My Thoughts on the Canon C300

I recently had the good fortune to attend a Canon event on their new C300 cinema camera. This camera has generated a lot of attention and speculation—not all of it good—so I thought I'd share my opinion in the hopes of clarifying what Canon is aiming to do with this camera.

1080p cinema camera? I think many people, including everyone over at RED, are confounded by Canon's choice to target the cinema movie market with a camera that "only" shoots 1920x1080, or full HD. This sounds like significantly less resolution than competing 4k and 5k models from RED, Arri, etc. There is definitely some reason for concern here among the Hollywood crowd, and 4k indeed looks like the direction of the future, but all the hype about resolution is a little overdone. I had the chance to see four short films shot on the C300 projected on a cinema-size screen, and all I can say was that it in no way looked like video. Nor did it look like it was "just HD." Now, perhaps, had these films been projected side-by-side with 4k footage, I may have noticed a difference. To call the C300 a cinema camera may indeed be a misnomer for those who can afford a 4k option, and who have workflows that call for 4k footage, but those workflows are often created around an artificial idea of 4k being necessary. After viewing the footage, I have no reason to believe that the indie filmmaker will have anything to worry about in the resolution department when it comes to the C300.

So who is the target demographic? Canon does not have a big cinema background; they come from the broadcast arena. This is pretty clear with the C300. If I had to put it in a nutshell, I'd say Canon made a broadcast-ready HD camcorder with a cinema-class sensor. You will not find the ability to shoot at frame rates above 30 (although they did include a true 24p mode for integration with film cameras). The base ISO is 850, which does not exist on cinema light meters (I should note, though, that this is for Canon's log mode, which they include in the camera. This is good news for filmmakers who want the most control from their footage in post production. For comparison, I believe Sony charges $3,000 for the log upgrade to their PMW-F3.) What you will find on the C300 is one-button access to magnification, peaking, and zebra stripes—all important features from the broadcast world, that are also useful tools in the cinema world. You also get an integrated viewfinder, which is nice, but any half-rate filmmaker will certainly bypass it in favor of a monitor or higher resolution external viewfinder (I tried out the C300 viewfinder, it was not bad, but certainly not perfect.) What Canon has done is make a camera that, save for the lens, is out-of-the-box ready for indie filmmakers, documentarians, and TV production crews. They have also thrown in a high quality Super 35 sensor in an attempt to attract the larger cinema crowd, and made some terrific new cine-style lenses to support that vision. Ironically, they are not yet marketing to the indie, documentary, and TV market as much as they are to the cinema market. Although I now feel the C300 is a capable cinema camera, I think it is a mistake to ignore the other markets; other markets that do not have the hesitation of using a 1080p camera.

What makes it different? The C300 is small, light, and agile. It is smaller in real life than it looks in pictures, and weighs about 3 pounds. It comes with everything you need: handle, grip, viewfinder, battery—you will not be "nickel and dimed" by necessary accessories, like with the RED Scarlet. The sensor outputs 1080p, but is actually a 4k sensor. The reason for this is that it allows the C300 to process the images without "debayering" the sensor—it process 2 million red pixels, 2 million blue pixels, and 4 million green pixels. This creates a very, very clean image where a standard bayer-type sensor would normally show aliasing. This also means there is no fixed noise pattern, so the noise moves from frame to frame and is much more akin to film grain. The low-light ability is absolutely best-in-class. I saw footage shot at 20,000 ISO that looked beautiful (again, this was projected on a large screen—had their been noise, I would have noticed.) The C300 delivers 12 stops of dynamic range regardless of what ISO you are shooting. Yes, this is a little less than the Sony F3 with log, but again, the footage I saw was beautiful—I think this is the best 1080p sensor on the market right now.

So what's with the price? The Canon reps present at the event informed me that the $20,000 list price is actually subject to change. A final list price will be decided on in January. Regardless, the street price of the camera will likely be thousands less than list. I expect to see this competitively priced alongside the Sony PMW-F3. Given the fact that Canon includes log, I no longer believe the C300 to be overpriced at all.

I am not a Canon fanboy (in fact, I shoot Nikon for stills) but I was very impressed with this camera. I don't think it is the right tool for everyone, but it may be the perfect tool for many people—especially those whose final output is HDTV or the Internet. I highly expect this to be a very popular rental camera until one of two things happens: people lose their fear of shooting "only" 1080p, or Canon releases a 4k cinema camera. Honestly, I'm hoping for the former. If you don't have a Hollywood budget, don't let your fear of 1080p hold you back from shooting on the C300—the footage holds up very well in a movie theater setting.

Anyway, just my two cents. I am not a cinematographer, nor am I an engineer, but hopefully this helped shed some light on this camera for people who are interested.