Canon 5D MKII Pre-Preview Report

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann


When this brief review was first written in early September I was under the impression that the 5D MKII shot 1080i video. Since I left for a shoot in Africa just a day or so later it was not until I returned on Sept 22 that I discovered that in fact it shoots 1080P. All the better. The article below has now been corrected.

I apologize to those that read this during the first few hours that it was online for the incorrect information.

It’s early September – just two days before I am set to leave for a two week long safari / workshop / shoot in Africa. Botswana to be specific.

My cameras are packed (my clothes aren’t, yet) and I’m fussing over how to get everything into my carry-on / checked bag / small-planes-in-Botswana-weight-and-size-limits. Not fun, but I’m psyched for the trip.

The phone rings. It’s Canon. Would I be interested in testing something new and interesting? (Duhh!!! – what do you think?). A few hours later I’m holding the newCanon 5D MKII. Pretty cool. A very early pre-production camera – 21 Megapixels, great LCD screen, Live View, self cleaning sensor – all the bells and whistles that you’d expect.

Price? Not sure yet; probably about US $3,000.

Not bad. A full frame DSLR with all the latest goodies – including improved high ISO performance, for around $3K. Nicely done Canon!

Can I take it to Africa?No. It’s need for dealer presentations next week. You can have it for 48 hours. Bummer.

But wait (as they say in the ads). There’s more!


Welcome to the Movies

Lurking inside the Live View mode is video capability.Ohyour say. That’s interesting. Nikon announced theirD90just last week. Must be a trend.

Well, yes. It’s a trend alright. In fact I’ve been forecasting the convergence of stills and video for quite some time now, as anyone who reads this site regularly knows.

So – let’s see – how does it work and what are the specs?

Holy tamale Batman. This isn’t the 720P of the Nikon D90, which uses simplemotion JPGas its codec . This is 1080 30P using the latest H264 video codec at a data rate of over 38 megabits / second. If these number are greek to you –relax. They won’t be after a while, because high quality video is coming to a DSLR near you a hell of a lot faster than you ever thought it would. (Scoffers – you can now eat your hats. Bon appetit!)

The bottom line on this is that at least as far as the specs go, image quality is full HD, 1920 X 1080 Progressive, at 30 frames per second. The recording data rate is faster than on some pro video cameras. The depth of field is that of a 35mm full-frame camera, not one with a sensor 5X to 9X smaller.

The codec is H264. This means high data compression combined with very high image quality. State of the art. By the way, if you need to read a primer on digital video you might want to have a look at myUnderstanding Videotutorial, published just a week ago. It will help explain some of the unfamiliar jargon.


The Poop

There a lot to discuss here, and little time. So I’ll cut to the the most salient points. The 5D MKII externally looks almost identical to its forebears, the 5D. Only a small logo on the bottom left of the chassis and a slightly new setting knob top left give it away.

The sensor is a newly designed 21 Megapixel full-frame CMOS chip with ISO settings from 100 – 6400. With ISO expansion 50, 12800 and 25,600 are also available. (Can’t let Nikon steel all the glory in the high ISO department, now can we). The 5D MKII can shoot at up to 3.9 FPS.

The viewfinder now offers 98% coverage, and the same multi-mode Live View capabilities as the also newly introduced 50D is available. The LCD screen has 900,000 dots and is, as you’d expect, bright and high resolution.

The rest of the specs are pretty much as you’d imagine from a late 2008 Canon camera – self cleaning sensor, nine high precision AF points, with six assist points. A Digic 4 processor is onboard and a 150,000 cycle shutter.

And that’s about all that I have to say about the 5D MKII’s basics. The reason is that I have no means for evaluating the camera’s raw files (yet another new variation), and with only one day for testing I want to focus my attention on what I regard asthe big scoop. The usual technical camera review sites will have lots of additional information in the days ahead, rest easy.


The Scoop

Yes, the above information is pretty much what most people have been expecting. Anything less, especially in this new market environment, with a resurgent Nikon, and Sony joining the low cost full frame DSLR fray the week before, would not have cut it.

But, Canon being Canon, and not wishing to let their competitors steal a march on them (again) have changed the rules of the game and added high definition video capability to the 5D MKII. No, they’re not the first out of the starting blocks with this. The honour for the first DSLR with Hi-Def video goes to Nikon with their D90, introduced just a couple of weeks before. That camera shoots 720 30P, in others words 1280 X720 progressive at 30 FPS. This is one of the standard HD formats. It does so using a codec (compression protocol) call Motion JPG, not one of the more up-to-date and efficient codecs used in the video industry, I’m afraid.

SIDEBAR: I had hoped to be able to test a Nikon D90, and possible even take one to Botswana with me. I believed that this would have been worthwhile, as the demo footage that Nikon has thus far placed online seems to show some serious video anomalies (Jellocam– as it’s know in the trade, caused by CMOS sensors not recording each frame all at once, but rather from top to bottom, causing rapidly moving objects to appear to sway and jiggle). But, I was told that Nikon couldn’t spare a camera for me, even for a brief test. So – guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out the real story. Too bad.

