Review: First take on the Canon 5D Mark II


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Let me make one thing perfectly clear: This is not a video camera. So don’t expect it to do the same things your video camera does. It is, however, one killer full-frame DSLR that shoots some spectacular hi-def video. And that’s enough for me.

Canon 5D Mark II

Canon 5D Mark II

As a staff photojournalist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, I plan for the 5D MK II to replace my video camera. The advantages this camera will give me outweigh it’s weaknesses.

Our Canon rep, Mary Mannix, was in town and let me take the camera on a shoot for an evening. Many of us have seen sneak peeks at the capabilities of the camera in video mode, but I wanted to see what it could do with a typical assignment for our paper and website.

Now, obviously we’re all interested in this camera for it’s potential to serve our two masters (web and print). We not only want to use one kind of camera, but also want high quality video and the ability to use lenses we already know and love. We want speed, ease of use, and to be comfortable with the gear. It’s enough of a burden to learn how to tell our stories in video – but learning the very different language of video (as it relates to equipment) gives me a brain overload. I just don’t want to go there.

And that’s why I like this camera – I’m comfortable with it. And with the shallow depth of field, brilliant color and great blacks even in terrible light, it has me excited about shooting video for once. For those of you who know me, you probably sense that while I’ve embraced the web as a great publishing tool, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to embrace the video camera. I often shot video because I had to, not because I wanted to. This camera, for now at least, has turned that around 180 degrees.

Now, understand that I’ve really only used it in the video mode. I can’t speak much about the still image capability or quality, but what images I did see were most excellent at the high ISO range. I did pull some frame grabs and they looked fantastic compared to the XH-A1 I’ve been using. But more on that below.

The nitty gritty.

I’ll try to outline the pros and cons I discovered in the short time I had it. My opinions, though, are based on limited instructions and no user manual. That’s kind of a good thing since I could get an idea of how intuitive it is to use. But, some of the disadvantages I found might be user error or just lack of knowing the capabilities.

Camera Operation

It’s an easy camera to use. It’s just like the 1st gen. 5D. To use the video mode, you simply press the live-view button and press the set button to begin recording. Some things to note, though: You can’t see anything in the viewfinder while live-view is active (mirror is up), so you have to monitor your recording using the LCD display. Not necessarily a terrible thing, but it will affect stability since the usual third point of contact (our head) is gone. I will say that image stabilization is going to be a big help. In this video, I only used the tripod for the interviews. I hand held all the rest. Everything was shot with the 24-105 f/4 IS lens. More on using video mode at Canon’s site here.

Battery gets drained super fast when shooting video. And CF cards fill up fast. Make sure to have an extra battery and some 8GB cards at the minimum.

DOF and Video Exposure

Gotta love that shallow depth of field. It’s something that really drove me crazy with my video camera. There are limitations, though. The video shoots at a maximum of 1/125th of a second. That means that if you are shooting in any kind of bright light, then you’re going to find it tough to be shooting at 1.8. Try keeping some ND filters in your bag. I’m hearing that you may be able to put a 52mm screw-type ND filter into the “Drop in Screw Filter holder” or a ND gelatin filter into the “Drop-in Gelatin Filter Holder II” into a 300 f/2.8.

The exposure while recording video is automatically chosen by the camera. That’s going to drive a few people crazy. But remember, it’s NOT A VIDEO CAMERA. The camera chooses how to make the exposure based on three things: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture (in that order, if I remember correctly). So if you set your aperture at 2.8, the camera will change the ISO first, then the shutter speed and try to keep you at 2.8 or as close as possible.

So you want to have some manual control over the exposure? Well, you have to do that using the exposure compensation buttons. And to keep the exposure stable, you must use the exposure lock function. Otherwise, when someone with a white shirt walks through your frame, for example, the exposure will change while you are shooting.

So again, while you can’t have complete manual control over exposure, you can use a combination of ND filters, exposure compensation and exposure lock to get you where you need to be.

