GEAR: Canon 5D Mark II

For most it’s not that easy. For me it was a no-brainer.

You’re at the base of Mount Everest, you’re freezing cold and you’ve stuffed heat warmers down your underpants. You’re staring up at this giant journey ahead of you contemplating two things: where do I start, and am I out of my goddamn mind? At least one of the two questions are easy to answer; it will inevitably be yes.

Old Movie CameraSeeing as though I haven’t made it up the mountain yet, it would be foolhardy to assume to tell you where exactly to place your first pick. The truth is, any number of routes may get you to the top. Some may suck. Others may drain your wallet. I’ve done both. So all I can do is share my journey with you, one piece of equipment at a time.

The picture up top in the header was taken the day I picked up my body. No lenses. No fancy attachments. Just the camera. Bare bones.

I had my eye trained on a Canon 5D Mark II for longer than I can remember. It has been revered as the digital film industry’s equivalent to Robin Hood. It has stolen a quality granted only to the rich, and offered it to the poor… well, poorer. Canon was the first to offer filmmakers the opportunity to shoot on a consumer camera in 1080P on a full frame sensor.

Now I can’t tell you all the things I don’t know, and all the things I don’t know are generally technical details. I’m not so inclined to decipher what exactly makes a CMOS whatever-you-call-it work better than a doohickey counterpart. What I can address are the specifications that make sense to me.

A full frame sensor. Alright, I can tackle that. It likens the photosensitive part of the digital camera to that of a piece of 35mm film – which if you’re like me, is what I grew up using. Previously the sensors on video cameras – or cameras with video capabilities – had been up to 1/10th the size, and this is in an industry where size matters.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IIThe mechanics are really quite simple. The larger the sensor, the more light it can capture in a moment. Since the world we see is simply a constant reflection of the light shone upon it, the more light you pick up, the more detail you see. It’s much like the difference between looking through the peep-hole versus opening the door itself. You can’t argue they are one and the same.

Dynamic range. Now this is a term I forget constantly, despite understanding the concept quite thoroughly. Dynamic range is the amount of space that exists between the brightest points of your image and the darkest. A camera with limited dynamic range would be like a stick drawing where you have dark and you have light and that about sums it up. The 5D Mark II is a little more like an artists’ portrait, where they use a variety of led to give the shade the image in multiple degrees of intensity giving it depth and character.

Where a camera like the Panasonic HVX-200 (which I had graduated from) strains to hit seven stops of dynamic range, the 5D Mark II covers 10 in video mode and an extra two for photos.

Another attractive quality to the Canon was the high-end ISO setting of 6400, which produced a product with reasonably low distortion. In a time when we loaded our cameras with film instead of flash cards, the ISO would indicate the sensitivity of the film to light. The higher the ISO, the lower light situations it was capable of handling. With now the chemical process completely removed, the digital age allows one to shoot at multiple ISO levels in a single outing.

Now reader be warned, a camera’s responsiveness to ISO levels are about as identifying as a thumb print. No two models are alike.

The ISO on the 5D Mark II works off of steps of 200. This is where it gets tricky. It would be simple if the camera just read 200, 400, 600, 800. But no such luck. If you check the ISO settings on the Canon, you’ll see 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500… and so on. This is because is stepped down to provide the 160 option but over cranked to produce 250. The same is the relationship between 400 and both 320 and 500. The resulting difference creates far more distortion on the top end (250, 500, etc) than at the stepped down 160, 320 and so on.

Doesn’t make sense? Well, I’m sorry. Just trust me when I encourage you to work with multiples of 160. It will provide the cleanest image from the camera.

Canon 5D Mark II RigThe popularity among filmmakers who could now afford to shoot digitally on a full-frame sensor paved the way for a plethora of accessories for the 5D Mark II. When you’re not getting lost in the cages, monitors, auto-triggers and power solutions built specifically for this Canon product, a simple look through the ample Canon EF lens line (the lens series compatible with the Mark II) offers more than enough reason to splurge on the camera. It was one of my main deciding factors – that’s why I’m saving a detailed rundown for a time when my fingers aren’t already starting to cramp.

Even now, five years after its release, the camera still remains popular among independent and documentary filmmakers. Recently Magic Lantern (an independent Canon firmware company) released news that they had found a way to pull 2K raw files from the camera – a resolution nearly double that of standard 1080P with all the added post-production perks of working with raw footage.

Now, I won’t lie. I’ve been eying the Canon Cinema line as well as the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera in thoughts of upgrading. The price-point however will be nowhere near the Mark II’s $1,600 MSRP. Whether you’re on a budget or not, the Canon 5D Mark II is still a viable option most would still consider.

Below is the first video ever captured on my 5D. I had picked up a loner lens (75-300 f/4-5.6) just to start tooling with the camera. Even with a slower lens I was taken by its action in my dimly lit condo.

Yep, I’m in love.


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