Canon’s new video camera sees in the dark better than your eyes can

One of the big challenges for any camera is the ability to shoot video in low light – it’s not impossible, but what you get is a grainy image that’s hard to make out. But Canon’s new ME20F-SH “multi-purpose camera” could change all that. The industrial, Full HD interchangeable lens camera can capture video with less than 0.0005 lux of illumination, which translates to an ISO sensitivity of more than 4,000,000 (that’s 4 million). To give you some sort of comparison, the latest DSLRs don’t even break 100,000.

The keyword here is “industrial,” and while this is a production camera (available in December 2015), the $30,000 camera is designed for applications like nighttime surveillance and security. In fact, the cube-shaped camera bears no resemblance to Canon’s photo and video equipment, looking more like a security camera – it doesn’t even have an LCD. But unlike security cameras that utilize CCD sensors, this high-sensitivity CMOS can deliver a brighter, clearer image. However, Canon also sees the ME20F-SH being used for film production, such as reality TV, nature and wildlife documentaries (imagine, no more green night-vision or black and white footage, but color), and cinematic situations that call for filming in extreme low light.

On the front is an EF mount with Cinema Lock (the mount itself rotates to lock the lens in, which allows for easier lens swapping) that’s compatible with a range of EF and EF-S lenses. Canon says a list of compatible lenses will be revealed closer to the ship date, and that it might even sell an adapter for its broadcast lenses. In terms of lenses, Canon has some of the best in the industry.

The capability is due to a new 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor. At 2.26 megapixels, it’s not designed for photography; it’s purely a video camera that can handle Full HD 1080, at up to 60p. But what makes it unique is that each pixel measures 19 microns, which is 7.5-times larger than the ones in Canon’s EOS 1Dx DSLR. Noise is an obvious concern when you’re talking about high sensitivity, and it’s especially so when the pixel size increases, but Canon says it’s employing proprietary technologies in the sensor and readout circuitry for noise reduction; noise won’t be completely eliminated, but it’s controlled. Canon claims the camera “allows users to discern subjects under even some of the dimmest lighting conditions, such as environments lit by artificial illumination or under a moonless night sky.”

This screen grab from a previous video from Canon shows what the ultra-high-sensitivity sensor can achieve. The image is from an earlier prototype, not the production model.
This screen grab from a previous video from Canon shows what the ultra-high-sensitivity sensor can achieve. The image is from an earlier prototype, not the production model. Canon Inc.

For filmmaking purposes, the ME20F-SH has Canon Log and Wide DR, “which make possible a wide dynamic range, delivering high-image-quality video results across a range of illumination environments, from low- to brightly lit conditions,” similar to its Cinema EOS filmmaking cameras, Canon says. On the camera, there are ports for 3G/HD-SDI and HDMI (for external recorders and monitors, since the camera doesn’t have a built-in card reader or display), remote controller, microphone, and other pro-level video and audio equipment. Exposure and white balance settings are automatic.

For Canon followers, if the technology sounds familiar, it’s because the sensor was revealed back in 2013. Developed specifically for video recording, the sensor is sensitive enough to record a meteor shower, a room lit only by the light of an incense stick, or the glow from a firefly. At the time, Canon said the sensor would be useful for astronomical and natural observation and medical research, in addition to security and surveillance, but it’s now branching out to include filmmaking. Canon didn’t release any sample video with this announcement, but you can watch these samples from an earlier prototype. Although this isn’t a consumer product, it’s an indication of where sensor technologies are heading, in terms of ISO sensitivity.

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