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At 4 million ISO, Canon's multipurpose camera can shoot real-time video in starlight

When it comes to star photography, long exposures are the go-to method for revealing the details of the night sky and the colors of the Milky Way. But these exposures can range from several seconds to an hour or more, which does not work very well for video unless it is a time lapse. Photographer and filmmaker Ben Canales, however, likes to experiment with the crazy-high ISO — light-sensitivity — capabilities of the latest cameras, and for his most recent project, he put Canon’s unique ME20F-SH Multi-Purpose camera to the test by filming a real-time video of the Perseid meteor shower.

“A couple years ago, I got fixated on the question of: ‘When will we be able to record video of the stars?’” Canales told Digital Photography Review. “I saw the continual progress of sensor quality in my long exposures, and figured it was only a matter of time before ISO performance gets so good the shutter speed can be taken down to video frame rates.”

The ME20F-SH was introduced a little over a year ago and boasts a maximum ISO setting of four million thanks to its Super 35mm sensor (roughly the size of Advanced Photo System type C) that uses just 2.26 megapixels. That is not only enough to capture full HD 1080p resolution, but it means each individual pixel is enormous, as far as pixels go: 19 microns. That is anywhere from about five to eight times larger than the pixels on a typical DSLR or mirrorless camera.

As larger pixels gather more light, the ME20F-SH  can see in conditions so dim that even the human eye has trouble. This made it the perfect tool for Canales to try out at the annual Oregon Star Party, a gathering of some 600 or so astronomers and curious stargazers at central Oregon’s Hancock Field Station.

Related: Shooting the Night Sky with the GoPro Hero4

While the camera may be capable of four million ISO, Canales kept it to a much more conservative 400,000. Coincidentally or not, this matched the ISO setting he had previously used in the same conditions on a Sony A7S II, which uses a larger, full-frame sensor, but has a 12-megapixel resolution that means its pixels are still smaller.

As far as comparing the Canon to the Sony, Canales said it was no contest: “Hands down —  nothing can currently touch this camera’s ability to shoot in low light. Trust me. I’ve obsessively tried them all.”

However, the ME20F-SH will not be the first choice for amateur astronomers or photographers. While its name bears the term “multi-purpose,” it is quite a niche product, targeting specific use cases in cinema production, as well as the government and security markets. Its paltry resolution is not great for normal work, it is not the easiest camera to use, and it carries a price tag of $20,000.

Still, it is interesting to see how far the low-light ability of digital cameras has come. The fact that we can see real-time video shot under starlight (that isn’t completely destroyed by noise) is pretty mind-blowing.

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