Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Firmware fix frees frustrated filmmakers
Review Back in 2005, the EOS 5D digital SLR marked the best way into full frame (24x36mm) shooting for Canon owners. Optically, this model was on a par with 35mm cameras of old. With a sensor this size, finally, here was a way of getting the original focal length of your old 28mm lens back from the scaling beyond 40mm that occurs when used with smaller sensor cameras.
Canon's EOS 5D Mark II - quite a step up from the original 5D
Four years on and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II incarnation notches up an impressive array of features. It’s now blessed with a fantastic 21.1Mp sensor – the same count as the EOS 1Ds Mark III – but improved still further with greater sensitivity in the ISO settings and its DIGIC 4 image processor.
It now has rapid fire shooting at 3.9f/s, a bigger screen on the back, an upgraded battery, AF micro-adjustment, Highlight Tone Priority, Auto Lighting Optimizer, vignetting correction and Live View – real time LCD panel viewing – plus an HDMI output and support for quick UDMA CF cards.
The 5D MkII also offers excellent customisation and expanded menus. All the things you would expect would make jobbing semi-pro, wedding and portraiture photographers beg to upgrade. And then Canon adds the daddy of all headline grabbers, 1080p video. So let’s get this out of the way first. Canon cannot plead surprise that the world has taken more than a keen interest in this 'other' feature.
Now had it just done 640x480 or even 1280x720 at 30fps, like most video functions on stills cameras, smaller interest would have been paid to this particular feature. Canon must have known that 'indie' filmmakers would wet themselves for the filmic look of using quality glass in front of a full-frame, CMOS 35mm sensor. The point being, the size of the light grabbing.
It is a stills camera, but its video capabilities are making the news
Billed originally as a great tool for the news gathering crowd – even phone video resolutions are making their way onto the ten o'clock news – but this is HD video at 30fps! A little overkill for that. Admittedly, it is in H.264, a codec that is very much about playout from the device, and not for ideal for your average non-linear editor. The upside is, H.264 video is comparatively light on card space.
Audio is handled by a built in mic that does a reasonable job of getting what is in front of it. Being in the body of the camera, handling noise is a problem. Hence, Canon provides a stereo 3.5mm jack for you to plug in a powered semi-pro shotgun mic. A mono Røde video mic, was used in tests, proving very up to the job.
Unless you want to go the whole hog and buy an adaptor for XLR mics and ride the audio input, you’ll have to rely on the camera’s auto levels. Curiously, the stereo audio is recorded at 44.1kHz at 16-bit, when 48kHz is the norm for HD recording – another reason that editing or converting footage may run into difficulties. Certainly, the broadcasting industry is taking an interest, turning this small DSLR into a cinema camera; producing accessories including pull focus, monitors from the HDMI, and different manual lenses – the latter being of considerable importance, until now.
Battery life suffers with HD usage, so a battery pack is an option
When used as an HD video camera, the 5D Mk II gave you little control over the settings with ISO, aperture and even shutter speed being set without much intervention. Various workarounds for the lack of total control included using manual Nikon lenses. However, the release last week of Canon’s user-installable firmware update  put an end to these cheats, effectively transforming the 5D MkII from a 'let’s see what we can get and hope for the best' camera, into a fully manual HD video camera with interchangeable lenses. So, how does it work in practise?
With Live view selected and in 'M' mode only, you have control over the shutter speed, aperture and the ISO rating. The variable shutter speed allows you to stop down on bright subjects/days and continue to capture video with your desired depth of field.
Prior to this update, you could be using great lenses that were automatically set to small apertures around f8 to f16. It was like shooting with a camcorder, because everything was in focus from 0.2m to infinity – and beyond. You just couldn’t apply the advantages of a large sensor and big apertures of f2.8/f4, where objects can be sent out of focus – possible even on wide-angle lenses. Now, with manual control of the lens aperture, the one that people were trying to cheat around, this level of creative freedom is possible.
Likewise, for the ISO range – the pseudo film stock variable. This can now be manually set to correct or balance the decisions in shutter and aperture settings. It goes right up to ISO 12800. While perhaps a little noisy at this extreme, if you don't happen to have an on-camera light then, this may save your bacon. It can, effectively, see in the dark, and will keep the shutter up above 1/30th second, so as not to get the ghosting that happens at slower shutter speeds.
