Camera Corner
The Canon 5D Mark II
November 2008

by Dirck Halstead

The camera that so many, especially Platypai, have been waiting so long for will finally hit stores in December.

The Canon 5D Mark II is a remarkable instrument. Not only is it a 21-megapixel camera that takes amazing photographs, but it is also one of the first of the "hybrid" cameras. It takes full 1080p High Definition video. As more and more photojournalists find themselves confronted with "multi-tasking" in their jobs, providing both stills and video, this is a major step that points the way to the future of the industry.

© Dirck Halstead
Canon 5D Mark II

Nikon beat them to the punch with its D90 hybrid, which we reviewed last month []. However, the D90 does not have external audio capability, which is a severe disadvantage for anyone trying to use the camera professionally. Canon, with its years of experience in manufacturing video cameras, did not make this mistake. There is a mic in outlet, which when combined with a BeachTek XLR adaptor permits you to use multiple audio devices, and have level control.

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The amazing thing about both the Nikon and the Canon is that early reviewers have almost all given little attention to the video capability. They mention towards the bottom of their reviews that the camera has "Live View" but don't seem to realize how this feature will change the entire camera industry. Even Nikon and Canon put this feature towards the very bottom of their own Web sites. As David Leeson said last month about the D90, he would advise them to "shout loud and clear" about it.


The 5D Mark II is a major improvement on the earlier 5D, which was announced in 2005. That camera was the first of its type (DSLR), which featured a compact body, not having the usual integral vertical grip, and produced full-frame images, meaning that a 50mm lens took a 50mm picture. The camera was an instant hit.

The camera uses Canon's CMOS sensor, which is processed by DIGIC 4 image processors before being written to the camera's memory card. The result is stunning images. A key feature that helped lead the way to the integration of the LIVE view video is that the DIGIC chips work fast enough to allow the camera to keep the buffer clear during extended series of shooting bursts, which can be shot at 3.9 frames per second.

It also has a sensor clearing feature that works automatically to reduce, repel and remove dust from its infrared filter.

© Dirck Halstead
Rear view of the Canon 5D Mark II showing LCD info menu display. Video REC/PAUSE button is in the center of the control dial.

It also allows the photographer to preset individual picture styles with in-camera control over image quality. They are similar to using different film types, offering different color response. We suspect that this technology emerged from the video division, as these presets have been standard on the higher-end video camcorders for several years. The camera's default configuration is set to deliver immediately-enable JPEGs, without need for additional menu settings. Picture Style presets applied to a RAW image can be revised with Canon's Digital Photo Professional Software, which ships with the camera.


Of course, what the pros are looking at is the ability of the camera to shoot HD video. This is the new frontier. Newspaper photographers who have had to lug around a video camcorder in addition to their still gear have been anxiously awaiting this feature.

Here is where the story of the 5D Mark II gets complicated. Still cameras and video cameras are inherently different. They perform different functions and require different skill sets. It is really like mating a horse and a cow. Something unexpected happens in the process.

The first thing that happened was something nobody had even dreamed about. The camera does not just shoot video, but it shoots video like nobody has ever seen before. To understand why, it is necessary to understand a basic problem that filmmakers have with video. They like to shoot using film and standard (prime) lenses. A 50mm lens on a Panavision camera gives you a 50mm image. Depending on aperture used, the resulting picture can have a relatively shallow depth of field. This is used to isolate characters in a story to draw your eye to them. Today, with many filmmakers having switched to video using high-end cameras such as the Sony CineAlta, it is necessary to use a special adaptor that fits between the lens and the camera to allow the use of these prime lenses. Actually, Canon has been offering such an adaptor for their XL series for years. However, the cost of these prime lenses is far higher (in the multiples of 10s) than their still camera counterparts.

The optical reason is that in all video cameras, the sensors are basically right up against the lens and are relatively small. That is why the focal length of 10x video zoom ranges from 4.5mm to 90mm, which approximates the field of view of a 35mm still lens of 35mm-480mm. Because of the law of physics, there has never been a way to achieve true shallow depth of field in video, no matter how expensive the camera.

