Camera Class: Canon’s Cinema EOS C300 Combines DSLR Form Factor with Cinematic Capabilities
When camera manufacturers started giving their digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) models a “movie mode” that could record high-definition video back in 2008 (e.g., the Nikon D90), they sort of backed into the digital cinema realm accidentally. Few expected these relatively small, handheld run-and-gun cameras that were originally limited to 720p/24 fps to ever get serious consideration next to the six- to seven-figure full-featured 1080p-and-above video models that were putting film cameras out of business.
Canon had introduced the first affordable still photo DSLR with interchangeable lenses in 2003, the EOS Digital Rebel, for $999. Then last November Canon brought out the groundbreaking Cinema EOS C300 digital cinema camera with a newly developed 8.29-megapixel Super 35mm CMOS sensor. The C300 is shipping now for around $20,000. Available separately is the EOS C300 PL, a PL-mount version of the camera that complements the standard EOS C300 with Canon EF lens mount (compatible with Canon’s new EF Cinema lenses and current EF lenses). Both models feature a 3840 x 2160 effective recording resolution (what’s called “Quad Full HD” 4K) that gets output as a 1080p image.
Want to see examples of the camera’s visual quality? Canon asked several digital cinematographers to shoot short films that would demonstrate the C300’s capabilities. You can view the results at the Media Gallery section of the Canon USA web site.
Four of those camera veterans were willing to share with us some tips and techniques they learned from their experiences with the Canon Cinema EOS C300.
Dana Christiaansen, ASC
Specializing in automotive commercial shoots, Dana Christiaansen’s first experience with the C300 was shooting the short sci-fi film “Xxit”. He learned to appreciate the camera’s low-light capabilities, which allowed him to light actors with battery-powered fixtures and move at a very fast pace.
“We found we could shoot at 3200 ISO at night,” Christiaansen says, “and when the results were projected on a 42’ screen at Paramount Studios during the camera’s November launch, there was no visible degradation at all. Even though I shot the footage, I was blown away by how good it looked.”
Christiaansen was also impressed with the camera’s size. “It weighs just over 3 lb. with a form factor I compare to a slightly large Hasselblad,” he says.
He took advantage of the C300’s remarkable light sensitivity. “When we were asked to do some greenscreen work, we found we could shoot at the camera’s native ISO of 850, which is insanely fast.”
Richard Crudo, ASC
Director/cinematographer Richard Crudo chose the C300 to shoot his first feature, Dirty People, which is excerpted as a short on the Canon site called “Max Is Back.”
Crudo brought his background in film to the project and adopted several techniques familiar to the celluloid community. “I treated the C300 as if it were a new film emulsion,” he begins, “and ran a series of tests with a light meter to determine the camera’s true ISO rating. This may just be my experience, and we were using one of the first versions of the C300, but to my eye the best setting for its sensor’s light sensitivity at that time was around ISO 500 at f/2.8.”
He determined this value based on his own visual evaluation of over-/underexposure tests at half-stop increments using a critically calibrated DI theater at Technicolor. It’s the kind of procedure that grew out of Crudo’s DP experience on 35mm films including 1999’s American Pie and 2001’s Down to Earth.
Crudo recommends you learn the characteristics of any digital camera’s sensor chip. “It’s there to capture light,” he says, “so it’s how you measure that light and determine the chip’s proper exposure latitude that will give you the images you want. I’ve never lost a moment’s sleep over the C300.”
Polly Morgan first used the C300 to shoot director Vincent Laforet’s short film “Möbius." “We really put the camera through its paces, shooting in the hot desert sun and also some night exteriors,” Morgan says. “We learned how to customize its images during the actual production by shooting in Canon Log mode.”
Canon Log mode, a unique nonlinear transfer function made possible by the C300’s DIGIC DV III RGB video processing system, manages the disposition of quantization bits. This maintains a total dynamic range of 800 percent to ensure optimal tonal reproduction within both highlight and shadow regions of the digital image.
“We found we could paint the image in the camera, which can save a lot of the postproduction budget on an indie production,” Morgan explains. “You can use the camera’s detailed internal menu to adjust the gamma, color saturation, even shoot black and white if you want to. I’d evaluate these settings in the field by sending a signal from the camera itself to calibrate its own monitor. Then the camera’s built-in waveform display and ND filters can get help you prevent clipping in the highlights.”
Morgan used the C300 as a B-camera on a feature she shot recently called Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. “The camera is so small, you can mount it in places others simply won’t fit,” she says. “But it’s that Canon Log file I really love. It gives you 13 stops of dynamic range, just like a film negative.”
Felix Enríquez Alcalá
In addition to shooting “Sword" with a C300, director/cinematographer Felix Enríquez Alcalá purchased his own Canon EOS C300 to use on episodes of NBC’s Grimm. When we spoke, he was in Puerto Rico shooting Covert Affairs with it for USA Network.
Alcalá has been shooting with Canon digital cameras since he was the first to use an XL1 Mini DV camera to shoot a pilot for FOX called MK3 about 10 years ago.
“For me the biggest advantage the C300 has over all the other digital HD cameras is how quiet it is,” Alcalá says. “Almost all of the other cinema cameras have fans running in them even when the camera is not shooting. Even in the dead of night, the C300 is absolutely silent.”
He also likes the fact that the recording media is not proprietary. “The C300 uses conventional CompactFlash cards in two slots,” he says. “After a shoot, you can save one and never touch it, then download the other. That automatically gives you a backup master. Or you can record on both of them for longer recording time.”
Alcalá recommends experimenting with the C300’s ability to shoot with variable shutter speeds. “We shot some sequences in ‘Sword’ at 6 fps to get a special visual effect,” he reveals. “It can also shoot at up to 60 fps for slo mo.”
Alcalá wanted to credit Canon’s approach of listening to professional cinematographers when designing the C300, as did the other participants in this article. “They developed this camera for us based on our input,” Alcalá says. “They listen!”