Autofocus

The autofocus is going to be the subject of much debate with this camera in video mode. Frankly, we’re just going to have to learn how to work around it for now. While it is possible to autofocus while recording, you really don’t want to do that. Focus first, then shoot.

Audio

I didn’t shoot any video using the on-board mic, so I can’t speak to that. I did use a Sennheiser mini shotgun mic MKE 400 that slid on the hot shoe. I didn’t care for the sound quality too much and I plan to test out a few more like it before buying one. What I was pleasantly surprised with was the Sennheiser wireless lav mic.

While you can’t monitor the audio (one of the biggest shortcomings of the camera, IMO), I guess I got lucky with the settings on my lav. It sounded a bit hot to me at times and it appears like there is some automatic sound leveling going on in the camera – I may turn down the mic the next time I use it.

The BeachTek adapter may be a good answer to these problems, but I don’t have one and haven’t tested it myself.

Handhold vs. Tripod

I am a late convert to the sticks, people. This camera is no worse and no better than a regular video camera, so stability is crucial. You are NOT going to be able to go hand held all the time. I found the IS lens I used to help tremendously, but will only go so far. But what is going to be a lot of fun down the road will be mounting the camera in various locations.

Workflow

Well, this one is going to be a major stumbling block for some. Eliminating tape is certainly appealing to me. Who doesn’t love drag and drop file transfer? But if I have to transcode the files into something more editing-friendly, then I’ve lost that convenience. Apple, Canon, someone, please help us out here and do something to make these files easier to edit!

Here’s the deal, as best I can understand it: The files from the camera are in h.264 format (in other words, they appear as a .mov file and are encoded using h.264 codec). Well, h.264 is a great codec for display and distribution, but not for editing. Once I finally got my Final Cut Pro working with the files, I still am having to tolerate some dropped frames on playback. I won’t be exporting out of the timeline in the h.264 format, either.

I’ll run through my setup and what I had to do to get it going so far. I have a Mac Book Pro that’s about two years old. It’s a 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2GB RAM. My hard drive has been upgraded lately to 360GB, 7200 rpm. I was running Tiger and finally realized that the 10.4.x OS wasn’t getting it done for me. I couldn’t even play two seconds of video before it would stall. After upgrading to Leopard, I’m finally able to use my laptop. It’s important to make sure that your FCP and quicktime are up to date. We ran a quick test on another laptop in the department and found that the files were mostly editable in Final Cut Express as well.

Now many folks who have been testing the video files from the 5D MK II are suggesting that they be transcoded/recompressed before you begin editing. Again, I find that a ridiculous concept for me and completely negates the gain of shooting to a compact flash card. I want ease of use, speed, and simplicity. I want fewer hoops to jump through, not more. I want things to work fast and I need to be as mobile as possible. External hard drives are a luxury.

If you want to learn how to transcode the files before you edit, here’s a good link for you (with a very thorough review). I may make recompressing part of my workflow on medium to long-term pieces, but I think it’s essential for daily work that I be able to edit in h.264 on my laptop without an external hard drive.

Here are some tips that might help if you chose to edit in h.264

The first time you drag a clip into the timeline, you may get a message from FCP suggestion that you change the timeline settings to match your clip. You should agree to that and let FCP change it for you.

Then, go into User Preferences/General and UNcheck the box next to “Report dropped frames during playback”. If you get a notice every time a frame is dropped, you’ll never get anywhere during playback in the timeline. Expect to see some skipping and dropped frames while editing, but I found it tolerable and they weren’t there after export. Most of the dropped frames happen for me at the beginning of each clip – in other words, when the playhead has moved to the next clip there is a bit of a stutter.

In System Settings/Playback Control, I have the following:
RT: Unlimited
Video quality: low
Frame Rate: Dynamic
Pulldown Pattern: 2:3:2:3
Gamma Correction: Accurate
Frame offset: 4
Record: Use Playback settings

I initially had some trouble with transitions and lower thirds. They would play fine in the timeline, but on export, the video would just completely wig out on playback when it would hit those spots. Originally, I was exporting to quicktime movie, using current settings. So that amounted to taking an h.264 video and coding it again in h.264. Apparently that wasn’t a good thing. After I exported again to quicktime movie, but this time changing current settings to the Apple ProRes 422 1920 x 1080 60i 48kHz (not the HQ version), the transitions came out fine. I used that big file (2.5 GB for 3 minute of video) as my master to encode further for the web.

