Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

Canon EOS C300, C500, 5 D Mark III and 1D C Comparison for Documentary Production

Canon EOS C 300

After attending a recent screening and demo of the latest Canon EOS digital cameras I started thinking about film after one of the hosts mentioned that digital would soon be better than film quality. I also thought about comparing which of these great digital cameras would be best for documentary production. The demo and screening of the new line of Canon EOS digital cameras was held at a local Regal multiplex. Tim Smith of Canon and James Neihouse of Full Sail University spoke, showed a couple great looking films, and fielded questions. I was impressed with what I saw and heard. We also got a chance to actually handle some of the cameras. So after all was said and done I got to thinking which cameras would be the best bang for the buck for documentary work? Is the most expensive gear the best for all situations?  These are all high-end digital cameras. Once you hit a certain level is it’s more about the knowledge and experience of the Cinematographer or Photographer then how many mega pixels you have?

Digital is making great strides but film, real analog film is always going to be my first love. How can it not be, I grew up with it, I touched it.  It touched me. Negative film stock for still images and positive reversal stock for slides and prints. Kodachrome, Ectachrome, Black and White photography, Tri-X (fast but grainy and high contrast), slow film with fine grain, Plus-X, names that have all but vanished.  Some of these film stocks were available for motion pictures. For a while in the seventies and eighties many people were using positive 16mm stocks like ECO and EF for documentaries, commercials, industrial and TV News (film at eleven).  Then new generations of film negative emerged and we all switched back to negative film stock. I was lucky enough to shoot two nationally broadcast PBS documentaries on negative.  Mike Goi ASC, was my DP, on both. Film stock balanced for tungsten 3200k, or daylight 5500k, different ISO’s (ASA’s in those days) provided great versatility for every situation. Then came video. I hated video, ¾”, Betacam, whatever, it was not pretty. It had limited everything. It was not tangible, you couldn’t touch it or feel it esthetically.  It looked mostly terrible especially NTSC. PAL a little better but still analog video.

Today we have digital video and there’s a lot to like starting with HD in it’s various formats. Contrast, color, color saturation, depth of field and other elements have brought film like qualities to the medium. But it isn’t film and it will never be film. It will try to look like film, walk like film, but it will never quack like film. It isn’t a matter of quality or 4k images; it’s about texture, the look and feel of film. Even if digital surpasses film in resolution it still isn’t film any more than a CD is a vinyl recording.  But digital video is here to stay and it offers its own qualities and possibilities to explore and create.


How would an ultra high end 4K/HD EOS-1D C – not available yet – (Estimate $15,000 base price) compare with the, 4K RAW EOS C 500 – ($30,000 up base price) or the EOS C 300 camera at about $16,000 base price?  Maybe we should also include one more camera in this comparison, the 5d Mark III at a mere $3500 (body only). [Price estimates from B & H Photo and online sources – Body only] One great thing is they all take EF Lenses. The 300C and the 500C also come in PL versions.

Here are some basic specs:



EOS-1D C Camera (Body Only)

  • 18.1Mp CMOS Sensor
  • 4K Cinematic Quality Video
  • 1920 x 1080 Full HD Video
  • Dual DIGIC 5+ Image Processors
  • 3.2″ LCD Screen
  • Eye-Level Pentaprism Viewfinder
  • Dual CF Card Recording Media
  • Canon EF Lens Mount
  • Magnesium Alloy Body
  • 61-Point High Density Auto Focus





EOS  5D Mark III Digital Camera (Body Only)

Canon 5D Mark III Body Only

Canon 5D Mark III Body Only

  • 22.3MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
  • 3.2″ Clear View High Resolution LCD
  • DIGIC 5+ Image Processor
  • 61-Point High Density AF
  • Full HD 1080/30p and 720/60p Formats
  • Built-In HDR and Multiple Exposure Modes
  • Extended ISO Range (50-102400)
  • Up to 6.0 FPS Continuous Mode
  • Dual CF and SD Memory Card Slots
  • Durable Magnesium-Alloy Construction










EOS C300 Cinema EOS Camcorder  (Body Only – EF Lens Mount)*

  • Super 35mm-Size CMOS Sensor
  • EF Lens Mount for Broad Compatibility
  • Canon XF Codec – 4:2:2 50 Mb/s MPEG-2
  • 1920 x 1080i60 & True 24p Recording
  • Rotating 4″, 1.23 Mp LCD Monitor
  • HD-SDI Output, XLR Inputs
  • Dual CF Card Slots
  • Timecode I/O, Genlock In & Sync Out
  • Canon Log Gamma
  • Modular Design: Removable Grip & Monitor



EOS C500 Cinema EOS Camcorder  (Body Only – EF Lens Mount)

  • 4K RAW (4096 x 2160) Output
  • EF Lens Mount for Broad Compatibility
  • 8.8 Mp Super 35mm-Size CMOS Sensor
  • Also Puts Out 2K, Quad HD & Full HD
  • 2x 3G-SDI Outputs
  • 50 Mb/s Proxy HD Recording to CF Card
  • 10-Bit 4K RAW at Up to 60p
  • 10-Bit 4K Half RAW at Up to 120p
  • 12-Bit 2K 4:4:4 Signal at Up to 60p
  • Canon Log Gamma


Included in this comparison are two primarily cine cameras, the C300 and C500. Also  two primarily still cameras with HD video, the 1 D C and 5 D Mark III. The EOS C500 and the EOS 1D C both have 4K technologies. The EOS C300 and the EOS 5 D Mark 3 are HD video.

