The Canon 5dmkII, a documentarian’s video camera?

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It’s been very hard work this shoot in Delhi for Greenpeace. Even though it is for essentially a 90 second ad break spot, we have lots and lots of material. Enough that it may be extended it to a mini-doc. Which begs the question…if I had know this would be more like a documentary would I have brought the Canon 5dmkII?

Certainly the lack of proper sound on it, the problems with wobbly shutter, the awkward form factor and the fact you need proper lenses on initially make you say no but the results speak for themselves don’t they?

With the Zacuto tactical shooter, Z-Finder, Manfrotto Monopod and Miller Ds20 Solo tripod it has made shooting a heck of a lot more possible with this awkward camera and there is no way I could have got what I got without this sized camera, with THAT sensor using mostly a monopod

Biggest problem I have had by far is the swapping of lenses. Apart from my 80-200mm all my lenses are fast primes which means of a lot of quick changes so actuality is a tough one. But with an assistant by your side it is possible…In future I would like the mid range f2.8 Canon zoom as a stock lens as it would have been very useful. Also the 2x extender for my 80-200 would be very useful. Just ordered one as I really needed some long shots and that 200mm didn’t cut it. I did borrow an f2.8 400mm Canon today but that is very expensive and a beast.

Interviews are a pain as you have that 12 minute clip issue, but to work round it just stop and start, it’s not too hard, shame about he sync clap each time! Of course audio needs to be recorded on a separate device and synced in post. Not too hard. The alternative is if you are editing to just stop and start the video but keep the audio recording and use pluraleyes plug in to do all the sync work for you!

The rolling shutter didn’t really raise it’s ugly head due to the stabilizers I was using and just about everything has worked just great. You just really need to go with the f2.8 zooms and maybe one fast prime like the 50mm f1.2 for doco work. Working mostly with just primes is too impractical.

I will be writing more in depth about this shoot soon with some moving images. In the meantime here are some ungraded frame grabs for you!
All screen grabs are copyright Greenpeace and cannot be reproduced or republished without permission.



Make a difference, we all can help. Visit Greenpeace for more info.


  1. I’ve been really liking the 24-105mm for that doc kind of stuff… not fast enough for low light, but I use the far end enough that I feel the 24-70 wouldn’t be as useful. Probably end up with both though.

    The 12 minute limit shouldn’t really matter – aren’t you using pluraleyes for sync? No need to clap each shot with that. I just let the H4n run through the full interview and just double-tap the record button on the camera whenever there’s a brief pause in the interview. I’ve done half a dozen interviews that way so far and it makes for a pretty seamless process, no need to interrupt the subject during the interview as long as you have a decent card size.

  2. Phil, loving the organic images you’re producing with the Mk11….. Are you finding yourself shooting more with post colour grading in mind because of the extra work needed to overcome the awkwardness of using the MK11??

    Cheers Rambo

      1. Canon produces better images, both still and moving images?
        Nothing to do with lenses? It helps a lot, isn´t it?
        This Canon is a superior machine than this Panasonic, without any doubt?

  3. > if I had know this would be more like a documentary
    > would I have brought the Canon 5dmkII?

    This is an interesting question. On the one hand, the images are top-notch, lush, very filmic. On another hand, does not “documentary” mean “realistic”? A common belief is that human eye has long DOF, and images shot with a small-chip camcorder are more “real” that images shot with an expensive large-chip camera using shallow DOF. My opinion on human DOF is that it is actually pretty shallow, I am typing on my computer and the wall 10 meters away is blurry. If I refocus to the wall the screen gets blurry. But humans usually don’t look at close and far objects simultaneously, so this refocusing goes unnoticed most of the time, hence the idea of long DOF of human vision. In movies and in your stills above we see blurry and sharp objects simultaneously, which is not the way we usually see real objects (this is I agree with). So, shallow DOF is not completely “real” after all. Which return us to the question: is it appropriate to use shallow DOF in documentaries? And should documentaries be “real”? A related question: provided an opportunity of shooting either 50/60 fps or 24/25 fps, should not a documentary director prefer the former as the more “real” format?

    1. I’m finding his work in India with the 5D VERY interesting. I do a lot of doc work not only in Asia but HD with a small chip camera. In my ideal world, interviews will be shot with shallow DOF but everything else long DOF.

      One thing I love about long DOF is that it brings the viewer into the location; surrounding them with the sights and sounds. Shallow DOF forces them to focus on the subject.

      Shallow DOF is supremely sexy as I’m sure we’ll all agree. Erego, I think a shallow DOF doc in any form would sell well.

      I like both…a lot. But getting both with one camera is well, hard.

      1. I forgot to mention the deal killer for me on this so far is the 12 minute clips. I find it very hard to imagine having to stop and start every 12 minutes.

        Most of my work is done with people very unfamiliar with video. This means I like to be as unintrusive as possible. While I like the form factor, interrupting my subject once they finally get rolling is something I’d like to stay away from.

        1. agreed but there is very simple way around it. Use pluraleyes to sync sound and around 10 minutes when you get a pause quickly say excuse me, stop and start very quickly and very little flow is lost

          1. Sorry Phillip, I should have mentioned that I edit primarily on Adobe. I’m thinking this would be a perfect second camera to a primary as much as I would LOVE to use this as a primary. I’m interested to see what Red does with the Scarlet.

        2. Having shot probably 60 hours of interviews using two 5Ds in interview settings on some very emotional subject matter, I must say that pausing for 30 – 45 seconds every 11 min or so is quite natural and unobtrusive to maintaining the focus of the interview. Having a smart slate running secondary audio system makes sync a breeze.

          Love your work btw.

