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Canon EOS 5D Mark II Gordon Laing, December 2008 / updated June 2009
 

Canon EOS 5D Mark II features : Lens, AF, sensor and drive modes / Movie Mode


Canon EOS 5D Mark II Movie Mode

NEW: Updated with firmware 1.1.0 manual control.

The EOS 5D Mark II becomes Canon’s first DSLR to offer movie recording facilities – and the second ever DSLR from any manufacturer to do so, after Nikon’s D90. Both models capture High Definition video in a progressive format, and can exploit their large sensors and a wide variety of lenses to deliver results which are hard or impossible to achieve with consumer camcorders. There are however significant differences in their quality and implementations.

Nikon’s D90 captures 720p video (1280x720 pixels) at 24fps, while Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II captures 1080p video (1920x1080 pixels) at 30fps; both also offer standard definition modes, the D90 offering 320x216 and 640x424 modes again at 24fps, and the 5D Mark II a 640x480 mode, at 30fps. Both cameras exploit their full sensor width when recording video, although the 5D Mark II has the advantage with its larger full-frame sensor to the D90’s cropped-frame DX format sensor.

   
Canon EOS 5D Mark II - LV movie size Canon EOS 5D Mark II - LV movie sound
   


Both models feature built-in microphones for recording mono sound, but the EOS 5D Mark II additionally offers a stereo microphone input. Nikon encodes its movies using the ageing Motion JPEG format in an AVI wrapper at a bit rate of around 20Mbit/s for the HD mode, or around 2.5Mbyte/s.

Canon encodes its movies using the newer H.264 format (a variant of MPEG-4) with a Quicktime MOV wrapper at a bit rate of around 40Mbit/s for its HD mode, or around 5Mbyte/s. This rate is within the writing capabilities of most decent CF cards, but UDMA models are recommended for the best results.

The D90’s maximum file size for movies is 2GB, although additional restrictions limit the HD mode to clips of five minutes. The 5D Mark II’s maximum file size for movies is 4GB or 29 minutes and 59 seconds, whichever happens first. If you’re shooting HD, then file size will be the limiting factor, with a formatted 4GB card squeezing in just over 12 minutes worth of HD footage in our tests. Recording a 12 minute HD clip also consumed approximately 20% of a fully charged battery, giving you roughly an hour’s worth of recording from a full charge – so long as you also had 20GB worth of storage.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - LV function Canon EOS 5D Mark II - LV movie display Canon EOS 5D Mark II - LV movie record
     

 
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Both models capture video as an extension of their Live View modes, and use transparent masks on-screen to indicate the 16:9 frame where necessary. On the 5D Mark II, you’ll first need to enter the Live View Function settings page and choose Stills and Movie. After this you get to choose the screen settings, with the Movie Display option showing the transparent mask for HD recording, an indication of how much time is available, and following a half-press of the shutter, the exposure details that will be used for video – along with stills should you take any during the recording. Note these exposure settings will almost certainly be different to those if you were shooting in the Stills-only mode, as you can see in the screengrab above right - we’ll explain more in a moment. With the functions and screen options selected, simply press the Live View button to enter Live View, then press the large SET button on the rear to start and stop recording.

One of the major restrictions of the Nikon D90 (for non-pros anyway) was an inability to autofocus once you’d started recording a movie. The EOS 5D Mark II does offer contrast-based AF options while filming if Live Mode or Face Detect are selected in the Live View AF settings, but they’re essentially useless as they work no differently to when taking stills. As such you’ll need to hold down the AF-ON button and wait for a few seconds as the focus point leisurely shifts back and forth before locking-on – all while you’re recording. It’ll certainly refocus the lens, but unlike a camcorder it’s neither a quick nor continuous process. So while the 5D Mark II technically can autofocus while filming, most people will be setting it before recording or adjusting it manually like the D90.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - movie screen grab
 

One of the great benefits of using a DSLR to capture video is the possibility of achieving a very small depth of field, thanks to their large sensors and lenses with bright focal ratios. When the 5D Mark II was first released though, this proved tricky because exposures in its movie mode were fully automatic, and annoyingly it also tended to select very small apertures such as f22 in bright daylight. In June 2009 though, Canon released firmware version 1.1.0 which equipped the Mark II with manual exposure control for video - and we re-tested it.

Updated Mark IIs now have the choice of shooting in fully automatic or fully manual exposure modes for video. To shoot in the new manual mode, you'll need to turn the Command dial, naturally enough, to Manual, although you'll also need to have the Screen Settings set to Movie display, as described above. If the Command dial is in any other position, or the Screen Setting not in Movie Display, the movie mode will become fully automatic. We'll describe this original auto mode first.

