Canon 5D Mark ii Quick Guide


To highlight the huge price drop we've been seeing in used Canon 5D Mark ii bodies, I thought I'd write up a quick guide for new users. There should be plenty of filmmakers out there buying up these full frame 1080p 24fps cameras, because it's one of the best deals ever on a camera of this kind. 

In fact, the Mark ii and 7D are on deep discount here and here. For filmmaking, these cameras deliver top quality for little cost. Shop around on B&H and Adorama as well until you find the best deal...these bodies are going to be discontinued soon.  


The 5D Mark ii shares much of its functions with the original 12mp 5D Classic that was introduced in 2005. These cameras are very simply designed and easier to use than their modern counterparts like the 5D Mark iii, etc. The Mark ii has a very simple menu design and movie mode function. 


Movie Mode

Make sure your camera has been set to allow for movie recording first. To do this, go to the live view menu and click through the live view settings to ensure that you've selected stills/movies. If this isn't selected you may not be able to record movies. This option is for still photographers who don't want to worry about accidentally actuating the live view mode and wearing out the battery. 

To get into movie mode you just press the movie mode button that resides to the left of the viewfinder. This brings the image to your LCD screen. To begin recording, press the set button which is in the middle of the control wheel on the back of the camera. That's it. Now you record your movie.

Movie Menu

To get to your movie menu to select frame size and frame rates (there are only three options for that - 1080p 24fps or 30fps or 640x480 at 30fps) you press the menu button then click over to the second yellow wrench menu screen and click down to Live View/Movie func. set. That's it. In this menu you can also select whether you want to record sound and a few other options. 

The SD, 640x480, video mode works fantastic and I love using it when I want to save disk space for hobby projects. I know, you buy an HD camera to use the HD capabilities right? But with the gorgeous shallow depth of field even 4:3 video looks awesome. 


Picture Style in Movie Mode

The genius thing about the Mark ii is that Movie Mode is basically just Live View until you hit record, so all of your picture style settings and white balance, everything, are the same as normal stills shooting. It's incredibly simple and intuitive. It's amazing how easy and smart it is to use compared to the Nikon D800's movie settings, which are all separate from stills mode, so I constantly am forgetting which mode I am in and have to change the settings for each mode separately. I still can't figure out why Nikon designed it that way. Well, I can: they want photographers to have the ability to have two separate settings for different situations, but this doesn't help me much because when I'm in a situation where I want to shoot video and then pop off a few pics, I have to make sure both settings are the same anyway so my exposures are good. Anyway, with the Mark ii you don't have to worry about all that.



5D Mark ii with 100-300 f5.6L (not a recommended lens for shooting movies)

The Mark ii is really a joy to shoot. It really leaves the work to you, the cinematographer, once you figure out the settings. Choose M for Manual mode and leave it there. The other modes, like AV (aperture value) will choose an exposure for you. So when you pan or tilt the camera will expose for that light, kind of like what you see in consumer camcorders. For run and gun this mode is helpful, but for filmmaking, just leave it on M and adjust your settings yourself to get the look you want. 


To adjust the shutter speed, click the main control dial with your pointer finger. To adjust the aperture with an EF lens, click the control wheel on the back of the camera. These two control dials have been the same on Canon EOS cameras since early in the 1990s. See below photos.


5D Mark ii rear control dials. The wheel is, well, the wheel - adjust aperture with it


To adjust ISO, just press the ISO button near the camera's top display and click with the main control dial. 

Main Control Dial, ISO and WB adjustments on the Mark ii



I like to pop on my Nikon 50mm f1.4 with an adapter and go to town. The 50mm on the 5D acts like a 50mm, so it's pretty wide and I can cover lots of shots with it. Of the features I've shot with the 5D, all of them used the 50mm focal length for at least 50% of shots. You could really shoot your whole film with it. 


If you need something wider, just use a 28mm prime or for really wide stuff use a 20mm prime. For closeups you can use a 100mm portrait lens, and for some special shots you can use a 75-300 or a 100-300 zoom, or a 400 or 500mm prime. 


Personally I'd just rent some lenses for a production. They are so expense and there are so many to choose from that it'd just be easier and more fun to rent them to try them all out. A lot of third party lens makers are producing cinema lenses with the follow focus gears built into them. Sweet! 


