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.


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.


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.


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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