Frame Grabs

The frame grabs from this camera are really quite nice. I did a couple of tests in our office before I went to the boxing gym and they appeared to me to be quite an improvement over the Canon XH-A1 video camera. The frame grabs from the gym displayed here are pretty much a worse-case scenario. The light was mixed, it was dark, and there was some movement by the subjects. The ISO was in the 3200-6400 range. I would have never expected to get a usable frame grab under these circumstances with the XH-A1. As you can see, though, there is little-to-no detail in the blacks.

If you are shooting video and want to shoot a full-res photo (you know, the real pictures the 5D MK II is built to give us), you can do that simply by pressing the shutter button. But, here’s what happens: the video is recording, you shoot a photo, the camera stops recording video, captures the photo and writes it to disk, then the video continues to record. You are left with a one second gap in your video.

Couple other quick notes that people have asked about this video: The light on the interviews was from a couple of halogen industrial/construction lights that were already in the gym. I turned them to face the wall to give me a 12-foot soft box of sorts. The flickering light occasionally visible in the background is from a florescent tube in the ceiling that was going bad. I used auto white balance on the interviews and wish now I had set a custom white balance. The other shots were on the florescent white balance. The footage in this video has not been color corrected, graded, etc.  in any way.

Having said all that, please remember that this is just my experience during the last week or so. I’d welcome further tips and news that would speed up or smooth out the workflow, the audio in the camera or anything else people can come up with.

Many thanks to HL reporter Amy Wilson who wrote and narrated the piece – she broke her voiceover maiden on this one and did a fantastic job.

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40 Responses to “Review: First take on the Canon 5D Mark II”

  1. I have read on the NPPA newspaper video list that the camera does have auto level controls on the sound. If you’re getting sound distortion at high volume it may be because the microphone is set for too much sensitivity (I think the 400 MKE has a hi-lo switch, try low) or has a low sound pressure (SPL) rating. Using an XLR converter and a mic with a high SPL rating, like the Sanken CS1, might help, although you’d have to provide power for the mic (the Sanken does not have an in-line battery built in). You can also run an XLR mic off the Sennheiser wireless. There’s an XLR connector that comes with the transmitter.

  2. Ken Harper says:

    Thanks for the great review brother. Love the video you shot as well, nice flavor.

  3. [...] Update: David shares his experience shooting with the Canon 5D MKII [...]

  4. mophojo says:

    Here’s a mic test including the on-board mic, the Rode stereo video mic and the Sennheiser mke 400

    http://vimeo.com/2451215

  5. mitch says:

    Wow – this is some great video and a wonderful story filling in how you used the camera. We’ve added it to the 5d wiki http://tinyurl.com/5wagpv – thank you so much for sharing this story!

  6. Zeke says:

    Thanks for the great write up. I guess I’ll be recoding until they work it out. :( Oh well.

  7. Barry Gutierrez says:

    David……Wow! you continue to impress me. Thank you for the awesome video. Your skill as a communicator is only improving with the technology. You inspire me.

  8. Rhea says:

    I read your post over on Vimeo that the sound you recorded was from a wireless lav with the receiver in the camera. WOW!!.

  9. mophojo says:

    @Rhea,
    Yeah, I feel like I got lucky with that one working as well as it did. Likely the auto sound leveling in the camera helped me out there. The wireless lav is going to be a great tool to use with the camera, esp. if you don’t want to or can’t record to a separate device.

  10. Kirk Schlea says:

    Great job on the video! That could have run on any TV station news show anywhere! All your input was excellent (as usual). Also, I really liked the light on the faces for the interviews. Nice and warm compared against the gym background.

