Review: Canon N500 PTZ Camera
This review of the Canon CR-N500 (Figure 1) is partly my personal camera journey and, partly a PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) video camera review. I’m writing it this way because I have always felt that selecting a video camera is not something that can be done in isolation from the workflows that it will be part of and the needs of the video producer.
Figure 1. The Canon CR-N500 PTZ camera
Sony Camcorder and Cine Camera Years
For the past 20 years, I was primarily a Sony shooter. Of the 27 video cameras that I have owned, 17 were Sony prosumer/professional videos cameras and I owned multiples of many. I started with a pair of PD150s and over the years, have owned the PD170, Z7U, Z5U, FS100, FS700, A7S, X70, FS5, A7Sii, FS5MKii, and Z280. As a product reviewer and regular NAB attendee, I have been fortunate enough to evaluate dozens of different video cameras.
Mostly I was a Sony guy because I started with Sony and because of the ease of mixing and matching new Sony video cameras with my existing ones, thanks to helpful preset picture profile looks for Rec. 709 in standard dynamic range productions, I stayed in the Sony camp. It wasn’t a difficult decision to stay with Sony because they made a good product that arguably all others were compared to, but over the last few years I have been feeling more and more that Sony’s new video camcorders were less aligned with my needs. Ultimately, I grew tired of all of the trade-offs.
If you have only one or two video cameras in your business at a time, then it is easier to switch brands when you see something new that you like better. By the end of 2021, my business had grown to the point that the majority of our work was multicamera livestreaming productions and we owned and operated 9 different Sony video cameras. Owning multiples of the same model meant I could shoot with wider dynamic range gammas, which was otherwise really challenging to do across different models that were from different generations, as they had different sensors, different gammas, and even the Rec. 709 PP3 preset didn’t match well.
2018 was the last year that Sony released a video camera that I was interested in: the Sony Z280. I bought two and, for a time, I was really happy with finally being able to shoot in 4K/60P, and having HD-SDI and HDMI outputs that worked at the same time. All my other Sony models were limited to 4K/30P with a HD-only 3G HD-SDI output and 4K HDMI output, of which I could only use one at a time. I have to go back an entire decade to the FS700 to the last Sony video camera I owned that allowed me to use both the HD-SDI and HDMI outputs at the same time.
Don’t even get me started with the limitation on the FS5s and X70s that, in 4K mode, wouldn’t let me record, output over HDMI, and view on the LCD or VF, at the same time. There is nothing like the feeling sitting behind the video switcher and the moment you go live, and the operator hits the record button to record in-camera, your signal goes dead. Or the conversation with the camera operator about why they cannot simply connect a camera monitor to the unused video output on the video camera.
Ultimately my issues with the Z280 in late 2021 was that as a smaller 1/2" sensor video camera (relative to the 1", Super35, and Full Frame cameras I owned), it was a noisy camera and was only really happy operated with the lens wide or mostly wide-open. It also used really expensive SxS cards or uncommon XQD cards with an obsolete SxS adapter (from 2012), and it was completely unrelated to any of the Sony cameras I owned in terms of the menu and settings. So the majority of the time we defaulted to continuing to use the Super35 sensor FS5 (2015) and FS5MKii (2018) with the Sony 28-135 f/4 power zoom cine lens and Sony 70-200 f/4 photo lens–both of which were parfocal. Having multiple cameras with different lenses meant we could get the coverage we needed but it also limited us if we needed a tighter shot on the 28-135 or a wider shot on the 70-200.
Sony didn’t stop their video camera development, but they focused it on full-frame digital cine cameras, like the A7, FX, and Venice lines, and stopped making new Super35 sensor video cameras. The full-frame Sony cameras are absolutely amazing for creative digital cine endeavors, but what I really wanted was a larger-sensor professional camcorder for my bread-and-butter multicamera live stream work. If I switched from a Super35 sensor to a full frame, it would reduce my lens reach by 50% and make my depth of field even shallower. Neither of those two worked for me so I kept waiting, until finally I gave up on Sony. I decided to start over without any consideration for the 9 Sony video cameras in my fleet that I decided to sell.
Pivoting to PTZ
COVID was a factor in my decision to start my search by first looking into PTZ cameras. The combination of distancing requirements, client preference for smaller crew sizes, and COVID causing my crew roster to shrink, made the ability to control multiple video cameras remotely even more attractive.
