By Dan Chung
In January I collected a brand new Canon C300 from my friends at Jacobs Photo video in London. Since then I have been out shooting with it on a number of assignments and it has become my favorite video camera. I’ve used it for live crosses, interviews and news feature stories – each time I have been amazed by the results. The images are as sharp as anything I have seen from a HD camera and its dynamic range is impressive. The design is compact and it’s the first large sensor camera I’ve seen that I felt I could use straight out of the box, no extra accessories necessary other than a mic and cards. Its size makes it great for running around and quickly grabbing shots. It’s even possible to use handheld without a rig at all, although it does benefit from one.
The Super35mm sized sensor coupled with fast lenses give me shallow depth of field when I need it. The high sensitivity of the sensor allows me to stop down for greater depth of field at will, even in fairly dull conditions I can still stop the lens down to f5.6 and not have too much noise in the picture. This essentially means with the same camera I can get both deep and shallow depth of field looks in many light conditions. Check out this video by Mitch Gross of Abelcine which explains in more detail.
The camera has built in neutral density filters which allow for rapid adjustments as lighting conditions change – much easier than having to change filters by screwing them into the lens or using a mattebox.
The C300 is highly portable and small enough to fit in a discreet shoulder bag, fully rigged with lens and mics. I can comfortably fit the C300, a DSLR, several lenses in a carry-on backpack for airline travel. Battery life is amazing and you can go all day on a couple of Canon BP955 batteries.
When I bought the C300 I already owned a Sony F3 alongside Canon DSLRs and Panasonic GH2s. So why did I decide to buy a C300 and how can I justify it? The answer to that has a lot to do with the way I work and who I work for.
Broadcast clients often insist on certain technical specifications for HD – recording bitrates often need to be at least 50Mbps and sometimes they insist on interlaced 50i footage rather than 25P. My work is increasingly for TV and so this had become an issue trying to use DSLR. The C300 solves this problem by shooting BBC approved 50Mbps HD footage directly to its onboard CF cards. My Sony F3 can shoot beautiful 50Mbps footage too, but I need to add an external Prores recorder like the KiPro mini and that adds weight, bulk and extra cables. The advantage of the C300 is that does so without sacrificing the quick and nimble shooting style I have become accustomed to with DSLR video – you can handhold the C300 easily enough and it feels like an overgrown 5D mkII in the hand.
The built in EVF on the C300 is much better than the one on the Sony F3. I had to fit a Cineroid EVF to my F3 as the built-in one was so hard to use but I find using the C300’s built-in EVF is good enough for my daily use. The only thing I miss from DSLR is the ability to zoom in 5x and 10x for checking precise focus; the C300 only magnifies to 1-to-1 pixel on the monitor and EVF. Not having to use an external EVF keeps the C300 shooting setup even smaller.
I’m also especially impressed with the EOS standard gamma – most cinema shooters don’t need this but for news it’s important to have the option to shoot footage you can hand off for rapid editing without colour grading. I find the standard gamma footage from the C300 to have nice saturated colours that do not look too electronic or unnatural. I can’t say the same of most other camcorders.
Thanks to Canon’s plugins, editing the C300 footage is a breeze in Final Cut 7 (and now Final Cut Pro X). Footage is transferred to the editing software in no time at all and you can choose to edit in the native MXF format if you are in a hurry, rather than transcode to Apple ProRes. The MXF format the camera shoots is the same as the Canon XF300/305 and XF100/105 models which makes them a good option as a second camera for times when you may want a more traditional handycam style camcorder with all-in-one lens. I went for a XF105 which lives in my bag for the odd time that I need it.
For doing live crosses the HDSDI output of the camera becomes essential. Combined with EOS standard gamma and the camera’s amazing low light abilities I was able to shoot nicely illuminated backgrounds at night, where normally it would have been much blacker. The one complaint that I do have with the C300 is that there is no firewire port and so doing live crosses using Quicklink and a Satphone becomes a problem as that system needs SD firewire input. The only solution is to add a Canopus converter box, but that adds more cables and potential failure points. For now I am sticking to a regular camcorder for Quicklink live crosses.
