The Canon 5D is a cinematic nightmare. In movie mode it’s hard to see focus, difficult to set exposure, and it doesn’t show you exactly what you’re getting. It records to heavily compressed 8-bit H.264, and the only frame rate available is 30fps. Not 29.97–exactly 30p. It’s a complete pain to use.
And I love it.
I love it not as a cure-all camera that everyone should buy, but as a niche camera that does a few things very, very well–especially for the price. Everything this camera does (except for shooting stills) can be done better by other, more expensive HD cameras. For $2,600, though, it can’t be beat.
The Canon 5D Mark II started life as a cost-cutting measure for Associated Press and Reuters. They asked for a still camera that also shot HD to avoid having to pay both a still photographer and a videographer to cover the same events. They wanted 30p, for web streaming, and full auto mode, so as not to scare still photographers who had never shot moving images before. Canon had no idea that this camera would appeal so strongly to professional filmmakers.
It does, tremendously. And you can see why by watching the finished spot at the top of this page. But it wasn’t easy. Read on…
My first experience with the 5D involved shooting a spec spot for director Simon Sommerfeld. Simon normally works as a DP, but when a client of his asked him to direct a short piece to help sell a TV ad campaign to the client’s board of directors, Simon jumped at the chance to use his 5D to tell the story. And it was my great good luck that he asked me to shoot it for him.
Initially we puzzled over the camera, trying to discern what settings belonged where in movie mode. We knew that there was a way to drill deep into the engineering menus and create a look but we didn’t know how to do it. Simon poured through user groups looking for tips, and he found some settings that seemed to yield a nice flat image suitable for capturing the widest range of contrast possible for post color correction. These same settings also kept detail enhancement low, which is always a benefit in HD: an overly-aggressive detail circuit can be very unflattering to flesh tones and can result in a “newsy” look. Detail can always be added later, if needed, but it can’t be removed.
(I’m trying to get more details out of Canon as to how one creates custom movie mode settings. Anecdotal evidence points to using Canon desktop software to create a look using a still image shot on the camera, and then saving the resulting look instructions to one of the camera’s built-in look memory slots.)
Judging exposure was both simple and complex. In movie mode the 5D offers no telemetry regarding exposure: no histogram, no zebras, nothing. (There is a hack that creates zebras in movie mode but it is not blessed by Canon.) It’s possible to see a histogram during playback, but without the benefit of clairvoyance that’s not a very helpful feature. What I discovered, though, is that the 5D’s LCD screen is actually quite accurate: it’s not perfect, but it is possible to judge exposure and contrast accurately. The best way to avoid clipping is to change the F-stop and watch for highlights that don’t change value, and then close down the exposure to taste. This procedure works fairly well but it does require post color correction.
Let me emphasize this: you should definitely plan on color correcting 5D footage. More on that later.
Focus is another matter. On the LCD screen, in movie mode, is a small box that can be moved around the frame using a joystick controller on the back of the camera. Placing it on an area of interest (usually a person’s eye) and hitting the magnify button yields what appears to be a pixel-for-pixel view of that part of the image. This is the only reliable way to set critical focus. It’s fairly simple to see when an object comes into focus, but not so simple to see whether focus tracks a moving object.
A fellow cinematographer gave me some advice: never shoot wider open than a F4, and shoot at F5.6 whenever possible–just to make sure focus holds, as I won’t know for sure it held until post. For the most part I followed that advice, although I occasionally snuck the aperture open to F2.8 for specific shots.
Turn the page for behind-the-scenes action…
Camera assistant Satsuki Murashige demonstrates proper slating technique for young trainee Cary Sommerfeld
(all behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of Adam Wilt)
The spot concept revolved around a four-year-old boy and his father playing in a park. Director Sommerfeld cast his four-year-old son, Cary, in the lead role, and Cary performed beautifully with only occasional lapses in emotional maturity. We found ourselves working at the limits of what the camera could do, which was both freeing and incredibly frustrating at the same time. Speed and efficiency were of the essence, and the 5D and its handheld rig were not always as cooperative as I would have liked. At the same time, though, the quality of the image and the reduced depth of field suited our purposes perfectly.
My biggest complaint about the 5D was the fact that, in movie mode, the camera has a standby timer that toggles the camera into still mode in order to save battery power. When movie mode is selected, the camera’s shutter is held open and the LCD display remains on, drawing a fair bit of power. The standby timer seems to sense just when you’re about to roll, and with a “click!” it closes the shutter and turns off the LCD display. A quick poke at the movie mode button turns the camera back on, but the delay can be a little startling. I’m hoping that Canon can harness the predictive power of this particular circuit and use it to roll the camera instead of shutting it down. (I’ve since learned that there is a menu item that disables this timer indefinitely.)