In its fully automatic movie mode, the Mark II automatically sets the shutter, aperture and ISO sensitivity itself. There’s also no control over the metering or colour space, nor is there any noise reduction applied, but the movie mode does adopt the current White Balance and Picture Style, along with applying Peripheral Illumination Correction, Highlight Tone Priority and Auto Lighting Optimizer if enabled. In this Auto mode, the Mark II will however let you apply exposure compensation (which tends to adjust the ISO value), along with locking the exposure, both of which provide a certain degree of creative control.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - movie screen grab
 

Since adjusting the aperture results in audible clicks and visible jumps in brightness, the 5D Mark II will avoid changing it in auto mode while filming unless it really has no other choice. For the minimum disruption it first adjusts the sensitivity (with the complete range of 100 to 6400 ISO at its disposal). It’ll then adjust the shutter speed, with Canon quoting a range between 1/30 and 1/125, although we found it sometimes reporting slightly slower or faster speeds. Then if all else fails, it’ll change the aperture, normally in big jumps, such as from f5.6 to f16.

You can see what values it’s chosen for the aperture, shutter and ISO by half-pressing the shutter release during Live View, so long as you’ve previously configured the Live View function to Stills and Movie, and the screen to Movie Display as mentioned above. You may however be surprised by the Mark II’s selections at times.

With a top shutter speed of just 1/125 (or thereabouts), the camera frequently chooses a very small aperture under bright conditions. Without intervention, we found the camera regularly filming video at f16 or even f22 on Sunny days (see menu grab above). This of course throws any initial thoughts of a small depth of field out the window. While the 2 Megapixel resolution of 1080p means diffraction is less of an issue at such small apertures, there are additional concerns over sensor dust becoming more visible – indeed the tiny hair seen in the anti-dust section of the previous page became an annoying fixture in the corner of most of our outdoor footage, when automatically shot at f22. If you download the clip we've provided at Vimeo (see later), you'll see it in the top left corner.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - movie screen grab
 

Take the Mark II indoors where you’d hope its fast lenses and large sensor would have a big advantage, and you’ll often find it increasing the sensitivity to as much as 3200 ISO rather than slowing the shutter or opening the aperture. So with your first filming attempts in auto mode, you’ll probably end up with a huge depth of field outdoors and disappointingly noisy results indoors. But as anyone who’s watched numerous professional clips taken with the 5D Mark II knows, there’s obviously some ways around it.

Prior to the June 2009 firmware update, video enthusiasts discovered a number of tricks to force the Mark II into using their desired aperture settings. The brute-force technique involved mounting an older lens with an actual physical aperture ring, with older Nikkor models proving particularly popular with the aid of an adapter. Now this is no longer necessary, as firmware 1.1.0 supports direct manual control over the aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity.

In practice, this is very simple to operate. First set the Command dial to Manual (M), and secondly, ensure the Live View Screen Settings are set to Movie Display. That's all there is to it: you can now simply turn the finger dial to set the shutter speed or the thumb wheel to adjust the aperture. Shutter speeds between 1/30 and 1/4000 are available, along with any aperture setting offered by the lens. Pressing the ISO button presents a menu of sensitivities between 100 and 6400 ISO, or you can go for Auto and have the camera adjust them itself.

Below we have four videos filmed with the 5D Mark II's manual movie mode, all using the Canon EF 50mm f1.2L lens with its aperture wide-open at f1.2 for the minimum depth-of-field. The shutter speed was set to the minimum 1/30 setting and the ISO adjusted for the ambient light. The first three clips were taken in a dim bar with the sensitivity at 400 ISO, while the final clip (under 50Hz fluorescent lighting, hence the flicker) was taken in a newsagents at 100 ISO. The exposures were not adjusted while filming, and all were handheld, so we apologise for any wobbling in advance. In three out of the four clips, the focusing was manually adjusted to demonstrate the ability to selectively focus from one subject to another - something that's now easy to achieve with the 5D Mark II and the right lens. You can see a version in higher resolution at Vimeo, where Vimeo members can also download the original edited 1080p file (exported from Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 in H.264).

 

With the ISO set to a fixed value, it's important to realise you are now in fully manual mode, and the camera won't do anything to compensate for an over or under-exposure - you are in complete control. It is however relatively easy to judge exposures on-screen, so long as you've switched-off the auto screen brightness option. Generously, the Mark II will also let you manually adjust the aperture, shutter or ISO while you're filming if desired, again by turning the required dial; in the case of ISO, just press the ISO button and again turn the finger dial. As with the automatic mode though, adjusting the aperture will result in audible clicks, so you'll want to adjust the shutter or ISO first. And while the fastest shutter speed of 1/4000 should allow you to select large apertures under bright conditions, you may still want to invest in some neutral density filters for greater flexibility.

