Home Camera Canon C500 vs. Film Camera Test

Canon C500 vs. Film Camera Test

written by Shane Hurlbut, ASC

C500 vs Film

March 14 is right around the corner, the theatrical release of Need for Speed.

Need for Speed

On opening night, when everyone sits in their seats and the lights go down in the theater, hopefully you’re in a 3D theater that has a 60 or 80-foot screen. Get ready to be immersed through a wonderful mix of art and science. This film was an amazing journey that I would never have been able to get through without my incredible crew: camera, grip, electric, stunt team, special effects, production design, costume, wardrobe, everything firing on twelve cylinders to be able to make this movie possible. Our Director Scotty Waugh had amazing energy and passion to make the whole movie practically and deliver a movie-making experience that will be unlike any other. To get to the final product, there were many camera tests that needed to be done. We wanted to show you some of them. I have talked in depth about the Canon C500. If I had to compare it to a film emulsion, I would compare it to Kodak. So I thought, why not do a test where we show film versus the C500?

We are going to break it down into five different tests that take you on my cinematic journey that infuses the look that we were going for on this movie. These are not just ‘make it balanced’ kind of tests or just raw tests. These are color-corrected tests that are set in the look and feel of how Scotty and I wanted the movie to look. Mike Sowa was our colorist at Technicolor. We all sat in a room and did these color corrections on a 40-foot screen, and we are going to be sharing this with all of you. So sit back, relax, dim the lights in your dining room, your office, your kitchen, or wherever you might be, and relax and enjoy the C500 vs. 35mm Kodak film stock.

C500 vs. Film: Back Light Test

The first test that I want to start with is the back light test for day exteriors. Back light tests are mostly about skin tones, looking at the color spaces of both cameras, and the subtle nuances of different skin tones on a face. In this test it was important for me to recreate real-world situations that we would actually be dealing with because they help me understand how the sensor or film stock would react in that exact situation.

During the back light test, we noticed that the skin tone when shooting with film was very creamy and gave off a kind of whitish tone.

Film Backlight iso 160

But the 35mm film missed a lot of the subtle tones in our model’s skin as well as adding in a lot of red/brown tones in the blacks. Not only were we missing a lot of subtleties in our model Monette Moio’s skin, but it also exposed a lot of red/brown tones in the blacks. The grain intensified in the shadows and the fall off areas were much more extreme compared to the C500.

Film Backlight test comparison chart

The C500 was still able to show the detail in her shadows. It falls off like a gentle slope, where the film falls off like a cliff. The C500 has a much wider range in the shadows than you do on film.

C500 Backlight ISO 850

If we were to compare the C500 and film side by side, immediately you can see more of the different tonalities in the background. The C500 kept a much cooler tone in the shadows and the background, while the yellow forklift comes across as a very punchy energized color. The film on the other hand is more grey in the background and the color of forklift kind of blends in the background and doesn’t stand out.

Overall the C500 really blew film out of the water on the back light test. Scotty and I really fell in love with the C500 after seeing how Monette’s skin tone reacted in this industrial back lit scene. The subtle nuances in tonality were absolutely beautiful. This camera somehow sees skin in a very soft palate. It has a creaminess to the skin, but the image itself is nice, crisp, and sharp. While Scotty and I kept testing the C500 in different settings, day vs night, etc., we kept coming back to this scene. You know what I love about the C500? It’s that we didn’t need to sharpen the image or crank the contrast, and we hardly had to put any color into it because it comes baked. You have to be very exact with the C500. I love that it’s almost as if you are exposing the C500 like you were exposing film. You have to get it right, and that’s what is great about being an artist.

C500 vs. Film: Fill Ratio

Next, we move on to testing the skin tone and skin color by doing a fill ratio test. I lit the model with a tungsten side light so that we could see the fill level better. I then took the level down in 1/2 stop increments so you can see how well the C500 and the film handle the shadowed areas. I like to light -2 stops down on the fill when lighting a woman and -3.5 stops down on the fill when lighting a man.

