I’m willing to put up with a lot for the sake of image quality. Surely this is the only reason why camera operators around the planet were willing to return to the dark ages — saying goodbye to their XLR inputs, timecode and inbuilt ND filters for the sake of a full-frame 35mm sensor in the Canon 5D2. The irony is that while I’ve damned Sony’s Z5 and Canon’s Xf305 for being impractical and frustrating to operate, the camera I work most frequently with is my own Canon 7D. Go figure. I put up with running dual system audio, living in constant fear of moire, restarting my camera every time it overheats, trying to ignore the horrible compression damage, all because the thought of simply shooting on a 1/3″ 3-chip camera makes me shudder.
So in that spirit, looking at the C300’s image quality alone, I must be willing to put up with quite a lot. Extreme low light sensitivity, 4:2:2 chroma without an external recorder, XLR audio, ND filters, clean HDMI output… it’s like Jesus returned to earth as a camera. (excuse my blasphemy)
But I have to say, operating the C300 is not the most intuitive process. Admittedly, I’ve only used the camera twice and I had no time to prepare or pre-set the camera. After half an hour of messing with some settings, I went straight into the field, shot in the dark of a club, and discovered a few quirks and problems as I went. To me they’re certainly not so damning that I’d hate to use the camera, but when you’re covering live events and you need to adapt your settings on the fly, it doesn’t seem as quick and immediate as operating an Ex3 for example. Now everyone who owns or is thinking about owning a C300 will flame me and say that I’m just a Sony fanboy and why don’t I just go and use an Ex3 if it’s so good, blah. But hear me out.
There is no dedicated ISO/gain switch on the C300. There is no dedicated white balance toggle, nor is there a dedicated shutter speed control. To me, this came as a big surprise. To access any of these settings, you need to find an ambiguously labelled “function” button on the rear of the camera, which cycles through each of these settings. So if I want to change the ISO, I hit “function” a few times until the ISO setting is highlighted on the LCD screen — then I can use a rotating wheel on the left side of the camera to increase or decrease ISO. Looking at a picture of the C300, you’ll see that there are two rotating wheels on the left side of the camera. The upper wheel is the one you want to change your ISO. If you accidentally scroll with the lower wheel, the camera will deselect your ISO toggle and instead adjust your aperture (on Canon EF lenses). Then you’ll need to go back and find the “Function” button and cycle through it until you reselect ISO. Does this not seem overly complicated? On an Ex3, you’d slide your hand down to the left side of camera, find the little silver nib and flick it from Low to Medium or High. The ISO values for L, M and H were configurable in a menu, so you could figure out appropriate gain presets before your shoot. Same deal for White Balance presets.
Here’s another problem. It’s hard to find the ND+ and ND – buttons in the dark. Of course, you’ll laugh at me here. ND filters in the dark?? Well I was shooting a burlesque show where the lighting changed all over the place. As a baseline, I had my ISO at 12,500 (fairly incredible), but at times my subject would move right into a spotlight and she’d be in danger of clipping. And as I’ve previously stated, lowering the ISO is not the fastest process. My gut reaction was to flip on an ND filter, but as it was so dark, and because the ND control buttons feel no different to any other buttons on the side of the camera, I had no hope of finding it without losing my shot for a moment.
This really feeds into a larger problem that I have with the camera: the controls are not easily distinguishable by touch. On an Ex3, or even an XF305, you can feel that your hand is touching the ISO toggle, or the ND slider, or the scrolling menu wheel. On the C300, all buttons are round and black and similarly sized — and on average, you need to find more buttons to execute any particular setting adjustment than you would on a traditional camcorder. Having two scroll wheels right next to each other, with one that cancelled the function of the other was also an annoyance — but of course after a day of solid work with a C300, I’m sure muscle memory would take over and it would become more natural.
In closing, I have to admit that for most purposes, none of what I’ve mentioned is a serious problem. For short films, music videos and advertisements, anything where you can do multiple takes and you can spare 5 seconds to change camera settings, you’ll be fine. In a controlled environment, the C300’s image quality far outweighs any quirks of its design and button layout. I just wish that for shooting in a completely uncontrolled environment where you’ve only got one take, that Canon had borrowed a little more from standard camcorders and made dedicated buttons for ISO and WB that could be identified by touch.