Meanwhile Canon shoots video in the 5DMKII using 1080P HD standard at 30 FPS. This is the top 1920 X 1080 resolution, roughly twice the resolution of 720P.Find out more about all of these standards and jargon in my recent tutorial titledUnderstanding Video.

Interestingly, not only is the 5D MKII the first DSLR to shoot the higher resolution 1080P format, but it does so using the latest H264 codec. This is the current state of the art in video compression, offering the highest compression along with the best image quality.

Unfortunately Canon has not been forthcoming yet on exactly which flavours of H264 this is. Video codecs are a lot like raw compression algorithms, and just as with still cameras, because something has a .NEF or .CR2 extension doesn’t mean that you can read it. The same with codecs like H264. They simply describe the type of container, not what’s inside it.

All I can report from my one day of working with the 5D MKII’s video files is that they are seen by various programs as H264 and that the data rate is an astonishing high 47 Mbps (That’s 47 million megabits per second). Put another way, a 15 second clip is recorded to memory card as 80MB of data. And then when opened into the Apple Intermediate Codec this expands to 169 MB (megabytes) for 15 seconds worth of video in editing.

I did not have time to try H264 video footage straight from the camera in a variety of viewers and non-linear editing programs. But Quicktime 7 can read the files properly, and so can the latest Final Cut Pro. In both cases on a 2.6Ghz dual core Macbook Pro with 2 Meg of RAM, while the video could be played, there were dropped frames. The machine simply isn’t fast enough to keep up with that amount of data. I found it convenient when editing this footage to transcode it to the Apple Intermediate Codec, which ran much more smoothly, making editing less of a hassle.

In the video world what usually happens is when a company produces a new variation on a codec they then works with the major NLE companies, such as Apple, Adobe, Avid and Sony, to make import modes to ease handling of their footage. We’ll see if and when Canon gets around to this.



Handling the 5D MKII as a video camera is not what it should be. Face it. This is a stills camera with video capability grafted onto the Live View settings. To start shooting video one places the camera in Live View with the dedicated top-left activation button. Then having previously selected "Stills + Movie" from the appropriate menu selection, to start shooting video you press the rear SET button. One press turns on video recording; another turn it off.

You can set the ISO beforehand but not the exposure, other than via a plus / minus exposure compensation adjustment available via the rear wheel control. There also doesn’t appear to be any way to control exposure in video mode (other than the aperture (+ / -) wheel), because exposure control appears to be allocated to stills mode.

Speaking of which, at any time during shooting video one can take a still by pressing the usual shutter release. The video is paused for a second or so and then automatically resumed. The still taken is in whatever mode you were shooting (raw for example) and is at full resolution, not video resolution.

I see this as less of an issue than it might at first appear, since the still can then be placed into the video timeline and used as part of the video edit, a freeze frame with in-frame motion, if you wish. I look forward to experimenting with this.

Since very little (actually almost none) of the controls are designed with video in mind the 5D MKII isn’t a terribly handy video recording device. For example, not having an articulated LCD screen really makes both handheld as well as tripod shooting problematic. I’ll have much more to say about this in a future, more comprehensive review.

One additional note. I found that the camera would stop recording after about 13 minutes. UPDATE: This is due to the 4GB FAT 32 file size limitation.


The Image

What’s most exciting about having a full frame DSLR shooting HD video is the ability to use the full range of lenses and focal lengths that are available. Folks who don’t shoot video may not appreciate the challenge that shooting digital video entails. The sensors are small (digicam small) and therefore focal lengths are commensurately short as well. This means depth of field – lots of depth of field – far more than one usually wants. In cinema one wants to direct the viewers attention to a certain subject within the frame, and this is often done through the use of selective focus.

To this end videographers have been using somewhat klugy devices that allow mounting SLR lenses onto the the camera lens, focusing both on an intermediate ground glass. This works, but it’s bulky and expensive. I can see that people wanting to have narrow focus for scenes in their videos will now flock to the 5D MKII and similar cameras for this purpose alone, if not anything else.

Just one day is nowhere near enough to judge image quality, especially when it rains the entire day. What I can say, working side by side with my Sony EX-1 broadcast quality video camera (about $8,000) is that the images from the 5D MKII look very good indeed. Compared between the two (the Sony uses three 1/2 inch CMOS sensors) colours were rich and saturated and detail was excellent. To match the Sony would have required quite a bit of work, especially taming the harsh gamma settings as compared with the cine gamma settings that I was using on the Sony. With a bit of work (and a user manual would have been be nice) I have no doubt that I could set up the Canon to produce pleasant looking video if not a close match.



