DSLR Filmmaking: Canon Rebel T2i/T3i/T4i (550D, 600D, 650D) Filmmaking Quick Guide and Recommendations
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The Canon Rebel T2i (and also the T3i, T4i and T3 in fact) is an entry level DSLR camera with several advanced features that make it a great tool for amateur digital flimmaking.
If you've found yourself in need of an affordable camera for digital filmmaking, then the T2i could suit your needs perfectly.
First of all, it's one of the most affordable DSLRs with HD video. You can pick one up right now for $700 here with the Canon EF 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 STM kit lens, which is a perfectly useable lens for most situations. Or you can just buy the body of the camera for around 700. Maybe less used, but I recommend getting one new since it's already so cheap and you won't have to worry.
Canon T2i vs. Canon 7D or 60D
The Canon T2i is virtually the same camera as the Canon 7D with less functionality and a plastic body, but for half the price. It has an 18 megapixel sensor which is more than anyone needs, and it records FULL HD 1080 video at 24 or 30 frames, or 25 frames for you Europeans. It also records 720p at 60 fps, for slowing down for slow motion effects work. You can make beautiful videos with the T2i, which is why many people are making movies with it right now.
There are a couple drawbacks when comparing it to the 7D. The T2i does not allow you to dial in custom white balance numerically like the 7D or 5D Mark ii. It also does not allow you to dial in the ISO in small increments. You can only choose 100,200,400,800,1600, 3200, 6400, and 12800. The 7D and 5D Mark ii allow you to dial in the ISO in increments like 100,120, 200,250,320, etc.
The T2i is built like a consumer camera, which it is. If dropped, the T2i will probably break. I've dropped a 5D Mark ii on pavement several times and while it had a few dents, it kept on working perfectly.
The T2i is very small. It's not very comfortable to hold. More than likely you'll be working with it on some sort of rig like a Red Rock Micro, so that isn't much of a drawback. Being light is also a benefit because it won't make your arm sore like the 7D or 5D Mark ii.
The Canon 60D is a lightly beefier body than the T2i, adding a swivel LCD rear screen. Other than that they are very similar, offering the same image quality. I prefer the 60D because it uses the same long lasting batteries as the 7D and 5D Mark ii.
Canon T2i vs. other video DSLRs:
I've shot with a Nikon D800 and Panasonic GH4 and both offer sharper, higher quality images than the T2i when shot in good light. The differences aren't huge but since the T2i uses a crop sensor and it's a bit older now, newer technology cameras will create a bit better images. This might be important if you're shooting for TV, but for films and online videos the T2i is great.
Canon has been making DSLRs with video a few years now and they got it pretty right with their first attempt: the 5D Mark ii. The others offer different features and probably pretty comparable quality images, so I would just test them and see which one you like. If you already have Canon EF lenses lying around, then I would just get a Canon DSLR for video.
Like all Canons, it works perfectly. The menus and buttons are all easy to understand after some time learning them. Some of the buttons are not automatically discernable. Read the user manual that comes with your camera. Also, when you're in live mode, the functionality changes and you have to sort through your settings a little differently.
I recommend learning the T2i by opening the user manual and reading through it. That's how I learned on my first Canon DSLR, the Canon Digital Rebel. Once you know the camera's functions in and out, you won't be stuck in front your friends or a client, trying to figure out what button does what.
One of the biggest drawbacks to using the Canon T2i is the battery life. It sucks! Be sure to pick up several extra batteries and maybe a grip and an AC adapter. If this really bothers you, you might want to opt for the 7D which uses the same batteries as the 5D Mark ii which are awesome.
Many people don't like the Canon EF 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 STM kit lens because they say it has poor construction quality and has poor image quality. I think the images it makes are pretty darn good but agree it is poorly made. It also only costs 120 dollars new. There are many versions so make sure you get the newest version for the best image and build quality.
