FILMMAKING

Award-winning cinematographers on why they choose Canon

Explore the reasons behind the popularity of Canon cameras and lenses among the 2023 Academy Award and Sundance Film Festival nominees and winners.
A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, filmed on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, showing Nikki in side profile wearing sunglasses.

A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, which explores the life and legacy of the American poet and activist. DoP Greg Harriott filmed the Sundance 2023 award-winning documentary on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, favouring its light weight and high dynamic range. © Greg Harriott

"When I choose a camera, it's about finding a balance between what will give me the highest quality image and have the least impact on the scene I'm trying to capture," says Director of Photography Greg Harriott, whose Canon-shot film Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project won a 2023 Sundance Film Festival award. "Everyone wants the most flexibility in post and all the options, but the truth is that if you shoot documentaries, you can't lug around a massive camera with all their power requirements."

For Greg, his camera of choice was the Canon EOS C300 Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C300 Mark III). It was his workhorse over the five-year production that became Going to Mars, a documentary about the celebrated American poet Nikki Giovanni that won the US Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary category at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The EOS C300 Mark II was also the camera of choice for DoP Tyler Graim, who spent four years filming Bad Press, which won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression at Sundance 2023.

In fact, a whole host of Canon kit, from Cinema EOS cameras to EOS R System bodies to Canon lenses, have been used to create many award-winning and nominated documentaries in the 2023 film awards season. The Canon EOS C500 Mark II featured in the kitbags of many cinematographers including Ben Bernhard, who shot All That Breathes on this camera, while Evgenia Arbugaeva filmed Haulout with a Canon EOS R5 and Canon RF lenses.

A still from the documentary Bad Press, filmed on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, showing a young man in a busy street holding a placard with the words 'FREE PRESS' on it.

DoP Tyler Graim used a Canon EOS C300 Mark II to film the award-winning Bad Press. The documentary charts a reporter's fight against media censorship imposed by the leaders of the Muscogee Nation, a self-governed Native American tribe in the US state of Oklahoma. © Tyler Graim

2023 Academy Award nominated films shot with Canon gear

  • Ivalu (Academy Award 2023 nominee: Best Live Action Short) – filmed using two Canon EOS C500 Mark II cameras.
  • All That Breathes (Academy Award 2023 nominee: Best Documentary Feature; BAFTA 2023 nominee: Best Documentary; Cannes 2022 winner: L'Oeil d'Or; Sundance 2022 winner: Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema Documentary) – filmed by Ben Bernhard with the Canon EOS C500 Mark II.
  • EO (Academy Award 2023 nominee: Best International Feature; Cannes 2022 winner: Jury Prize) – filmed by DoP Michal Dymek using vintage Canon K35 lenses.
  • Haulout (Academy Award 2023 nominee: Best Documentary Short) – filmed by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev on a Canon EOS R5 with Canon RF lenses.
So what makes Canon the go-to gear of choice for so many DoPs? Here Greg, Tyler, Ben and Evgenia share their reasons why Canon's cameras and lenses are the most practical choice.

1. Flexible form factors

To convey a realistic, candid feel, both Going to Mars and Bad Press included numerous vérité scenes, which were shot over the course of many years and effectively required the cinematographer to film at any time, any place. The versatile, modular design of the Canon EOS C300 Mark II, which is replicated in the EOS C300 Mark III, was key for enabling both Greg and Tyler to shoot for long periods from a range of locations.

Going to Mars melds vérité footage with archival images of pivotal moments in the history of Black Americans, live readings of Nikki's poetry and her musings on time and space. "We would often show up and just follow [Nikki] around for hours," Greg recalls. "We were trying to capture intimate and real moments. I think vérité scenes are some of the more challenging things to shoot in documentary because they're really long takes that might roll for an hour or more, and the camera needs to be in a lot of different places. You're constantly adapting to what's in front of you.

"The EOS C300 Mark II made this process easier because it is very light, but also, for that type of shooting the lens height is really important. The sense of perspective helps to translate the emotion. I'm 185cm (6ft 1in) tall, and to capture these scenes with Nikki, the camera needed to be chest height for me. Using the side handle, I could tuck it into my armpit like an American football, and it was very comfortable when shooting handheld over long periods. It's the perfect design for that type of shooting."