Image stabiliser: keeps things crisp, allowing this 1/10sec shot at ISO 400
Click for a full-resolution crop 
Taken with an EF16-35mm lens
Available light with colour temperature compensation
Taken with an EF16-35mm lens
Picture Style offers a selection of presets and can be customised to fine tune the white balance, sharpness, contrast and saturation. Settings can be applied to video too.
Picture Style: Standard
Picture Style: Landscape
Picture Style: Neutral
Picture Style: Portrait
Picture Style: Faithful
Picture Style: User-customised
Hopefully, these ‘fast film’ options will not be seen as a great way to shoot all the time and users will light scenes properly, so they can work in the ISO 100-400 range. You can, of course, leave the ISO setting in Auto and let the camera decide what it thinks the scene needs but, of course, we know best, eh?
With these firmware enhancements, the 5D MkII definitely feels like a tool for filmmakers. That said, the frame rate is 30p and is no good for anyone, especially in Europe. Even in America they would prefer 29.97f/s or 24f/s and we would love 25f/s. This is something you can adjust in post-production, or simply live with, especially if your masterpiece will only appear on the web.
To help you frame a 16:9 shot correctly using the 3:2 screen, the video is letterboxed by transparent bands. The footage is beautiful with the shots looking like they are from a proper movie. It conjures up that moment when someone first shows you what good glass, and little depth of field can do for a moving image. The story telling aspect of low depth of field is a powerful tool, and this camera shows it at a fast enough frame rate at 1920x1080 progressively.
Integrated sensor cleaning takes care of dust during lens changes
Trying it with the supplied 24-105mm F4L lens – which is an amazing range, as these are true focal lengths – you can go between a wide angle view, not available on many camcorders, to beyond a short telephoto, which is perfect for nice head shots. Admittedly, not as fast as the 70-200mm F2.8L, we tried, where it just gets narrower and the focus falloff more pronounced.
We also tried it with the 16-35mm F2.8L Mk2, where you enter a world of the very wide, and boy does it make you want to go film. Focal lengths like that, previously belonged to film directors with big budgets, and even then fisheye lenses were extremely expensive to make, as they’re not exactly everyone's cup of tea.
And so to the digital stills camera that the 5D MkII truly is, now touting 21Mp, up from 12.8Mp. The continuous shooting at 3.9 f/s is not so groundbreaking, with higher speeds still reserved for the flagship 1D models. However, the menus are better laid out and there are more of them and you can now use the joystick top right to move between them. Memorise the colour coding and you can jump quickly to the submenu for that feature.
A great improvement is the quick jump function to access frequently used features without having to go through the menus – simply press the SET button. While experienced EOS users are habitually view function settings from the top screen, now, parameters can be gleaned from the back LCD.
Old hands use the top panel for settings, but the LCD back shows them too
The Program selection knob has gained a couple of custom function settings, one being the new Creative Automatic (CA) mode. It’s a halfway house from full auto to something akin to testing the water. It will appeal to casual users to take control over things like aperture, shutter and white balance to see what effect they have.
Anyone having used not just Canon SLRs since the Nineties will feel right at home with the program, aperture and shutter priority options, plus bulb and manual. In fact, little has changed. If you’ve used the 5D Mk I, you can pick this up and shoot immediately.
On the left are connectors for PC sync for studio flash, mini HDMI, mic input, USB, and another AV connector. The batteries have been upgraded, so no using your old 5D or, come to think of it, any Canon SLR batteries of the last seven years. Canon did very well being so consistent with those! Battery life is very good when shooting stills, less so with heavy amounts of filming and playback.
The larger 3in, 920,000-pixel screen is four times the count of the original 5D's 2.5in display. Suffice to say, if it looks good on the back it is good. Although, sometimes the auto view mode, that shows what’s been captured, can dip in intensity in sunlight, which can seem as if it's losing power. However, all things are customisable, but changing the brightness of the screen can give false hope to incorrect exposures, so there are histograms for both overall brightness and separate RGB levels for reference.