  11. Randy Eli Grothe says:

    David,

    As far as the sound, did you try it with a shotgun or ambient mike, I’m getting a lot of camera noise with my Sennheisers going through a Beachtek.

    Randy Eli Grothe
    The Dallas Morning News.

  12. David Duncan says:

    The video is great,

    This might work on the camera, to monitor your audio one can use the AV out cord with a 1/8th to Dual RCA Y -Adapter (stereo) and a 1/8th coupler female to female (stereo) to plug in the headphones. I just bought this at Radio Shack for under $20 dollars for a video camera that does not have a headphone jack, it work great.

  13. mophojo says:

    Mr. Duncan,

    Have you tried this on the 5D yet? I plugged the AV out cord that came with the camera into the AV out port and the video monitor turned off – I’m not sure how this would work on the 5D. If you get it figured out, please be sure to report back!

  14. Thanks, David, for all of the insight. Thanks for your help earlier today on the phone.

    What a beautiful piece! Our Canon rep tells me that Beachtek is working on an audio adapter for the 5D Mark II, so you might want to wait for that purchase. Also, perhaps you realize this, but you can change the sensitivity on your Sennheiser lav mic’s transmitter. Try to keep the mic the same distance from each subject’s mouth. One friend suggested placing it based on a woman’s blouse (no collar) and try to place in the same spot for men. This way, you shouldn’t have to often change the sensitivity unless you’ve got a really loud or soft spoken subject.

    The Lacie Rugged Drive is a portable drive that’s not too expensive.
    http://www.lacie.com/products/product.htm?pid=10821

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    Thanks!,

    James

  15. David Duncan says:

    mophojo,

    I have not tried it. This was a work around that works with a video camera that I have that was not built with the headphone jack for some reason. Beachtek would be the better pick if they are building one.

  16. Don Barker says:

    David,
    Great review of a awesome product.

  17. Our area Canon rep was in town and allowed me to play with the 5D MII for a few minutes. My vid’s not anything as cool as David’s, but it was great to finally touch one!

    I’m impressed with the ISO and image quality; a little concerned with focusing on moving subjects and thoroughly disappointed that Canon did not have the foresight to include a headphone jack for monitoring audio levels. Heelllllooooooooooo? Maybe they were so excited over adding such awesome video, they just overlooked it, but we sure could use it! I guess we’ll hope Beachtek comes through with a solution soon. Hint. Hint.

    Does anyone know if there’s a current solution? Each shoot will be a gamble without an adapter that allows us to monitor audio. I watched the levels on my Sennheiser receiver during the brief shoot and for the most part, the end result was okay; but that’s really not enough.

  18. Greg J says:

    David,

    Excellent video, the first one I’ve seen that looks great and tells a story.

    May I get your opinion?

    I’m an indie filmmaker, more on the writing/directing side than shooting, but I do have a Canon XHA1 (like you) for my 9-5 job as a one-man video department for a small company. I want to ask you if you think the Mark II would be good for guerilla filmmaking in public places? I know the sound isn’t great, but I probably wouldn’t use it for dialog scenes, anyway. I’d love to just move through the city subways, streets, shops, busses, etc., grab some filmic footage of my two actors, for example, and, with no lighting crew needed, go pretty much unnoticed.

    My guess is this camera could be great for that but I wanted to check with an experienced user. I really like my XH A1, but it’s not inconspicuous and its filmic quality doesn’t compare to the Mark II.

    Would love to hear your opinion. Thanks again for sharing your inspiring video!

  19. mophojo says:

    Greg,

    Between the two cameras, I definitely think the 5d Mk II would be a more subtle camera. Kind of depends on whether or not you use a tripod. If you can use an IS lens on the mkII it would help keep you a little more mobile.

    I’m hoping some folks come up with some affordable steady cams or DIY system that will work well with this camera, too. The 5dMKII should also help solve some location lighting problems for you. I think it will handle the lower light better than the xh-a1.

    Good luck!

  20. Greg J says:

    Yes, this camera, with its small size and low light capabilities, can make nearly any location a movie set. Thanks for weighing in, David.

