C100For the past year and a half the C100 has been and idealistic camera in my mind that represented the perfect balance of image quality and usability. I finally got a my hands on a C100 for a weekend and had the opportunity to really put it through its paces. The built in ND filters, XLR inputs, and ergonomics are what really drew me to the C100, but it was the image that kept me away for so long.
The built-in ND filters are really great, filtering two, four, or six stops or light. Under most lighting conditions this puts another too in one's arsenal to adjust exposure, without have to lug around more gear or change a variable ND when changing lenses. I took both C100 and GH4 to shoot outdoors. I didn't have an ND for the GH4, so it became virtually useless as I had to jack the shutter to ridiculously high speeds in order to shoot at even ƒ/11. Having ND filtration right in the C100 body was great in this case, however (and this is a big however), the six stops was still not enough in some circumstances. Even at the lowest ISO available I was still only able to get as wide as ƒ/8 and still maintain the 180º shutter. At least the ND's put me into a situation where I could still get useable footage, but sadly, for outdoor shooting additional ND filters would be needed if you really want a more shallow DOF.
The XLR inputs with phantom power are a nice feature on the C100, something that no other DSLR style camera or Blackmagic Cameras have. My Røde NTG2 sounded good and the levels were easy to maintain with a knob near the input. My only complaint would be that the XLR input is on the removable top handle, which for the most part I find otherwise useless. The handle adds noticeable weight to the camera and is really akin to having some sort of XLR adapter (like a JuicedLink Riggy Micro) on the camera. It is a shame since the camera without the top handle is a much better weight and feels better balanced when using it handheld.
This is really where the C100 shines. It feels wonderful in your hands and allows for some good shots even handheld. Like I said, I wish the top handle wasn't necessary for XLR because it's better without it, but it still blows everything else I've ever shot with away.
This is what would make or break the C100 in my opinion. Prior to using it I'd seen some great C100 footage and a lot of really bad C100 footage; I'd seen very little that really made me feel that the C100 should properly be called a "cinema camera" as per its Cinema EOS moniker. After using it for a weekend, I still feel essentially the same. The image straight from the camera is decent. It's detailed and noise is generally minimal even above ISO 1000. Higher ISOs are clean-ish compared to most other cameras. The noise, though, is much more digital looking that something you'd see from a Blackmagic camera or 4K footage downscaled to 1080p from a GH4. Dynamic range is also fairly good in Wide DR or Clog gamma.
The image straight out of the camera does have a very "video" look to it I feel. Even though dynamic range seems to be decent, highlights tend to have a very abrupt rolloff, digital-looking noise and macro-blocking does creep up quite often, and the way the camera renders motion just looks off, even though it's really difficult to explain why.
The footage definitely needs some heavy-handed grading if you want to achieve a cinematic look. The 24 Mbps codec grades better than expected, even compared to higher bitrate 5D III or hacked GH2 footage, but leaves something to be desired after grading RAW, Prores, or even GH4 footage. Even slight adjustments or applying a Clog LUT makes the macro-blocking more apparent and banding begins to show up. These deleterious effects are less noticeable at a normal viewing distance, but beautiful out of camera image quickly starts to look more and more like older DSLR footage when graded, but perhaps a bit sharper and more detailed. The 8-bit 4:2:0 image just can't stack up to RAW or Prores when going for a more saturated, contrasty, cinematic look.
The C100 is a great camera, don't get me wrong. If I were to choose a camera solely for run-and-gun, weddings, or documentary use, this would be it. Ergonomics are wonderful and NDs are helpful in a pinch. The fact that additional ND filtration may be needed and the XLR input is essentially the same as an add-on adapter, mitigates some of the killer features of this camera for me. Even so, I think these features could still put the C100 ahead of other DSLRs (even ones shooting 4K), as I think the image quality still holds its own against these. The choice of C100 vs. GH4 vs. A7S would really come down to price vs. having great ergonomics and extra features built in.
Once again, the real deciding factor is image quality. Like I said, I really think it holds its own against other, newer 8-bit cameras, but the gap between it and the Blackmagic cameras is larger than I would have previously guessed. C100 footage just looks so video-ish compared to RAW. Just a light grade of BMCC footage starts to look cinematic while the C100 requires heavy grading to get to that point while attempting not to break the codec.
A cinema camera the C100 is not. Perhaps Canon should consider a name change of the line to Wedding EOS?