          1. thanks Scott. What i have been doing on this doc and the director doesnt need his questions is i button off and on around 9-10 minutes in during a questions and leave sound running. using pluraleyes plug in i dont need clapper board or sync point so its really easy.

            1. good point Philip. I just read your blog about Delhi. I’m off to Shanghai, Mumbai and London over the course of the next week shooting “good design” b-roll. My fellow photographer and I will be shooting 5Ds with super small crew (read: knowledgeable driver) so I’ve set the challenge for us to pack all of our camera gear into 1 backpack each and share a tripod case. Notice that you have a Kata bag….served you well?


    2. It’s such a loose term, documentary. The great thing is yes you can take amazing stills and video with this camera. HUGE plus. Downside are all the things have mentioned countless times before. Can you have shallow DOF in a doc? Why not? There are no rules.I try and make my docs as filmic as possible, others like theirs to be as realistic as possible…it’s down to preference. don’t forget deep DOF in on the 5d is very easy with higher ISO and close down iris.

      Me, I hate 50fps. I want 24/25 as it’s that whole filmic thing that I have been striving for in my career for years, even in News.

  4. Seriously, philip,

    Would you let go all of the other cameras you have, to shoot everything else with this 5Dmk2?

    Just say I’m going to start filming towards the pro side, should I get a 5Dmk2 or a HDV cam or EX3 kind of camera’s.

    Seeing you with this love 5Dmk2, makes me feel like a 2 in one option. Great picture quality & great video.

    I have no idea, this 5Dmk2 seems to just improve as you change lenses! The quality is what you get out of the lenses. This now cant be compared with a HDV which is pretty darn expensive? Is this small little camera some kind of devil rival for all pro cams out there??

    Brief me my friend.

    1. NO WAY! Shooting stuff on 5d is hard. I pined for my EX3 on many occasions. From lack of slow motion, to lack of timelapse, to lack of sound, the horrible camera skew. LOVE the image but it’s no proper video cam replacement.

      The codec is also very problematic and the compression isn’t always good. But despite all these flaws I adore using it, but only for certain jobs

      1. Would you reconsider at all with the 7D? It would be great to think that I could get by doing travel documentaries with just it.

        This seems pretty intense:

        And can one not focus without the whole rig? I shoot stuff on a Pro HD camera handheld…could this be that much worse handheld?

        Thanks. Certainly confusing, but would be great to have my radio kit, still kit, and video kit all in one. No more lost bag concerns in Johannesburg or wherever or excess weight junk. Focusing on the fly scares me.

        Thanks Philip

  5. phil,

    short films/docs is want i want to do with the 5d2. i’ll have the lcdvf soon (u know, the one being discussed on but having messed about with bits and pieces trying to come-up with a diy rig, it’s apparent that given that the cam needs to shifted sideways so ur eye can get clamped to the vf, a diy rig wpn’t be straight-forward.

    any thoughts re: producing something that gives the setup form-factor of the zacuto at A LOT less cost. i wish zacuto would come-up with a budget version of their stuff – they would have a bigger market no doubt…someone like me who at the moment makes a very small % of their income from using the 5d2 will not be in a position to justify dropping that amount of money. shame really….would love to be able to shoot with such a rig.

    1. I am hoping to get that lcdvf but not heard back.

      I know zacuto are planning a cheaper range at some point. But check out their basic rapid fire kit as it’s cheapest and works great. I can get you discount.

  6. Hey Philip, you’re a badass! Great work. I was wondering, have you experienced any dropped frames while recording at high ISO? In my experience as well as others, the camera will occasionally repeat a frame 2 times, so there is a skip in the action. It has mainly happened at 3200 and above ISO. It has never happened at 160, 320, 640, 1250 and 2500 ASA.

  7. Looking forward to seeing the end result. I envy you the use of the Rapid Fire and especially the Z finder. I am just back from the US but wasn’t anywhere long enough to pick one up there. I got to B&H in NYC 10mins from closing which is a bit like being a kid let in a sweet shop and then dragged straight back out again. Still managed to buy a lens though before they got me back out of the door 😉

    Which monopod did you use? I took a 560B with me which is the smallest in the Manfrotto video range. It made a big difference when I got to use it but this was only a family holiday and my teenage kids would groan with embarrassment and disown me as soon as I took it off the bag. Having video and stills in one package rather than in two meant I got a lot more footage and stills than I would have carrying two devices. The biggest problem is weight both in operation and just general lugging about. The 5D2 body is no lightweight on its own and with even a 17-40L on, you would not be worrying about only having ONLY 12mins shooting handheld. Shallow DoF looks great but its not easy to manage in holiday footage which must be the least planned form of documentary. By definition, it means that nearly everything is out of focus. Getting the right bit in focus without the Z-finder with something like an 85F1.8 is hard on the LCD screen especially if the subject has the audacity to move. I am short-sighted and I have to peer over my specs to see the LCD or through them to see the viewfinder. This also will embarrass your kids and they seem to retaliate in the modern fashion which is to take their own pictures of your comic expressions and post them on Facebook!

    The lens I bought in B&H is the Tamron 28-300f3.5-6.3 VC. I know its not an L class lens and not going to deliver shallow DoF like a 2.8. However, there are times when you just want to travel light or inconspicuously and you don’t want to lug along a 10Kg bag with you. It has a zoom range similar to a palmcorder or a small bridge compact. The VC works silently unlike the Canon and is physically about the size of the 17-40. Optically it is softer than an L especially at the long end but I suspect the lower resolution of video and the different aspect ratio are going to mask that. As for shallow DoF, I am going to try and stand a bit further away and zoom more – I am sure my kids will approve of that.

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