Film Fill Ratio Test _-2.4_1024

Looking at -2 stops down on the fill with the C500, you can see that the blue in the bounce is reading much more. And our warm key light, the gold light, doesn’t look as warm because the camera is seeing the blue a little more. I really felt that the C500 really energized the subtle colors, even with the background color. The C500 sees it beautifully into the shadows. It looks very creamy into the underexposed area.

The film really started to get a little ruddy and you start to see brownish red undertones into the shadows at -3.5 stops down. You can see that the film has got a slight grain texture to it and that the background wall was not blue, but grey.

Film Fill Ratio Test chart

The C500 is not as saturated on the skin, but what I’m noticing is the C500 seems to see the subtle nuances in the key light and in her skin tone a little better, which we really loved. This is what Scotty really responded to when he saw these tests. He just felt the C500 delivered a very real feel.

C500 Fill Ratio Test chart comparison

I felt that both cameras delivered the test well. The fall off into the shadows was gradual and elegant. It did not feel like the shadows were falling off a cliff. Everyone always talks about how they remember film being so creamy and so beautiful on the skin and so forgiving. Well, I have to say that the C500 has that same forgiveness. It has the sharpness, but the skin tones remain creamy.

C500 & Film Ratio Test comparison chart

C500 vs. Film: Dynamic Range

Understanding the dynamic range of a camera requires to use an old processing trick called “pulled process.” On film, there’s not really a way to do that other than pull process, which is a whole other topic that we will cover in a future blog post so you can see what it is all about. I love doing it. I did it on the movie Deadfall in all of the snow scenes. Every snow scene was pulled two stops, which is kind of extreme, but I thought it gave this beautiful, pearlescent kind of softening of the snow and the highlights. It just made it feel otherworldly, which is exactly the way the director wanted it. I’m pulling in third stop stock increments and we’re juxtaposing that with the C500 doing the exact same thing.

I’m going to start the pull process with film at 250 ISO. Notice the detail in the sky and the clouds. On film we can really see the subtle nuances in the grey and the white areas of the back lit clouds. This is where film just rules. Look at the cloud detail. Even as we move into ISO 200, the background is getting softer, but the detail in the clouds are still holding.

Film Dynamic Range Test_1024

This is where the C500 shows its hand in a poker match. As I reduced the ISO off the native 850 ISO, the clouds that are just holding detail immediately start to clip.

C500 Dynamic Range

C500 vs. Film: Latitude Overexposed

In the C500 versus film latitude test, we pushed the limits and overexposed. You are really going to see film kick booty on this test. Film handles overexposure in such a more beautiful organic softer blowout than the C500.

Film latitude overexposed test chart

The C500 gets to a point where it just clips and produces this haloing around the overexposed areas.

C500 latitude Overexposed test chart

The C500 just doesn’t look sexy in the overexposed stops. Film looks sexy.

C500 vs Film Overexposed Latitude Test chart

C500 vs. Film: Latitude Underexposed

The C500 really shines in underexposure because it sees in the dark. With film, it tends not to see much more past -3.5 to -4 stops under. Immediately with the underexposing on film, you start to see the ruddiness, the red in the blacks, and the grain coming out.

Film latitude underexposed test chart

With the C500 at -3.5 stops under, we can still see the details in the faces of our models. Even though the C500 is incredibly underexposed, it’s still much cleaner and its gradation of falling off to black is much like a slope and not like a cliff.

C500 latitude underexposed test chart_sm

C500 & Film latitude under Test comparison chart

I found this C500 versus film to be an interesting test. Where film shined was in the dynamic range of overexposure, and the C500 really shined in the dynamic range of underexposure. Looking at C500 as a film emulsion, I think with its color, tone, and vitality, it looks very much like Kodak film.

Watch the videos in 1080p on Vimeo.

Camera: Arri 435
Lenses: Panavision Primo primes
Film stock:
Daylight: 5201
Tungsten: 5219
Camera: Canon C500
Lenses: Panavision Primo primes
Color Space: Canon Raw 4K 10 BIT
Picture Profile: CP locked
Recorder: Codex S


Buy the Canon C500:

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Daniel Mogg February 28, 2014 at 12:36 PM

Awesome post Shane, so much knowledge given thank you. I’ve been following a lot of your Need for Speed material and have your enjoyed your emphasis on selecting the right camera for what is called for not because one camera is “better” than the other. Hopefully I can enjoy that luxury one day and not be limited to just one ha!

