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Night Vision: Low-Light and No-Light Production with Canon’s ME20F-SH Camera

The Canon ME20F-SH is a breakthrough HD video camera that can literally see in the dark without resorting to monochrome infrared. It is able to provide full-raster 1080p color video with illumination of below 0.0005 lux at the camera’s maximum 75 dB setting—equivalent to an ISO sensitivity of more than 4 million. Of course, you can expect to see grain when you push the camera to its limit like this, but you’ll find that the large 19 µm pixels in the camera’s CMOS sensor will let you shoot remarkably clean video in less light than you probably ever have before.

The camera’s modular design allows the user to choose the lens configuration, monitoring and recording devices, though it also means that very little is built-in. While its extreme light sensitivity is of obvious value for nature photography and surveillance video, the ME20F-SH also delivers a cinema-quality HD image, opening up new possibilities for narrative and documentary filmmaking.

Features

Canon ME20F-SH

The Canon ME20F-SH achieves unparalleled low-light sensitivity by employing a newly developed 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor with larger light-sensing surfaces on each pixel. As a result, the camera attains a functional ISO of more than 4 million (75 dB gain) while capturing full-color 1080p video up to 60 fps.

While the key feature of the Canon ME20F-SH is its extraordinary light sensitivity, it also produces an excellent image in normal light, and in environments that have great variations in light and dark areas. The ME20F-SH features include Canon Log and Wide DR, which yields a wide dynamic range (advertised as 12 stops) in both low-light and brightly lit conditions.

The Canon ME20F-SH camera body is modular and compact. It is essentially a cube weighing 2.4 pounds with a locking EF lens mount and professional I/O connections, including two 3G/HD-SDI connectors and an HDMI output. There is no internal recording system or built-in monitor. This is a deliberate choice that allows users to employ their preferred devices and future-proofs the camera as new monitoring and recording technologies develop. The camera captures 1080p and 720p footage in frame rates of 59.94, 50, 29.97, 25 and 23.98, as well as 1080i 59.94 and 50.

ME20F-SH rear

In terms of handling audio, the Canon ME20F-SH has minimal on-board capability. There is one standard mini microphone jack. For more versatile audio recording, it is best to use an external audio recorder.

While all of the essential camera functions such as ISO, gain, white balance and aperture can be set through menus, Canon sells an optional RC-V100 Remote Controller (MSRP $2,999) that streamlines camera control.

And for those who prefer not to assemble their own rig, Canon offers an ME20F-SH Cinema Kit that bundles the ME20F-SH camera with an Atomos Shogun Flame recorder/monitor, Zacuto mini baseplate, SanDisk SSD pack, articulating arm, HDMI cable, IDX Endura V-mount battery, cheeseplate and V-mount plate, D-Tap/D-Tap cable, XLR cable and a battery charger that can also be used as a power adapter.

While Canon’s list price for the cinema kit is $31,000, the package is available from resellers including B&H and Adorama for about $20,000.

In Use

I tested the Canon ME20F-SH Cinema Kit, which comprises the camera itself and 10 accessories. The Atomos Shogun Flame combines a high-resolution 7-inch field monitor with ProRes/DNxHR recording in one device that mounts on top of the camera. Of course, you are free to connect any device you want using the HDMI or SDI outputs on the camera. The camera body features many mounting points along its top and bottom, giving users the ability to customize the rigging of the camera for almost any purpose, from a minimal, compact size to a fully rigged configuration.

ME20F-SH Cinema Kit (does not include lens)

The ME20F-SH camera’s EF lens mount makes a host of cinema lenses available. I tested the camera with three different Canon lenses: an EF 24-70mm f/2.8, EF 85mm f/1.2 and EF 70-200mm f/2.8. They all performed flawlessly, and because the Canon lenses are fast, they help maximize the camera’s light sensitivity.

The Canon ME20F-SH is billed as a “multipurpose” camera, and the lens choice is part of that design. Extreme telephoto lenses are ideal for wildlife photography, while lighter zoom lenses will suit standard documentary production.

Outputs on the back of the ME20F-SH include one HDMI and two 3G/HD-SDI. This allows users to send a clean camera signal to an external recording device over either SDI or HDMI. There is also a genlock connector and connections for two types of remotes (2.5mm mini-jack or 8-pin jack for RS-422). The camera’s rear features three user-assignable buttons that can be used for essential functions such as auto iris, white balance and color bars.