    “Rocky” is a great looking, wonderfully-told story. I look forward to more.

  21. [...] Stephenson over at mophojo.com gives the best info and example for photojournalist on what the new Canon 5D can and can’t do [...]

  22. jim says:

    First off, I cannot believe you shot this in one night. That’s very impressive. What a magical story to document. The setting alone is right out of a movie.

    Thanks for the review. I was able to play with a 5DMKII for about 20 minutes and find your review right on the mark (no pun intended) as to the strengths and limitations of this camera. It’s first gen and will only get better.

    When announced I thought this could be the ultimate Platypus machine, but it’s more suited to the “This American Life” documentary/cinematic type of shooting. Run and gun PJ video is not it’s strength.

    I with there was a way to do the equivalent of SRAW with video. Having the option to shoot at half size would make for a nice option.

    Again, stunning use of the camera while telling a great story.

  23. Josh Johnson says:

    Love the review. I thought the audio on the interview section was very impressive. I’ve not messed with that yet. I got my mark ii on monday and made this little movie in the plane on tuesday. I LOVE THIS CAMERA! :-) http://joshjohnsonphoto.blogspot.com/ I can’t wait to see where this camera takes us all in the next few years. Thanks again for taking the time to show us this. Great story telling and in the end that’s what it’s all about in my opinion.

    • mophojo says:

      Thanks Jim, and your right – run and gun pj’s will find themselves frustrated. I had a shoot with it yesterday and found that it slowed me down a bit, which really ended up being a good thing.

  24. [...] reporter Amy Wilson and me. It’s our second story using voice-over (the other one being about Rocky, the young boxer). These videos are so much more complete with Amy’s writing and [...]

  25. Chuck Olsen says:

    This is the first time I’ve seen a review by someone in the field, telling short documentary stories – exactly what I do. The video is amazing! Thanks for all the detail about the lighting and post-production. Hard to believe that lighting was from industrial lights bounced off a wall, it looks fantastic. I’m sold. :-)

  26. LOUI says:

    How can o increase the shutter speed? the high i can get is 1/40 of the second
    so video come very choppy

    thanks

  27. mophojo says:

    I thought I’d add another good review to the list here from Dirck Halstead at The Digital Journalist

    http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0811/the-canon-5d-mark-ii.html

  28. Ken Jones says:

    I just adjusted your unaltered frame grab in Photoshop to see if there was detail in the blacks. I am happy to say that there is detail. Try it out. The histogram looks like a U shape. This is strange, but there is detail in that contrasty picture. I wonder how much a Schneider 4×4 Digicon filter will help. Oops I did say 4×4, doubt if you plan on running around with a matte box anytime soon.

    Fantastic review. The info you provided is super helpful. Thank you!

  29. david says:

    There’s so much I liked about this that extends past the the camera, superb, as it is. The direction, theme music and Amy’s V/O.

    Amy’s V/O blend of script and delivery is as engaging as the vid itself. That last para wrap up? Nice!

    Despite the kinetic nature of the sport, which usually calls on aggressive shooting (I used to shoot for Lennox Lewis when he was fighting, say, Tyson) the timing, pathos on this is methodical and contemplative.

    David’s holding shot on Rocky towards the end is a treat in visual aesthetics.

    Bravo people. Time to make Rocky your own, a shoot worth going back to over the years.

    Cheers

    David, UK, Viewmagazine.tv
    Blog, viewmag

  30. Joe Burns says:

    Wow. I love the Rocky video. Did you this without the transcoding? I love the camera, but editing the clips in Final Cut Express and rendering constantly is driving me crazy.

  31. mophojo says:

    Canon has released a firmware update for the 5D Mark II which is supposed to address the “black dot” issue and vertical banding.

    http://www.mophojo.com/2009/01/canon-releases-black-dot-fix-with-firmware-update/

  32. [...] creator of the clip also made a great blog post giving insider information about how it was shot and outline some of the limitations of the camera [...]

