We’ve seen a dramatic rise in the low-light capabilities of cameras in recent years, but nothing quite as impressive as the Canon ME20F-SH Professional Multi-Purpose Video Camera. Featuring a 2.26MP full-frame CMOS sensor, the camera captures up to 1080p color footage in extreme low-light environments at a maximum ISO of 4560000. You read that correctly—that’s an ISO of more than 4 million. With that kind of sensitivity, the ME20F-SH can quite literally see in the dark without the need for infrared lighting, delivering images that need to be seen to be believed. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities for wildlife and nature documentaries, astrophotography, deep sea and cave exploration, reality TV productions, and security/surveillance.
The astonishing low-light sensitivity of the ME20F-SH is made possible by a 20 x 36mm full-frame CMOS sensor with a native 2.26MP resolution. This gives the sensor enough resolution to deliver 1080p video while at the same time yielding massive individual pixels that are 19 microns in size. Compare that to the 8.4 micron pixels of the Sony a7S II and you can begin to understand just how large they are. The ability of each pixel to absorb light, combined with a Canon DIGIV DV4 processor and proprietary noise-reduction technologies, results in a low-light sensitivity of 0.0005 lux at its maximum ISO (+75 dB gain).
Interfaces and Connectivity
To support its “multi-purpose” designation, the camera is compact, lightweight, and minimalist in design. It doesn’t record internally or have any built-in display, so all recording and video monitoring must be done externally. For interface with external monitor and recorders, the camera features two 3G/HD-SDI outputs and one HDMI output, which support 1080p, 1080i, and 720p video at 23.98, 25, 29.97, 50, and 59.94 frame rates. Additional connectivity is provided for remote control, Genlock, and power. For in-the-field operation, the camera pairs well with a combination monitor/recorder, such as the Atomos Shogun. The output signals are 10-bit, though it is important to note that the image processor only supports 8-bit color depth, so you’re getting 8-bits of effective color information wrapped in a 10-bit signal.
The ME20F-SH is equipped with a rugged, Cinema-Lock EF lens mount similar to the one found on Canon’s C500 Cinema EOS camera, making the camera compatible with the wide range of Canon EF zoom and prime lenses, as well as Canon’s range of Cinema Primes. A 12-pin Hirose lens-control port provides support for select Canon servo lenses or 2/3" broadcast lenses (using a third-party lens adapter).
Other features carried down from Canon’s Cinema EOS cameras include Canon Log and Wide DR gamma profiles to support up to 12 stops of dynamic range by minimizing the loss of shadow detail and overexposure in the highlights. The availability of these gamma settings also allows footage from the camera to be intercut seamlessly with the Canon Cinema EOS cameras, making the ME20F-SH a viable option as a specialized, ultra-low-light B camera. Now, when the script calls for a moon-lit scene, you may just be able to get away with actual moonlight as your key light, which is pretty mind-blowing when you think about it.
So, just how good is the camera’s low-light performance? In the video below, we shot three nighttime scenes and manually increased the gain in half-stop increments from 0 dB (ISO 800) to 75 dB (ISO 4560000). All shots were made using the available lighting of the environment, which comes from buildings, street lights, and the moon. To give a sense of how dark it actually was, for the shots of the George Washington Bridge taken from Fort Tryon Park, I had to use a flashlight to set up the camera and adjust settings. Needless to say, it was dark—especially by Manhattan standards.
Astonishing low-light images
The results of the above video gives us a good sense of what this camera can do, which is deliver remarkably clean images at high ISOs. It should come as no surprise that as the ISO level increases, so too does the amount of image noise. What is remarkable is just how high you can go with only minimal image noise present. And even when noise becomes more prominent, the fact that you can still make out details and color is impressive. For cinema productions, I’d feel comfortable shooting at as high as ISO 51,200 (+36 dB), but documentarians can definitely push that further, depending on their noise tolerance, perhaps as high as ISO 204,000 (+48 dB).
