Canon C500 is Shipping, but Canon's RAW Implementation is Unlike Any You've Seen Before
There has been a lot of talk about RAW lately. With Sony’s announcement of a RAW recorder for the F5/F55 cameras, and RED’s recent price drops (including a $4,000 RED ONE MX), it’s certainly on everyone’s minds. Canon, who has been making a name for themselves recently in digital cinema, has begun shipping the C500 (which is retailing for lower than was originally announced back in August, just like all of their digital cinema products). The C500 is practically the same camera as its sibling the C300, except for the ability to output full 10-bit 4K RAW up to 60fps. This all sounds great in theory, but Canon is doing something interesting in the name of quality that just might make you think twice about going through the extra expense just to use it.
If you haven’t seen it, here is Man & Beast, the first film shot on the Canon C500 in Canon RAW. It played at NAB at the Canon booth, and was lensed by a frequent David Fincher collaborator, DP Jeff Cronenweth, ASC:
Just as a recap, here’s what the C500 is capable of:
- 4K (4096 x 2160) 8.85 Mp Super 35mm-Size CMOS Sensor
- EF or PL Mount Models
- 4K: 10-bit RGB RAW at up to 60 fps
- 4K: 10-bit RGB Half RAW at up to 120 fps
- 2K: 12-bit RGB 4:4:4 at up to 60 fps
- 2K: 10-bit YCrCb 4:2:2 at up to 120 fps
- QFHD: 1920 x 1080 RGB 4:4:4 12-bit or 10-bit at up 60 fps
- QFHD: 1920 x 1080 YCrCb 4:2:2 10-bit at up to 120 fps
- QFHD: 3840 x 2160 RGB RAW 10-bit at up to 60 fps
- QFHD: 3840 x 1080 RGB Half RAW 10-bit at up to 120 fps
- 8-bit MPEG-2 Long GOP (Canon XF codec) 4:2:2 at 50 Mb/s recording to CF card
- Canon Log Gamma
- Price: $26,000 EF shipping now, PL shipping but backordered
Andy Shipsides over at AbelCine has put together a tremendous post about how Canon is actually doing their RAW output, and it’s vastly different than any of the current cameras capable of RAW, like the RED EPIC or SCARLET and the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Here’s a little bit from that post:
Canon Raw is a 10-bit format with baked-in ISO and white balance. That’s right, unlike the other Raw formats, Canon is baking-in gain adjustments (ISO/white balance) before outputting the Raw data. You may be scratching your head as to why, so here’s a little bit of the logic. Adding gain adjustments at the sensor level produces a consistent stop range above and below the middle grey level, even at high ISOs, and reduces the overall noise in the image. Canon is implementing these adjustments at the sensor level at higher bit depths and then outputting the results. These adjustments are also applying the Canon Log curve to the image, which maximizes the range of the final 10-bit file. So is Canon Raw actually Raw? It is, in the sense that the image is not de-bayered before you get it – this step is still done in post. You can think of using Canon Raw as being a bit like ordering a steak medium rare.
Here is a handy photo showing how the pixels are actually being sent out to be recorded:
Basically, instead of sending out an Alpha along with the RAW, it’s sending the other green channel. Since Canon is not starting out with a 16-bit image pipeline like RED and Sony (Canon is only doing 10-bit at best), they are trying to save as much detail as possible by locking in certain attributes. These engineering hacks have worked in the past for Canon, who always seems to pull out better image quality than the specs would suggest.
So how is this going to translate into actually using the footage? Canon is only sending out uncompressed RAW, which at 10-bit, works itself out to almost a Terabyte an hour. You should probably let that sink in for a second before you consider using Canon for RAW shooting. 1 Terabyte an hour is absolutely massive, and it means you’re only going to be using it for serious or high-paying projects, because your hard drive bill is going to go up in a hurry, especially since you’ve got to back up that footage. I’ve written about uncompressed 4K RAW before, and the situation is tricky to say the least. It’s one of the reasons that Sony and RED have come up with compressed versions of their RAW formats (and most DSLRs have some form of compressed RAW for still images).
The Canon RAW will be stored in what are called file stacks, and each image will be an RMF, or Raw Media Format file. In post these 11MB-per-frame files will technically be RAW, but will be treated more as a DPX file since a lot of the information is no longer metadata, but actual values. These RMFs will also contain audio and the rest of the camera metadata, and Canon will release an application to “develop” these files into a usable format, just like the other manufacturers have done for their RAW formats.
Part of Canon’s strategy (not unlike RED’s, either) is reusing sensors that they have already spent a tremendous amount of R&D on — which is why this is the same sensor as the C300 and the new C100. In order to maximize every ounce of image quality, they’ve chosen not to provide the user with full RAW capabilities. While it makes the camera a lot less appealing to me, it doesn’t mean that the image quality alone will necessarily be worse than the competitors — you’ve just got to make sure you’re shooting as if it is a compressed format. The big thing about this camera though is that you don’t actually have to shoot RAW, but you can shoot uncompressed 12-bit 2K. While I don’t know if that’s worth the $26,000 asking price compared to say, a $4,000 RED ONE MX, it could still be a worthy rental depending on your needs. The big thing with this camera is that you’ll need to mount an external recorder if you want anything above 50mbps 8-bit 4:2:2 1080p, and if you want RAW, you’ll need something like the AJA Ki Pro Quad (connected via Thunderbolt to a computer). To get the RAW in a self-contained unit, some options currently available are the Convergent Design Gemini or the Codex S Onboard Recorder.
I always talk about Canon’s astronomical prices when they’re compared to the competitors on features alone, but they know how to make a pleasing image, and if you already like the way Canon cameras create an image, I doubt you would be disappointed by the C500.
If you want to try out a sample RMF file, Andy has provided one, so head on over to AbelCine to check it out.
What do you guys think about the image from this camera? What about Canon’s way of achieving RAW, do you feel like it defeats the purpose, or are you confident Canon is looking out for the best interest of the user? How about the price, if you were in the market for buying a camera, what looks appealing right now considering the specs? What about considering image quality?