The audio jackpack/monitor unit gives two XLR inputs with Phantom power. This is much easier to use than any DSLR solution, but I have to say that I would have preferred Canon to put the XLR connections in the body of the camera itself and not have additional cables to the jackpack. While the pack is well built any bolt-on accessory stands a greater chance of being broken in the field. This is one area where I think the Sony F3 is better with its integrated XLRs. I thought I would hate the swivel LCD on the jackpack, but now I really like it. Its colours seem accurate and the sharpness of the display makes it a pleasure to use. You can turn it right around so the talent can see themselves and check how they look.
I bought the EF lens mount version of the C300 so all my EF glass fits straight on, as do plenty of other manufacturers’ lenses with the correct lens adapter. There is no autofocus using EF lenses on the C300 (no loss as I rarely use AF for video) but you do get image stabilisation which is great. To get EOS lenses working on a Sony F3 currently requires an adapter from MTF services – another great tool but again it adds bulk to an already large setup.
Do I miss the full frame sensor of the 5DmkII? Honestly, yes. I would rather the C300 had a full frame sensor only because it would make lensing easier with my existing Canon lenses – not because I need the extreme shallow depth of field. The 24-105mm F4L is my main run and gun lens on the 5DmkII, but on the C300 it is not quite wide enough. On the C300 I use the Canon 17-55mm f2.8 instead – it’s also a good lens but not quite as wide or as long as I would want. Hopefully there will be better run and gun EF lenses for Super35 sensors in the not too distant future. For now I have found the best solution is to carry a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 , Canon 17-55mm and 70-200mm f2.8 in a Thinktank Retrospective lens changer bag. This allows me to wear the lenses practically all day and they are close at hand for a rapid change.
The F3 alternative
The Sony F3 is a great camera that I bought when there was no other clear choice for large sensor TV work. Like the C300 it shoots interlaced 50i as well as 25P but to get 50Mbps you need an external recorder. I bought the excellent AJA KiPro mini but it adds considerable bulk to the setup. If you want to use EOS lenses with aperture control and image stabilizer you now can thanks to the MTF services adapter. Image quality is excellent when recorded externally but behind the C300 when recording to cards internally.
Matt Allard and others have demonstrated what the F3 is capable of. It is a better value proposition now too since Sony started offering the S-log upgrade for $699 instead of over $2000. The F3’s more traditional design and easily accessible gain switches and audio controls are preferred by many shooters. Personally I prefer the more DSLR style menus and dials – horses for courses.
The C300’s smaller body makes it far more suitable to my needs. It is discreet enough for me to use in many news situations where a bigger camera would prevent you shooting, I’d say this represents about 50% of what I do. I can use it almost with almost any equipment previously used with a DSLR – it works with my current Steadicam, Kessler Pocketdolly, tripod, car mount and lightweight shoulder support. I was in the process of upgrading/replacing all these items to take the weight of a fully rigged Sony F3 when the C300 came out – now I don’t need to.
For now I am keeping the F3 – it’s still a great camera that I can rent out to help pay its way. For some assignments it still makes sense but the C300 will replace it as my main camera. There may even be the odd occasion where I shoot them side by side.
C300 or DSLR?
As someone already joked on Twitter, maybe I should be renaming myself C300informer and not Dslrinformer – but rest assured, I don’t think the trend of news pros using DSLRs or mirrorless cams is going to stop. I am going to continue to shoot DSLRs alongside the C300 and will continue to focus on DSLR developments here on the blog.
I don’t think you need to buy a C300 in order to make a great news video or documentary – it just makes it easier and technically better. There are many videos on the blog shot on DSLRs to prove that you don’t need anything more to tell a story. Content is king and a great eye and great storytelling don’t come from the camera you use. Online or even on the big screen a DSLR can look great. My need for a better camera really comes from the fact that broadcast clients insist on certain technical specifications. My work is increasingly for TV and so this has become important.
I have also stated several times in the past that a top of the line camera is not as important gear wise as a good tripod, good lens, lighting or decent audio kit. Luckily I have accumulated all this kit in the past and so don’t have to budget for it again soon.
If your pockets are deep enough and your shooting style suits it then I recommend you try out a C300. I don’t think you will be disappointed.