Seeing In The Dark: Hands On With The Canon ME20F-SH

The Canon ME20F-SH multi-purpose camera with full-frame sensor features insanely high light sensitivity and an extremely modular form factor.

With the “M” standing for multipurpose, the very new Canon ME20F-SH camera is not only a cinema camera with the internal benefits of large-sensor capture, but also an extremely versatile video solution for a variety of productions and needs. While almost shockingly straightforward to use, the cam also sports an incredibly healthy set of features and out-of-this-world imaging quality. Targeted at everyone from filmmaking to broadcast and documentary, to reality television, to virtual reality work, surveillance and government, the extremely capable sensor is absolutely huge in the ME20F-SH. It’s full frame in 35mm-lens equivalence for the same shallow depth of field you find in Canon’s full-frame DSLRs, but at 19x19um, the pixel size is enormous, more than 5.5 times that of Canon’s standard DSLR pixels.

Canon also decided to let the pixels breathe on the sensor for much better light-gathering abilities, which expanded the sensor’s dimensions to roughly 7.5x larger than Canon’s full-frame DSLR sensors. In fact, this is the first video camera from Canon to have a full-frame sensor outside of the DSLR design. The direct result of a sensor with such large pixel pitch (the sensor offers 2.26-megapixel files at an effective pixel resolution of 2000×1128) and the powerful DIGIC DV 4 processor to run it all is that high ISO levels in the ME20F are still quite usable. At a base equivalence of ISO 800 (or 0 dB in the menu; Canon references gain levels in the ME20F rather than ISO), the camera has unheard of levels of light sensitivity, topping off at an equivalent ISO of greater than 4 million. With a minimum exposure requirement of less than 0.0005 lux, that means that a subject can be captured on a moonless night without any additional lighting. You could use a candle to light a scene, and I did.

Interestingly, while the huge levels of light sensitivity are one of the major selling points for the camera, Canon chose to use gain ratings as dB rather than ISO. The floor is 0 dB at an ISO of 800, while the range tops off at 75 dB in 3 dB intervals for an ISO rating of 4,560,000. There are also sweet-spot dB intervals with better noise levels. A spokesperson for Canon told me while looking through test footage that most creatives are staying under the 45 dB plateau, at 102,000 ISO, while government and security clients are more apt to use the fairly noisy upper floor levels.

You can see how absolutely massive the sensor is on the ME20F in comparison to this SD card.
You can see how absolutely massive the sensor is on the ME20F in comparison to this SD card.

And it’s true; several sequences he showed me were taken at that ISO and the picture was very clean after de-noising processing and cleanup. Unlike other high ISO solutions like the Sony a7s II, which has 8.4um pixels, the camera also comes as cinema-ready with SDI and other connections like HDMI. Though it has a rolling shutter, shutter angles can be set as needed, and Canon claims that the DIGIC DV 4 processing is so fast, there’s no jelly motion or other aberrance often found in DSLR systems and mirrorless cameras. (Rolling shutter means that the sensor scans from left to right, which can cause skew in a picture, especially when panning quickly. To use a global shutter would remove autofocus abilities, so Canon has elected to go with a rolling shutter in their camera systems rather than lose that ability.)

While the minimal design of the body is one of the main reasons why it’s so capable over other systems, it’s also one of the principal disadvantages of the Canon ME20F. Much like RED systems, the main body houses the sensor and electrical components. So a number of (expensive) accessories will be needed to fully flesh out the system. This is no different than high-end-filmmaking cameras, however, and at the camera’s street price of almost $20,000, Canon is straddling the indie market at the same time that they’re shooting (literally) for larger productions. It’s likely that the additional costs of rigging and monitoring the camera, as well as adding power and other needs, even just for handheld work, will be hard to swallow on top of the starting price for the indie crowd, but Canon is offering the system for rental, as well as direct sales, to help offset the initial costs. (Hinting again at the versatility, power is available through your choice of standard 12 volt, 4-pin XLR and 2-pin connector.)

To address this, there are kits already available, like the Cinema Package at an extra grand in cost, which comes with a number of needed accessories, like the Zacuto mini baseplate and Atomos Shogun Flame recorder and monitor. The external body also features a variety of ¼”-20 and ⅜”-16 threads on top of and under the camera for customizing accessories and rigging. The camera doesn’t record internally. An additional monitor or electronic viewfinder is required to change settings and work through menus.

Provided as sensor and electronics in a head unit, the Canon ME20F-SH is a compact camera body that’s simple to use while providing exceptional imaging quality for professional videography.
Provided as sensor and electronics in a head unit, the Canon ME20F-SH is a compact camera body that’s simple to use while providing exceptional imaging quality for professional videography.

Despite how complicated that all seems, the camera operation is actually the coolest thing about it. Stepping through the menus on the Odyssey 7Q (provided to me for the review by Canon) was insanely fast and easy via the touch-screen interface. One would think with a black box camera body that it would take quite a bit of time with the manual before being able to go operational; instead, I was able to breeze through the intuitive setups within minutes. This may be affected by choice of monitor, but much like the recent Canon XC10, the menu design is exceedingly simple. It was mostly a matter of experimenting with appropriate dropdown menus through a combination of buttons and joystick located on the rear to unlock features and settings. Simplistically, there are only four menus: Camera Setup, Custom Picture, Audio/Video Setup and Other Functions. These, of course, unlock several submenus for a litany of effects and features.

