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Canon C300 vs RED Scarlet-X: Battle of the Digital Movie Cameras

By Wesley Fenlon

Canon and RED each announce new cameras for the movie business, but Canon's first shot at a pro-level digital camera comes with a steep $20,000 price tag.

Canon may be one of the most popular camera companies in the business, but when it comes to professional video the RED EPIC and ARRI Alexa get all the buzz. Canon's finally ready to fight back, and on Thursday it had Martin Scorsese himself at an event in LA to help introduce the film world to the new Cinema EOS C300. Canon's first piece of professional digital video gear will debut this January in the neighborhood of $20,000. Meanwhile, RED unveiled a new camera of its own the very same night, the RED Scarlet-X priced at $9750.

RED's renowned for its 4K cameras, and the Scarlet-X follows in the EPIC's footsteps with 4K video shooting and 5K still image captures at 12fps. The Canon C300 only boasts 1080p video output, but it's a bit more complicated than that: the Canon's 4:2:2 sampling actually captures a total of 3840x2160 pixels with its Super 35mm image sensor.

The Scarlet-X took a long and winding path from concept to reality--the camera was originally envisioned as a much cheaper fixed lens, high resolution option for aspiring filmmakers. The final product supports a range of lenses with Canon EF and PL mounts and works with glass from the likes of Nikon, Panavision and Anamorphic. That hits on the hidden costs behind both the Scarlet-X and Canon EOS C300: the body price is just a fraction of what you'll ultimately pay for a full filming rig.

The Scarlet-X shoots at a max of 25 fps at true 4K, while shooting in 4K quad HD (dropping from 4096 to 3840 horizontal pixels) for 30 fps shooting and down to 3K and 2K for 48 fps and 60 fps shooting, respectively. Here we can see a pronounced difference between RED and Canon's offerings: the Scarlet-X captures video data at a maximum rate of 440 Mbps, while the C300 operates at a recording rate of 50 Mbps. RED's REDCODE RAW format is technically lossy compression, though RED claims it's virtually lossless. Canon's camera uses MPEG-2 compression.Though Canon's camera is sampling a total of 3840x2160 pixels, the actual frame output is Full HD (aka 1080p). Confusing, right? Canon explains how that works:

The Super 35-size sensor is entirely designed and manufactured by Canon. Its actual effective pixel resolution is 3840x2160, which is an intentional design decision. This 8.3 million pixel sensor combines information from four actual pixels on the sensor (two green, one red, one blue) to produce final output for one Full HD pixel, enhancing output quality and color rendition. Thus, it is able to produce full RGB output, without the quality losses that might occur from "de-bayering" at the imaging sensor.

The difference between 1080p and 4K confused by bayer sensors is a deep, deep rabbit hole. If you're interested in better understanding that stuff, check out "The Truth About 2K, 4K and The Future of Pixels" by Panavision VP and extremely knowledgeable film guru John Galt. RED uses this technology to achieve its 4K resolution filming.

So the C300 doesn't shoot at 4K. That doesn't mean it has a bad sensor--Canon emphasizes the work it put into reducing moire and rolling shutter distortion. The video still looks phenomenal, as you can see:

Canon's attached a steep price tag to the C300 considering what else is available on the market, though raw sensor specs don't account for everything--lenses truly make the camera. The C300 relies on the affordable CompactFlash, whereas the Scarlet-X relies on pricier (but faster) SSDs out of the box. The RED Scarlet-X launches in December at half the price.

Canon's upcoming EOS Movies DSLR, which it claims will shoot 4K, might be an easier buy for up-and-coming amateur filmmakers. Canon hasn't given a hint of pricing or release information for that camera.