The rig that Zacuto provided us for testing worked brilliantly in all but one regard: its first-generation eyepiece magnifying loupe, or Z-Finder. This is a conical-shaped hood that attaches to the LCD viewfinder by velcro, shielding the display from sunlight and allowing for critical examination of focus on the 5D’s low-res LCD screen. This loupe employed just a little too much magnification, which meant the eye had to scan the frame in order to see the entire image and made it occasionally difficult to see the recording indicator, which is a red dot at the top right of the screen. This resulted in some unexpected behind-the-scenes footage early in the day.
The other issue I experienced is that the first-generation Z-Finder shifted on the velcro, and as there are no viewfinder markings overlaying the image (such as action safe or a crosshair) it was occasionally difficult to discern whether the black edge I was looking at was the edge of the LCD or the edge of the loupe itself. As a result some of my early test shots were off level as I was framing the image based on a frame edge that turned out to be the inside edge of the loupe and not the actual frame edge.
Zacuto has a new Z-Finder that attaches to a hard frame, which is in turn mounted to the camera using strong double-sided tape.
Otherwise, the Zacuto rifle-style rig worked very well for this camera. It didn’t take all of the weight off of my forearms but it did help considerably by shifting some of it to the front of my shoulder. Also, holding the rig tight against my shoulder made it very steady and easy to operate.
A bit about focus and donuts, on the next page…
Pulling focus was an issue that I avoided altogether by not allowing my assistant to do it. Although Canon supplied us with several L-series lenses to test on this shoot, we only used two lenses in all: one was a fully manual Leica 35mm on a Leica/Canon adapter, and the other was a Canon L-series 85mm prime. The Leica has a very small barrel, which makes controlling focus precisely nearly impossible because a very, very small discrepancy in hitting a mark could result in soft focus. The 85mm prime uses a servo to control focus, which means that the focus ring isn’t mechanically attached to everything, making physical focus markings unreliable at best. Canon lenses make it easy for still photographers to capture action images as their primary working mode is autofocus. In movie mode, autofocus doesn’t work so well. (Actually it doesn’t work at all.)
One nice surprise was that the camera and rig were so light that I could handhold it and remain completely, perfectly still. This helped with a couple of shots where I could get my body into positions with the handheld rig that were not so easily done with a tripod. We also did some moving shots where I was pulled backwards in a wheelchair while shooting our four-year-old riding a tricycle. They turned out remarkably smoothly. (They also turned out sharp as I stopped down to F8 to compensate for changes in distance.)
Crammed into a corner without a tripod–and it’s not a problem!
The final shot, steady as a rock thanks to Zacuto
The biggest hassle was the lack of properly-sized lens donuts. We’d acquired a couple of generic donuts to test and both were too big for use with a still lens. I found myself using both a polarizer, for richer color in the grass and the sky, along with a set of Formatt HD ND’s, to achieve the exact shooting stops that I wanted, and we spent an inordinate amount of time taping up light leaks from the back of the matte box that cast reflections onto the rear of the filters. Whoever solves this problem is going to make a lot of friends.
I was pleasantly surprised by the post workflow. As this was a spec project I took on the task of color correction myself. I’m not a professional colorist but I do like to experiment, and spec projects allow me to play while learning the parameters of how far a professional colorist can effectively stretch different types of footage.
My primary tool was Magic Bullet Looks, which is both fast and easy to use for primary color correction. (Primary correction affects the entire image, as opposed to secondary color correction, which affects only a portion of the image or a select range of colors.) Much of the footage came in to Final Cut Pro looking a bit dark, as I wanted to avoid clipping highlights to avoid that “video” look. I used both the Lift/Gamma/Gain and Offset/Gamma/Gain modules in Looks to boost the midtones to a normal level, while using both the vignette and soft edge modules to direct attention to the appropriate part of the frame.
On top of the Looks module I added a Tiffen DFX 2 digital Bronze Glimmerglass filter, mostly for the warmth and slight softness that it provided. I found it very easy to create a neutral look in Looks that I could then consistently accentuate with a repeatable Tiffen digital filter.
The nice part about using a digital filter is that you aren’t locked into all of the physical filter’s qualities. In this case I liked the subtle softening and warmth that the DFX filter provided but didn’t like the halation, which softened the image more than we wanted. So I simply turned that part of the filter off. (Try doing THAT in real life.)