Another thing I noticed while cycling through the ISO steps was that some ISOs appear much cleaner than other ISOs around them. It appears that the ME20F-SH, like many Canon DSLRs I’ve used, have certain “native” ISOs, with the other ISO steps the result of either a digital exposure push from a lower ISO, or a digital exposure pull from a higher ISO. The native ISOs are, naturally, cleaner than the exposure pushes, with the exposure pulls the cleanest of all. This isn’t uncommon, but just be aware that the camera definitely has some ISO sweet spots that you may want to aim for.
Shooting in daylight
While optimized for low-light sensitivity, the camera functions well for daytime shots, too. To help you shoot at its base ISO of 800, the camera is equipped with two built-in neutral density filters, a three-stop (ND 1/8) and a 6-stop (ND 1/64). Additionally, the camera features a removable IR cut filter. During the daytime, this filter blocks unwanted infrared light to prevent IR pollution and maintain accurate color reproduction. When working in extreme low-light environments, you can retract the IR cut filter, too, for enhanced sensitivity and clarity, letting you identify objects more accurately within a scene. This is a mode that could prove particularly useful for security work.
As impressive as the ME20F-SH is, it really is more of a specialized tool for select shots and applications. Due to the minimalist design, operating it in the field definitely takes some rigging. Fortunately, with 1/4"-20 and 3/8"-16 threads on top of and under the camera, it’s easy to add the accessories you need. In addition to an external monitor/recorder, you’ll want to add a base plate with rod support so you can add handles and a shoulder pad for any handheld work. Additionally, the rods allow you to add a rod-mounted V-Mount or Anton Bauer battery plate, as the camera doesn’t have a battery slot/compartment, but rather 11-17V DC 4-pin XLR and terminal block two-pin power inputs. A P-Tap to four-pin XLR power cable running from the battery plate or the battery itself to the camera does the trick.
The sound and the settings
"What is remarkable is just how high you can go with only minimal image noise present."
The ME20F-SH doesn’t have a built-in microphone, so if you want to capture audio while shooting with the camera, then you’ll need to record either off-board and sync to a slate in post, or plug an external microphone into the camera’s 3.5mm stereo mini input. The intended applications of the camera make the lack of an onboard microphone not overly important. But, if you do need to capture audio when shooting with the camera, then this is something to be aware of.
For settings adjustment and menu navigation, the camera features rear buttons and a joystick; but remember that you need an external monitor to see and adjust your settings. When monitoring, your settings are displayed at the bottom of the image, with the joystick letting you toggle and manually adjust settings, such as shutter speed, aperture, and white balance. When you’re ready to record, you can turn the displays off for a clean image. If you want to keep your displays active while also recording a clean image, then you’ll have to use the HDMI or 3G-SDI monitoring output to send a signal to your monitor, and the secondary always-clean 3G-SDI output to send to a recorder. When operating in the field, you’ll often be using a single monitor/record unit, so you’ll have to turn off your displays before recording.
Auto functions and versatility
In addition to manual controls, the ME20F-SH offers auto iris and gain functions for exposure control, as well as One-Shot AF and auto white balance. This lets you capture footage on the fly without having to worry about fumbling with the rear buttons or having to worry about turning your settings on and off. It is also ideal for when the camera is in more permanent installations, such as when used for security/surveillance purposes. For studio use, the camera can also be controlled remotely using the optional RC-V100 Remote Controller via the 2.5mm mini output, or a compatible third-party control unit via RS-422 using 8-pin remote connector.
The Canon ME20F-SH presents itself as a unique tool for a wide range of applications. Part cinema camera, part surveillance tool, part studio camera, the camera is ready to serve anyone who wants to capture images in extremely dark conditions without having to sacrifice color or resort to infrared lighting and sacrifice nature color reproduction. While it isn’t necessarily meant to be an “A” camera for most productions, I’m sure wildlife and nature documentarians, cave and deep-sea videographers, and astrophotographers in particular, will be champing at the bit to try out the camera. With its ability to capture previously impossible shots, the ME20F-SH could help reinvent the very look and feel of ultra-low-light videography. Exciting times are ahead.