Fish on Bicycle wins Tour de France

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It really shouldn’t work. Just when you think that the EX1 has the worst ergonomics of a supposedly professional camera, Canon unleashed the EOS 5D Mk2 (catchy name) onto the market with its mind-boggling video capabilities and even crazier ergonomics. Or lack thereof. The surge in uptake by video professionals has probably taken even Canon by surprise, so we’re not going to criticise the camera’s design for video use.

And yet it’s everywhere, changing the game. I came across the work of Dan Chung on the Guardian’s site recently. He’s filming and editing news reports on the EOS, sometimes in difficult situations. Candid yet cinematic, redefining what news footage can look like. On the other hand there’s a new breed of corporate movie about, where the image looks way better than the script.

Everyone’s talking about this camera. No, not just us camera geeks, I mean clients are talking about it. And when clients get excited about technology, something is up. It’s a bit like the Red camera, where there’s a certain amount of chest puffing in that this spot or that video “was shot on Red”. Suddenly, it’s all the rage.

Well, in the current economic climate, it’s all about doing more with less and the EOS 5D Mk2, hereinafter referred to as the 5D2, would seem to float that particular boat. What’s not to love? Wafer thin DoF, incredible low light performance, some amazing lenses, a discrete form factor, a bargain entry price based on current mid-size camcorders, and with all the buzzwords checked (HD, film look, progressive…).

But it’s not all sweetness and roses. The limitations are awesome. You’re stuck at 30fps, so there’s a whole load of pain to get to 24 or 25. The way you get from the true camera resolution to the mere HD resolution is rather truculent – just chuck out 3 lines out of every 4 – and that leads to aliasing on diagonal lines and twittering in areas of detail. Then there’s the footage, which needs to be slowly and painfully transcoded into something else if you want to actually edit it. Then you’ll have to switch the camera’s firmware to Magic Lantern in order to get some semblance of full manual control and obtain nicities such as audio level meters. Oh yes, and audio. You’ll either go back to the days of recording separate sound and synchronising the rushes, or you’ll need extra hardware bolted onto the camera.

And that leads me to the next biggie in this DSLR dance: hardware. The general consensus amongst users is that once you’ve got your 5D2, you’ll need some sort of audio hardware like a BeachTek or JuicedLink so you can plug in decent microphones, a decent shoulder brace, an eyepiece to enable you to view the rear screen as if it were a viewfinder, and you’ll want a few lenses at the higher end of the scale (wider aperture). Then you’ll need a truck load of high end CF cards, and not huge capacity ones as ML doesn’t like them.

So, in fact, when you tot it all up, to get as close as you can to camcorder functionality with usable audio, even with a few modest lenses, it’s going to be more than a Sony EX1. And even then it’s going to be a bit of a pig to edit – transcoding to an editing format like ProRes takes time (and it can take a LOT of time), but even then the images don’t take grading well. And are you going for 25fps to mix with other footage? And you want sound with that?
Above all this sits the footage. When done well, it’s sublime. Every time I see a good 5D2 sequence, I think I can forgive it its many, many shortcomings. But every time I do a job and pause to think ‘if this was an EOS job’, I get cold feet.

Of course there’s always the option of going for a DoF adaptor. Again, in the right hands, amazing things happen, but it requires careful setup and steals a little light in the process. And then there’s the Scarlet which may cause all bets to be off (and a recent glimpse of the prototype makes it look like a Cyberdyne Systems T101 take on the 5D2).

The 5D2 would seem to be a comfortable choice as a ‘special effects’ camera rather than as the centre of a whole system (though there are many people doing just that). A separate camera for doing ultrawides, long teles, the macro closeups, the timelapses, the extreme DoFs and so on. So long as you can play to its strengths and know how to work around its weaknesses, it’s an amazing tool.

So If I had a wodge of cash sitting about that could buy me another EX1, or a baseline Scarlet, or a top of the line DoF adaptor and a few classic lenses with cash left over, it could also buy a 5D2 rig. And I have this dread-tinged sinking feeling that I know exactly what clients will want…

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