If I had to recommend some lenses that are cheaper and actually affordable for the low budget indie filmmaker, then I'd recommend a 50mm f1.8, 28mm f1.8 or f2.8, an 85mm f1.8 and a 100 f2.8

EOS Mount

The EOS mount is such a popular mount that you'll always have a huge selection of lenses, with even some third party lens makers including electronic contacts for aperture control and metering. Some newer cameras, like the BlackMagicDesign Cinema cameras, are using the EOS mount as well, so if you have both the Mark ii and the BMCC on a shoot, you can easily swap lenses. The EOS mount also easily accepts Nikon, medium format, and other lens mounts with the use of simple adapters (some adapters even include electronic contacts for metering as well). 

Image Quality

The Mark ii uses a full frame 21mp sensor, so it has plenty of resolution for a 1920x1080 video frame. The camera compresses pretty heavily to achieve this 1080p frame, so the end result is a great quality but compromised H264 video file. It's too bad it can't record 4000x2000 for super high quality video, but it really does a good job at what it does, and if it did record larger files, that would bog down the whole process- which would sort of defeat the real benefit of this style of camera, size and portability and it's ability to help you shoot quickly. 


One of the biggest issues people bring up is anti-aliasing, causing moire in the image. This is seen when you shoot outside like trees and grass and in details like bricks on the side of a building or on someone's plaid shirt. Since I can remember video has always had issues with moire. Here's a link describing the causes and some nifty solutions to the problem. It's really nothing too huge to worry about. Turning down the sharpness in your picture style menu helps this. Also, using a weak diffusion filter helps smooth out details and get rid of moire. 


A lot of people complain about the rolling shutter effect in the image that happens when you pan the camera. This issue is seen when the camera moves around a lot, and especially looks bad at 24fps. At 30fps things are smoother, and also remember to try to keep your shutter speed at 1/50th or 1/60th or lower to reduce this effect.

What I have to say about this issue is: who cares? Well, for people shooting action, events, any time they do a lot of quick pans, etc., then you should think about whether this is an issue for you. From my experience, it's not enough of a problem to stop me from using the camera, and there are solutions in post processing. 

For people shooting films with lots of static shots or low energy shots, then it's really not a problem. 


Bottom line on image quality is this: the Mark ii is like any other video camera ever made. The quality of the image is in the cinematographer's hands. The camera creates a beautiful image if you know how to light and compose.


Some tips on lighting 

If you want a beautiful image, don't shoot your subject in direct light. On any decent film production, they use large diffusion panels that cover their actors, diffusing harsh sunlight into beautiful studio quality light. Some times you might want harsh direct light, like to silhouette a character so they stand out from the background, bu for the most part, harsh direct light will blow out your highlights and you'll complain that the camera doesn't deliver- no, it delivers, but you have to control the light. 


Balance your key light and background light. It depends on what you're shooting and the style you prefer, but more often than not your image will look great when the subject and background are balanced. That means, in the simplest of terms, you might hit the subject with a key light on one side and then put a light on the wall behind them in the background. Add a rim light to make the subject really stand out. You see this type of lighting in almost every production. Some shows, like Sopranos, or NYPD Blue used less key and rim lights to give a more realistic or noire look. It's all about what you want it to look like, so don't take my word for it. 


No Professional Video Camera Viewfinder

Professional video and film cameras have always had nice clear viewfinders to help you compose your shot. On DSLRs like the Mark ii you don't have this luxury. This is probably the biggest drawback of cameras like this. The camera in movie mode basically functions like a point and shoot. It's annoying, but easy to get used to and there are workarounds. One is to use a larger external HD monitor mounted above or beside the camera. Another options is to use an eye cup viewfinder that mounts on the camera's rear LCD. Both of these options are awkward, but the best for me would be to use one of the LCD viewfinders that feature a 90 degree tilt function so you can look down through the finder while shooting. I'm not even sure if anyone makes one like that so you're sort of stuck if two decent, but not so great options. The monitor option is great, but on the Mark ii you can only see through one display at a time, so if you have a monitor connected then you won't be able to see the camera's real LCD at the same time. 

HDMI output is only 480p

The Mark ii has a limited HDMI output of 480p. This is good enough to get a useful sharp image to an external monitor or focusing, etc., but forget about running full 1080p HD to an external recorder or recording uncompressed HD like you can with the D800 and other HD cameras. This isn't a deal breaker for most, as the Mark ii's strength lies in its portability and the quality of the image it creates in such a small file size. 



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