Quick Look: Canon EOS C300 LSS 1080p Camcorder

Canon confounds expectations; thinks very differently.
Adam Wilt
By Adam Wilt 11.08.11

Updated Scoopic? Minimalist C300 with EF 24-105mm zoom.

Last Thursday, Canon announced the EOS C300 (EF mount) and C300 PL (PL mount) "Cinema EOS" camcorders in a much-heralded rollout at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Saturday, I had a chance to visit Paramount and see it for myself. [Update 2011-12-16: fixed malformed movie embed code.]

The Event

Paramount has a large lot, but it wasn't hard to find Canon.

Canon's preso filled Stage 1.

Canon didn't pull any punches; their demo area occupied the entirety of Paramount's Stage 1, while they used the Paramount Theater for 40-foot-wide projection of C300 productions and behind-the-scenes reels.

Just inside the entrance to Stage 1.

The large showcase held Canon stills, TV, and cine lenses; as well as Canon cameras past, present, and future.

The main demo area, with C300s and other Canon camcorders and DSLRs.

Canon showed off the C300 alongside a variety of other cameras: the XF105 and XF305 1/3" camcorders, and a variety of DSLRs.

The post-production area.

The post theater screened graded samples, while demo islands showed editing and grading tools.

Canon is adding a Hollywood facility for pro-level support.

A large island educated visitors on Canon's support and training operations. Canon is creating a new support center at Sunset and Gower (as Jon Fauer has reported); Canon folks told me it'll be open in January. This new center focuses on Hollywood cine operations, which shows Canon's seriousness about the market: there's already in Canon service center an hour away in Irvine... but it's an hour away.

Behind the support island, Canon has a stage set up with a whole mess of C300s focused on it, equipped with various lenses...

...but I'm getting ahead of things; let's talk about the camera.

The Camera

One of the handy things about coming late to the party is that all the basics have already been covered. Chris Hurd has an excellent overview on dvinfo.net; Jon Fauer (again!) describes the camera and its background on fdtimes.com. Dpreview.com has an interview with Canon's Larry Thorpe. All are worth reading.

There's also Dan Carr's coverage on ProPhoto Coalition with links to Vincent Laforet's "Mobius" and the behind-the-scenes video, and his 10 Things You May Not Know. Mike Curtis opines on the C300 and Scarlet here on PVC.

Of course, Canon has its own info: there's the Cinema EOS website, and a comprehensive Cinema EOS FAQ, complete with over 100 questions, the answers for which have to be individually revealed by tediously twiddling their disclosure triangles (not that I bothered counting, or anything).

All the demo films shot with the C300, and their behind-the-scenes reels, are viewable at the Cinema EOS Media Gallery. Watch 'em if you haven't already.

To summarize: The C300 is a 3.2 pound (1.43 kg) HD camcorder using a large single sensor (LSS). The super35mm-sized, 24.6 x 13.8mm sensor is "quad HD": 3840x2160. The CMOS sensor uses an RGB Bayer-pattern color filter array, but derives a 4:4:4 HD signal via 2x2 sampling instead of deBayering; more on this below. The CMOS readout is very fast and "jello" or skew is minimal (watch the shaky-cam shots in Laforet's "Mobius" and see for yourself). The C300 has variable frame rates from 1fps to 30fps in 1080p, and 1-60 images per second in 1080i or 720p, as long as you're shooting in the 29.97Hz world (25Hz folks are limited to 25fps or 50fps depending on frame size and scanning type, which seems a bit unfair). The camera also has slow-shutter modes and a built-in intervalometer.

The C300 is unusual in that it allows both 23.976fps and true 24.000fps recordings; the latter is handy when marrying C300 footage into a true 24fps film workflow.

The C300 has a Canon EF lens mount with electronic iris control and full lens data reporting in the viewfinder, but no autoexposure or autofocus. The C300 PL has an Arri PL mount (pretty much the standard for cine lenses), with no electronic connection for Cooke or Arri lens data. Lens mounts are not interchangeable; it's one or the other.

It records 1080p, 1080i, and 720p (in both 29.97 and 25 Hz standards) using 50 Mbit/sec MPEG-2 in MXF wrappers onto CF cards, just like the XF100/105 and XF300/305 camcorders (35 Mbit 4:2:0, and 25 Mbit HDV-compatible 4:2:0 recordings are also possible). Both the recordings and the HD-SDI output use 8-bit signals.

The C300 offers eight individually adjustable Custom Picture settings, including an EOS DSLR color/gamma rendering, and "Canon Log", a logarithmic tonal curve along the lines of Sony S-Log, Arri LogC, or the Technicolor CineStyle curves for the 5D Mk II. A "cinema lock" setting in the setup menus puts the camera into Canon Log and locks out other image tweaks, so there's a one-button way to guarantee a consistent, high-dynamic-range image. "View Assist" restores a contrasty look to the camera's displays when shooting Log, making it easier to see focus and providing a director-friendly image.

The camera captures two channels of 16-bit, 48kHz uncompressed audio; the camera itself has a stereo mic minijack, while the detachable "monitor unit" includes dual XLRs with phantom power.

The C300 has single-link HD-SDI and HDMI outputs. It has genlock and timecode inputs, a sync terminal allowing two C300s to be locked together for stereo 3D work, a headphone jack, and a LANC-like serial remote. Dual CF card slots allow relay or simultaneous (main plus backup) recording, and HD-resolution stills can be grabbed to an SD card.

