Canon EOS C500 MKII. Modularity + flexibility + efficiency = C500 versatility.
Packing the latest technology into a camera body is a very sensible move, but doing so with careful design and the concept of offering maximum adaptability and versatility turns the result into an outstanding tool for creation.
Lab test perfomed by Luis Pavía.
The Canon EOS C500 MkII that we are bringing to our pages today was first showcased last fall, making it easy for its main features to be well known in general. So, as on other occasions, we will try to provide an overview that goes a little beyond mere specifications, and one that allows getting acquainted with all the necessary details in order to decide in which instances this will be the “perfect camera”.
Well known is our view that the “perfect camera” does not exist, but we do firmly believe in the knowledge and ability of the professional with a view to choosing the ideal tool for each job. And for that purpose, we need to know not only the collection of features, but also the entire set of drivers that influence this decision.
To start with, its technical features place it at a very high level within Canon’s cinematography range, even featuring some improvements as compared to its C700 sibling, a higher model in the range. It is not the first time that we find that a “little sibling” surpasses in some respects its elders, simply because of the fast-paced progress of technology. But do not get us wrong: we are not talking in general, but only in regard to some specific features that we will highlight in due course.
Reviewing its most significant features, worth noting are the same sensor as in the C700, a dynamic range of 15 f-stops, an integrated 5-axis stabilizer, internal RAW (light) recording and an excellent autofocus system, which positions it without doubt in the upper-middle range of digital cinematography equipment. Although of course there is much more than this, and that is what we will be delving into throughout this analysis.
We will pay attention to design as well, because it is one of the aspects that we also understand to be decisive and one that cannot be measured just through figures. We think this is important because it directly affects the uses for which the camera may be most suitable. And we are not just talking about physical design, but everything related to its usability and potential.
Starting with the sensor, we find the same Bayer-type and full-frame CMOS technology with a count of 6062 x 3432 pixels on an active surface of 38.1 x 20.1 mm. The size actually used will vary depending on the format selected for recording. As an example, 5952 x 3140 pixels will be used for 4K and 2K formats, or 5580 x 3140 pixels for UHD and HD formats. That is, the use of the sensor in full-frame modes has an extra resolution that turns out quite noticeable.
The fact that the resolution of the sensor is higher than the format being recorded brings significant advantages, because the resulting image is cleaner and sharper; and because, all things being equal, the noise is less. As expected, there is also a recording format that captures -pixel by pixel- the maximum capacity of the sensor: 5952 x 3140, allowing subsequent reframing without loss of resolution.
The next item that directly affects the image is the processor. Just as it is usual to make reference to physical size and resolution of the sensor, this is one of those elements that is not mentioned so often, but whose performance is a decisive factor. Its function is comparable to that of a small computer that is responsible for processing all the data received from the sensor before storing them in memory cards. For example, it is directly responsible for the interpolation algorithms that perform the conversion of the Bayer signal into an RGB signal. In this case the result is excellent.
But what about RAW? In theory, in this instance it would not make much sense since the RAW signal is, by definition, the raw dump of the sensor’s data. But in this case it also has an impact, since our C500 MkII is capable of internally recording a “light” RAW format.
What does this mean? That storage systems with very high sustained transfer rates are normally required in order to be able to transfer the huge volume of data that is generated from a video image. These are usually external devices, very specific, and with an impact on production costs. On the other hand, the traditional way to reduce such volume is through different types of processing and compression that give rise to the various recording formats we all are used to deal with.
To give an idea, a simple 8-bit 25p UHD image generates 4,976,640,000 bits per second (3840 x 2160 pixels x 25 fps x 8 bits per color channel x 3 color channels). Almost 5 billion bits per second, amounting to more than 12 billion (12,740,198,400) when recording 4K at 60p and 10 bits. While this is just theoretical data, in one way or another this is the kind of volume of information that processors must handle uninterruptedly in order to interpolate, compress, transfer, etc. while we keep recording.