Because the ME20F-SH camera controls are mostly menu-driven, I recommend using the Canon RC-V100, a wired controller that gives you extensive, quick control of all camera functions. You can access the camera menu, and there are quite a few physical knobs and buttons for efficient control. Most important are the ISO, gain, shutter, ND filter, focus and iris. It also has basic setup controls such as knee and pedestal.

The basic camera setup makes it easiest to use auto functions. I was a little perplexed that there is no in-camera exposure metering system such as zebra pattern or waveform monitor. I addressed this problem by assigning an auto iris control to one of the buttons on the back of the camera, which enabled me to point the camera anywhere and press the iris button to get a basic proper exposure. Then I made final adjustments while looking at the monitor.

ME20F-SH Cinema Kit (does not include lens)

While the camera itself does not offer an exposure metering system, the Atomos Shogun monitor/recorder includes a waveform monitor and zebras. So with Shogun or comparable recording devices, it is easy to get professional exposure metering functions.

The ME20F-SH has an efficient full-auto function that commandeers all of the camera’s resources to achieve the proper exposure. When using full-auto, the camera will adjust iris, shutter speed, ND filter and gain to reach the proper exposure. If you’re committed to shooting at a certain shutter speed, you need to be careful to reset it if you enable full-auto control.

Comparison of images shot at 36, 42 and 48 dB

I was able to mount the battery and lenses with the aid of the Zacuto rails. The rails worked well, allowing me to detach the entire setup from the tripod and operate the camera handheld as necessary. I mounted the Atomos Shogun monitor/recorder to the top of the camera using the articulating arm. While this sounds complicated, once it’s put together, the camera is quite mobile and easy to transport into the field.

For the most part I feel comfortable using the adjective “amazing” to describe the nighttime footage I shot, though the image can get pretty grainy when the camera is pushed to its limit in nearly full darkness. That quality may be acceptable for documentary work, but it would not match well with footage shot under controlled light in a narrative project. So you do have to work within the technical limitations if you require a pristine image. I did find that I could record a clean image even under very dark conditions.

To test the camera’s prowess, I shot video in a very dark patch of woods—the only illumination was from stars in the sky and lights in the windows of a few distant houses. When I switched the camera to auto mode, the picture on the monitor looked like day. In fact, I was able to use the camera to explore wooded areas that were completely dark to my unaided eyes.

Beyond this technical feat, I sense that the Canon ME20F-SH will also lead to some interesting aesthetic options for filmmakers. Using the ultra-high ISO, the sky and distant land and water become strikingly visible at night. Stars and wisps of high clouds are prominently clear. If you point the camera out over the ocean, glimmering highlights on the water are apparent against a blue sky. You actually see color in the night sky.

In other words, the Canon ME20F-SH allows for a completely different aesthetic in image making. This is more than a camera that merely performs a technical feat. Some directors have already taken notice of the possibilities that the Canon ME20F-SH camera’s ultra-high ISO affords. The main difference is that a subject can be seen within the context of his entire environment at night. Mountain vistas or ocean waves can become part of a scene shot in true darkness. This capability eliminates the struggle of shooting day for night or having to catch “magic hour.” With the Canon ME20F-SH, you can shoot at night naturally and achieve stunning results.

Very little grain is visible when using only a sparkler for illumination.

Summary

The Canon ME20F-SH combines revolutionary light sensitivity with a modular design that enables it to meet the needs of a wide range of motion picture producers. It is an obvious boon to nature photographers and video explorers, but it is also a high-quality camera with a robust HD sensor that will deliver images suitable for cinematic production. The Canon ME20F-SH camera’s unprecedented light sensitivity may set the course for a whole new aesthetic in filming that will transform both documentary and narrative film production.  

Quick Take

Product: Canon ME20F-SH

Score:

Pros: Offers unparalleled image quality in extremely low light. Modular design allows customization for specific uses. Includes clean HDMI and SDI out. Image is excellent in both very low and normal light levels.

Cons: The price, although fair for the camera quality, is not cheap. It is best for users who don’t mind assembling a rig with varied components. Rig assembly takes time and results in a camera system less streamlined than a typical camcorder.

Bottom Line: This is a groundbreaking camera for low-light production. It is ideal for applications such as wildlife photography or surveillance, but also offers new approaches to narrative and documentary shooting.

MSRP: $19,999 (camera only), $31,000 (Cinema Kit including camera)

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