If you don't get the 18-55mm IS kit lens, you have several choices in the low end range and many many choices if your wallet is fat. Below I only make recommendations for a few affordable lenses. If you can afford the best, you probably won't be buying a T2i, you'll be buying a Canon 5D Mark ii and that camera requires different lenses which I cover in my 5D Mark ii quick guide.
Affordable Lens choices:
Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 ($400 right now) - This lens is a favorite of crop sensor DSLR owners because it is super wide and it's f2.8. It's a professional quality lens all around. This lens is not fully compatible with the 5D Mark ii, so remember if you plan to upgrade to the 5D you won't able to use it to its fullest potential - more specifically, the lens is designed for crop-sensor DSLRs like the T2i and 7D, not a full frame sensor camera like the 5D Mark ii or 1Ds Mark iii, so it only works at the 16mm setting.
Sigma 18-50mm f2.8-4.5 OS HSM ($200) - This is the most affordable lens that goes wide (18mm) and offers f2.8 for low-light shooting. It also has Optical Stabilization and HSM focusing (not needed for manual focus video shooting, but nice for shooting photos in AF mode). This lens is not compatible with the 5D Mark ii, so if you plan on upgrading to the 5D anytime soon, remember you'll be needed a different lens for it as well.
Canon 28mm f1.8 ($500) - This lens is great for low light with its f1.8 aperture. It also has USM focusing, again not necessary for video use but a good feature for AF use. You can use this lens on any Canon DSLR.
Canon 50mm f1.8 ($134) - This lens is a must have for any Canon DSLR owner. It's very sharp and makes great images. You could shoot your entire movie with this lens, but it isn't very wide so I'd use it in combination with something wider like the kit lens (18-55mm) or the Sigma 18-50mm f2.8-4.5. You can use this lens on any Canon DSLR.
Canon 70-200mm f4 L($700) - For the money this lens is one of the best values for professional grade grass. The only drawback is the f4, which really isn't too bad.
Canon EF 70-210mm f4 ($150 used) - A great value...basically the same quality images as the 70-200 f4 L but not the same build quality. It's a push-pull zoon, which is cool for quick zoom shots.
Canon EF 75-300mm f4-5.6 IS ($100 used, $200 new) - This lens gets a lot of criticism, but for an affordable telephoto for video it will work just fine. If you can find the IS version, you'll be even better off because that will help in the instance you want to try and handhold a shot for video.
Nikon Manual Focus and Manual Aperture Lenses
With the appropriate adapter you can mount Nikon manual focus lenses (and AF lenses that have an aperture ring) on your Canon DSLR to shoot video. They work wonderfully, so if you have older Nikon manual focus lenses lying around, don't worry, you can use these to shoot movies on your T2i.
You can always just rent lenses for a project. Websites like Lens Rentals offer any lens you want for pretty good rates.
Do the highest quality lenses make better video?
This is a good question. Because the video is compressed and not RAW or as large as JPEGs, one might think using lower quality glass is not as big a deal in video mode on a DSLR. From my experience, you can tell a difference in quality when using different lenses. I tend to believe that the faster a lens is, the better the images because you can keep the ISO lower. But I also believe that each lens has a look that it gives to the image that is unique. Wide angle lenses are more difficult to manufacture, therefore an expensive, high quality wide angle lens would be a good option over a discount wide angle lens. Telephoto lenses are usually sharper and make pretty images because they are easier to manufacture and the depth of field is so shallow and your subject stands out easier.
Bottom line, if you can use only Canon L lenses, you'll be better off than using discount off-brand lenses. For those on a budget, check out the lenses I recommended in the list above.
I've seen in magazines, filmmakers mounting film lenses on the 5D Mark ii. These require special adapters and a whole other level of equipment that is out of the budget range of many people. In my opinion, if you're going to pay the top dollar to rent or buy a film lens for a 5D Mark ii, why not use the money to rent a Red One or a real film camera?