In this case, and thanks to the capabilities of the DIGIC DV7 processor it features, Canon has found the necessary balance that allows recording in CFexpress cards its own CinemaRAWLight format with transfer rates of up to 1 Gbps, or 2.1 Gbps for 120 fps frequencies. These are more than 1 or more than 2.1 billion bits per second, respectively.
But not only is resolution important. Color depth is also critical, especially in projects where post-production plays an important role. Keeping in mind that each additional bit doubles the precision in the color reproduction per channel, it is possible to have color depths of up to 12 bits. This is more than 68 billion colors (4,096 per channel), absolutely indistinguishable by the eye, but very convenient for offering enormous color grading possibilities and necessary in order to avoid any type of artifact after intense post-production processes.
A token of its high capabilities is given by the compatibility of the camera with the ACES color system, allowing direct import of the images captured in compatible systems.
By combining sensitivity, color depth and processing capability, we come to another important aspect to consider in equipment: the dynamic range. In order to improve it, different manufacturers use systems that allow the recordable range to be expanded: the well-known gamma curves. As expected, this equipment is fully HDR, achieving -when the Canon Log 2 curve is used- a value exceeding 15 stops (f-stops).
For an easy viewing and management of these types of images, especially during capture, the camera has not only the most common color-in-display conversion profiles (LUTs), such as 709, Cinema and BT2020, but also enables the user to create and load up to 15 LUTs of their own, being feasible to even apply various conversion tables to the different outputs simultaneously.
What does all this translate into? That this camera offers us a truly increased versatility and is perfectly suitable for highly-demanding productions. All cameras offer us different formats for internal recording with regards to both resolution and compression, always with some type of compression. Some also offer direct sensor output to make recording in uncompressed RAW formats on external devices possible. And our C500 MKII also offers this possibility of a “lightened” RAW without a need for external devices while maintaining an excellent 5.9K resolution.
Naturally, depending on the purpose of our project, this format may not be sufficient in itself, but of course it does entail an improvement as compared to the usual formats, thus providing one more option when working without having to resort to an increased investment. And also relying on the utmost possibilities for an external device if necessary.
To get an idea of the final result, at 2.1 Gbps on a 512 Gb CFexpress card, up to 30 minutes of video in 5952 x 3140 CinemaRAW Light format can be stored. By reducing the resolution to 4K and the transfer rate to 1 Gbps, said time increases to 65 minutes. And for a 2K at 250 Mbps the time reaches 256 minutes.
In addition to this format, it is also possible to record in XF-AVC/MXF with a wide range of transfer speeds. In these instances, and depending on the different resolution/transfer rate combinations, recording times that would be achieved in a card having identical capacity will range between 79 minutes for a 4K 10-bit in 4: 2: 2 at 810 Mbps, and 401 minutes for a 2K at 160 Mbps.
A must in a piece of equipment such as this one, we have two CFexpress slots that can be configured for parallel recording (so as to have an instant backup) or in relay (for recordings of theoretically infinite duration). There is a third SD/SDHC-type slot for storing video proxies, 2K/HD-resolution photos, sharing configuration data and facilitating updates.
But it is not only the figure-related features what has an impact on versatility. Design is yet another aspect that sometimes does not get enough attention. And we are not only referring to physical design, but also to conceptual design with all its implications, as we will see shortly. As for the physical side, we find the type that has become most popular in recent years and one we love: a “box” that houses the sensor with all its electronics and the minimum essential elements, such as optical mount, memory cards, battery and keypads. And on it, we attach all the necessary elements, thus completing the final setup of our camera according to each particular need.
But not all boxes are the same and in this case it seems that -once more- lightness and versatility have been the deciding factors in achieving a distinct result. Furthermore, the concept of modularity has been taken a bit beyond what is usual, with some distinctive feature such as the ease users have now for changing the lens mount.