For All That Breathes, size and versatility were key reasons why Ben chose to shoot with the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, which he had previously bought for a Netflix production. "It's just such a versatile tool that enables you to be flexible and spontaneous," he says. "You can build the EOS C500 Mark II up for a cinematic film set shoot using a PL mount, and the next moment, you can take it all apart and have it super-small and handheld."

A man with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II on a tripod films a person standing next to a printing press reading a newspaper.

While shooting Bad Press, Tyler had to shoot in a range of locations, including this printing press. Most of the film was shot handheld, but for certain scenes he used a tripod. "I wanted to keep the footage consistent," he says. "I didn't want to switch back and forth from handheld or tripod-mounted until there was a natural transition out of it." © Conrad Beilharz

A still from Evgenia Arbugaeva's documentary Haulout, filmed on a Canon EOS R5, showing a man standing in the doorway of a hut surrounded by walruses.

In a tight space such as the hut in Haulout, Evgenia found the compact Canon EOS R5 and wide-angle RF lenses useful. © Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev

2. High dynamic range

For Tyler, moving from bright, wide-open Oklahoma landscapes into poorly-lit town halls and community centres to film Bad Press meant he needed a camera that could cope with the contrasts and still capture a full range of tones. The Canon EOS C300 Mark II delivers exceptional image quality with up to 15 stops of dynamic range.

"We decided to use Canon Log in the Cinema gamut," he says. "I wanted to be able to really bring out the colour in my scenes. I was surprised at how much detail we could pull from the highlights and shadows."

Ben described the Canon EOS C500 Mark II's Canon Log 2 curve as "lovely". It provides 15+ stops of dynamic range and a solid foundation for colour grading. "I made a custom LUT and loaded that into the camera so the director [Shaunak Sen] could always monitor the image using a preview of the final look we were working towards," he adds.

The EOS C300 Mark II's wide dynamic range was also a factor in Greg's decision to use the camera in a documentary setting. Part of the director's visual style for Going to Mars was to frame extreme close-ups, shoot through reflections and use other types of experimental shots. Greg found that his EOS C300 Mark II could always maintain the highlights, and even if he was framing something a little too bright or too dark, he knew he could adjust it in post.

Greg now uses a Canon EOS C300 Mark III with its pioneering Super 35mm DGO sensor and even better dynamic range (16+ stops) for superb highlight detail with no banding. "To be honest, I wish the EOS C300 Mark III was out when I was filming Going to Mars," he says. "Canon made some big skin tone improvements in the Mark III. I love the way colours look from this camera."

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3. Internal ND filters

Inside the Canon EOS C300 Mark II are dual ND wheels that offer users 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 stops of ND, or Neutral Density. This means it reduces the spectrum of light but does so in a neutral way without changing the colour of the light, helping to keep skin tones looking natural and colours vibrant. For Tyler, this has become a must-have feature when choosing a camera for his productions. "I love Canon colour science. That was a big part of choosing this camera," says Tyler. Greg agrees that internal ND filters are crucial for projects like these.

Similarly, Ben says of the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, "Even when the camera is stripped down, you can still take advantage of internal ND filters, dual slot recording and a Canon Log 2 curve, which all help in a documentary environment."

A close-up of the word "declined" on a sheet of white paper, showing the texture of the paper and ink, filmed with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens.

Capable of up to 5x magnification, the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo was the only lens Tyler could find that would enable him to capture the unique textures of the pulp and ink in newsprint when shot close-up. © Tyler Graim

A man with a long grey beard sits in the middle of a cluttered office surrounded by filming equipment, including a Canon EOS C300 Mark II. A second person sits on a chair out of shot facing him.

One of the features of the Canon EOS C300 Mark II that Tyler really appreciated during his filming was its removable combination 4-inch, 1.23MP monitor and control panel. In tight spaces, this allowed him to get a clear view of his scene. © Conrad Beilharz

4. Plentiful lens options

Another benefit of using Canon's Cinema EOS cameras and EOS R System bodies for film productions is the huge range of lens options available to suit any scene or need.

