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Intelligent, Adaptable Imaging: Canon’s EOS C500 Allows Deluxe Digital Cinematography

When Canon launched the Cinema EOS System in November 2011, the professional digital cinematography line included seven EF Cinema lenses and the EOS C300 camera in PL and EF mount configurations. In the intervening years, Canon has added the C100 camera (EF mount) and the C500, which is available in EF and PL lens mount configurations. EF mount is compatible with most of Canon’s still camera lens stock, and PL mount accepts Canon’s outstanding Cinema Series lenses. Cinema Series zooms are available in EF and PL mount.

Chuck Gloman (at camera) takes the Canon EOS C500 and 14.5-60mm cinema zoom lens into the field.

I was fortunate to receive the more professional (and more expensive) PL mount version of the C500 with a Canon 14.5-60mm T2.6 Cinema Series lens for review.

The EOS C500 4K digital cinema camera is the flagship of Canon’s Cinema EOS family. Direct readout from its Super 35mm 4K CMOS image sensor allows for uncompressed 2K or HD 4:4:4 RGB, as well as 4K half raw (HRAW), at up to 120p frame rates to be output to external recorders via 3G-SDI serial interface. To accommodate 4K production, it can also shoot in either the cinema-centric 4096 x 2160 format or the television-centric 3840 x 2160 UHDTV format by delivering uncompressed 4K raw output to external recorders.

I’m familiar with the operation of the C100, but I still needed to consult the manual to learn how to use the C500 most effectively. While the two cameras share many buttons and features, they are not the same.

The C500 is larger and heavier than a DSLR, weighing in at 6.5 lb. without lens. (The 14.5-60mm T2.6 Cinema Series lens I received for this review added another 9.9 lb. to my setup.) All of the camera’s functions are easily accessible on the right (facing the camera) and include most of the features that are repeated in the menu. I found the two large dials here, the Select and Control dials, much easier to access than the little joystick on the LCD monitor. Differing strength built-in ND filters (ND1 2 stops, ND2 4 stops, ND3 6 stops) are added or removed by pressing the plus or minus buttons.

All of the camera’s functions are easily accessible.

The opposite side of the camera houses a multitude of connectors: sync out, genlock, HDMI out, timecode in/out and HD/SD-SDI. The C500 also features dual 3G-SDI terminals that can output 4K or 2K image data to an external recorder. The dual MON terminals are HD-SDI terminals that can output YCC 4:2:2 10-bit 2K or full HD video, allowing external live monitoring during shoots using an external monitor with SDI input.

In 4K and 2K modes, the camera outputs image data for recording with an external recorder. In 4K mode, the camera outputs Canon raw image data, which is free of compression noise. In 2K mode, the camera outputs up to an RGB 4:4:4 12-bit signal. In MXF mode, the camera records HD audio and video to CompactFlash (CF) cards. HD recordings are saved as MXF files and are compatible with most NLE software. For example, you can use these MXF files as proxy video for your NLE software. Furthermore, even in 4K and 2K modes, the camera can record MXF files on a CF card.

Where the camera really shines, in my opinion, is in its many recording options. When recording in 4K or 2K mode, you can select the recording mode (RAW, HRAW, RGB 4:4:4 12-bit, RGB 4:4:4 10-bit or YCC 4:2:2 10-bit), system frequency (59.94 Hz, 50.00 Hz, 24.00 Hz), resolution (various settings from 1920 x 1080 to 4096 x 2160) and frame rate (various settings from 23.98p up to 59.94p). When recording in MXF mode, you can select the system frequency, bit rate, resolution and frame rate of your recordings.

In a typical 4K workflow for the C500 camera, you would shoot in 4K mode and record 4K raw data using an external recorder connected to the camera’s 3G-SDI terminals. Insert a CF card into the camera to record an MXF clip simultaneously with the 4K raw data. Develop the raw data using the Cinema RAW Development software to generate full-quality data. (You can also generate proxy data with the software.) Transfer the MXF file or proxy data to your NLE system and edit offline. Then perform color grading based on the full-quality data and the EDL created from offline editing.

Because there are two CF card slots, when one CF card becomes full, the recording will automatically continue on the other one without interruption when you use relay recording. In addition, using double slot recording lets you record the same clip simultaneously to both CF cards. There is also an SD card slot for still images and recording of camera settings and metadata.

In Use

The PL mount lens I received was an extremely sharp Canon 14.5-60mm T2.6 Cinema Series unit. This 10 lb. monster delivers stunning images in any resolution when placed in front of the C500’s Super 35mm sensor. Canon offers two compact zooms that weigh less: the 15.5-47mm wide-angle cinema zoom and the 30-105mm telephoto cinema zoom, both 4.8 lb. and available in PL and EF mount.

I was able to shoot three films with the C500 and 14.5-60mm lens combo. The first piece was a 4:26 continuous dolly move from an extreme close-up to a wide shot. Having the focal distance clearly printed on the lens barrel made the assistant camera’s job much easier. We recorded the piece in log mode and color corrected in post.

The second film was shot outdoors during the peak of fall foliage. I found that the camera’s mass made it difficult to maneuver, but the images it shot were breathtaking. Our rail system didn’t offer support for the lens, so I stabilized the lens with a block of wood. I don’t recommend shooting without lens support.

I shot a third film in 2K that called for both interior and exterior setups. I found that using a professional camera like this one creates a different vibe on the set. Also it takes a little extra time to set up each shot. The C500 takes a few moments to reset once you change the system frequency, frame rate or look.

Canon CN-E14.5-60mm T2.6 wide-angle cinema zoom lens (PL mount)

There was a hiccup in the post process: I was not able to open the MXF files created by the C500 in Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and had to purchase Final Cut Pro X. Once FCP X was installed, I was immediately able to manipulate the footage.

There are a few things this camera does extremely well. You won’t find a camera that will shoot better images, with so many recording options and speeds, and with the ability to customize your image and save parameters for future shoots.

There are some drawbacks with a camera of this aptitude, however. It shoots incredible video, but at a price. The C500 I tested costs about $30,000 for the body and another $45,000 for the lens. Further, your external recorders and hard drives will fill up quickly with the camera’s larger file sizes, and when shooting in 2K or 4K, the batteries won’t last more than an hour.

If you are ready to bump up your image quality to compete with the ARRI Alexa cameras that high-end studios are using, it’s going to cost you a little. But if you have the budget, look no further than Canon’s EOS C500 and your next epic will stand out from the pack.

Available Recording Modes by System Priority

Product:Canon EOS C500 and 14.5-60mm T2.6 Cinema Series lens

Pros: Superior image quality, many shooting speeds and formats, looks like (and is) a professional camera.
Cons: Extremely expensive, difficult to maneuver between setups, humungous image files, and latest versions of editing systems needed to edit files.
Bottom Line: Clearly the best camera Canon makes. All you need to go Hollywood is this camera and a director’s chair with your name on it.
MSRP: Canon EOS C500 body $30,000, 14.5-60mm T2.6 Cinema Series lens $45,000