The State of the Art — and the Shape of Things to Come — in Digital Imaging

Mobile phones and social media have changed the way we shoot and store photos and videos — one of the key features of the newly announced iPhone 6s is 4K video capture. This trend — which is here to stay — has had a tremendous effect on camera manufacturers, especially in the consumer DSLR marketplace. How will professional camera manufacturers compete with the cameras that are always with you?

Some answers were at Canon Expo 2015, held September 10 and 11 at Javits Center in New York. The floor of the exposition, which was last held in 2010, was divided this year into different zones (still photography, film production, professional printing, medical wellness, etc.) showcasing some of Canon’s latest imaging tools, as well as cutting-edge hardware and technology that will shape the company’s future. 

Tools for Filmmakers
Filmmakers and cinematographers looking to shoot with a professional motion picture camera got some valuable hands-on time with the Cinema EOS C300 Mark II. The C300 has been one of Canon's most successful video cameras since the launch of the Cinema EOS division and, at NAB 2015, Canon upgraded the Mark II to 4K. Targeted at a broad range of shooters (cinema, documentary, ENG), the Mark II contains a new 8.85-megapixel Super 35mm CMOS sensor (with twice the readout speed of the C300), new dual DIGIC DV 5 processors, and a new Canon XF-AVC codec that lets you capture internal 10-bit 4:2:2 4K files. Besides 4K capture, the other key feature of the C300 Mark II is that it employs Canon Log 2, which can capture up to 15 stops of latitude (the C300 was rated at 12 stops).

Canon XC10

The XC10 (above) was another 4K camcorder that attracted a lot of attention on the floor. The compact XC10 has a fixed 10x optical zoom lens (27.3–273mm for video), a 1-inch 12-megapixel CMOS sensor, a 10x wide-angle zoom with a 2x digital teleconverter, optical image stabilization, and the new DIGIC DV5 signal processor to handle 4K. 

When the XC10 was announced at NAB, many were confused by its intended applications. Is it a POV camera? An ENG camera for 4K shooters? A crash cam or a drone camera? After seeing and holding the camera in person, I think the XC10 will be best suited for event shooters who want to shoot 4K but need a compact body for shooting under the radar. For $2,499, I love the fact that Canon employed Canon Log and included a SanDisk 64GB CFast 2.0 card and card reader.

Canon ME20F-SH

Another camera showcased at the event was the ME20F-SH (above), which delivers an ISO of more than 4,000,000 (+75dB gain). The box-shaped camera with an EF mount ships in December with an MSRP of $30,000 for the body. The 20x36mm sensor makes this camera unique. It is similar to a “full-frame” sensor (24x36mm) width-wise, but is designed for the 16:9 aspect ratio for video capture. The sensor's low megapixel count (2.2 megapixels) gives the ME20 its low-light sensitivity by allowing larger individual pixels, each measuring 19 microns. (Canon’s next biggest pixel size is the EOS-1D X’s 7 microns).

“Our objective was to make the pixels as big as they could possibly be within the 36mm width, because that allows us to get the sensitivity up,” says Chuck Westfall, Canon's technical advisor for professional engineering and solutions. “It’s not just the pixels, but it’s also the image processor. If it was just the pixels themselves, you would still need more amplification and processing in order to get the most out of that signal.”

As with the XC10, the ME20's target user is unclear. If you’re a cinematographer, you’re probably not going to shoot at 100,000 ISO, much less 4,000,000. The ME20 also only captures full HD (1920×1080). According to Westfall, the key market will most likely be surveillance, especially for government applications. “One of the things they’ve told us over and over again is that they want to be able to do what they call 'identifiable video,'” he explains, “and that means face-recognition data in color, in low light, so this is a step in the right direction.”

The Decisive Moment
But Canon Expo 2015 wasn’t just about video. Still imaging is still Canon's bread and butter, and their EOS cameras and EF lenses were on full display. Canon announced that the compact mirrorless EOS M3, previously only available in Europe and Japan, would reach the US in October. Pocket-sized mirrorless cameras like the Panasonic DMC-LX100 and the Sony RX100 have become increasingly popular, so it was inevitable that Canon would release the M3 here. The M3 contains a 24.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and an EF-M lens mount. (Now, if they would only release a professional mirrorless system that could go head-to-head with the Sony a7R II …)

Canon Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens

On the lens side, the star of the show was the new Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens (above), which is the first lens to use Canon’s proprietary Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics. BR Optics is an optical element that contains organic material that helps eliminate chromatic aberration. Canon is also working on a 600mm lens with BR Optics that will reduce its size by 30%.

Future Tech
The most interesting things at Canon Expo 2015 were some of the future products featuring technology that Canon may implement (or not) in its future EOS and Cinema EOS lineup. The product that received the most attention was an 8K Cinema EOS camera, lens, and reference display. The 8K camera — still being developed — contains a Canon Super 35mm CMOS sensor that can capture 8192×4320 resolution (approximately 35.39 million effective pixels) at up to 60 frames per second with 13 stops of latitude.

Canon 8K camera

Since 8K broadcast—or even 4K— is a long way off, putting together an 8K camera system takes a lot of engineering and processing power. Since you’re essentially quadrupling 4K resolution, the prototype 8K camera outputs four 4K signals to four external Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q recorders, with the 8K image being stitched together in post. (You’re definitely going to need a DIT for this.)

An 8K 7x optical zoom lens was mounted to the camera. “NHK is actually the driving force behind this whole thing, and we’ve been working with them on the lens side for a long time,” explains Westfall. “Our first entrance to the 8K space was through the optics. It’s covering the Super 35 format, so it’s essentially the same kind of cinema lens in terms of its design. The big difference is that the optics are upgraded so it’s able to handle 8K capture.”

250 megapixel prototype

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping hardware technology at Canon Expo 2015 was the display of a 250-megapixel (19,580 x 12,600 pixels) CMOS sensor. The APS-H size sensor (29.2×20.2mm) was installed in a prototype camera that took photos that were able to distinguish the lettering on the side of a flying airplane 11 miles away. Obviously, the average photographer is not going to need 250-megapixel resolution, so it’s a safe bet the technology will be used for surveillance or industrial equipment.

Although the company faces some big challenges in the consumer marketplace, Canon Expo 2015 demonstrated that, when it comes to working digital imaging professionals, Canon is well prepared for the future.

Photos by Neil Matsumoto