The white balance can be changed within bracketing as well as from the menu, giving three different looks in a sequence. There is also the ability to make one custom white balance, if you know you are going to be in a very complicated mixed lighting situation.
The ISO range is from 100 up to 3200 in auto mode, and up to 6400 in manual mode in 1/3 stop increments. There are also two high-speed settings of 12800 and 25600 set with H1 and H2 and a low speed of ISO 50. The shutter speeds remain the same, from 1/8000sec to 30secs. And the 5D MkII finally gets the integrated sensor cleaning system that the rest of the current EOS range has. It’s a welcome feature for anyone using DSLR cameras – when changing lenses, sometimes ten times an hour, dust is never far away.
Live View utilises the LCD panel for a direct feed from the sensor
Yet the real star is Live View, this is where you can look at what you are shooting on the large LCD screen, as opposed to in the viewfinder. This appeared to be a gimmick of cheaper systems, until tests were tried with a computer. Here, the software delivers a live feed of what the camera has in front of it. Hook it up using USB, then change the focus, any of the variables – shutter aperture, white balance – take the photo remotely and store the image directly on a hard drive. Wonderful. Alas, this doesn't work with video – movies are only recorded to card.
One quirky change is the capacity to capture RAW images in smaller resolutions. The idea being you can still shoot 16-bit images void of white balance etc., straight off the sensor at 10Mp and 5.2Mp – 50 per cent and 25 per cent of the standard, respectively. It’s ideal for people shooting events who can’t afford to run out of cards or know they will never need the resolution.
The temptation to record as much as possible is irresistible, but maybe we have reached a ceiling. Surely, 35mm sensors do not need to record any more information than this? You will not notice the difference of any of these RAW formats printed A4 next to each other, so unless you are going to A3 and beyond, why fill up your backup?
The 5D MkII is certainly ideal for studio 'pack-shot' based work where rapid fire is not really the name of the game, as shooting RAW will fill the buffer within 14 consecutive frames. Choose JPEG at maximum resolution instead and you could conceivably continue shooting to fill a 4GB CF card (310 images) at 3.9 frames per second.
Peripheral Illumination Correction is something that fixes the edges with a database of corrections for every EF lens. This is like admitting everything was wrong before, but sure makes you glad you now have it. It’s a form of vignetting compensation and has to be activated in the menu. It's automatic in JPEG mode and passes the info on in RAW mode to your DPP software. The 5D MkII also has two colour spaces, sRGB and Adobe RGB, and these settings are primarily for web/printing uses down the line.
The Highlight Tone Priority function improves the highlight detail. The dynamic range is extended making the grey to highlights smoother, but restricts you to ISO 200 to 6400. This is great for skies and white buildings, and is getting close to having a latitude like film.
Utilising interchangeable lenses offers the best return on this camera's capabilities
The autofocus can be left in full auto or the user can utilise nine selectable AF points. Focusing f2.8 and faster lenses calls for critical precision, which the centre AF point is capable of as it simultaneously uses both horizontal and vertical lines of contrast in the scene to maximise accuracy. There are a further six assist AF points which are used when in the AF Servo mode for moving subjects. These points reside in the spot metering circle and do not appear like the normal AF points, but are sensitive like the centre point to vertical lines.
The metering is excellent, even when shooting with shadowy subjects. Yet it still does tend to want to fill the blacks in, ever so slightly, on full auto. Modern metering can be a tad biased to 'best possible shot' and you will quickly learn to bracket with aperture using the wheel on back or with the shutter from the scroll wheel by the shutter button. As with every photo session, it is subjective just how washed-out your highlights are and how deep the shadows – but if you are lighting it, you have no excuse.
The video capabilities of the Canon EOS 5D MkII make it ideal for news gatherers, indie filmmakers or even the all-consuming Internet. After all, why shouldn't on-line video content be good-looking? As a DSLR, it’s a real upgrade from the old 5D. It’s easier to navigate and produces better images, thanks to a hefty megapixel count. While it appears reassuringly expensive, when you consider what you are getting, it doesn’t really seem that much. After all, the EOS 5D MkII is a great all-rounder. It’s not even Canon’s flagship model, but at the moment, nothing can catch it. ®
James Cumpsty  is a professional photographer and videographer working in the music industry.
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