After shooting a couple of short films and a wedding with the Canon C100, I feel I am well enough acquainted with it to write a short review of the camera. I will try to stay away from the ‘on paper’ specifications of the camera, and focus on it’s real world performance.
A History Lesson
To explain where the C100 fits into Canon’s camera line-up, I need to go over a bit of history. Up until around 2008, only two main types of digital video cameras existed; low-end consumer camcorders, and professional ENG (electronic news gathering) cameras for TV. But around 2007-10 the entire industry would begin to be shaken up with the introduction of two new camera types on both the professional and consumer levels.
On the professional level, high-end digital cinema cameras (like the Red One and Arri Alexa) were finally nearing the image quality of film, and one by one the major Hollywood studios would choose these $30-80,000 digital monsters instead of traditional film cameras; which had been the industry standard for over a hundred years.
On the other end of the spectrum, the technology in DSLRs (digital, single lens, reflex cameras) was finally powerful enough to shoot full HD video. Cameras like the Canon 5D mark ii and 550D were democratising filmmaking, finally you were able to shoot high quality video and achieve shallow depth of field (that blurry background look) for a very reasonable price. The problem with shooting video with DSLRs, is that they are essentially stills cameras. They are designed to take photos, and lack many essential video features, and are often subject to issues such as overheating.
Where the C100 fits in
Canon saw a place in the camera market that was missing, and in late 2012 released the C100. The C100 is classified as a ‘low end cinema camera’, and it fills the gap between DSLRs and medium/high end cinema camera. It has a size/form and price similar to that of a DSLR, while retaining many features found on professional cameras. It has been used extensively for documentaries, short films, TV and wedding videography.
Why I purchased it
Prior to the C100, my main camera was a Canon 6D; as a mid range full frame DSLR was fine for short films. However due to its overheating issues, limited record times and lack of audio inputs, I needed to upgrade if I were to film weddings efficiently. The C100 was the most expensive of my three potential camera upgrade options, the others being the Sony FS100, and Panasonic AF100. All three fell into that ‘low end cinema camera ‘ category, but in the end I decided to purchase the C100 due to it’s superior light performance, more robust design and compatibility with my existing Canon lenses.
Is it any good?
Naturally I performed an image quality comparison between the C100 and the 6D soon after purchasing it. As shown in the screenshots below, the C100 is noticeably sharper and has slightly more dynamic range (detail in highlights/shadows); however I don’t believe that the increase in image quality alone justifies the upgrade. It was only once I put it through it’s paces on a few projects, that I fully appreciate the advantages of the C100.
Being shaped like a video camera allows the C100 to be used more like a traditional video camera, unlike a DSLR. The XLR audio inputs allow for professional quality audio to be recorded internally. The built in neutral density allows for shallow depth of field in bright situations, without the hassle of attaching external filters.
The image sensor itself had been designed from the ground up to shoot video. Although the maximum resolution of the camera is 1080p, the sensor itself it 4k. The camera down scales 4k video to extremely sharp 1080p, although the video codec itself if isn’t that great. It’s AVCHD at a maximum of 24 mb/s, the codec is the main differentiator between the C100 and Canon’s higher end C300 which records in Apple’s PRORES codec in a 4:2:2 colour space.
Despite the weak codec, the video does look great; and has what is probably the best video quality to bitrate ratio of any camera on the market. This means that many hours of video can fit on a single card, which when combined with the very impressive battery life, means that this camera is ideal for recording long events.
Besides being sharper and having more dynamic range, the image that the camera produces also appears to have better colours and tones. This is very subtle, however it is noticeable when compared side by side to video from a DSLR. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but everything simply looks more cinematic and movie like.
The camera itself is far from perfect and does have a few major issues. The video codec is always the first that springs to mind, although for the price of the camera I wouldn’t expect Canon to have included anything better. The problem is that the video codec is not the only way Canon differentiated the C100 from its higher end cameras. The absence of any high frame rate options and a very subpar electronic viewfinder are both features that I feel Canon could have included, but chose not to, in order to encourage people to buy the higher end C300 or C500 (approximately $15,000 and $22,000 at launch, respectively).
The issue of the poor quality EVF can easily be fixed however, using a viewfinder over the LCD screen. Slow motion video can also be achieved by using the 60i frame rate option, and de-interlacing that frames using an editing program. Even the codec can be improved by using an external recorder such as the Atomos Ninja.
Pros of the C100 over the 6D:
- Built in fan (which prevents overheating)
- Built in neutral density filters
- Built in XLR inputs
- Video camera form factor
- Sharper image
- Better/more accurate colours and tones
- LOG profile
- Dual SD card slot
- Dedicated settings buttons
- Battery life is significantly longer
- Best video quality/bitrate ratio out of any camera of the market
And the cons:
- Significantly more expensive than the 6D (although I got a good deal on mine second hand)
- Cannot take still images (solely a video camera)
- Weak video codec
- No slow mo
- The EVF is sub par
- High ISO performance isn’t quite up to the level of the 6D
The competition of this camera includes the aforementioned and cheaper Sony FS100 and Panasonic AF100, the more expensive Sony FS5, Blackmagic Ursa and RED Raven as well and high end stills cameras such as the Sony A7S, Panasonic GH4 and Canon’s own 5D and 6D.
The C100 is superior to the first two in pretty much every way, except for slow motion video. The FS5, Ursa and Raven are all part of the latest generation of true low/mid range cinema cameras, and shoot 4K, 4:2:2 or RAW video with superior image quality to the C100. The better image quality however comes at the cost of the compromises in design, significantly higher bitrates that will fill a card much faster and of the course higher cost of the camera and storage media.
The final category of high end stills cameras was very tempting, especially since many of them shoot 4K video, and have technology such as wi-fi and touch screens; not to mention the cheaper price tag. However, they lack the professional audio inputs and ND filters, as well as the form factor of an actual video camera. Add to this the reduced battery life and overheating issues (especially of the A7S), record limits and subtly inferior colours and tones, and the decision became quite clear.
So what does all this mean?
All this means that the C100 allows me to record better quality video, more efficiently, for longer periods of time than I can with the 6D. Overall I am very happy with the C100, and while it’s not without its faults, I believe it is the ideal camera for the type of video I shoot.
C100 next to the 6D