Howard A Phillips March 1, 2014 at 2:07 PM

Truly fantastic information, very beautifully described at every stage. I do have a question about the backlight test – it seems that focus was set more accurately on Monette’s eyes for the C300, as opposed to the Film camera – ? Is this due only to the telecine and/or the compression?

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:27 AM

Howard A Phillips, I am pretty sure it was as in focus. Film vs 4K file

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:37 AM

Daniel Mogg, thanks so much for your kind words and support

Bob Gilles February 28, 2014 at 12:41 PM

What picture style setting did you use on the C500? Cinema? Custom?

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:37 AM

Bob Gilles, CP Locked

Eric February 28, 2014 at 2:25 PM

If you are a C500 user, check out Zacuto’s latest Z-Finder and accessories designed especially for the C500 camera. We created a whole new mounting system not only to mount the Z-Finder to the LCD but also to get the LCD in the right position for shoulder mounted shooting. Watch the video and learn more about these great new items http://www.zacuto.com/canon-c300-z-finder-and-accessories

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:37 AM

Eric, thanks so much for sharing

Will Knights February 28, 2014 at 2:50 PM

Ha! “…just a nuclear bomb of clippage..” Great quote. I have to say these comparisons, as always, are terrific and much appreciated. I have a C300 and often bemoan the colour science behind the camera, particularly under mixed light, and indeed in the fill test this is clear to see with the ‘energising’ of the background and fill blue hues. However, it’s a wonderful sensor and delivers awesome results when lit with care. Thanks a lot Shane for taking the time to upload your findings.

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:36 AM

Will Knights, you are so welcome, thank you for your wonderful comments and sharing.

Brad Watts March 1, 2014 at 1:26 AM

So if I were shooting a film with a moody contrasty tone and lots of night exterior s and interior’s this would be the camera…but if i’m shooting a lot of scenes outside during bright sunlight I would pick Alexa since film is obviously expensive, especially the desirable Kodak 5203 or 5219 stocks. What was used as an external recording device? Codex I’m guessing? I will be using a AJA Quad Pro since it comes with a rental package and we cannot afford a Codex recorder but how noticeable will it be to record only 10 bit 4k compared to 12 bit? I’m pretty sure the AJA only records 10-bit, even at 2K which really sucks. The main attraction of this camera is the colors and the low light capabilities…and if I’m not taking advantage of the colors due to not having a Codex recorder which would bring prices up and beyond the rental rates of an Alexa what would you suggest?

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:32 AM

Brad Watts, the camera and recorder rent for far less than an Alexa at least what I have seen 1200 a day for C500/Codex S. Alexa is 1600 a day without a recorder. An XT is 2700 a day. Call Revolution Cinema rentals and they will hook you up. They are the go to Canon house.

brad Watts March 3, 2014 at 10:09 PM

yeah that sounds about right, there is an exception though…Adorama rental over here in NY has really competitive pricing, a C500 with 4k pro res AJA runs $500/weekend, comes with rails, baurs, etc, an Alexa EVF classic about $825, XT isn’t available yet but from what I can tell they have the cheapest rental prices in my area and have great customer service. If i wanna rent the codex though it would be over $500 for the recorder and about $350 for the camera and that’s the price range of an Alexa lol. Tough to choose but the colors of the canon and the low light sensitivity outshine it in most situations unless i’m shooting a lot of daytime scenes.

Shane March 5, 2014 at 12:10 PM

brad Watts, copy that, all these still lens houses are getting involved and running it cheap. Sounds good, go with what you got there, do you prep on their prep floor or do they just ship

Brad watts March 7, 2014 at 6:25 AM

Yeah it’s crazy how affordable it’s gotten. I usually do the prep right there since it’s about an hour drive for me. They also load the stuff for ya and bring it down to your car. It’s a last laced curbside service. Pretty awesome. I don’t think they actually ship rentals. But they pretty much have everything. And it’s the go to spot in NY. They are lacking master primes though lol but I’m a fan of the Cooke looke for most projects I do anyway.

