Saturday, November 05, 2011

More thoughts on the new Canon and Red cameras

Now that the dust has cleared a bit from Thursday's announcements by Canon and Red, I've had some time to consider the new cameras, and the compromises that both companies made when developing them.

First, the Canon C300. Physically, it's a gorgeous camera--it reminds me of classic 16mm film camera designs. What I'm less impressed with are some of the compromises in the Canon design. For example, the C300 has automatic nothing--no autofocus, auto-aperture, or white balance. The lack of automatic controls may be good for teaching cinematography, just as when learning how to drive, it's better to start by learning how to use a manual transmission. However, in the real world, cinematographers often use autofocus, especially for documentaries and sports. And why no auto white balance, when just about every other digital cinema camera has it? Another big "miss" is the lack of a dual-link HD-SDI output and no 4:4:4 mode. Yet another questionable decision is support for 60 fps only at 720p resolution, together with a sensor that, while it's technically 4K, only outputs 1920 x 1080. The result is a weird mix: Many features of the C300 are oriented toward movie use, while the output of the camera screams "broadcast" and the C300 is missing some key broadcast features.

The reason why the C300 turned out this way can be found in an interview that Larry Thorpe, Canon U.S.A.'s Senior Director, Professional Engineering and Solutions, Imaging Technologies and Communications Group, gave to Digital Photography Review. According to the interview, the C300 was a "fast-track" project inside Canon--two years from inception to product release. In order to meet the tight schedule, Canon couldn't develop new electronics for the C300, so it adapted the processor and electronics from the XF 305 camcorder for the C300. The XF 305 is a very nice camcorder, but it's not a digital cinema camera, and it's most certainly not a $20,000 camera. Most of the missing features in the C300 are due to using the XF 305's electronics.

From what Thorpe said in the interview, it's clear that the C300 is a placeholder for a broader, more functional line of digital cinema cameras coming from Canon. A few years from now, we'll probably look back at the C300 and wonder why anyone bought it, given how powerful the Canon models will be by then. For now, however, the C300 is a strange bundle--a great design, undermined by inadequate electronics.

The new Red Scarlet-X is different--it's plenty powerful enough, but it's not a Scarlet. It uses the same imager as the EPIC, except it uses it at a lower resolution and can thus utilize imagers that failed quality testing for the EPIC. It uses all the same accessories and software as the EPIC. It's the same form-factor as the EPIC. As Philip Bloom points out, it's not the Scarlet that Red's been talking about for three years, the one that was supposed to be light and cheap but still high-resolution. Perhaps the Scarlet-X should have been called the EPIC Light, and Red should have scrapped the Scarlet name. It's a niggling point--Red is going to sell lots of Scarlet-Xs--but the Scarlet-X doesn't fit into the niche that Red created for the Scarlet. Instead, it's an entry-level EPIC--perfect as a B camera to the EPIC, but not competitive in any way with the Panasonic AF101 or the Sony FS100. Speaking of which, the Canon and Red announcements have made the FS100 and AF101 look even more appealing.
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