It Looks and Feels Just About the Same, with Major Upgrades Under the Hood
The Canon C300 was announced way back in 2011—the first in the company's Cinema EOS line-up—and its primary goal was to convince DSLR filmmakers to step up to a true digital motion picture camera. The compact Full HD camera targeted a broad range of shooters, especially indie and documentary DPs, and was praised for its neutral Canon Log profile, support for EF lenses (a PL-mount version was also available), and its overall ease of use.
Soon the camera was used to shoot high-profile indie films and nonfiction projects such as Jeremy Saulnier’s Sundance breakout feature Blue Ruin, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, and the highly regarded HBO documentary series, Vice.
Even though 2K and full HD are still the standards for the majority of digital productions, 4K has undergone rapid growth. Even mobile phones offer 4K capture. So it was inevitable that, at NAB 2015, Canon gave its signature digital motion picture camera a long-awaited upgrade with the aptly named C300 Mark II.
Canon did not give the Mark II significant cosmetic or ergonomic modifications, but instead implemented major upgrades under the hood, including a new 8.85-megapixel Super 35mm CMOS sensor with twice the readout speed of its predecessor, new dual DIGIC DV 5 image processors, and a new XF AVC codec that lets you record 10-bit, 4:2:2 4K files onboard.
Other new specs and features on the Mark II include bit rates up to 410 Mbps, an improved dual-pixel CMOS auto focus, simultaneous 4K and HD proxy recording and 2K/UHD frame rates up to 120 fps. You can record 10-bit 4:2:2 at all resolution settings, but if you don’t need 4K, you can capture 2K or full HD at 12-bit 4:4:4 for better color reproduction, the same as with the C500. (By the way, what’s going to happen to the C500 now that the C300 has caught up in both features and pricing?) You can also output 10-bit 4K/UHD raw or 2K/HD via 3G-SDI to an external recorder.
Catering to cinematographers, the Mark II supports both ACES and Rec. 2020 workflows, using its MXF file structure. MXF compatibility has improved, and the files now work with pretty much all of the professional NLE systems, as well as with high-end network systems used by production studios.
For this review, Canon shipped out a C300 Mark II with a 17–120 Cinema EOS zoom, Zacuto Gratical HD viewfinder, Zacuto rig (C300 Mark II Helmet, Custom VCT Baseplate, Lens Support), and an IDX lithium-ion Endura battery system. This set-up (similar to the one pictured above and at right) transforms the compact C300 Mark II into more of an ENG- or doc-style camera package. Although the shoulder-mounted C300 Mark II ENG package is a very effective rig to capture handheld shots for long periods of time, it makes the lightweight and compact C300 Mark II significantly heavier. In my opinion, one of the camera’s biggest strengths, especially for documentary shooting, is its small size and adjustable handgrip for shooting at any angle. With a lightweight EF lens, you’re able to grab the camera and quickly start shooting run-and-gun style.
Since 4K is the Mark II’s latest and greatest feature, I captured 3840×2160 UHD files at 23.98 fps set to Canon Log 2: BT 709 at the camera’s native ISO (800), which provides an ideal balance between dynamic range and noise levels when recording with Canon Log. In order to capture 4K on board, Canon developed the XF-AVC codec, which is more efficient (using a bit more compression) than the C300’s MPEG-2 codec while still giving you the same picture quality in 4K. Because of 4K’s extra data requirements, Canon went with CFast 2.0 cards that have a 3,000x speed at 450-Mbps. (The C300 had CF card slots for 1080 capture.)
Canon Log is basically a log gamma curve that gives you a neutral, or flat, color space that gives you more dynamic range for grading, as well as much smaller file sizes than raw or uncompressed files. Even at 8-bit 1080, the original C300 was considered an excellent B-camera, or a less expensive alternative to the ARRI Alexa. The C300 Mark II introduces an updated Canon Log 2, which can capture up to 15 stops of latitude and was designed to reproduce greater tonal ranges at the lower end. (The C300 was rated at 12 stops of dynamic range.) Could I tell the difference between Canon Log and Canon Log 2? No. But I still love working with the gamma setting compared with raw since you can capture 4K onboard while still retaining extended latitude.
In terms of the body, not much has changed from the C300, which is a good thing. It’s a tad larger and slightly heavier than the original C300 (I didn’t really notice) and the camera comes with a removable handgrip with an improved low-angle camera handle. For handheld operating with the camera stripped down, I kept my right hand on the detachable handle grip and my left hand on the bottom of the camera, with my fingers gripping the small shelf-like overhang underneath the camera.
The C300 Mark II is offered with either a standard EF or PL lens mount, but it can be modified later by authorized Canon Cinema EOS service centers. One criticism of the C300 Mark II has been its viewfinder, which sits on top in the middle of the camera. When placed on a shoulder mount rig, it’s difficult to use due to its positioning. The Zacuto Gratical OLED HD EVF can be positioned for ENG shooters and really improves your monitoring for critical focus. It provides over 5.4 million dots for clear 720p viewing.
On the side of the camera, you have more access to different options like magnification, peaking, zebras, waveform monitor and vector scopes, ISO/Gain, Shutter, and frame rates. The buttons are simple, self-explanatory and well placed. I also didn’t notice any significant changes in the camera’s menu system, which is pretty intuitive. One improvement was the new dual rotary turret ND control system, which gives you up to 10 stops of ND rather than 6 stops on the C300. Doc shooters working in super-bright exteriors are pretty much covered and won’t have to carry extra ND filters for each individual lens. This is a great feature.
Although most cinematographers would shun auto focus, Canon’s dual-pixel CMOS AF is the one technology that might change the way you operate your camera, especially if you’re a single shooter. Originally introduced on the 70D DSLR, Canon also employed the technology on the C100 Mark II last year and now the C300 Mark II, where it hits a focus range of 80% of the horizontal and vertical area of the image. I also tried the new AF system with my 18–135mm STM lens and, although it doesn’t employ touchscreen AF like the 70D for rack-focus moves, it does move swiftly, yet organically, on moving objects. Also, the face detection works like a charm. Dual-pixel CMOS AF is the single shooter’s secret weapon.
I imported my UHD files from the CFast 2.0 card via USB 3.0/CFast card reader into Premiere Pro, where I added a Canon Log Rec. 709 LUT to the files. The Canon Log 2 neutral footage looked clean, with nice color reproduction once the LUT was applied. In terms of night, or low-light footage, some noise was visible compared to tests I’ve shot with the Sony FS7, but I’ve always found that noise with Canon Log has a cinematic look to it—more like film grain.
The Canon EOS C300 Mark II is a true professional camera, and with 4K capability, the camera joins the ranks of high-end camera systems like the new ARRI Alexa SXT, the Red Epic Dragon, and the Sony F55. With a street price of around $16,000, it’s a big step up for Blackmagic or DSLR shooters but still significantly more affordable than high-end motion picture cameras. The camera’s simplicity and compact size make it one of the best cameras out there for indie filmmakers — but it packs enough of a punch for studio filmmakers as well.