Camera kits

How to achieve the most from the Canon C500 Mk II

In the past, there were many occasions where we had longed for a small camera body with a full frame sensor that could easily be integrated into a workflow with professional cinema cameras. I had thought that I could always have it with me to capture those hard to get shots, or to use it as a B-Camera when the budget was tight. Surprisingly, when we first tested the C500 Mark II at VMI, we realised that it would be much more than that! 

This was a camera that would scale up and down with the size of the project. It is affordable enough to bring into low budget productions, but capable enough for use on higher end shoots too. 

I was impressed with the modularity; it works as ‘body and monitor only’ on a small gimbal like the Ronin-S but the added Expansion 2 box and the optional OLED EVF turn it into a full production or ENG camera. 

Although I am not a self-shooter, I was impressed by the autofocus and in-camera stabilisation on this cinema camera.

A big must-have for me are the user changeable lens mounts. As this camera facilitates this, we can use our old Zeiss primes with the EF mount or shoot on PL lenses within minutes. 

A few months ago, while I was prepping for a TV series in Berlin the C500 Mark II started shipping. The series had a small budget but needed two cameras, so we decided to buy and bring my own C500 Mark II as the second camera. The director was desperate to try the new (and expensive) Alexa Mini LF and some initial tests showed that it would be unproblematic to match the C500 Mark II to it. 

However, days after my new camera arrived, the world went into a lockdown and I suddenly found myself with a lot of time at my hands and decided to find out more about this camera.

Things that I was curious about

My first question was whether the XF-AVC codec would be suitable for everyday applications and when it would be necessary to shoot RAW. Although, as cinematographers, we always fight for maximum quality during acquisition, the reality is that the C500 Mark II RAW codec takes up twice as much data storage and transfer time as the XF-AVC in 810Mbps which can become a significant time and cost factor.
My second question was how the different ISO settings would behave. I was interested in the noise floor and shifts in dynamic range.

My third question was if the S35/16 crop modes had any disadvantages compared to the full frame read out. 

And finally, I wanted to find out which one of the two available log profiles (Canon log 2 and Canon log 3) would best suit my workflow.

The approach

I designed this series of tests to be practical, side-by-side comparisons between the different modes. In addition to these tests, I shot a whole bunch of real world footage, ran tests with different light sources and tested the build in NDs for any IR pollution or colour shifts. My camera was running firmware version 1.0.1.1 at this point. 

My observations

I usually use a combination of metering, scopes and my reference monitor to set exposure and found that the overall image was slightly cleaner when overexposed by one stop. The built- in exposure indicator seemed to work consistently but as expected, usually showed a stop less than my own judgment. Knowing that information makes it a great tool to quickly set or double check the exposure for most situations.

Coming from other cameras I expected that the selected ISO would have no influence on the recorded RAW footage, but it does with the C500 Mark II!

The C500 Mark II records a 12bit compressed RAW Light codec with 2.1Gbps straight onto CFast Cards. The recorded RAW Light footage is affected by the ISO settings.

If you, for example, shoot at ISO 800 and push the image two stops during post production, you will end up with a much noisier image than shooting ISO 3200 in camera. I noticed this both with RAW and XF-AVC.

So it is better to adjust the ISO on set if you have not much light available. In the test I stuck to full stops when adjusting the ISO. According to various sources, the camera seems to apply digital gain for the third ISO increments which leads to a noisier image. 

That being said, you will still get the cleanest results for your night scenes by rating the camera slightly lower (as with other cameras) and light accordingly. I found that ISO 400 gave me really clean blacks in XF-AVC. I did not test ISOs lower than 800 in the RAW Light mode as Canon did not recommend the use of the extended ISO range in RAW. 

When I compared the log profiles, I found that Canon log 2 seemed to offer an extra stop of dynamic range. It is also less noisy in the C500mk II than in previous Canon EOS cameras and I personally found it very easy to grade in Davinci Resolve. This appeared to be the case for both Raw Light and XF-AVC.

Using the different sensor crop modes turned out to be a handy feature, especially when working with lenses that don’t cover the full frame sensor, or when you quickly need a digital zoom. 

I found no reduction in sharpness between the Full Frame and S35 sensor mode for 4K delivery. However the image will be slightly softer and noisier in the S16 mode, as it is only 2K.  Dynamic range and other aspects stay consistent and I even ended up assigning a user button to swiftly toggle between the sensor crop modes. 

Conclusion

You can mix and match the sensor crop modes if you deliver for HD, but be careful with the S16 mode especially for 4K delivery. Keep in mind that your depth of field and other visual characteristics will change!

For everyday situations, ISO 800 seemed to be a good base for both RAW and XF-AVC. If you prefer cleaner blacks, try to rate the camera at ISO400 and if you are running out of light - ISO 1600 and even ISO 3200 are very clean without compromise on dynamic range. 

Boosting the ISO from 800 to 1600 or 3200 and if necessary darken the image in post seemed to deliver better images in both RAW and XAVC when shooting in low light levels. I also found that the autofocus worked better with higher ISO’s in very low light.

The RAW codec will be slightly sharper than the XF-AVC and offers a higher bit depth. So if you can afford the data and plan to reframe, apply vfx or complex grades it will be beneficial for you. The RAW footage will come out slightly noisier from the camera as less internal noise reduction is applied. 

For most of the other applications, I recommend sticking the camera in Canon log 2 and using the XF-AVC codec at the highest bitrate. Dynamic Range and colour reproduction seem to be identical between XAVC and RAW across the different sensor modes. Don’t forget that the log images will need to be colour graded or at least converted with a LUT to the desired output colour space. 

So far, I personally tend to overexpose the camera by about half to a full stop, but would want to explore this more before making it a recommendation.

The internal NDs work well with a Polariser, produce no colour shift and seem to filter out enough IR to not cause any problems, even on hot summer days. 

All in all the C500mkII is a fantastic camera for a wide range of uses. It is very intuitive to use and forgiving when it comes to exposure. Just keep in mind that the selected ISO will affect your RAW files and don’t get frustrated that you can currently only use 12G compatible monitors with the second SDI output. 

 

Please note that this article is not meant to replace your own testing (which I would always highly recommend) but to give a quick guidance when in a hurry or unsure. 


Written by Clemens Majunke, cinematographer and co-owner of Out Filming

 

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