REVIEW: Canon C200 Offers a Major Step Up in Image Quality
The improvement of the latest in Canon's C-line is considerable.
This fall, Canon launched its brand new C200, filling many filmmakers with excitement. The platform offers several features we were actively hoping would come to the "affordable" end of the cinema line, including internal RAW, 4K, and especially improvements to the autofocus functionality.
The Cinema line has been especially popular with documentary filmmakers, so we here at No Film School decided to split the review up into two parts, this one more focused on the technical aspects of the camera and its image quality, and the other being a field test from Liz Nord to discuss the real-life experience of shooting with the camera for a short doc project. Look for that in a few weeks.
With the new C200, fine detail in the images is well preserved, even in 1080p mode.
Improvements over C100
The original C100 launched for roughly the same price as the C200, only five short years ago in the summer of 2012, and what is particularly amazing is how much the image quality between the two has improved. In comparison even to the improvements in the top of the line Alexa cameras or the RED line (which, honestly, haven't really changed much with the exception of the Alexa 65; most of the improvements in those cameras are ergonomic), the image quality improvement with the C200 is immediately noticeable, and considerable.
The C100—when perfectly exposed—could deliver great results, but there was often something that felt milky or thin with the imagery from the camera. Some combination of bitrate and compression smoothed out fine detail in a way that could leave the footage feeling a bit indistinct in a way that the C200 just doesn't. With the new C200, fine detail in the images is well preserved, even in 1080p mode, creating much nicer imagery than the C100. Whether it's the higher original resolution showing the benefits of oversampling or improved image processing, there is a distinct and noticeable step up in imagery with the C200.
Context in the C-line
The bottom end of the Cinema line has always been its hottest space, with the higher-end C300 and especially the C500 in an odd place in terms of pricing where they felt just slightly too expensive for what they offered. The C300 has some notable projects under its belt (Blue is the Warmest Color, among others), but it never took off in the volume of the lower-priced C100.
For around the same price, you often ended up moving a project over to an older RED MX body to get that functionality, unless you were obsessed with weight above all else (which explains why the C300 has been popular in the documentary space). The C700, by adding the power support features users expect at the higher price point, has been a hit, but the C100 has been the most competitive in the line, and the C200 is a major improvement on that. You are going to see a lot of these cameras soon.
Shooting in RAW
One of the headline features of this camera has been 4K RAW at $7500 (it was, in fact, our headline), but of course, nothing is ever as simple as we might hope. While competitive cameras like the Blackmagic URSA Mini offer 4K RAW at this price point, it only records to CFast and SSD, and the same is true here. To shoot RAW you need the pricy CFast cards and there is currently no way to get RAW out of the camera otherwise to something like an external recorder, as opposed to the RAW support announced for the Atomos on the EVA1.
This isn't a nightmare. You can still shoot raw to CFast cards, but the reality is that this isn't likely to be the main use case for the camera. The cheapest CFast card available right now is $119 at B&H for a 32GB card. The same size SD card sets you back $20, and if you are shooting an SSD camera or monitor/recorder you can be looking at 256GB for not much more money. CFast pricing and the relative scarcity of hardware requiring its use work against it as a common format, for now, though Sony moving into the market will hopefully bring prices down. Even the C200 itself accepts both CFast and SD, meaning it won't like push more CFast adoption.
RAW vs. H.264
RAW is indeed a help with certain workflows, but the files themselves are also much larger. With RAW, you are going to only be able to fit about 30 minutes of footage on that 32GB card, while you'll be able to shoot for about 240 minutes on that $20 32GB SD card in 4K H.264. Add into that the need to store multiple copies of your source media, and the costs of raw really add up. Yes, you'll see RAW used on some feature films, commercials, and music videos. But for documentary, ENG, BTS, or even many narrative projects, this camera will be used with H.264 to SD cards.
Fortunately, the H.264 looks very good. You don't have the same power to correct for issues in post, but that's OK if you can make it look good in camera in the first place. When comparing RAW vs. H.264 on this camera, we noticed a slight softness to the RAW (perhaps the H.264 has some sharpening applied in camera, as if often the case), and ever-so-slightly better color mapping. The red jacket above, for instance, is more like the "orange" red of the RAW image on the left in reality, and less like the "blue" red of the H.264 on the right. This is lightly due to not restricting the RAW capture to the tighter Rec. 709 gamut.
Even in H.264 mode, the camera holds up with pleasant, useable, clean images. While H.264 gets (and deserves) a lot of grief, in reality, it's a codec that can be expanded in a ton of different applications. Most of our tests were done in H.264 for the simple reason that we believe this is mostly going to be an H2.64 camera, especially in the doc world. Once you bump up into the world of narrative, there are other (admittedly more expensive) cameras that might steal its thunder, but for the documentary/truly indie world that H.264 fits well into, this camera performs.
Low light performance
ISO has really gone off to the races in the last few years, often simply because manufacturers realized that the inclusion of insane ISO figures can get marketing attention, even if in reality the footage produced at those ridiculous numbers is grainy to the point of being unusable. However, we found with the C200 that we were quite happy with the footage up until around ISO 5000, and would only recommend going beyond that in situations where you were both comfortable with grain and confident with noise removal tools in post.
The RAW comparison shot above, for instance, is light from streetlights and the red reflection on the fence is just a stoplight, not particularly bright sources that you would normally depend on for such nice reflections. Our noise tests got greener as we went, though we suspect that was due to a green cast in the internal ND filter and not actually a green cast to higher ISOs.
The one area where the C200 can be said to be weak is in the body design. When the C-line first emerged, it was a major improvement on the terrible ergonomics of the 5D Mark II, where many filmmakers were bending over backward to force a stills camera to give them cinema-quality images. The C-line offered more set-friendly body design while giving us that great 5D type image, and we were overjoyed.
However, a lot has changed in the lifecycle of the C-line, and the body is starting to show its age. While Canon has done a nice job of giving multiple bottom mounting points to make balancing the camera easier (see above), our biggest complaint is the massive viewfinder on the back.
It's never felt particularly ergonomic to use the viewfinder on the back of these cameras. You ideally want the weight on your shoulder, and would use an external viewfinder. Keeping the viewfinder in place is clearly designed as a broadcast-friendly feature. However, not only does it add weight (a little, but every bit counts), it also protrudes quite a bit, making it far more likely that you are going to need to step up a size when sticking one of these on a stabilizer to avoid hitting the viewfinder on a stabilizer arm. In 2017 this matters way more than it did in 2012, and it's definitely one element making the camera body feel a bit dated.
If you are a busy working documentary cameraperson, or are preparing a feature doc, or work in the world of low-budget commercials and documentaries, this camera needs to be on your comparables list and is worth a weekend rental from KitSplit. If you are an action shooter, with strong opinions about Movi vs. Ronin and a habit of constantly finding new ways to put your camera in new situations, the C200 still deserves a look but probably lower on your list than other competitors that feel more focused on that world.
Available now for $7499 at B&H.
- Raw gives slightly nicer colors but even in H.264 this camera gives great images
- Major step forward over C100
- Loose the viewfinder, Canon
- Low Light powers getting pretty darn good