Canon L lenses will make just as pretty an image as $20k film lenses. Film lenses are expensive because they are made for doing focus pulls all day long.
Lighting for your T2i/T3i
The T2i, T3i, 7D and 60D all offer virtually the same video quality in different bodies. They all offer beautiful, noise-free video from ISO 100-400, but after that you will begin to see digital noise, or grain. This differs from the 5D Mark ii and iii, as the 5D doesn't start to show much grain until ISO 1250 or 1600, allowing you to shoot noise-free video without as much lighting.
Don't make the mistake of thinking the T2i, etc. are as noise-free as the 5D. That's just not true. So, you need light. Whether you just shoot in daylight, harnessing the sun to keep your DSLR's ISO down to 100 or 200, or with some movie lights, some supplemental lighting will boost the quality of your production.
Using lights not only helps keep your ISO to clean levels, it also allows you to shoot at smaller apertures for easier focus and sharper images. Larger apertures look better, though, so it's up to you. Personally I shoot at f1.8 indoors and f2.8-5.6 outdoors depending on the situation. Lighting also helps you keep your shadows grain-free, as shooting in available light will reveal some grain in dark areas if you're not careful. You won't see this grain on your DSLR's LCD, but once in the computer you may see it. There are software plug-ins available for Final Cut that help eliminate video noise. I use these free plug-ins here.
There are some affordable LED film/video lights available on amazon, B&H, and adorama. They range from $20 for a simple portable light to a $500 LED panel that can recreate the sun. These LED lights are very popular for many reasons, one being they can run on batteries, another being they don't get really hot like standard movie lights. They are also more fragile so you have to handle them gingerly. Pro movie lights are made to be thrown around. Arri makes some great light kits.
Shooting Movies with the Canon T2i/T3i
Like in photography, cinematography requires lighting and your style depends on what you find pleasing to your eye. Some people don't like to use much artificial lighting, but they like using daylight to light their subjects. Daylight or sunlight is the biggest source of free light and in most cases if you have enough light, you can make pretty images. The T2i will also do a good job in low light with a fast lens (especially with a lens with f2.8 or f1.8) but you still need some light. If you crank up the ISO too high you'll risk too much grain in your images, which you may actually prefer, depending on what you like and the style of the project you're shooting.
In daylight there is more of a chance of pretty looking images if you adjust the camera to expose correctly for each situation. In a situation on a low budget when you're having to light a set, there is more of a risk of lower quality images. That's speaking from my low budget filmmaking experience. Of course if you have a big budget and a ton of lighting tools at your disposal then you can make pretty images with them. But if you have a big budget you may not be using a DLSR anyway.
If you're shooting in daylight or sunlight you might want a few lens filters like a circular polarizer and neutral density filters to attach to the lens. These help you to be able to keep the aperture wide on a fast lens in daylight, so your subject will look nice and crisp with a blurry background.
Basic settings on the T2i/T3i in movie mode
To get your T2i into movie mode, just turn the main dial until you have selected the camera. This is a pain in the butt, btw, because on the 5D Mark ii you just leave the main dial on M selection and hit the record button. On the T2i the camera icon is on the very far end of the main dial, annoying!
Once you've done that the camera's mirror will slap up and you'll see an image on the LCD. Now go into your menu and make sure you've selected the frame size and rate that you want. Most people leave it in 1080p 24fps all the time.
My general rule of thumb on the T2i is not to go above 400 ISO, but 800 ISO looks pretty good too, depending on the light. I try to keep the ISO at 100 as much as possible because it reduces the amount of video grain in the dark areas of the image. On the camera's LCD you don't see it, but once you get the images on your computer you might see grain on images at 400 or 800 ISO. This is why it helps to have a fast lens like the 28mm f1.8, so you can have your ISO at 100 more often, as opposed to an f4 lens where you'd have to set it at ISO 400 or 800. At f1.8 your depth of field is really thin, so not much is in focus. Be sure to double check your focus before shooting an important shot.