Yes, the Canon 5D MKII has audio capability – sort of. There is a built-in microphone and speaker, but quality is low, and the camera picks up all sorts of handling noise. It’s OK for reference, but that’s all. There is a microphone jack, but it’s one of those nasty mini-jacks, and on consumer camcorders these break all the time during even ordinary handling. A separate mike on a hot-shoe mount is really a must with this camera. There is no headphone jack for audio monitoring.

Curiously, though the 5D MKII has a mike it can’t record audio notes for stills use, the way One Series cameras can. What’s with that? More market segmentation engineering or simply a rush to market?


Zoom, Focus, and Stabilization

Lens stabilization works well, but the noise is easily picked up by either the built-in mike, or indeed any camera-mounted mike. 35mm lens stabilization ismuchlouder than that found on video cameras.

Autofocus works in the same manner as with Live View. Press the AF button and it locks in place prior to commencing filming. As a rule videographers focus this way, or manually, and then leave focus alone during the shot. Or, in theatrical productions, an assistant "pulls" focus manually during the take. This rule is only broken in so-calledrun-and-gunsituations, where getting the shot in an uncontrolled situation is paramount to production values.

Zooming works while shooting, since, of course, still cameras have manual zooms. Again, most videographers rarely if ever zoom during a shot unless for a specific purpose. But, having said that, manual zooms done with a still camera will look very coarse, as these lenses are not designed for continuous smooth operation. Video cameras have variable speed electronic zoom controls allowing everything from a slow crawl to a rapid movement, sometimes with auto-speed-up and autobraking at the other end.

This leads me to believe that in their current iterations (Nikon D90 and Canon 5D MKII) combocams are going to initially be used by video makers who already have a competent video rig, and who are looking for what a large sensor camera able to take a wide range of lenses can offer. A so-called B cam in other words.



I was on the lookout forJellocam, an artifact that is seen on any motion camera that uses a CMOS sensor. This can be caused by the sensor not recording the image all at once, but rather in a pass from top to bottom, which means that if anything is moving in the frame during that 1/30 of a second it will appears to shimmy and bend.

This is a problem that is much discussed in the video world. The highly regarded Sony EX-1 (which Chris and I, and many pros and broadcasters use) has it, but to such a small extent as to not be much of an issue at all. The RED One camera has it, but so little that it doesn’t seem to bother film makers shooting multi-million dollar feature films. The new D90 shows it quite badly on the brief demo clips that have appeared online, but how big a deal this turns out to be still remains to be seen once demo cameras become available to knowledgeable reviewers.

As for the Canon 5D MKII – I see no jello-ish artifacts. I’m not saying that they may not be there, but in the day of shooting that I did, taking quite a few shots to specially look for it, I didn’t see any.


Cards and Batteries

The camera shoots some 360 Megabytes per minute. That means a 4GB card will be able to record about 11 minutes. A 16 GB card about 45 minutes. Bring along lots of cards. Batteries as well. In just half a day of shoot I went though almost two batteries. But, since batteries and large capacity cards are relatively inexpensive, stock up.


The Video

Below is a brief introduction to the Canon 5D MKII along with some footage, attempting to show low light conditions (it was a dark rainy day after all), jello motion (none), and selective focus capability.

I make no excuses for the footage –it’s what could be done in the short time available to me (just a couple of hours). But I feel that it gives a sense of the exciting possibilities that the 5D MKII offers.

Click the Above Image
to play an 8′ 39" video which includes some
original low light / long lens Canon 5D MKII video footage

Just a word of caution as video clips from the 5D MKII and other camera start to become available online. Be careful of what you are looking at. No one is going to post raw out-of-camera footage at these data rates. And, even if they did, how would you view it? Even a quad-core 3 ghz fire-breathing computer can’t smoothly play back these data rates.

In other words, the footage needs to be transcoded. So when you read someone on the web nattering about what they are or aren’t seeing in video footage, try and figure out what is is they’re doing and how they might have been seeing it. There’s a whole new world of potential pitfalls for the unwary.



As soon as a production 5D MKII becomes available for testing I’ll be sure to spend some quality time with it, testing its stills as well as its video capabilities. These new combocams are going to require quite new ways of evaluation, and it’s going to take folks with some in-depth knowledge of video technology and production to give you the straight goods.

I’ve been working as a photographer and journalist but also alongside the video industry for some 40 years, and my business partner at theLuminous Landscape,Chris Sanderson, has been a commercial producer, director, cameraman and editor for a similar length of time. In the days ahead we plan on combining our talents to produce lots of in-depth coverage on the convergence of stills and video –combocamsif you will.

In fact we have recently starteda new sectionof our discussion forum devoted specially to this topic. Join us there. It’s going to be an interesting ride, and we intend on making the Luminous Landscape a home for product reviews, educational articles, video tutorials and lively discussions on stills / video convergence along with our usually in-depth coverage of the art and craft of still photography in all of its forms.

September, 2008

Michael Reichmann

Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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