Shane March 9, 2014 at 3:50 PM

Brad watts, sounds great, thanks for sharing

Emiliano Ranzani March 6, 2014 at 9:07 PM

Brad Watts: if you’re going to record RAW, then 10 bits are good for the C500 since it only does 10Bits 4K RAW. Conversely, in HD2K 444 it does 12.

frank paul perez March 1, 2014 at 6:46 AM

A great test. I love how you covered the five areas and showed their strength and weakens. I own the Red Epic. I would love to see this test between film and Epic?? I would load you my Epic 🙂


Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:29 AM

frank paul perez, it is already done, we would just have to edit it. Thanks for the offer

Jeff Regan March 2, 2014 at 8:32 AM

Great tests! Since the C500 was in CP Locked mode, I’m assuming the Knee Saturation was at zero. I tend to set our C300’s at -10, which makes overexposure of skin more neutral white vs. yellow. I find it lends a more film like feel than the chroma clipped look so common with video cameras.

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:24 AM

Jeff Regan, you cannot adjust any of these things in Canon RAW mode.

Nathan Lee Bush March 2, 2014 at 10:31 AM

Pure gold, as always. Thanks for sharing! You’re like a philanthropist to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. I also appreciate that you’re open to the strengths and weaknesses of each camera and not picking teams like it’s easy to do and almost everyone does.

Still, some of the areas where the C500 cleaned up were still wins for film for me. It’s imperfections are what make it nice. The Canon definitely has a more accurate image to the way our eyes see, but it almost feels too correct. It makes sense for a big budget movie like Need for Speed to hold shadow detail, but for something less opaque, film lends a mystique and messiness. I’ve been trying to figure out why True Detective looks about ten times better than anything else on TV, and I think film is a part of it. Even when the low light shots start falling apart it looks incredible! I think the medium definitely supports the vibe of the show, which is kind of a thick southern gothic and more experimental than any other mainstream fair.

Digital has finally become more accurate than film, but film is arguably nicer in its imperfections. It’s like an interpretation of reality. Part of what we like about film is the dream quality. When it becomes too lifelike with tack sharp lenses and hyper accurate sensors, we are snapped out of the dream. Though you’ve totally shown that the Canon color science is quite flattering right out of camera, and have definitely redeemed them in my mind (though I’m still frustrated they cripple their own affordable stuff for the upsell, as Magic Lantern has revealed).

I have no illusions that film is hanging around, and no doubt digital has opened so many doors for pretty much everyone, at any budget, but it doesn’t mean I won’t slightly mourn it on the way out.

Also, I’ve been looking for that NY Audi ad shoot I helped out on. Did it ever air?

Shane March 3, 2014 at 12:23 AM

Nathan Lee Bush, well said and thanks for sharing. It is the future, but I am shooting my next film on C500 then with one right after that on Film and C500, the combo Hybrid. Really looking forward to not having to trailblaze another system from the ground up. They canned that Audi spot, political issues in the agency.

Kahleem Poole-Tejada March 3, 2014 at 6:55 AM

Shane, I’ve been reading and watching these comparison videos all night w/ my girlfriend (who is also a fashion and portrait photographer) and we were blown away by some results. What I’m really digging are the varieties of comparisons and the standards with comparing skin tones and highlight clipping/roll-off based on real world results, not just charts.

Seriously speaking, I’d love to come join you and the crew for a Canon Magic Lantern RAW comparison for the 5DIII and 50D vs the other digital and analog emulsions. On jobs I’ve found it to be invaluable and it would possibly be great additional data for young Cinematographers looking for that high-tier step up in workflow and quality.

These are beautiful, man. Just give the word and I’m out to Cali to meet you guys haha.

Shane March 5, 2014 at 12:20 PM

Kahleem Poole-Tejada, it is great to hear from you my friend. Thank you for your kind words. I have done more test for my next feature in Pittsburgh and I am locked into shooting the C500 only in 2K from now on. 4K is dead to me. Wanted to believe it, but still not sold, shot NFS in 4K but finished in 2K to lose the video quality. We shot some test with the hack and it was very unstable, had a pink hue to all footage, then shot with the MK II hack and had great results. I am out of town until Nov. 10th on two movies back to back, the testing will have to go on the back burner.