The GH4 packs a lot of punch for a little guy. The ability to record 4K internally is awesome, but in reality this is necessary just to achieve downscaled 1080p image quality that can be comparable to the C100 or BMCC. As far as physical features of the camera, there's not too much to discuss as it is a fairly standard DSLR package with standard buttons and controls for the most part.
With the GH4, there's not much to talk about aside from image quality. I'll start by saying that 1080p mode doesn't look good. Plain and simple, shoot in 4K and downscale. In 4K mode, there is a significant crop, however. I find that even though it's about the same as the BMCC the increased DOF makes the GH4 image look more like video even compared the BMCC. Not sure if it's due to a more detailed slightly out of focus background due to the extra pixels, but I find the SpeedBooster a necessity for a more cinematic look. Proper ND filters also becomes a necessity due to the extra stop of light the SpeedBooster yields.
The 4K image looks nice, sharp, and detailed, with a fine noise grain below ISO 800 (above ISO 800 noise starts to take on a much more digital look and therefore in low light the C100 and A7S easily destroy this camera and the BMCC even looks better). Downscaled to 1080p I'd say the C100 actually edges it out in overall quality, though the GH4 image does grade a bit better. Dynamic range is so-so and Cinelike D does leave something to be desired as far a a flat profile goes.
Is the GH4 cinematic? With some grading I think it can look more cinematic than most DSLRs, but I find the colors are more difficult to get right than with other cameras, even older ones and, again, I find the finished product to leave something to be desired versus RAW or Prores. Even with in-camera sharpening as low as it goes, I still find the image to be too artificially sharp and plastic-looking compared to other cameras, even the C100. As far as motion rendition, I'd put it as better than the C100, but still short of other cameras, even a hacked GH2.
The GH4 is a great camera for the price and may be the best bet overall when it comes to 8-bit cameras. Unfortunately, the image can still leave something to be desired as far as useable dynamic range, color, and a less artificially sharp image.
I have yet to use the A7S, but I think at this point it is a one-trick pony. In case you haven't heard, it's great in low light. That's all people seem to be talking about and that's all this camera really seems to do well versus other cameras on the market. Aside from astounding low-light performance, I've yet to see anything that really blows me away. Yes, it has excellent dynamic range in Slog mode, but this requires a minimum ISO of 3200! Try shooting that outdoors, where I think such wide DR is the most useful, even with ND's. You'll need 4-stops just to get back to a normal camera without and ND filter. Without talking about dynamic range or low light, I don't see much else that I really like from this camera. It's still 8 bit 4:2:0, albeit a higher bitrate codec. Nothing about the images I've seen from it particularly scream that this is a next-gen camera. Grading Slog requires quite a bit of work, at which point you may as well shoot RAW.
The A7 series of cameras are tiny, so this camera, more than just about any other we might consider for cinematic shooting, needs a proper rig. I have an A7R and shooting video with it handheld is plain awful. For Slog, it likely requires ND filters even indoors to shoot wide open. Plus add on the cost of an XLR adapter, and external recorder if you want 4K and the price of ownership of this tiny camera skyrockets.
For me I guess the jury is still out. I haven't shot on it and it is still new, so maybe it's true potential has yet to be unlocked. For now, I'd say this is just another DSLR with some fancy party tricks, not a true cinema camera competitor, but who knows, maybe next month I'll think it's the best thing since sliced bread (that's what everyone else seems to think).
Summer 2014 Image Quality Rankings
So again, let's look at how I think things stand up when it comes to "affordable" cinematic cameras, now considering new footage I've seen and my own use of the cameras.
- Red Scarlet - Still expensive, requires a lot of add-ons, and probably the most difficult to use, but likely the best image achievable for a (somewhat) affordable camera
- BMCC - This camera still looks unbelievably cinematic and despite its shortcomings is still hard to touch when it comes to the final product.
- Blackmagic 4K Production Camera - This camera has moved up significantly from last time. I've seen some new footage from this camera and I'm impressed. I don't think the noise issue is as problematic as I previously thought. This is my next camera to rent, perhaps then it will overtake the 2.5K camera?
- C100 - From my use of it, I think the C100 just edges out the GH4 and A7S when it comes to a cinematic picture despite its shortcomings.
- GH4 and A7S (tie) - I can't decide which camera looks better right now. The GH4 has internal 4K, the A7S has better DR and is better in low light. Both seem to grade pretty well, but both can have a slightly video look. The jury is still out on this one.
- FS700 - I still think this camera is overrated and too expensive for what you get, especially now with the much cheaper A7S.