There are three options available: the usual Canon EF mount, the EF Cinema Lock mount that allows mounting and dismounting the lens by just turning the anchor ring, in the same way as in the traditional PL mount, which turns out to be the third option available to us. Thus, it is possible to have a wider range of optics by adding all PLs to Canon’s standard and Prime Cinema EF ranges. This includes the Cooke/i models. Plus the whole extensive range of B4 optics by using the relevant adaptor.
By following the path of the light once it has passed through the optics, we find the 2, 4 and 6-stop ND filters, which can be extended with two additional levels -8 and 10- thanks to the combination with a second ND filter.
And now back to the sensor, which, surprisingly, we were not done with yet. In addition to the full-frame modes, it is also possible to record by using the two available crop modes in which not the entire surface of the sensor is used: Super 35mm and Super 16mm. These modes do not only optimize the use of optics designed for these formats, but also allow replicating the appearance of images recorded with other types of cameras, thus strengthening the versatility and applicability of our tool.
Still dealing with the sensor -and this is a favorable differential aspect as compared to its elder sibling- the camera features new 5-axis stabilization, which combined with the exchange of data with compatible optics, provides outstanding results. If using optics that do not provide this data, the focal length of the existing optics can be entered manually, so that the stabilization system performs at its best.
As for frame rates, we recommend referring to the compatibility tables given the enormous number of possible combinations and also the fact that, of course, not all are available in all formats. In short, in nearly all cases there are 15 to 60 fps rates for frequencies of 59.94P / 29.97P / 50.00P / 25.00P. And ranging from 12 to 60 fps for frequencies of 24.00P / 23.98P. On the other hand they can go up to 120 fps when the image resolution falls to 2K or lower.
The range in gain values that can be handled is enormous: from -2 to +42 dB in normal mode, and from -6 to +54 dB in expanded mode. When dealing with sensitivity values, the range is equally huge: between 160 and 25,600 ISO in normal mode, and between 100 and 102,400 ISO in expanded mode. And here, when facing the usual question: how far can you record without noise? the usual answer: what is your level of demand for the job at hand?
To finish with the sensor, processor and card storage, we will briefly mention two features: One is compatibility with anamorphic optics of factors 1.33x and 2.0x. And the other is the availability of a pre-recording function that, once enabled, allows you to keep the 3 or 5 seconds prior to pressing the record button; these are menu-selectable intervals.
Let’s go back to physical design to continue stressing versatility. On the body itself we find 15 customizable buttons, a knob for the iris, another one for selecting options and a small joystick, as well as threads to attach accessories and connectors. All are accessible and well placed, in addition to those on the handle: the concept of adaptability and manageability is unmistakable. This is reinforced by features such as the fact that the screen is an independent element or that the eye viewfinder is optional, that the handle and its collection of functions is a dispensable element with only a thread and a small connector.
And then we go a step further when we discover that there are separate options such as an eye viewer, or two different types of connection extensions so as not to swamp the body with unnecessary elements depending on the intended use. But this does not mean that we need extras to use the camera. In fact, the body has two XLR inputs and a mini 3.5mm audio input, a mini 3.5mm audio output, HDMI video output, USB input and 4 independent BNC connectors for monitor output, 12G-SDI output, time code input/output and sync output. In addition to the proprietary connector for display screens, either the standard LM-V2 supplied or an optional one.
The equipment supplied with the camera is enough to start working with it without difficulty. It includes an excellent-quality touch screen (in which we are only missing a lens hood), a large handle with more threads and shoes, a good capacity battery, and charger/feeder. We recommend checking with distributors though, since different markets may offer different contents in their basic packages. Only for certain uses will the additional connectivity provided by the two available options be necessary.
Another aspect where we have seen progress as compared to the C700 is consumption, since the BP-A60 battery that comes standard has provided well over one hour of actual use in the C500, estimating that in continuous recording it could exceed two hours of use without difficulty.
But let’s go to our impressions. If we were to analyze its versatility, we would discover a combination of modularity, flexibility and efficiency, linked by balance.