But on the way to adopting a still camera to shoot video, using standard 35mm lenses, the engineers (both at Nikon and Canon) discovered that a 50mm lens in stills and 50mm lens in video had exactly the same depth of field. That is because the sensors are located behind the mirror, almost back at the film plane, and by taking advantage of the increased sensor size that the still camera utilizes, the LIVE VIEW sees the image in the same way relative to depth that the still camera does.

Photographer Vincent Laforet, after experimenting with the camera for three days, understood the staggering implications. He produced a short film using the 5D Mark II, that took not only Canon, but also the industry by storm. Not only did it truly have that "filmic" look, isolating the characters, but it also achieved a level of black that had never been seen on video. Take a look at his night shots of New York.


To see how Vince created his film go to

As veteran TV photojournalist Shawn Holmes of NBC NEWS 4 in Columbus, Ohio, exclaimed when shown the Laforet movie during our Platypus Workshop in Chicago last month, "OH MAN! IF I COULD ONLY SHOOT VIDEO LIKE THAT!"

At this point I can imagine you drooling over your keyboard. What's not to like in a camera like this that you will be able to buy for $2,600?

Well, it goes back to that damn horse-cow thing.

A still camera is built to shoot stills. A video camera is built to shoot video. When you try to combine them into one instrument, you run into series of problems, not the least being ergonomics.

A still photographer takes pictures using the viewfinder, held to his or her eye. The camera is grasped firmly in the right hand, while the left supports the lens.

© Dirck Halstead
The back of the Canon 5D Mark II showing the LIVE view activated. The Platypus is having a good time in Chicago.

A videographer does much the same thing. His/her thumb is on the PLAY/RECORD button, either using the eye viewfinder or an LCD, but he/she still supports the camera with the left hand.

However, when adapting the still camera to video, Canon had to use the eye viewfinder to compose the STILL photographs. That operation is the same as always. However, they could not figure out a way to display the LIVE (video) image in the same viewfinder. Instead they display that image on a 3-inch LCD on the back of the camera. Rather than have the PLAY/RECORD button on the grip, next to the still release, they placed it on the back of the camera in the center of the control dial. What this means is that any video shot is inherently unstable. The camera body needs to be grasped with both hands, meaning you cannot give any support to the lens. This makes the camera extremely problematic in photojournalism situations. We were able to get reasonably steady shots using wide-angle lenses such as the 16-35mm f2.8, but once the lenses got any longer than that it was virtually impossible. We do have a tip that we have already passed on to Canon. USE THE NECKSTRAP! Extend the strap out from your neck, and use it to help you brace.

This ergonomic issue is the Achilles' heel of the camera as far as video goes. Video must be steady at all times to work. It is the first rule: HOLD THE CAMERA STEADY!

Vince Laforet got his stunning results by using a creative mix of tripods and lights, and has even jury-rigged his own steadicam brace which makes the little camera package about the size of a Betacam.

Another problem with using still camera lenses for video is that they are BIG. In contrast, think of the size of the lens on the little HV30 that gives you a 10X zoom. They are also slow compared to video lenses, which average about f1.8.

Canon does not recommend trying to auto focus using the LIVE feature. It is very slow, and since you can't hold the camera steady the auto focus doesn't know what you are trying to focus on. One useful technique while manual focusing is to engage the 10X LCD viewer.

Also, exposure controls in the LIVE mode can drive the operator crazy. When an optic is put on the camera, it will automatically open up to the maximum aperture. That leaves the operator with having to use the exposure compensation control for exposure, but all that is doing is increasing and decreasing gain or noise. It performs exposure adjustment by controlling the following settings in this order:

1.) ISO

2.) SHUTTER SPEED (1/30th-1/125th)


When using the supplied lithium battery we got about one hour of video out of a charge. After taking about 20 minutes of continual video, the camera needs to "rest" for a few minutes. We were using a 16-Gig flash card that holds about one hour of HD video.

So, unless you are going to use a tripod or steadicam mount you need to understand that this camera is NOT a video camera.

It is a superb still camera, at a reasonable price, and can do wonderful things within reason.

Canon should be congratulated on coming so far in creating a new hybrid for photography, and we are confident this is only the first step in totally redefining how photographers work.

BTW, Vince Laforet is now getting calls from Hollywood studios! That's what makes America great!

[DISCLAIMER: CANON is a sponsor of The Digital Journalist. They have no influence over reviews Camera Corner. The opinions are those of the editors.]

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© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from