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In Depth Tests: Arri Alexa vs. Canon C500

  • October 24, 2013
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
In Depth Tests: Arri Alexa vs. Canon C500

Arri Alexa vs. Canon C500


In this corner, weighing 13.7 lbs. and a height of 13 inches and boasting 2.8K imagery, The Arri Alexa!!!!!
In the other corner, weighing 6 lbs. and a height of 7 inches displaying 4K capture, The Canon C500!!!!

When we started prep on Need for Speed, the Director Scott Waugh wanted me to do an extensive camera test of all of the possible players on the market so that we could find the visual voice of Need for Speed. This was a daunting task to pull off. Zacuto had done the Great Camera shootout. I loved the in-depth tests that the experienced cinematographers had put them through. However, when you are going for a specific look, these tests need to be done internally so that you can personally see which camera sensor responds best with the specific way that you expose.

Arri Alexa – shot with Arri RAW 2.8K and Codex S Recorder
Canon C500 – shot with Canon RAW 4K and Codex S Recorder

“Digital Emulsions”

I compare digital camera sensors to film emulsions. The reason a cinematographer selects a specific camera for their film is the look and feel of the sensor and their lenses, not because they are under contract with them. The choice is made based on the fact that they love the way the sensor delivers their vision, which helps create their art.

My favorite film stock to use is Kodak. Out of the 17 films that I have shot in my career, 15.25 were shot on Kodak film stock. I embraced Canon back in the spring of 2009 because it was the right tool to tell the story on Act of Valor. When viewing our tests, the Canon color space on the big screen felt like Kodak. For the first time, in my opinion, the digital image looked organic. It looked cinematic. I believe you choose whatever sensor is best for the story and that may mean incorporating multiple cameras. One thing that I pride myself in is the integration of using multiple formats to tell your story and with that using what each digital sensor does best. This is paramount. It is not one size fits all!!

In this blog, you are about to embark on a journey of my discovery, not someone else’s. That is as unbiased as I can be. I will describe the subtle details in narration so that it is a much more immersive experience. I know that these images are not in 2.8K and 4K for your review, but we are limited by the internet. I think the details that I am pointing out still shine in HD. These extensive tests between the Arri Alexa and the C500 were conducted over three days with seven other cameras. We will be keeping up the comparison tests once a month. Here is the first of a three part series on the Alexa vs. the C500.

The Camera Test Line Up
The Camera Test Line Up
The Arri Alexa
The Arri Alexa
The C500
The C500
Shane taking a meter reading
Shane taking a meter reading


Day ISO Tests

The first test is our ISO range in the daytime. I like to do these tests both in the day and at night. With the daytime ISO test, you can really see the digital noise that would not be as apparent during the night because it can be masked in the blacks, aka the darkness of night. Look at the grey card, the shadow in the trees behind them and the shadow areas on their faces for the digital noise as we crank up the ISOs on each camera. Also look at the color chart to see how it holds its color as you increase your ISO levels and the contrast levels increase on their faces.

C500 ISO


I found that as we increased the Alexa’s ISO, it built more contrast in the blacks. The C500 seemed to do the same but not as extreme. We noticed that the bit depth color on the C500 seemed really thin once we got over 4000 ISO, which is still pretty impressive. We made this our top end, if we had to go there. But the highest we really wanted to go on the C500 with night exteriors and night interior cars would be at 1600 to 2000 ISO. All the lights on the street seemed to respond well to these levels and felt balanced.


side by side ISO

Back Light Tests

This was more of a skin tone test, looking at both cameras’ color space and how it handled the subtle nuances of different skin tones on a face. The Alexa skin tone looked very creamy and beautiful; however, it did not see the subtle blue sky ambiance on the shadow side of her face. Nor did it show the subtle details of her different skin tones like the C500 did.


Alexa back light

Alexa backlight
C500 backlight

C500 backlight

Overall, both cameras looked amazing, but Scotty really responded to the natural look of the C500 skin tones for this project. This test was a major factor in our decision to shoot with the C500. The look felt softer even though it was sharper, if that makes sense. The C500 we made our A camera when it was with our actors and their faces. The Arri Alexa became our C action camera, high speed camera car camera, and our extreme contrast situation camera – again using the best aspects of the sensor to its advantage.

side by side backlight

Dynamic Range

This test was very interesting. I wanted to test the sensor not shooting with its native ISO, which gives you the most dynamic range of the camera to see how it performed. This was a test that the Alexa cleaned up on. It had amazing range and skin tone and BIT depth no matter what ISO you shot it at below 800. It held all the backlit cloud detail and did not blow out in a video looking way. It was creamier in its overexposed areas.

Alexa ISO

Alexa dynamic range

I loved the minimal noise level at 320 ISO. I felt that this matched the Kodak 5201 daylight stock that I had used frequently in the past. It has much tighter grain. At 160, the contrast was beautiful as well. On Need for Speed, we shot 320 ISO during day exteriors and then 800 ISO for day interiors. The C500 at 850, its native and its most dynamic range, could barely hold the backlit cloud detail. The minute you went to 640 ISO, the clouds completely blew out and when they blew out, they felt very video looking in the blow out.

C500 dynamic range

C500 dynamic range

Where the Alexa felt cleaner was in its highlights. This is where both Scotty and I decided to make the Alexa our C camera for car action scenes that took place during the day. I knew that it would give me the wiggle room that we would need if we went into overcast conditions. If the exposure was a little under or a little over, it would handle it. The C500 seemed like you had to be very exacting. That is what we do as cinematographers. We are exacting but having a little wiggle room for mother nature kicking our ass is always a good thing.

Alexa and C500 dynamic range

Fill Ratio

This is a test I like to do because it gets you in the head space of what fill levels your camera sensor responds to on a face. I lit the model more with a side light so that we could see the fill level better. I started at -2 stops down from the key light on the fill side, which is the camera left side of her face. Then I took the level down in 1/2 stop increments so that you can see where you would keep your fill if it were a woman and or a man. I did this using a Sekonic light meter so that it was accurate.

Alexa -2.5 stops

C500 -2.5 stops

I like -2.5 stops on our model and I thought a guy could easily handle -3.5 stops on the fill side.

Alexa -3.5 stops

C500 -3.5 stops

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. The creamy skin of the Alexa reigned true, and the C500 seemed to energize the subtle cool fill light much more than the Alexa, but overall you could cross cut these cameras very easily.

Alexa and C500 fill ratio

What I really took away from this test was that it is absolutely essential to use the right camera sensors to tell your story and showcase their best features. Next week the Alexa and C500 will go at it again with another round of testing.

Buy the Canon C500:

Buy the Arri Alexa:

Visit Vimeo to watch these videos in 1080p.

Read part two of this post.


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