mm jack to allow it’s built in controls to function. To fit the handle you insert the jack into a connector in the middle of the hand grip port and then attached the grip by tightening a large knurled ring. The handle includes four additional controls much like those on a Canon DSLR. At the front where your index finger rests is another Rec start / stop button and an input dial which defaults to iris control. On the rear of the grip is another FUNC button and an additional four way mini joystick.
I really like the rotating grip on the EX1 so having a rotating grip on the C300 is a nice addition although it’s not quite as slick as the grip on the EX1. To rotate the EX1 grip you simply press a button and turn the handle to the desired position so it’s something you can do very quickly and intuitively. The grip on the C300 can only be rotated by fully loosening the locking ring, repositioning and then re-attaching the handle. The locking ring is quite fiddly to work with isn’t something you would want to adjust often.
One other thing I found with the hand grip was that the control wheel on the top didn’t naturally sit under my index finger when using the included hand strap, it may have been due to the strap not being adjusted correctly for me though.
I wasn’t expecting much of the extendable EVF on the C300 after reading a few negative reports but I have to say that I was really impressed. The resolution and image quality was far superior to that of the EVF on my EX1. I would honestly say that the EVF looked good enough to me that I wouldn’t bother attaching an external EVF unless you need it for an alternate rig layout configuration. The Peaking / Zebras etc were all present int he EVF.
The underside of the EVF reveals the usual diopter adjustment as well as a Lock/Release screw that enables the rear element of the EVF to be removed or locked into place.
Focus, framing & exposure aids
I wanted to find out what the focus and exposure aids were like on the C300, especially the peaking and zebra functions as I use those a lot on the EX1. After delving into the menus a little we found that much like the EX1 you could define the settings for two sets of Zebra’s and have either or both active. Peaking was also present and highly configurable, actually more so than the EX1 as it allows for two peaking settings, each individually configurable.
Another welcome aid on the monitor is a range of waveform displays that you can cycle through including a full RGB waveform and scope as well as something called ‘Edge Monitor’ which is a waveform based focussing aid.
The C300 also offers multiple framing and aspect markers allowing you to shoot for a specific aspect ratios including 2.35:1, 1.85:1, 1.75:1, 1.66:1, 14:9, 13:9 & 4:3.
The audio controls on the monitor unit are covered by a clear plastic flap, the usual level wheels, inout type and auto / manual switches are all present.
The body also has a 3.5mm stereo mic input jack. I wanted to see what happens when a mic is connected to the 3.5mm jack so I made do with my iPod ear buds, they actually work surprising well! When a mic is connected to the 3.5mm input the XLR inputs on the monitor unit are disabled if connected. The levels of the 3.5mm input can seen and adjusted on the main LCD if connected or via the small display on the back of the body.
The Canon wireless dongle (WFT-E6B) was also being shown and it was quite impressive. With the small unit attached to the C300 you can control the camera via a wireless tablet or smartphone. The control options were extensive and included adjusting focus with EF lenses. It was being demo’d with an iPad and worked really well. I wonder if the similar GPS dongle will also work?
We tried a couple of L series lenses with IS on the EF mount version of the C300 and the stabilisation worked a treat. Both the 28-300 IS zoom and the 24 – 105 IS worked really well, even with the 1.6 crop factor it was possible to hold a steady shot at 300mm on the 28-300.
Low light / High ISO Performance
Suresh Kara and I decided to have a quick play with the 20,000 ISO setting on the C300 by rigging up an external monitor and pointing it into a darkened room. The C300 was fitted with the 24-105 IS lens at F4. The results were simply astonishing, this camera can see in the dark and the images look great! There’s obviously noise by the the time you get to ISO 20,000 but honestly I’m sure I’ve seen worse on my EX1 at +6DB. We were both shocked, check out the image below!
Other Shooting Features
With no recording capability on the day I could not try any of the cameras shooting modes and features but I thought it would be worth listing them here in case you were wondering if they are available on the camera.
Peripheral Illumination Correction
The C300 can apply lens correction when using EF lenses, it uses in built data about Canon lenses to correct light fall off around the edges of the image if this option is enabled.
Relay or Dual CF Recording modes
In relay mode the camera will automatically change CF cards when the one being written to is full or unavailable. Dual recording mode records to both cards at the same time providing an instant backup. It’s worth noting that neither of these modes work when using slow and fast recording (over cranking).
Interval Record mode
The camera will record a pre-determined number of frames at pre-detemined intervals (Time-lapse basically).
Records a pre-determined number of frames each time a rec start/stop button is pressed (stop frame animation)
Slow & Fast Motion
Overcranking & undercranking, 1 – 30 fps & 1080p and 1 – 60 at 720p.
The camera will start recording from approximately three seconds before you pressed record (cache recording)
The C300 can shoot stills to the SD card slot, however the still are only shot at the resolution of the video mode selected. Interestingly though you can take a still from clips already recorded, could be handy for easily getting shot approval.
My initial impressions are that it’s a really nice system with a lot of potential. The camera can definitely capture really nice images so baring any last minute problems becoming apparent I think it’s going to be a good fit for my next main camera. Since working with and enjoying the results from my Canon 5D & 7D I’ve found it very difficult to make decisions about which camera to use for some of my projects. I love the look of the DSLR’s but sometimes I need the additional features and image reliability that the EX1 provides, the C300 should bridge this gap.
As stated earlier I really don’t want to go down the Red route at the moment, it makes a lot more business sense for me to own a camera that uses a 1080p codec due to the savings in post processing time. If projects come along that require high frame rates or higher resolution I’ll just hire an EPIC and charge for the additional costs and time required accordingly.
For event work lenses would have to be chosen very carefully, especially if you regularly use both ends of the zoom on something like an EX1 but with the huge range of EF lenses out there and the nice collection I already own it should be possible to put together a usable C300 system.
At $20,000 the C300 would definitely have been overpriced. If it had a 4:4:4 uncompressed output then it could maybe justify that cost but as it stands I would say a more realistic price would be $14,000 – $16,000 tops. With pre-order prices now appearing in the UK for less than £10,000 ($16,000) it looks as though it might just fit in that price bracket. The biggest disappointment for me is the lack of 1080/60p over cranking. For many it will also be the 8 bit 4:2:2 HD-SDI port, having an output comparable with the PMW-F3’s S-LOG would have made this a much easier choice for many people, if it had 4K output as well it would have been urm…. epic!
I like the C300 enough that I’ve provisionally pre-ordered an EF mount version, the cameras are expected to ship from the end of january 2012.
Update: The Canon C300 is now available to pre-order in the US from B&H at a price of $15,999.
Update – 18/12/2011
I drove to London yesterday to take part in Philip Bloom’s Christmas Shootout which pitted the C300 against a range of other large sensor cameras including the Sony F3 & FS-100, Panasonics AF100 and a selection of smaller cameras including DSLR’s. I don’t want to give too much away about the results at the moment, they will be released soon but I will say that after doing various tests and looking at the results on a large display I’m even more excited to receive a C300 in 2012!