29 May 2009

The new EOS 5D Mark II firmware

So, the new firmware for the EOS 5D Mark II will be arriving on the 2nd of June so we're told. What does it mean, and is it really a big step forwards for most users? To decide that, we need to look at what it's actually doing and why those features were not in the camera from the start.

The EOS 5D Mark II was the first EOS model to feature movie recording and the first camera from anyone to feature full HD recording. The market for this camera is huge. Possibly bigger than had been anticipated. It's also a very immature market in that there are no established users who have fixed ideas about what they're doing with the camera. The problem has come because the camera is simply so good at movie recording. If it had been a bit weak or not very good quality, the professional video guys would not have been interested and the standard full auto video mode would have been perfectly good enough for the people who were going to make use of the feature - those that have little or no experience with video and just want it to work without too much fuss.

That's the only reason I can see why Canon would have chosen to not give full manual control. If you think about it, giving the full control to a complete beginner with no experience is quite likely to lead to a bad user experience - it'll be too complex and the results won't be as good and they then won't use the feature.

Instead what's happened is that the camera was limited and the pro video guys got hold of it and wanted more - more control to get better results because they know what they're doing. They know what shutter speed and aperture will do to the results and how to use them creatively. I can already see there will be problems with the new firmware - beginner users will be confused and will end up shooting at (for example) faster shutter speeds than they need because they think they have to and it's what they're used to doing with still images of moving subjects. The reality is Canon could have simply given a few shutter speed choices - 1/30sec, 1/60sec, and then a break until the much higher speeds for specific results.

And what about sound? Ask any video guy and they'll tell you that sound is more important than pictures. The image can be great, but if the sound is rubbish, the whole thing will be poor. That's another reason for the simple video controls - it was a set and forget feature. You can start recording and let it get on with it without having to touch the camera and risk getting 'handling sounds' from the camera body. Granted the internal microphone is not great and for good sound you should be using an external unit, but for you complete beginners in video it does the job and allows you to get video with sound of little Johnny running around the park. Now you'll almost certainly have to buy an external microphone to get half decent sound because there will be more camera handling sounds going on as you adjust the aperture or ISO to get the right exposure. Suddenly the camera has gone from a product suitable for use by the masses to a one that is now capable of being used by everyone - amateur movie makers and pros alike but for almost everyone will require an external microphone.

So what am I complaining about? Well, it's this: If you've got full manual control and everyone is telling you it's a great thing, you'll be tempted to use it. If you don't know much about video, don't! By all means practice with it and find out how it works, but don't start shooting in manual movie mode and expect great results or you're setting yourself up for a fall.

For the pros reading this - you're happy you've got full manual control, but don't think it's all about you. In fact, you're not the biggest market for cameras. Think how many consumers buy cameras when compared to how many pros. And that's why Canon did what they did. They're probably over the moon you're so pleased with their camera that you want to use it to film this, that and the other, but it was a first step into an uncertain market. So before you start complaining about the other things you want - Manual Audio Control and varying frame rates, stop and think. For pro users they'd be great, but for consumers it's another layer of complexity they need understand to get good results.

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