We have found a camera that offers extraordinary image quality, is very suitable for a large number of uses and, we would say, has been rather designed for a single operator or a small team. This is probably the biggest difference with its older sibling C700, which seems more oriented to productions involving larger human teams. We have reached this conclusion based on some of the features that we have not deliberately mentioned up to this point in order not to incur in reiteration.
The first feature and the one that seems most significant to us is the autofocus system. It is unquestionable that in a large format production, where everything that is going to happen is predetermined and in which we have an assistant dedicated exclusively to this task, the narrative result that can be achieved has no equal. But it turns out that these are not always the prevailing conditions. There are many other situations in which we need to get results without having all these resources.
By combining different technologies and help tools, it is especially easy to ensure that our images have the plane of focus, the center of attention, right where we decide. Traditionally, autofocus systems have not been big favorites because it was “the camera” who decided where to focus, based on a series of criteria such as contrast or brightness, although these systems have proved increasingly fast and accurate when focusing. Like ourselves, surely many readers have also gone through the times in which focus in manual mode would be used so as not to lose the focus plane, but closing the plane to use the “Push AF” function and reframing before recording as a working method. But that is past now.
First of all, we must confirm that thanks to the CMOS dual pixel phase detection technology available in our C500 MKII, the autofocus function is extremely fast and accurate. Add to this several operating modes: first of all, we find focus aids in manual mode such as the focus guide, which not only shows the object on focus, but also gives us a visual reference of focal plane deviation towards front or back.
Among the automatic modes, the follow-up focus allows us to select an object on the touch screen, taking care of the camera to keep the focus on that object. The next level is face-priority autofocus, in which the camera uses a face detection system to prioritize focus on people’s faces, and keep them on focus as long as they remain in view. One more level and our camera will focus exclusively on faces and not on objects, allowing our protagonist to leave the frame and re-enter without changing the plane of focus.
Naturally, combining both will be as simple as selecting a face on the screen to make the focus stay on the selected face, even if there are others in the frame. As if all this were not enough, it is possible to customize -by means of the menu- the behavior control of the autofocus, by fine-tuning tracking response and adjustment speed, although this function requires the lenses to have certain compatibility features.
Also making life easier for the operator, we have -in addition to the zebra and peaking markers- an internal/external waveform monitor (only available for some outputs) and false color for accurate exposure evaluations.
The menu is impressive at first sight. It seems to us that it is very well organized and its presentation is simple and clear, but with so many options, sub-options and possibilities that we recommend spending some time before starting to shoot. And, of course, use the personal menu option to have quick access to a reduced list with those options that we may need to modify more frequently.
Some features are especially appreciated and also help create a high-quality image very effectively when our project has tight production times or none at all. In this case, worth highlighting are a good number of options to soften the degree of detail in skin tones and another one just as wide to do a selective noise reduction. In these cases, the signal will be already registered with the established conditions, thus making it easier the subsequent process as some steps will be already taken.
Before finishing we should highlight some other details that we especially liked, such as switch-on speed. It is surprising that the camera is completely ready to record only about 4 seconds after having turned it on.
We invite you to take a look at the list of optional accessories available, among which a GPS positioner or a Wi-Fi wireless transmitter, when combined with additional connection sets, will expand the possibilities of use depending on the various needs of each individual project.
In short, a combination of excellent image quality, wide dynamic range, speed of operation, precise autofocus system, enormous customization capabilities, both by means of the different accessories and the through extensive menu, make it a suitable tool for a large number of applications. A range that is expanded when we consider its ability to generate 12-bit RAW files internally without the need for any external device.
Its modular compact and lightweight design, which allows the accessories to be reduced to a minimum by configuring the camera to suit the different needs, expand its possibilities of use in hot heads, cranes and drones as also do its location in any environment where size and weight are determining factors while we are not willing to give up its excellent image quality.
If we also take into account that its price is significantly lower than the C700, it becomes a means of creation that not only allows us to offer excellent quality results. Furthermore, due to a reduced investment cost we can be more competitive in a large number of projects.