A Week With The Canon C300.

C300 with 24-70mm f2.8L lens and Genus Matte Box

So, I’ve had my Canon C300 for a week now and had a chance to play with it and evaluate it. Am I pleased with my purchase? Yes, absolutely, the C300 will be a camera that I will use a lot. It’s well built and feels very solid, the pictures are great, but there are a few things that have frustrated me, I few things that the more I use it, I don’t like. But there are also quite a few things that I really like.

Why C300?

First I’d like to explain why I purchased it when I already own a couple of F3’s. Since buying the F3’s my EX1R has sat on the shelf gathering dust. I really like the look you get with a large sensor camera along with the improved sensitivity and lower noise. But as I shoot a lot of stuff for broadcast I need to record at 50Mb/s as a minimum, so with the F3 (and EX1R) this means using an external recorder. When your in a studio, on a film set etc, this really isn’t a problem and I love shooting with the F3 using the RGB output and the Convergent Design Gemini. The end results are beautiful, the kind of images that I never really thought I would own the equipment to produce. But, if you follow my blog, you’ll know that I specialise (amongst other things) in shooting natural extremes. Things like Tornadoes, hurricanes, the Northern lights etc. For these shoots an external recorder is quite simply a pain in the rear end. Jumping in and out of a car, running to shoot a tornado with anything extra hanging off the camera is tricky and in the heat of the chase things get bumped, bashed or simply forgotten.

So for me, the idea of a one piece solution that gives me the benefits of a s35mm sensor, including excellent low light performance, shallow DoF for all the interviews and story telling footage, plus low power in a compact package is great. The C300 looked to be the camera just for me for these shoots.

After reading up all I could on it and taking a look at one during an open day at Visual Impact, I placed my order. The camera arrived last week.

After One Week.

So, after a week with the camera, do I think it will work for what I want? Yes, I am sure it will, but there are some things that would frustrate me on other types of shoot.

Picture Quality:

I’ve already written about this in earlier posts. It is very good. Using C-Log you get around 12 stops of dynamic range. Out of the box the camera is a little over sharpened, but that’s easy enough to tame through the custom picture profiles. The colour reproduction is good, if a little over saturated for my liking (again easily corrected). Skew is minimal and the sensitivity and noise levels are also very good, similar to my F3’s.

C300 Moire

There is a little bit of moire and aliasing, right at the limits of the cameras resolution, but this is no worse than any other camera in this class.

At higher gain/ISO the C300’s user settable noise reduction system is very good at cleaning up the image. At 3200 ISO with the noise reduction level set to 4 the noise is all but gone, at 6400 ISO, noise reduction level 7 cleans the image up. However each extra level of noise reduction does introduce a small amount of softening of the image and above 5 there are some artefacts on rapid exposure or contrast changes. Even so, the ability to shoot at 6400 ISO with relatively  low noise  images is quite remarkable and one of the C300’s trump cards. Of course you can go still higher with the sensitivity, all the way to 20,000 ISO but the pictures are pretty noisy and with the noise reduction engaged the image does get a bit soft and certainly doesn’t look anywhere near as nice as it does at lower gain settings. For me I will try to stay below 3200, but it’s nice know that 6400 or higher is there when you need it. For image quality I give the C300 a very high score, but in my opinion it’s not quite (by the very tiniest of amounts) up to what an F3 recording to a 10 bit external recorder can deliver. However for the types of shoot I want to use it on, that very small difference is not going to matter.


The function LCD, almost hidden from view.

Now, going back to gain settings this is one of the things that annoys me. On the back of the camera there is a small supplementary LCD screen, much like the information display on a Canon DSLR. Normally to change the C300’s ISO (gain/sensitivity), shutter speed or white balance, you press the “FUNC” button, by the side of the screen until the function you want to change is displayed and then you use the rotary dial or small joystick (on the hand grip or camera rear) to change the setting.

The iris wheel on the hand grip. There is also a mini joystick and assignable button just under the grip.

There’s a couple of problems with this. The LCD is hard to see from the sides or below and if you have the EVF Viewfinder extended, you can’t see it from above at all. The options you are changing do also get highlighted in the EVF or on the LCD (if you have the camera info overlay enabled), but as you have to take your eye from the viewfinder to find the small FUNC switch, it would have been nice if this status LCD was better placed, maybe on the side of the camera body where it is easier to see. I suppose eventually I will get to know where the FUNC button is by feel, but as it’s right next to the record button, you do want to make sure your pressing the right button! You can also assign FUNC to any of the other assignable buttons, but with  no dedicated switches for gain/shutter/white balance you can quickly run out of these.