The camera is supposed to run for over three hours on a single BP-955 camcorder battery; a high-capacity BP-975 should run for over 4.5 hours. The 50 Mbit recordings run about 2.5 minutes per Gigabyte, so a 16 Gig CF card will hold 40 minutes of material.

The C300 will ship in January at a list price of US$20,000. The PL-mount version will ship in March for the same price. Speculation is that street price will be in the $14,000-$16,000 range.

Enough talk: pictures now. Unfortunately attendees were not allowed to record anything with the C300s on display, so I had to make do with images of the C300, and screen shots of its LCD.

The C300 in Pictures

Sensor sizes: 1/3", s35mm, full-frame (stills) 35mm.

Sensors from three Canon cameras show their different sizes: the 1/3" chips in the XF series camcorders, the s35mm imager in the C300 (roughly the same size as the sensor in the 7D DSLR), and the full-frame 5D Mk II sensor. The difference is even greater than it looks; the 1/3" sensor's active area is only about 1/3 to 1/2 the total area of its chip.

The sensor inside the C300. Note the start/stop button for operation without the handgrip.

Side view, no handle or monitor unit, EVF extended, Canon EF 24-105mm f4 zoom.

Top view: dual focus hooks, orientable handgrip; mini mic jack below right focus hook.

Handgrip can be rotated, removed; 3.5mm miniplug may allow extensions (as yet untested).

The handgrip's serial connection is carried on what looks like a standard stereo miniplug. I suggested that one might extend it with a headphone extender cable, so that (with the right mounting hardware) the handgrip could be relocated to a rail mount when using a long lens. Canon folks expressed some interest, but said it hasn't been tested. Normally, when the handgrip is removed, a threaded plastic cap covers the mount.

Reorienting the handgrip required unscrewing its threaded collar, pulling it free, and reseating it at the desired position. While it's a bit more involved than the pushbutton-released rotating handles on the Sony EX1 and EX3, it's very rigid and robust—and it won't suddenly spin on you because you pushed the wrong button.

Backside: plenty of I/O ports, CF and SD card slots, dual EXT connectors for the monitor unit.

Dual CF slots exposed. Note joystick on the back of the handgrip, top right corner.

The handgrip has a four-way joystick on the back, along with a parameter wheel just behind the start/stop trigger and an assignable button normally used for image magnification. The handgrip joystick, the joystick on the monitor unit, or the selector wheel on the left side of the camera may all be used interchangeably.

Rear status panel, at least on these prototypes, fades out if viewed from below.

Fifteen programmable buttons! Six on the body, one on the grip, eight on the monitor unit.

One notable aspect of the C300 is how configurable it is. There are at least four start/stop triggers (camera body: lower right front corner and upper left rear corner; handgrip: top front; monitor unit: top rear), two joysticks plus a selector wheel for menu traversal; and fifteen freakin' assignable buttons.

The top handle, side grip, and monitor unit—the LCD, XLR inputs, and additional controls—can all be removed. This allows the weight and bulk of the camera to be minimized as needed, and allows the monitor unit to be mounted in a variety of locations and oriented to meet almost any need.

XLRs plug into monitor unit, and its audio controls live beneath a flip-up guard.

Monitor unit mounted on camera's accessory shoe.

Monitor unit on the handle's front shoe.

Monitor unit rotated for convenience.

Monitor unit on handle's top shoe, aimed at the 1st AC.

Monitor unit on camera's shoe, LCD flipped down for eye-level shooting.

Monitor unit with LCD aimed forwards.

The monitor unit can be rotated and reoriented to almost any angle.

The monitor unit connects to the camera using two keyed cables with pull-off locking collars, letting it be repositioned and mounted in all sorts of ways, including attachment to rails, rods, and cages, in ways that hot-shoe connections wouldn't allow. The Canon folks said that production cameras might even have longer cables than the prototypes at the show had, for greater positional flexibility.

Pull all those removable bits off and you have a lumpy, rounded oblong; taller than it is long, and longer than it is wide. Canon previously brought us the "video chainsaw" form factor in the XL and XH series camcorders; with the C300 they have introduced the "cine potato" design. It looks weird at first glance, but it is eminently usable handheld:

Handholding the C300, with its front foot resting on the palm of my hand.

(If only I had focused my own camera as well as I'm focusing this C300... I'll never work as a 1st AC in this town again!)

The right-side handgrip is as close as practically possible to the center of gravity, while the anti-tipping foot at the front of the camera's base rests comfortably on the base of your left hand, freeing your fingers to adjust focus and zoom without affecting support or balance. Brace the eyepiece against your eye, and the camera is stably supported, even more so than an SLR.

Handholding the C300, using the LCD for viewing.

Right hand in the grip, left hand supporting the body and lens.

Don't like handholding? You can always build the camera into a shoulder-mount rig, if that's your preference:

C300 in a cage rig, with monitor unit front-mounted on rails.

C300 in a cine cage with the Zacuto EVF.

Redrock Micro is the first out the gate with an "ultraCAGE" designed expressly for the C300; Redrock's Brian Valente said that the company "basically took a quarter off" to design it and work out the bugs. The ultraCAGE was used in several of the demo productions, and it was wrapped around a camera or two on the demo set.

Redrock Micro C300 cage, with monitor unit on its own rod. (Glow stick not included.)

Friendly fotog's fortuitous flash highlights the back half of the ultraCAGE.

Next: compared to other cameras, lens options, controls and displays, discussion.

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