With frame rates of up to 60p in both NTSC and PAL, output format will depend on the settings that you use via the recorder chosen to capture footage. 3G/HD-SDI offers YCbCr422 in 10-bits (at an effective 8-bits) while HDMI output will support 8-bits in ProRes at up to 444 and Avid DNxHD. Canon Log and Canon Wide DR is included for dynamic range enhancement, available at up to 12 stops in the ME20F, which is no easy trick on a full-frame sensor with this much real estate. Black point and knee can be set to curtail highlights, and the camera sports internal ND filtration in 1/8th and 1/64th, too. A color infrared mode is provided with much more saturation than found in the gray and green infrared commonly available in most other setups. It was included for security needs, but the look is finding favor, as it’s similar to film-processing techniques of the past. Unlike many low-light solutions, the camera doesn’t use infrared to create exposures, but the IR cut filter can also be removed to enhance the night vision aspects.

With all of these high-end possibilities in a diminutive lens box measuring only 4.0×4.6×4.4 inches in size, the ME20F looks to be an ideal deal for filmmakers and professional productions looking for a versatile B- or even A-cam that’s also able to provide specialized functions. At 2.4 pounds, you can easily build a modular system for drone or overhead and crane work, as well as other small form factor applications like field placement or nighttime exteriors for documentary work where it would be extremely affective given the light sensitivity performance. It can even be used to shoot interiors without using anything to light but practicals.

A digital recorder and monitor or EVF like Convergent Design’s Odyssey 7Q is required as an additional purchase to save footage and to step through settings and controls on the ME20F.
A digital recorder and monitor or EVF like Convergent Design’s Odyssey 7Q is required as an additional purchase to save footage and to step through settings and controls on the ME20F.

Despite a swiveling PL mount design, the system employs the Canon Locking Cinema EF Lens Mount, which functions like a PL mount. Also available in the C500 and C300 Mark II, it twists to secure the lens, but doesn’t click to a locking position like most other Canon cameras. That’s something that Canon users might have to get used to, but the mount is also much more secure than a traditional EF mount because it’s built to accommodate very heavy lenses. In this case, Canon gave me several L lenses to play with, including the brand-new, incredibly wide 11-24mm ƒ/4L rectilinear zoom, which was nearly as big and heavy as the ME20F just on its own. It felt anamorphic when opened all the way up to 11mm, and you could still see tight focus with wide-open iris despite such an expansive wide-angle field of view. There’s also a 12-pin lens terminal on the front for Canon’s motorized CINE-SERVO zooming lenses or B4 2/3” broadcast lenses with cradle zooming through third-party adapters. The camera is also compatible with Canon’s top-of-the-line Cine CN-E lenses and EF-S lenses through an APS-C crop.

On the rear of the camera is a tally light, which is necessary because otherwise you would have a difficult time knowing that the camera is even running. It was so quiet during operation that I couldn’t hear any internal sounds nor could I feel vibrations from the body even during capture, which is kind of amazing. To cool, there’s an internal fan and the whole body also seems to act as a large heat sync. Though it does heat up a bit, it was never too uncomfortable for me to hold or touch.

The rear of the camera also has two HD/3G-SDI (outputs only), as well as single HDMI output. As a very, very, very important safety tip, you’ll need to monitor correctly with the HD/3G-SDI, as on-screen display (OSD) information is available via the top port and it can be burned into the footage if using OSD without canceling the information display prior to video record. I was told this, but forgot during a couple test sequences and, it turns out, that’s indeed what happens! (The second SDI port is a clean output, but it doesn’t provide camera controls. It’s recommended to monitor from the upper OSD Monitor 3G-SDI while capturing via the second 3G-SDI to a separate recorder.

For the price point on the ME20F-SH, the ins/outs are surprisingly trim, but controlling the camera was one of the most convenient experiences that I’ve encountered in working with a camera.
For the price point on the ME20F-SH, the ins/outs are surprisingly trim, but controlling the camera was one of the most convenient experiences that I’ve encountered in working with a camera.

The back also sports genlock in black burst or tri-level reference for synchronization with multiple camera setups and remote-control connections (compatible with Canon’s RC-V100 Remote Controller), as well as user-assignable buttons for creating tasks that can be performed without monitor. To use the camera without futzing with settings, there’s also One-Shot AF and auto white balance so you can record immediately, if needed. A thumbwheel joystick steps through menu settings (again, a monitor must be connected to see them), and there are also audio connections for 2.5mm and 3.5mm mics. No XLR here, so separate sound will be needed for professional audio.

Menus offers settings like frame rate, resolution, system frequencies, genlock adjustments, scan reversal, display customization, peripheral illumination correction for Canon lenses, shockless white balance (for smooth transitions between color temperatures, which is available at 2000K to 15000K), focus limits and so much more. Light metering is available as standard, backlighting and spotlighting for a center-weighted average on the higher area of exposure.

Canon also offers a different, but similar version of the ME20F-SH in the ME200S-SH, which has an APS-C sensor instead of full frame, the same Super 35 model found in the recent C100 Mark II. It sports 12 stops of dynamic range and the same Canon Locking Cinema EF Lens Mount. It also has Canon LOG and the WideDR gamma, as well as infrared mode and ND filters in the same strengths as the ME20F. ISO cuts off at the 204,800 mark, however. Estimated Street Price: $19,999 (ME20F-SH); $4,999 (ME200S-SH). HDVP
Contact: Canon, usa.canon.com.

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