The multi function menu dial (top) and iris dial below.

On my F3’s if I want to change the ISO, white balance or switch the shutter on and off, all I need to do is flick a dedicated switch and I know from the switch position how it is set. All this fiddling around on the C300 is tedious and not quick to do. You can assign these functions to any of the multitude of assignable buttons, but you still need to press the correct assignable button and then move to the dial or joystick to change the setting. I guess I’ll get used to it, but it’s not something I like.

On the positive side the press button operated ND filter system is really nice, although again you need to check in the viewfinder to know which ND filter is selected other than a small window tucked away in the top corner of the hard to see status display.

EVF and LCD:

The built in EVF (electronic viewfinder) is really rather good, certainly a huge improvement over the one on the F3 and when used in conjunction with the cameras peaking and magnification options good enough to use for accurate focus. On the C300 you can have both an expanded image via the magnification function and peaking on at the same time. So it is quite possible to use the camera without any external devices attached. But you do need to be aware that when you don’t have the LCD Monitors  attached to the camera the only way to plug in a mic is via a 3.5mm stereo jack socket on the side of the camera body. There is no built in mic. I really wish there was at least 1 XLR socket on the camera body. In addition, the only way to control the audio record levels (when using the body only) is by going into the cameras menu and selecting audio level set. Then you can use the joystick or function dial to set the level, which is OK until you have to change something else like the ISO or shutter, where you loose the audio level control until you go back into the menu. I can see Beachtek adapters becoming popular with C300 owners! But this kind of defeats the object of a standalone camera with no external boxes. Doh!

The thick cables that connect the monitor module.

So, I hear you all shouting… “Why don’t you use the plug-in LCD monitor adapter thingumajig? Well I’ll tell you why, it’s cumbersome, makes the camera very top heavy and the cables that attach it to the camera body, which are thick enough to support a suspension bridge, just get in the way. The handle is colossal too, nice and chunky and feels very solid indeed, but colossal all the same. The LCD on the monitor unit is nice with good resolution. It can be positioned in a multitude of angles, up/down/left/right which is great, but it just makes the camera very top heavy and bulky, which for my particular application is not what I want. OK for studio use, on a film set or on a corporate shoot, but not good for news types shoots. Incidentally, I really like the built in waveform monitor and vectorscope. Much better than the histogram on the F3 in my view. But then I’m a die hard video guy. Someone from the DSLR world might prefer a histogram. Also the waveform monitor and vectorscope are only displayed on the LCD Monitor, they do not appear in the EVF, so your out of luck if you want to use them to check levels and you don’t have the monitor with you.

The Monitor Adapter attached so you can get at the audio controls. Note skyward pointing mic holder!

When using the XLR inputs on the Monitor unit the control pots for the audio levels can’t be seen easily all the way up on the top of the unit if the camera is on a tripod at eye height, so often you end up putting the whole monitor assembly on the camera on it’s end with the mic holder pointing skywards so you can get at the audio controls. Like this the rig is getting really ungainly and very top heavy. In addition you must have the LCD panel open to get at the audio controls. Audio appears to be an afterthought on the C300, it’s not well executed.

Iris Control.

I’ve been using a Canon 24-70mm f2.8L lens on the C300. This is a great lens. But like all Canon EF lenses the iris is electronically controlled. On the C300 turning the iris dial on the back of the camera or the small wheel on the handgrip steps the iris open and closed in small steps. Even when set to “fine” you can see the image brightness changing in steps, it’s not smooth. If your working on a tripod this arrangement means taking a hand off either the lens or pan bar to change exposure. I much prefer a manual iris ring. Of course if you use Zeiss CP2’s or Nikon lenses you can still get a manual iris ring. A further observation is that my EF mount  Sigma 18-200mm f3.5 image stabilised lens clicks loudly when you change the aperture. Loud enough to be clearly audible on a camera mic or even a mic a few feet away in a quiet room. The other thing is that the camera has a fan that runs continuously, again this is not silent and gets picked up by the camera mic. It’s not loud, but it’s always there. One thing I didn’t try (budget would not stretch to it) is the WiFi adapter that allows you to remotely control the Iris and even the focus of the camera from an iPad. The camera streams a near live video feed to the iPad and you can use the iPad to control all the primary camera functions including iris and focus. However the slight lag in the video stream might make focussing tricky.

