Shooting movies with the Canon 5D mark II

I’m not a cinematographer. That’s what I got out of my movie shoot this weekend.

That being said, it’s worth noting that the Canon 5D mark II is just a brilliant camera, one capable of creating some incredible images and movies – in the tools of the right person. The transition between photographer and cinematographer is pretty huge – which looking back, is quite an obvious statement.

Regardless, back on track here. My wife (excellent writer) wrote a short screen play for a friend who hired her for a personal project. I sensed this would be a great opportunity to try out the Canon 5D mark II and it’s high definition video feature so I elected myself as “the guy shooting the movie.” This actually happened just before I received the camera back in December 08 and had not had the chance to play with it at all and was going off what Vincent Laforet had created with Reverie. I had also assumed back then that you could at least easily manipulate the camera into having some sort of manual control to ultimately make a cinematic masterpiece. Of course we now know it is not quite that easy.

So let’s talk movie making for moment. We had some great actors from George Mason University who had volunteered their time for this project, and let me tell you, having good professional actors is a great experience and a lot of fun to work with. They understood that the process with the camera was a little experimental (to say the least) but they were incredibly patient and I am very thankful of that. This post is going to be about my experiences shooting with this camera.


I had purchased a Rode Stereo VideoMic from B&H Photo ready for this shoot. I went with this option as I was on a strict budget (personally funded and the economy is kicking everyone’s ass right now) and it had been highly recommend to me by a few people. Plus, for $200 it’s actually quite a bargain. I had also planned to record directly into the camera as I felt that would be the best option for us. I had done a fair bit of testing prior to the first day of shooting and had some great results with some minor noise, but nothing applications like audacity couldn’t fix. I felt ready.

The first day of shooting (5am on a Saturday) was in the studio I work in (which my boss Matthew Langley had very kindly let us do). It’s a quiet studio with very little background noise from the outside and our computers are actually quite quiet, so it seemed perfect. We started setting up the first shots with the mic on a light stand with a hot shoe bracket to sit on that was facing the actors. We went ahead and shot some test shots and took the card with the first shots to a computer and loaded them up to have a quick look. Video – perfect, looked beautiful as expected. The sound… not so much.

As the room was so quiet, the Canon 5D mark II had upped it’s gain to the maximum setting meaning the dialogue was practically drained out by white noise and ‘esses’ and hums. If you are shooting audio in a very quiet environment with an external mic, take it from me – you must record it to a separate track. It’s a necessity. For this shoot we are using a MacBook Pro and Soundtrack Pro, part of the Final Cut Studio 2 package (thank you film students) and it was so much better having the mic plugged into the in-built audio input and then being able to monitor it with headphones. It is very important to change the recording frame rate to 30 fps as by default it is set as 29.7 fps.


During design meetings and story boarding sessions we had opted for a documentary filming approach to the cinematography, which was ideal for me as the Canon 5D mark II has no inbuilt image stability and relies on lenses for their IS, so it would be fairly shaky anyway. However, it’s hard not to be obnoxiously shaky with this camera. Anyone who has tried shooting without an IS lens will tell you immediately it cannot really be hand held for shots – think Cloverfield, but much worse. A heavy lens (24-70mm F/2.8L I am looking at you) is practically impossible to keep still. My friend who runs recently had a good write up on shaky shots and how that can be combated during shooting. There are some great ideas there, such as using the strap round your neck and pulling the camera far away from you to create tension and some stability, and this surprisingly works pretty well, however it does get a little uncomfortable after a while and your neck will hurt after an hours worth of shooting.

For this shoot, I used tripods, monopods and a modified video tripod to be like a steadycam rig, allowing me to hold the stem of the tripod with my left hand and the control arm on the tripod head to stabilize and guide the camera with my right hand. It worked really well for any motion/follow shots. I also worked with my wife at times where she would adjust the focus as I moved the camera around – just like in the real world. I avoided any zooming in however as it is very hard to stop any jerkiness from the zoom. For any stable still shots where a little sway in camera movement was noticeable, which was our desired effect, I used a monopod and that worked just fine.

Like I said before – hand held was out of the question, and for shooting this weekend, I went ahead and rented Redrock’s Micro shoulder mount from I will have a full write up on that once I have used it. Also check out for some tests on stability.


As many have said before me, and the samples you have seen around the web, the video quality is simply stunning. Regardless of light conditions, it exceeded my expectations every time. We really pushed the low light limits quite far and as long as I underexposed the shot, the noise level was very manageable. It is advised to keep the aperture as low as possible however. The lowest I was going to was F/1.8 with my 50mm, but I would have loved the 85mm F/1.2L!

The director of the movie had made specific requests after I had showed him some footage from various sources, and that was very shallow Depth of Field. I fully agreed as this is one of the big advantages of using this camera for video and taking advantage of those big aperture lenses. However, without manual control of aperture, you are extremely limited to what can be created unfortunately. Out of 100 shots in one scene, I never once let the camera choose my aperture. It was never right for the desired look and feel. Zero out of 100. It was a pain for me to compose the shot, roll the film, cover the lenses, press the AE lock button, uncover the lenses, press the AE lock button again to get a big aperture. On a shot I may re shoot several times, I do not want to do that every time – what a hassle.

So of course I used the lens twist method. It was so much easier. Would have been even easier with the manual Nikon lenses. On shots outside I had no choice but to do this, or else shoot at an aperture of F22 which gave an ugly home movie look and feel, something everyone wanted to avoid. The shot below is an example of the desired effect using the lens twist method on the 100mm F/2.8 Macro lens. Apparently it was rolling at 1/1000 at F/2.8 ISO 100 for this shot.

At the end of the day, if people want to use this camera for any short film making, they need some sort of manual control. And I am going to be pretty angry if it doesn’t come as a firmware update.

Focusing I found fun. I have become a fan of manual focus especially when getting creative, and the clips we have where the focus shifts between two people talking, or someone walking away from the camera looks really great. I do not see “no auto focus” as a disadvantage. Great and accurate results can be achieved with manual focusing. However, it can be tough moving and focusing at the same time – I recommend having an assistant to focus for you.


Not yet. I am still editing and shooting the film of course! It was fun to shoot with this camera for this 30/40 minute film and a massive challenge at the same time. As someone used to taking photographs it was a tough transition for motion personally as I had to become much more aware of consistanies between shots, hair is the right place, transitions, moving and focusing etc etc, but I learned a lot about the process and everyone so far is very happy with the results.

Unfortunately, I just don’t see people really taking it seriously to make films longer than 6-7 minutes for short documentaries with this camera in it’s current state. The lack of manual controls is just killing me. I know there have been some amazing videos out there without the use of manual controls on this camera, but the one thing they mainly have in common? They are all shot in dark settings where the aperture is large giving that excellent DOF people like. More to come as we finish up shooting this weekend



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