This firmware update has transformed the EOS 5D Mark II into the highly creative and controllable video camera everyone wanted from the start, and takes it beyond the level of manual control offered by any other DSLR with video capabilities to date. Note Panasonic's Lumix GH1 also offers full manual control over exposure in its movie mode, but technically speaking, it's not a DSLR.
 
So controls aside, is the quality any good? In a word, very. Without intervention, the 5D Mark II is capable of capturing clips containing an enormous amount of detail to rival the best HD camcorders. The results are pretty clean at relatively high sensitivities, although 3200 ISO can look noisy and is frequently selected by the Mark II under dim conditions when set to auto – it’s certainly revealing much of the gorgeous Vincent Laforet night footage appears to have been shot at a maximum of 1600 ISO (judging from the exposure data of stills taken at the same time). But with the manual mode described above, you can now reign the camera back under control and enjoy very clean results.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a camera with a CMOS sensor and rolling shutter, the 5D Mark II can suffer from the ‘jello’ effect which also plagues the Nikon D90 at times. Like the D90, this tends to crop up on jerky handheld shots and quick pans, although the Canon seemed to suffer less than the Nikon when we were testing them.

 

Now for another example clip, this time in the fully automatic mode. We’ve all seen what the 5D Mark II is capable of in the hands of professional film-makers with specialist lenses, but while the results are spectacular, for most of us it’s a little like buying the same camera as Ansel Adams and expecting to achieve the same landscape shots.

The reality is of course quite different, especially if you try and use the Mark II like a normal camcorder – that is to say, handheld with pans, zooms and auto exposures. In the clip here you’ll see several artefacts, some due to the rolling shutter on handheld footage, others due to panning with IS enabled, and some thanks to the zoom not being operated particularly smoothly (both at the beginning and end of the clip). The audio was recorded using the built-in microphone. You can see a version in higher resolution at Vimeo, where Vimeo members can also download the original 1080p MOV file.

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Once again, the filming technique may be sloppy, but is fairly typical for many camcorder owners and illustrates how a dedicated camcorder remains the best choice for this kind of casual shooting - although even here it's great to enjoy 24mm coverage when most camcorders don't come close. To really see the Mark II’s movie mode shine though, you’ll need to abandon casual filming technique and start working like a pro. Note the video above has of course been scaled down and recompressed by Vimeo for viewing online.

Now the 5D Mark II has manual exposure control, most of the downsides to its movie mode are physical. DSLRs and their lenses were never designed for video, and they’re not the most comfortable devices to hold out in front of you for extended periods of time. It’s also hard to manually adjust focus and zoom rings smoothly while filming, and the built-in microphone will also hear the process, along with picking up the sound of stabilising optics if enabled. To be fair though, the 5D Mark II generously offers a stereo microphone input (albeit with auto levels only) which allows you to avoid the mechanical sounds, while third parties offer a variety of grips and mounts for comfortable shooting – and focusing.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - movie playback Canon EOS 5D Mark II - movie playback 2
   

It’s also important to discuss the files. H.264 is a complex compressor, and at the high bit rates employed by the Mark II, presents a significant challenge to play and edit. Indeed you’re lulled into a false sense of security when playing clips using the camera itself, whether viewed on its screen or connected to a TV, because it’s a smooth and effortless process for the DIGIC 4 processor. They also look fantastic with the camera connected to an HDTV using an optional HDMI cable.

Copy the movie files onto your computer though and you could be in for a shock. Unless you already have the processing power and graphics acceleration to smoothly decode tough Blu Ray movies, chances are you’ll be faced with choppy playback. Editing becomes even harder, and unless you're willing to transcode into an intermediary format, you'll again almost certainly have a choppy experience.

Ultimately though, once you’ve mastered its foibles, the 5D Mark II’s movie mode is a revelation. Images packed with detail, selective focusing with very small depths of field, and low noise in dim conditions, not to mention the entire EF lens catalogue at your disposal plus others with adapters, make it an ideal tool for keen videographers.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s no replacement for a camcorder, and you should eliminate any ideas of using it exclusively for filming family events and holidays straightaway. The ergonomics, controls and focusing make it unsuitable for starters, while the typical handheld usage of many video amateurs will only accentuate the undesirable ‘jello’ effect and other artefacts as seen in the clip above. But it is perfect for capturing clips or sequences which a consumer camcorder would otherwise find difficult or impossible. These could then be inserted into a project to spice it up.

It’s independent film makers who’ll really love the 5D Mark II’s movie mode though. They’ll already be used to manually pulling focus and familiar with the accessories and techniques required to get the best from the camera and avoid the artefacts. They’ll take one look at the Mark II and exclaim “1080p on a 36x24mm frame with decent interchangeable lenses for only $2699?!” It’s a sheer bargain in professional film making terms and many units will be sold with little or no intention to ever shoot stills.

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