As well as the WiFi option the C300 has a lot of nice functions, things like the ability to dual record to both CF cards at the same time for safety. It can shoot at up to 60 frames per second at 720P and can shoot true 24P as opposed to the 23.98P found on most video cameras. This is particularly important when recording off board audio as many pro audio recorders only have 24P timecode and timing, so a camera running at 23.98 will slowly drift out of sync with the audio recorder. It can also do time-lapse (interval record), but strangely the C300 can’t shoot single frames in interval record mode when set to 25P, 50i, 50P or 60P, the lowest setting is 2 frames, so any time-lapse sequences need to be sped up by 200% in post to get smooth motion or done with the camera set to 23.98P, 24P or 30P when it can do 1 frame, very strange indeed. The C300 also has a Pre-record function (cache record) but the memory only gives you 3 seconds, which is barely enough time to react to seeing something and hit the record button, I’d really like at least twice this, my F3 goes up to 12 seconds.

So as you can tell there’s quite a few things that bug me about the C300. I hate to be so negative, because it is a great camera, it does produce great images and is beautifully well built. With all the hype surrounding it’s launch it’s hard to not be just a little disappointed in these little annoyances. But, the C300 will allow me to shoot with a s35mm sensor at 50Mb/s without the aggro of an external recorder. The pictures will be of great quality when used with a decent lens. I can also use stabilised lenses for long lens shots and handheld. So it will make a great compact (without the monitor unit) grab and go camera, once I figure out a smaller handle, mic mount and maybe get a Beachtek box.

So who is the C300 going to appeal to?

Well there’s no getting away from the fact that to meet the 50Mb/s rule you don’t need an external recorder and the pictures are very nice indeed. With just the camera body and a lens you have a highly portable camera (although you’ll need some kind of adapter to plug in an XLR mic as the body only has a 3.5mm jack).

However…. The F3 still IMHO produces a marginally better image and generally I prefer the F3’s ergonomics, especially on a tripod or shoulder rig. If you don’t need 50Mb/s then the F3 is excellent. If you need high end performance, squeezing every last bit out of the image, the F3 is better than the C300 IMHO, largely down to the 10 bit output and flatter log curve.

So it depends on what you want to do and your shooting style.

If you don’t need 50Mb/s then I would probably favour the F3. You have a choice of lens mounts, arguably better iris control, ergonomics more suited to video applications.

If you need 50Mb/s but don’t need more than that, the the C300 is the obvious choice. DSLR shooters will I’m sure be very happy with the control layout, video pro’s may find it frustrating.

If you need better than 50Mb/s then we come back to the F3 again. After all if your going to add an external recorder, at this level, it should really be a 10 bit one. Plus you have RGB options, LUT’s, no need for a funky LCD adapter with unwieldy cables just so you can plug in an XLR mic.

I think the C300 will find a very happy home in many a news, documentary or corporate production company. I have mine for the Storm Chasing and natural extremes that I shoot, where the convenience of no external recorder is wonderful. In this role I believe the C300 will excel. But I’m absolutely keeping my F3’s for commercials, shorts and those productions where an external recorder is not a big deal and image quality is everything. Plus I find the F3 much easier to work with on a tripod or shoulder rig.

If I could only choose one? Right now it would be the F3 as it is more adaptable. You can use different lens mounts, record internally or add a 10 bit 422 or 444 recorder. I can use the F3 to shoot what I am planning on using the C300 for, only with the inconvenience of an external recorder, while if I was asked to shoot a commercial I would really want the 10 bit RGB output of the F3, so the C300 would not be appropriate.

That’s just my opinion. Other’s will vary. Don’t get me wrong the C300 is a great, great camera, but it’s not necessarily better than the F3 and the F3 is not necessarily better than the C300. I’m not saying this to hedge my bets or sit on the wall, I say this because that’s the way I think it is. Tough choice. I’m just glad I can afford both and then choose the most appropriate camera for the particular shoot.

I guess what I’d really like is an F3 with the build quality of the C300, internal 50Mb/s recordings, the C300’s variable noise reduction, ultra highISO and EVF.

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