Canon C300 | Documentary Field Notes

Canon C300I was thinking about whether I wanted to rent the Canon C300 because, in my opinion, it takes a very special kind of camera to work well in a documentary setting and not having ever rented the Canon C300 I didn’t know how it might perform. In documentary-style work, everything starts and stops with the photographer. There’s no assistant to pull focus, no sound guy, no director or producer. You don’t have four bodies you can rig up to various degrees and swap out when needed. It’s only you and your camera. This creates a very special type of demand on a camera. At it’s most basic, the camera needs to be fast and easy to work with, it needs to feel comfortable and be subtle enough to be forgotten. In the end, the camera needs to be able to get out of the way and let you do your thing. So the question remained if I rent the Canon C300, will it be up to the documentary test?

Another consideration, having never rented the Canon C300, was the ease of operation. I spoke to Absolute Rentals about the camera and while Absolute Rentals assured me the camera was user friendly in their opinion until you’re actually holding one in your hand and making it perform the way you want it to, it’s an unknown variable no matter what someone else says.

After getting reassurance from enough people, I finally made the commitment and went to Absolute Rentals in Burbank to rent the Canon C300. I’m glad I chose Absolute Rentals because Dave Rosen, the CEO of Absolute Rentals, was incredibly accommodating and made it easy for me. A photographer and filmmaker himself, Dave Rosen understood my needs, the paces I would be putting the C300 through, and he made the whole Absolute Rentals process very easy and painless. There are bigger rental houses than Absolute Rentals, but I wouldn’t trade the experience I had renting the C300 from Absolute Rentals for anything. They were professional, easy to work with, and their knowledge about both filmmaking and the C300 made renting the C300 from Absolute Rentals a joy rather than a journey of torture and anguish.

I was immediately impressed by the intuitive, easy build of the Canon C300. When I went to rent the Canon C300, I don’t think I had imagined the ease and speed with which I would able to put it together. Due to the modular design of the C300 it is extremely fast to put together and breaks down to just three pieces without the lens and mic. This was huge for me because it normally takes me about 15 minutes or so to assemble my HDSLR rig from scratch and it took me less than a minute to assemble the C300. Documentary shooters need a camera that can be set up and rolling in minutes. I’ve missed many important storytelling moments because I was too busy setting up my camera rig to shoot.

The connections between the three pieces (the body, handle and monitor/XLRs) are really solid and the cables are robust. My only complaint here is that—because the monitor and XLR ports come on the same attachment and the camera has no internal sound—there is no way to get audio to the camera without using the attachment. So if you want to go super low profile and only use the camera body with a lens and no handle or monitor attachment you have no option for sound. Now, built-in sound on any camera is usually very low quality and I would never recommend using it in your edit, but it is really nice to have if you want to sync with an external audio recorder or your second camera in post.

After just a few minutes of scrolling through the menus, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of where the major features were located and how to access them. One feature of the camera I really like is the programmable buttons. Most mid-range cameras and up have these and I loved using them on my Sony EX3. They allow you to program the features you use most often to buttons on the outside of the camera for quick access so you don’t have to scroll through the menu while you should be shooting.

For instance, the function button, which is used to toggle through the aperture, white balance and shutter speed are in a really awkward position on the back of the camera. If you use the top handle as I do, then it is really hard to reach during a shoot without moving the camera. I reprogrammed this function to the number nine button on the monitor panel just above the record button. This allowed me to use the function button and toggle through the options with just one hand and leave my other hand on the lens focusing. I found this to be super helpful.

There are basically two ways to hold the camera given that you aren’t adding any support rails or third-party attachments. One is with the top handle, which I like the most because it feels a lot like my HDSLR rig. I found that I am steadier and have more range to move the camera when holding it this way. The second is with the handgrip on the side, which I found surprisingly comfortable to use. Instead of your hand fitting in the strap vertically and perpendicular to the camera as is common with most small video cameras, your hand fits horizontally and parallel to the camera. It feels very much like a medium format, still camera with a handgrip, which of course I love, coming from a still photography background.

All in all, my first field test of the Canon C300 on a documentary was a delight, from the initial journey to rent the Canon C300 from Absolute Rentals to the performance of the C300 out in the field shooting, to the painless and easy return of the camera to Absolute Rentals. I can see why this camera is so popular, and why so many are rushing to rent the Canon C300. From its user-friendly build and operation to its stunning image capture and television broadcast quality, in-camera specs, it’s not just another step in the direction of professional-level results for consumer-level abilities, it’s one giant leap.