If I were shooting a theatrical documentary where the subject and budget warranted the highest quality digital available then the C 500 might be the ticket. Maybe a nature documentary or even a multi-camera event documentary, like a concert for distribution on the big screen in theaters. I would want both cameras available. However I might want to compare shooting this big budget documentary (Is there such a thing except for the BBC?) on film.  Film still has a certain texture and warmth that says, “This is not digital.” If the shooting ratio was not expected to be high super 16mm might be an option.

The EOS C300 and the 5D Mark III also make a lovely couple for a documentary production where high-end HD digital video quality is required. A documentary where too rich a look and feel might lessen the “actuality” of the subject or situation might be a job for these cameras. For example a documentary like Restrepo that was shot in a war zone. These cameras offer great size and weight for run and gun type shooting as well as from a tripod.

Both of the DSLR cameras, EOS 1D C and the EOS 5D Mark III, need more support gear to make them fully functional for digital video shooting. Shoulder braces, focus pull and viewfinders for a start. Also a digital external sound recorder would be needed in certain situations. Shooting double system requires a sound mixer working with the camera operator. The C300 is a ready to go camcorder.

For a documentary project with a limited budget the EOS 5 D Mark III is a viable option, with external audio recording and mixing available.  Outfitted with the 2.8, 70MM to 200mm lens, a decent support system, a good tripod and a digital audio recorder the EOS 5 D Mark III package could be purchased for around $10,000 to $12,000. EF lenses from other EOS cameras might also be used to round out the package. The 5D Mark III is not heavy by itself, but for documentary work needs a focus pulling attachment and a viewfinder. Mounted on some sort of shoulder brace it is still not heavy at all. The 5D Mark III would also be useful for stop motion (single framing) action. This camera, with the right lenses and accessories, qualifies for the “best bang for the buck” tag.

There are other features to be considered about these cameras and documentary production. Weight for working handheld is important; also ease of use, controls and memory storage capacity for each camera. Also various recording speeds and formats available. Is slow motion or a variable speed shutter available?

A camcorder not reviewed in this article is the C 100 Mark II which is an upgraded version that now shoots 60p. Also as of late 2014 there is a new Canon 7D Mark II that has enhanced video upgrades and utilizes an APS size sensor. (see Canon 7D ).

As far as the camcorder models, if you can afford it, the EOS C300 feels the best for documentary work. However with a stabilized long zoom lens it also might start to get heavy for hand-held work.  Using shorter zooms or primes, the camera may be handheld easily. A shoulder brace of some kind should be part of the package if handheld shooting is anticipated. The EOS C500 is heavier because it has fans built-in to keep it from heating up too much while it makes all those 4K images.

Each camera has been built for a primary function. The C300 and C500 are designed to make movies. The 1D C and the 5 D Mark III are dual purpose but built on a DSLR model.  Production requirements and budget decide which camera to use. If you own a 5 D Mark III it might make sense to buy the extra gear needed, things like camera mount, matt box, focus etc, to bring it up to speed.  Starting from scratch with documentary film projects going into production, the C300 seems like an excellent choice.

That’s the bottom line unless you happen to have an Éclair NPR with some good lenses sitting around, and a project with an expected low shooting ratio…

Special thanks to James Neihouse for arranging screening and demo.

REVIEW BY J R MARTIN, director of Emmy nominated, Wrapped In Steel, a documentary about the Industrial community  on the Southeast side of Chicago and Emmy award-winning Fired-up- Public Housing Is My Home, both documentaries aired nationally on PBS.  AUTHOR CREATE DOCUMENTARY FILMS, VIDEOS AND MULTIMEDIA  Also Director of the Documentary Course at Full Sail University.  See other documentary reviews by James R Martin at

Comments invited.

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  1. I find it interesting that you didn’t include the 7D into the lineup because the 7D has an APSC sized sensor, close to the same size as the C300 & 500. However the 7D is becoming very dated and maybe the new one will be more closely related to the C300 & 500.

    I would like to point out that the 5D Mark 3 does record in REC 709 color space, which is broadcast quality and is the same as what is found on the C300 and I believe the 500.

    • I’ve heard the 7D will get a firmware upgrade some time this month. Not sure when there will be a totally new 7D.

  2. UPDATE: Canon did update the firmware for the 7d. One new feature is the ability to manually set the audio for the camera.

    Canon has a new camcorder out this fall the C100, which appears the be a slightly scaled down version of the C300 for about half the price.

    Canon is releasing the 6d which is smaller and lighter than the 7d and with more mega pixels. Apparently it does not have all the features of the 7d.

  3. Canon’s C300 Digital Cameras and Cine Zoom Lenses Find a New ‘Home’ For a Powerful Story by a First-Time Indie Filmmaker
    Published On: 11/16/12 03:11:21 PM

    Shooting an ambitious but tightly budgeted indie feature on the streets of New York City in just 20 days with big-screen cinematic quality was the goal realized by writer/director Jono Oliver for Home, his tale of a mentally troubled young man seeking to live independently. Essential to the success of the project was not only the cooperation Oliver received from friends and supporters of this inspiring story, but also his use of two EOS C300 PL digital cinema cameras and a CN-E30-300mm cine zoom lens from Canon U.S.A., Inc. Home was shot cinéma vérité style in Brooklyn and Manhattan by director of photography Sung Rae Cho.

    Oliver, an experienced first assistant director on a major episodic television series produced in New York City, and producer Daniela Barbosa knew that choosing the right camera would be a crucial decision. The camera would have to be lightweight for maximum mobility, unobtrusive for location shooting, low-light capable for dimly lit interiors, and able to deliver exceptional image quality for theatrical distribution. Familiar with the latest digital cinematography cameras, Oliver and Barbosa were especially interested in the EOS C300, which had recently been evaluated by the show they both worked on… More at

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