The one area where Looks and DFX 2 let me down was in the precise adjustment of color, or range of colors. It turns out that the Canon 5D LOVES the color red, although it doesn’t always render it accurately. The biggest problem I ran into occurred during the final shot where the highlight areas of our talent’s red shirt took on a slightly blue cast. Originally I thought this was a red/blue crossover issue, but my friend and digital guru Adam Wilt assured that the problem is more likely that the red channel clipped hard, losing saturation in the highlights, and the remaining blue in the fabric became exaggerated as a result.
The original clip as it came into Final Cut Pro. I protected the highlights very aggressively. Note the slight blue cast to Cary’s sunlit shoulder
The final look. The Tiffen Bronze Glimmerglass is the last step of six that went into making this image; the full range will be shown in a Canon 5D color correction article I’m preparing to post later this week
I tried my best to isolate and correct this one shade of blueish red using Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse but I just couldn’t make it happen: saturated colors reveal a multitude of sins, and while I was able to isolate and affect only the areas I wanted, I couldn’t shift them to a highly saturated red that would match the rest of the shirt. I suspect I was sabotaged not just by the deeply saturated colors but by the 8-bit color depth of the compressed footage.
In the end I used Magic Bullet Looks “ranged saturation” module and reduced saturation in the highlights only, which in turn made the blueish-tint of the brightest red highlights less obvious.
You’ve probably heard about the moire issue. It’s real, and it’s on the next page…
The biggest issue of all, unsolvable by any post tool at my limited disposal, was the one occasion where we saw a moire pattern on our talent’s shirt collar. We couldn’t see it on the 5D’s LCD at the time, but when we looked at the footage on a 1920×1080 HD timeline in Final Cut Pro it was more than a little obvious. Fortunately it occurred in a shot where the eye was attracted elsewhere: at a recent Northern California Digital Cinema Society meeting, held at Transvideo Studios, this project was projected on an 8′ screen and no one noticed it until I pointed it out, at which point there was a collective audible gasp from the audience.
Moire is a little bit of a problem at standard def sizes…
…but more of a problem at HD sizes
The curious thing about this shot is that the moire ONLY happened at this one position. As soon as Cary leaned back it went away. We seemed to have hit the perfect storm of focus plane, parallel lines in Cary’s collar (from elastic in the polo fabric) and image size.
I’d thought that the reason for this excessive moire was that the camera was skipping photosites, or skipping lines of photosites, in order to get image information off the sensor fast enough for live filming speeds. Canon says that in movie mode the photosites are “binned,” or collected, in groups of six that collectively yield the information for one pixel. This is how Canon dumbs down its incredibly high-resolution still photography sensor to work in the world of 1920×1080 HD while using every single photosite on the sensor. The result, though, is that fine patterns can wreak havoc with these large virtual pixels, so be warned and be careful when shooting fine shirt patterns, brick walls, or other things with fine, repeatable patterns or parallel lines.
Through sheer luck the moire pattern almost completely disappeared when the footage was down-rez’ed to SD size for the web. As the stockbroker disclosures say, however, past performance is no guarantee of future success. When in doubt, test.
There are some who claim that this camera is the next revolution in filmmaking, just like the RED was a year ago. After the collapse of the stock market and the banking industry we should be a little more cognizant of the effects of irrational exuberance, not just upon the world of finance but also upon the world of cinematography. Different tools do different jobs well, and if you need a tool that is small, lightweight, has a very large (bigger than super 35mm) sensor for shallow depth of field, and is very affordable, then this camera is the tool for you. If you need greater than 8-bit color, more than eight stops of latitude, the ability to see and follow focus accurately, better color sampling than 4:2:0, and you have a wad of cash–pick something else.
Remember: this camera was never designed to be a tool for serious filmmakers. It is, first and foremost, a news gathering tool. Don’t complain about what it doesn’t do; instead, be thankful that it does what it does for a very affordable price.
Turn to the last page for some important operating tips…
CANON 5D MARK II HINTS AND TIPS
Use only UDMA-certified Compact Flash cards. The 5D stores data as variable bit rate H.264. The faster the camera can write to the CF card, the fewer compression artifacts you’ll see in the footage. Slow cards result in slow bit rates and much heavier compression, so use UDMA CF cards for best results.
The camera seems to like vertical and horizontal lines more than diagonal lines. Keeping the camera level horizontally seems to reduce compression artifacts. Test first if your shoot requires a lot of Dutch angles.
The camera records at 30p exactly, so when recording double-system sound make sure your sound recordist sets up their gear for 30fps exactly, NOT 29.97.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for some Canon 5D color correcting goodness, coming later this week.
Art Adams is a DP who aims to please, occasionally with a Zacuto rig. His web site is at www.artadams.net.