  33. Here’s the Canon EOS 5D audio sync issue or problem.

    Last Wednesday I used my two 5D MkII’s in a 3 camera music video shoot. The third camera was a Sony PMW-EX1. Audio was recorded on two additional devices. One audio recording device was an Edirol R4 Pro. The other audio recording setup was a Tascam USB Interface to a MacBook Pro.

    The Sony Camera, Edirol, and Tascam/MacBook Pro devices all synced sound perfectly over the full duration of the shoot (just over 20 minutes). To clarify – once the different sources are sync’d quickly and easily to the slate clap on the waveform at the beginning of the shoot they all stayed perfectly in sync for the rest of the video.

    Both Canon cameras audio and video sync’d perfectly to each other but drifted significantly from the other 3 devices even over a 3 minute segment. That is a very serious problem for me and one that introduces significant post-production trouble and expense.

    This issue was so unexpected (I haven’t run into this in years of working with a range of equipment) that I performed 3 subsequent tests to confirm that the 5D MkII’s run too fast. The results from the tests show both of my 5D Mark II’s run about 14 frames too fast in 10 minutes. Audio that is 1 full frame out of sync is noticeable on sharp sounds causing an echo. Audio that is 2 or 3 frames out of sync causes echo on any sound and looks odd in terms of lip sync.

    That the two Canon cameras audio sync’d OK to each other tells me that the cameras can be calibrated to a standard. Evidently they are just calibrated to an incorrect standard.

    I have shot since then by slating at the beginning and the end but this only works for short segments. This is a deal-breaker for me for shooting with the 5D for most of what I do and it makes me very sad.

    Anybody else experience this? Does anybody really know if this is likely a chip issue or a firmware issue? Does anyone know an easy, reliable way to get the clips to conform to the standard without time-consuming constant tweaking?

    I contacted Canon tech support and the girl there wasn’t too concerned. She said: There is no fix and that the 5d isn’t really a video camera so what did I expect? Nice!

  34. George Rindon says:

    Finally, a wonderful piece on related FCP/5D MkII workflow–love it! Keep it coming….

  35. [...] to an Apple Store and try it out. I’d recommend buying a new MacBook Pro. I’ve run down my system and software versions here. The big thing is to make sure your software is up to date (FCP, OS [...]

  36. mophojo says:

    LOUI,

    Generally speaking, the slower shutter speeds will help your video become LESS choppy – the slight blurring you get from the slow shutter helps all your frames blend together much smoother than if you have razor-sharp images jumping from one frame to the next. It’s a small difference, but noticeable.

    To change the shutter speed – since you can’t actually do it manually as if you were shooting stills, I’d try this: Make sure your aperture is as wide as it can go (or use a faster lens). You could also try using shutter priority mode and set the shutter at 125th since that’s the highest the camera will shoot in video mode. I haven’t tried this yet since I’ve primarily been concerned with DOF in my shooting.

    I’ve been shooting everything so far in aperture priority mode and having the lens set to be wide open. I’ve had no issues with the video being choppy even though it appears that the shutter has been dropping as low as 1/30th. I do, however, get choppy looking playback on a computer or software that can’t handle the massive files. Make sure that’s not the problem, too.

  37. mophojo says:

    Joe, I have not yet transcoded the 5D files before editing in Final Cut. I also don’t have to render anything in the timeline (no dreaded red bars) for the most part. I’m guessing there is some kind of sequence setting you should look into. I’m using FCP, but surely there’s not some deficiency in FCE that would do that to you? I would hope not. Make sure all your software, including Quicktime and your OS, is up to date.

  38. mophojo says:

    Michael,

    FWIW, an interesting tip from a pro film maker on theeoscars.com

    “Tip for 5d MkII filmmakers: USE AN ND8 FILTER ON HOT SUMMER DAYS AND A FIELD SOUND RECORDER AT 30fps Nondrop”

    Not sure what’s behind that suggestion, or if it would clear up that problem you outlined.

    Full post here:

    http://theeoscars.com/5dblog/2009/03/lucky-day-mg-studio/