For Tyler, the biggest challenge when filming Bad Press was that it was a film about politics, and often this meant his subjects were stood in uninspiring, badly-lit locations. "The overhead lighting was dull, and it was difficult to make these spaces look exciting," he says. "In the end, I decided our characters were so amazing that I should let them take over. I used a lot of close-ups in these spaces, and that was a conscious choice."

Tyler was able to achieve this because of the breadth of lens options available to him. In town halls when filming public meetings, he used the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM to zoom in on the person speaking.

Greg found himself in a similar position with Going to Mars. There were so many unknowns as he followed Nikki going about her day, but he found that Canon's EF L-series zoom options allowed him to get the shot even when his movement was restricted.

"When Nikki was on stage in front of an audience, I relied on Canon L-series zooms," Greg says. He would get as close as he could with his EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, and then he'd have another camera with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens for her close-ups.

Tyler also had another challenge. Much of Bad Press is punctuated by extreme close-ups of words on newsprint, and he wanted to get ultra-close to capture the unique texture in the paper pulp. Initially, Tyler used the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM for some of the shots, but ultimately he wanted to go further than its 1x magnification would allow, so chose the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens, which is designed to capture tiny subjects.

For Haulout, Evgenia and her brother Maxim Arbugaev used several of Canon's newer, faster and brighter RF lenses including the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM, the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM and Evgenia's favourite lens, the Canon RF 24-70MM F2.8L IS USM. "In a small, confined place like the hut, I needed a wide-angle lens and 24mm is as wide as I go," she says. "The 70mm end of the lens is great for portraits and for filming the walruses, because we were so close to them – we just opened the door and there they were."

A man standing on a hillside with a Canon camera on a tripod. A sprawling city stretches into the distance behind him.

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A still from Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, showing Nikki wearing glasses while shadows cover the top and bottom of her face, leaving only her nose visible in the light.

Compared to other cameras, Greg loved using the Canon EOS C300 Mark II. "I filmed for almost four years and had so much raw footage," he says. © Greg Harriott

A woman stands at a lectern in a bookshop reading from a book in front of her. She is being filmed by a man standing at the front of the shot, using a Canon EOS C300 Mark II on a tripod.

Greg recording Nikki Giovanni during one of her poetry readings. Because his movements were restricted at these events, he would film from the back of the room with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L III USM lens mounted on his Canon EOS C300 Mark II in order to get the close-up shot he wanted. © Ayana Enomoto-Hurst

5. Workflow advantages

XF-AVC is a file format Canon developed specifically for recording 4K DCI or 4K UHD footage, and which features on Cinema EOS cameras including the EOS C300 Mark II and EOS C500 Mark II. It allows filmmakers to record high-resolution footage in a compressed format that retains fine detail and image quality in manageable file sizes. For both Greg and Tyler, whose productions stretched over many years, this was hugely important to their workflow.

"I think for documentary films or any production with a small crew, the XF-AVC codec is essential," says Tyler. "Over four years, I had a lot of footage. It was nice to be able to shoot in 4K but not be constantly burning through memory cards."

It was a similar tale for Greg. He filmed in XF-AVC, which enabled him to pack only a few spare cards to cover him for a full day's shoot. "The way Canon's codec can compress your footage but retain so much detail means a whole lot for films like this that want to be cinematic but also need to be practical," he says.

Meanwhile a feature that Ben found invaluable, particularly when filming birds in motion, was the three second pre-recording option on the EOS C500 Mark II (also available on the EOS C300 Mark III and EOS R6 Mark II). "Without pre-recording, you would run out of cards very quickly if you need to be constantly rolling to capture a moment," he says.

Award-winning films being shot on Canon kit isn't a new phenomena (as we reported on the 2020 Oscars winners and nominees and 2020 Sundance films shot on Canon). But with a growing range of features to ensure high quality 4K footage, versatility and professionalism, there are more reasons than ever for DoPs to turn to Canon cameras and lenses for film award success.

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