Forget the extra megapixels, forget the feature upgrades; perhaps the most talked about aspect of the EOS 5D Mark II when it was announced last fall was its ability to capture high definition 1080p movies. Only a year ago the very idea of a movie mode on a DSLR was unthinkable, now the 5D Mark II joins the Nikon D90 at the vanguard of this brave new era of convergence between the worlds of the SLR and camcorder. The 5D Mark II may be one of the first with this feature, but it most assuredly won't be the last - it seems likely that video will eventually be as common on future DSLRs as live view is today. Of course exactly how well a DLSR performs as a camcorder replacement for serious users is debatable, but the ability to shoot movies with a large sensor and high quality lenses - and familiar controls - is undoubtedly appealing.

With the release of firmware version 1.1.0 for the 5D Mark II, Canon has enabled a degree of manual control over video shooting. The text below has been updated to reflect this.

Video specification

The 5D Mark II offers true HD video capture at 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080p) at 30 frames per second. The built-in internal microphone captures mono audio (and unsurprisingly the quality isn't great) - if you want stereo you'll need to plug an external mike into the socket on the side of the camera. There is a small built-in speaker for video playback in-camera.

Sizes 1920 x 1080 (1080p)
640 x 480 (VGA)
30 fps
Audio 44.1kHz Mono (Internal Mic), 3.5mm external microphone jack
Format Quicktime MOV using H.264 codec, PCM codec for audio
File size 4.8 MBytes/sec (1080p), 2.2 MBytes/sec (VGA)
Max file size per clip 4.0 GB
Running time 12 min for 1080p, 24 min for VGA
Controls in manual mode ISO speed: Auto, 100-6400, H1
Shutter speed: 1/30 - 1/4000 sec
Full aperture selection

Using Movie Mode

On the EOS 5D Mark II movie recording is only available when live view mode is activated - there is no dedicated movie recording mode on the camera. Before you can get going movie recording must first be activated under the Live View/Movie Func. set menu, where you can also select the resolution for movie recording. Once enabled simply press the set button on the back of the camera to start or stop movie recording in live view mode.

Auto focus during movie recording works in the same way that it does in normal live view mode, meaning that if it is activated in live view mode, it is available during movie recording (press the AF-ON button to focus). Since all sounds are recorded during movie recording, and any in-camera sound is magnified (including the aperture changing), using AF with the internal mic is not recommended, neither is using in-lens IS. Unlike a conventional camcorder there's no continuous focus option, and to be honest the focus is so slow that you would never use it whilst filming.

Just like Canon's more advanced Powershot cameras you can interrupt movie recording to capture a still by pressing the main shutter release, and movie capture recommences one the still has been taken.

It is advisable to have at least the basic level of information displayed for movie recording, as this gives the user feedback on the aperture, shutter speed and ISO being used by the camera. Exposure is fully automatic in all modes except manual; as you change the exposure level using exposure compensation - or the scene brightness changes - the camera will adjust the aperture and ISO (no matter what ISO value you choose the camera will switch into auto ISO mode once movie recording begins) - you can check what's happening with a tap of the shutter button.

Manual control in movie mode

On its release the 5D Mark II offered no real user control of exposure settings in movie mode, but following some rather vocal feedback from users, Canon enabled full manual control with the release of Firmware 1.10. The implementation is a little quirky, but essentially you gain the ability to set the ISO sensitivity from 100 to 12800 (or simply use Auto), select shutter speeds from 1/30 sec to 1/4000 sec, and use any aperture available on the lens. These controls give you a huge amount of flexibility, allowing at one extreme filming in extremely low light, and at the other shooting for shallow depth of field in bright light.

To gain manual control of video, you first have to set the mode dial to the 'M' position; in semi-auto modes such as Av and Tv, exposure defaults to fully automatic. Specific live view settings also have to be enabled in the menu; in the 'Live View/Movie Func. set.' submenu, 'LV func. setting' must be set to 'Stills+movie' and 'Screen settings' to 'Movie Display'. Once in Live View all of the exposure parameters will now be controllable in familiar fashion, just as if you were shooting stills. The aperture will stop down to give a preview of the depth of field, and the display brightness will adjust to simulate exposure.

It's worth noting that this combination of settings isn't necessarily great for anyone who also likes to use live view when shooting stills, for example you lose the ability to overlay live histograms, and the screen is overlaid with a semi-transparent mask indicating the video recording area. So you may wish to dedicate one of the custom settings on the mode dial specifically for movie shooting.

This is the basic level of information available during movie recording in auto exposure mode, showing the exposure compensation and clip duration. The red dot at the top right corner of the LCD indicates recording in progress.

Whilst recording the exposure is dynamically altered as the scene brightness changes (unless you hold down the AE lock button). The only control is exposure compensation, which is operated by the command dial at the back of the camera.

In manual mode you can set shutter speed, aperture and ISO - the scale indicates how close you are to the correct metered exposure.

If you half-press the shutter whilst shooting, the full camera settings are displayed (minus the histogram). Some of the settings, such as RAW and JPEG compression, are not applicable to movie recording but are shown anyway.

Video quality comments

We're not experts on video quality but it doesn't take an expert to see that the EOS 5D Mark II produces superb HD quality footage, though it can get a little grainy in low light. This is a 35mm full frame sensor and brings with it all the depth of field pros and cons that come with larger sensors. Most of the consumer / prosumer grade digital video cameras have much smaller sensors, and subject isolation will be much easier to achieve with the 5D Mark II. In this regard, there is nothing in this price range, or even 4 times this price range for that matter that can come close to the creative possibilities offered by the 5D Mark II.

Like the Nikon D90 the EOS 5D Mark II can suffer from distortion caused by its rolling shutter. The readout of the sensor means movies are created with a rolling shutter (horizontal lines of the image are scanned, one after another, rather than the whole scene being grabbed in one go). The upshot is that verticals can be skewed if the camera (or the subject) moves too fast - the top of the image has been recorded earlier than the bottom, so moving vertical lines can be rendered as a diagonals. This issue in the 5D Mark II is not very pronounced - you need to pan pretty quickly to see it at all - and isn't as bad as the D90, but it's certainly visible. An example panning video is included.

Ultimately, we deal primarily in digital stills photography and we can't really comment on how well the EOS 5D Mark II's video quality compares to high end dedicated equipment, but compared to the movie mode on any digital stills camera - or any consumer camcorder we've used - the quality is very impressive indeed. Below you'll find some examples of videos taken with the 5D Mark II for you to download and draw your own conclusions.

Sample video 1

This video with panning, shows the extent of the rolling shutter which can be a problem on CMOS sensor cameras recording video.

1920 x 1080, 30 fps. MOV (Quicktime) file. 6 sec. 29.6 MB

Sample video 2

This video shows the benefit of having a full frame 35mm sensor shooting video. The very shallow depth of field creates a natural film like look that is very pleasing.

1920 x 1080, 30 fps. MOV (Quicktime) file. 18 sec. 88.1 MB

Sample video 3

Finally this movie was shot on a tripod to show the dynamic range possible.

1920 x 1080, 30 fps. MOV (Quicktime) file. 12 sec. 66.7 MB