Kahleem Poole-Tejada March 6, 2014 at 12:48 AM

Ah so you’re converted to C500 in 2k as well?!

That’s the second time that I’m hearing this preference. Rodrigo Prieto said the same thing for the Sophia Loren short film too. He’s found the C500 RAW is better due to the 12bit increased color depth, being more important than increased resolution (at 10bit).

Interesting stuff. Working with RAW more I’m finding it hard to deal with 10bit now after working on 12bit and 14bit files. It’s a very different world.

Bad-ass tests, Shane. Seriously love these.

Shane March 9, 2014 at 4:01 PM

Kahleem Poole-Tejada, but my findings were much different. The 12 BIT is bullshit, there is no added color depth what so ever. The 10 BIT and the 12 BIT you could not tell even when we stretched the image to break it. So 2K 10 BIT for me from now on, no 12 BIT.

Matt Lowery March 3, 2014 at 12:46 PM


It seems like a lot of the qualities you love about the C500 are shared with the C300. Would you agree? I ask because I shoot television, and the difference in cost between the two can usually upgrade the lenses I get to shoot with, which, in my mind, would make a far greater impact on a finished image than recording raw, at 4k, or in 12bit color (again, I shoot television).

Either way, I share your enthusiasm for the entire EOS cinema line. Thank you so much for giving back! These tests are so incredibly helpful.

Shane March 5, 2014 at 12:14 PM

Matt Lowery, yes the C300 has some of the characteristics, but not the BIT depth. Get the C500 shoot on the Gemini at 2K 10 BIT DPX files and it will blow your mind how much it looks like film. I am shooting the camera 2K from now on 4K is dead to me.

Emiliano Ranzani March 6, 2014 at 9:19 PM

Yeah, the C300 8-Bit processing it’s a true pain in the neck at times – I own one, really like it, but I know its limits.

I am trying to shoot an upcoming project on the C500 and I am aiming at shooting it in 2K (from what I’ve seen so far, it looks mighty good: the C300 without the constraints of the C300) – I am very happy to know an accomplished DP like you is going to do the same from now on. I am not fond of 4K myself (I keep thinking it’s a useless gimmick to sell a new slew of TV monitors), yet, if you don’t mind, I’d like to know your full opinion about it.

Shane March 9, 2014 at 3:54 PM

Emiliano Ranzani, the 2K out of the C500 was far superior to 4K, I will be shooting 2K from now on.

William Chandler Goodrich March 6, 2014 at 2:46 PM

Hey Shane. I loved the test. What lenses do you use when you camera test? Do you have a go to lens or do you test using all of the lenses?

Shane March 9, 2014 at 3:56 PM

William Chandler Goodrich, Panavision Primo Primes is what we used on the test, but decided to go with the Cooke S4 primes because of budget, but looking back at it, the right choice was Cooke, I love those lenses and will continue to use them over all others if it is right for the story

nikki December 29, 2014 at 11:55 AM

Hi Shane

How are you?
Last semester I had a chance to shoot on kodak 35mm for the first time…when I saw the dailies ..it was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes…
Have a Happy New Year!


Johnny Waller September 9, 2016 at 2:24 PM

Is there any improvement filming in 2K 444 with pulling the exposure out of the dark? If I exposed for skin tones, then dropped down 3 stops to save clipped areas (uncontrollable sources) in the scene? Do you think that’s why Canon recommends to expose skin tones so low so that it can protect from clipping?

Shane Hurlbut, ASC December 16, 2016 at 4:14 PM

I imagine that is it, but this should not apply to everything and they make it as an overall practice, which I find ridiculous. Underexposing the sensor is not effective.

Edward September 23, 2016 at 3:30 PM

Shane, I wanted to thank you first of all for you amazing job. Your tests are so worthy and helpful. I will definitely subscribe to your inner circle when I will find time to do that. I’ve got one question for you though: Since the price for the C500 have droppped pretty low (it costs 7000$ now) what would you pick: mini ursa 4.6k or canon c500?

Shane Hurlbut, ASC December 19, 2016 at 6:18 PM

You are very welcome and thank you for your kind words. C500 all Day my friend.


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