On the top right corner of the back of the camera, there are two buttons. One has a - symbol and the other a + symbol. While in movie mode you can zoom in with the + symbol to 5x and 10x to check focus. Hit the same button to go back to regular viewing.
Another thing to watch in your menu is your picture style. In picture style you can set contrast, saturation, sharpness, and color tone, greatly effecting the final image. You can even shoot in black and white! Many filmmakers like to set the camera to a neutral setting so all details are kept, then they tweak the color later in post. I like to shoot with saturation and contrast cranked up, so I see something closer to the final image that I want. I guess it depends on your taste and the project you're working on.
Also in movie mode, make sure your white balance is NOT set to auto. The camera will give you pretty accurate color while on auto, but while doing a pan or tilt or any camera motion, you will actually see the color balance change right before your eyes! That's a big no no if you want your final video to look decent.
If your camera isn't moving, auto is okay. Otherwise, use the present icons to find the color balance that looks good to you.
In indoor situations when you're shooting on available indoor lighting, use tungsten (lightbulb) setting.
Auto Lighting Optimizer
In movie mode in the second camera menu screen there is "auto lighting optimizer." this helps bring up the exposure of dark areas in your image. It can create more grain, however, so be careful. I usually leave it on standard, but you may choose to turn it off to rid of any grain, or on to help bring up nasty looking shadows.
Highlight Tone Priority
There's also "highlight tone priority" which helps control the highlights in your image. It is supposed to basically help the highlights look less intense but I can't tell much of a difference with it on or off, so I generally leave it off. It also forces the camera' s lowest ISO to be 200, which could cause more grain.
Recording and Memory Cards
Once you're in movie mode, just hit the camera icon button on the back of the camera (beside the viewfinder) to start recording. If your SD memory card is older and slow, it won't be able to record fast enough for video. Make sure to use a class 6 or higher SDHC or SDXC card. I have used a class 4 sandisk ultra 15mb/s with no problems as well.
Using a Rig
There are many rigs out there made specifically for DSLRs. They help stabilize the camera and help focus by offering a follow focus device that attaches to the lens. These rigs usually cost more than the camera, especially in the case of the T2i. I imagine most T2i owners are filmmakers who already own a 5D Mark ii or 7D and want a T2i as a second camera, or amateur who just want to mess around with a camera that can make pretty images. The filmmakers who have a budget probably already have rigs for their cameras, like the Red Rock Micro.
If you're an amateur with a small or no budget, a professional tripod is more important than having a rig. If you already have a pro tripod, maybe just swing for the follow focus for your T2i. You don't necessarily need the mattebox and all the other tubes and accessories when you're first starting out. The follow focus device will increase your T2i's ease of use one hundred fold.
Using a Tripod
I recommend using a high quality tripod with the T2i for smooth shots. Here is an example of a high quality, lower cost tripod. Consumer grade tripods with ball or geared heads are no good for video use. You need a fluid head. This is important if you plan on doing tilts and pans in your shots. Don't expect to be able to do this without a fluid head.
If you can't rent or buy or borrow any pro equipment and don't mind going handheld, the Manfrotto Fig Rig is a great option. I first saw filmmaker Matt Nunn using this tool. It's great, especially used with an IS lens.
If you have sand bags and are creative, you can do a lot of shots for free with your camera sitting on a sandbag. We've done dolly shots just dragging a few sandbags across the floor on a sheet with the camera sitting on the sand bags. Sandbags help for shots done from the top of ladders or in any precarious situation where you need stability in the short term to get a quick shot. It's a pain and I don't recommend working without some pro equipment.
Films Made on the Canon T2i
Click here, or find the Videos tab on the left side of the home page of movies among friends for movies that were shot on DSLRs like the T2i, 7D and 5D Mark ii.
MAF members Seth and Elizabeth Hall with Middle Eight Media made a mini doc that can be seen here on the Canon T2i.