Previously, I reasoned that PTZ cameras really only became efficient for me when I went from 2 to 3 video cameras because on a lot of my productions, I would have one camera operator operate both a wide and a medium or close-up camera at the same time. But the more I thought about it, having the “camera operator” be a PTZ camera operator seated right next to me as the technical director/video switcher operator/sound technician/live stream technician, meant I could much more easily communicate with the camera operator and let them know what shots I wanted, without first having to wave frantically at them to get their attention, and then through a series of rehearsed hand signals, gesture the movement that I wanted, all before the opportunity passed. Yes, this is what intercom systems are for, and I own one, but not every client budget can handle this additional equipment cost and set-up time.
Initially I underestimated the efficiency of PTZ cameras. Through a discovery process, I have used several different workflows for different-sized productions with crews ranging from me on my own with multiple PTZ cameras and crews of 2 and 3. The big difference is that, rather than have my crew stand behind a camera with little to do for hours (I especially feel bad for the operators on the wide camera angles that rarely ever change), I can assign the crew to other roles, like audio, or better supporting the client or presenters.
Key PTZ Specs and Considerations
What was really important to me, coming from a background of using Super35 sensor video cameras to optimize video signal quality, was that I didn’t want a PTZ camera that produced video that looked like it was coming off of a security camera or small-sensor camcorder. I focused my efforts on 1" sensor video cameras that for me hit the right trade-off between better video quality and reduced optical zoom compared to smaller 1/3" or 1/2" class sensor options. This sensor-based selection reduced the field to the following 4 options: Panasonic AW-UE150K, Sony BRC-X1000, BirdDog P4K, and Canon CR-N500.
In Table 1 I have listed the features that stood out to me the most. The Panasonic came highly recommended to me from a few broadcaster friends who raved over its video quality. It also had the highest MSRP at $11,400, although at the time of this writing in July 2022, BH Photo is selling it for $9,995. The Panasonic can justify its price premium with a 20x lens and 4K/60P support but despite this price premium, NDI|HX is a $299 paid upgrade, and POE support is via the more power-hungry POE++ standard, which requires a more expensive POE switch.
Table 1. PTZ cam key features
Both the Sony and BirdDog 1" sensor PTZ cameras have very limiting 12x lenses, and while the Sony lacks NDI support, the BirdDog supports Full NDI in all its low latency and I-Frame codec glory. If this was a three-pony race, I feel like the Panasonic and BirdDog are priced properly and I would try to stretch my budget for the Panasonic because I know that a 12x optical zoom lens doesn’t have enough range for me. Interestingly, this author believes that all three cameras feature Sony-made 1" sensors as Panasonic ceased their own semiconductor production in late 2019 and some of their other cameras use Sony sensors, and BirdDog makes specific mention of Sony sensors as a feature.
At only $5,399, the Canon N500 is a bargain compared to the other 1" sensor PTZ video cameras. Featuring 4K/30P and NDI|HX2 support, it has a long 15x optical zoom lens and dual XLR audio inputs. Sure, it would be nice to have the 20x Panasonic lens, considering all four 1" PTZ camera lenses have the same f/2.8-4.5 maximum aperture, but for about the same cost as owning a single Panasonic UE150K after you pay for the NDI license, you can own two Canon N500s. The trade-off here is the lack of 4K/60P support but you at least the NDI|HX2 codec is a better codec with lower latency than NDI|HX. I also prefer the lower-power POE+ standard.
After I completed my initial features and cost assessment, I felt really good about the value proposition of the Canon N500, which started shipping in mid-2021. I felt even better when Canon started shipping the new XF605 camcorder in late 2021, with similar specs and features to the N500, and which satisfied my need for a professional camcorder that could shoot 4K/60P and output 12G HD-SDI. My hope was that the N500 PTZ and XF605 camcorder (Figure 2) could replace my aging fleet of Sony video cameras.
Figure 2. The Canon XF605 camcorder
Not able to arrange a demo unit of the N500, I blindly went in and bought an N500 and arranged a loan of the XF605. Both performed great and I promptly ordered 2 more N500s and 3 XF605s. It took 60 days before the order was fulfilled and during that time I sold my Sony cameras, one or two at a time, locally in Vancouver, Canada and to buyers as far away as the UK and the tiny island of Fiji. I am now a Canon shooter and am planning to acquire a fourth of each camera. Initially, I thought I would be mixing and matching them more on the same shoots but in the 6 months that I have owned them, we did this only once, but there are times I have felt it would be nice to have another video camera or two when we have multiple back-to-back projects on the go.
Marc Franklin of Franklin Creative Media talks with two technical representatives from Canon about their new PTZ camera innovations and cinema lenses in this interview from NAB 2023.
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