Introduced in September of 2008, the Canon 5D Mark II changed the landscape for HD shooters who wanted shallow depth of field and flexible lens options on a budget. It sold like gangbusters and has changed the landscape significantly. Now it’s September of 2009 and Canon has introduced the 5D’s little brother, the 7D. Equipped with a smaller APS-C sized sensor but with some additional features, many HD shooters are now wondering which camera is for them, whether they should hold off on a 5D purchase to get the 7D, whether they will compliment each other well, and whether something new might be coming down the pipe.
10/21/2009 – Canon has announced that it’s working on a framerate fix for the 5D Mark II that will add 24p and 25p options. They’ve also released a firmware update for the 7D which means a 7D Magic Lantern release might not be too far away. This pretty much puts the cameras on par, coming down to price. The 5D is better for manual control now, but lacks the framerates. The 7D has framerates but lacks some additional Magic Lantern manual controls. In a few months both of these will be moot, in which case it will come down to how wide you need to go and how much you’re willing to spend.
9/16/2009 – Several errors fixed, updated with the new Magic Lantern 1080i monitoring news.
9/12/2009 – Written before the 7D officially hits the streets, this article is initially based on information gleaned from the select few who have had time with pre-production units of the new 7D camera and shot with it, as well as a years worth of experience and updates from those shooting with the 5Dmk2. As such, some of the 7D information may change as the release nears and more people get their hands on the camera.
In this evolving article we’ll cover the pros and cons of both the 5D Mark 2 and the 7D, and examine what other changes may be on the horizon. We’ll include information about the updated 5D Mark II firmware as well as the Magic Lantern aftermarket firmware, and try and come to some conclusions about where the market is headed.
Feature by Feature
Fundamental SLR Benefits
The strongest argument for these two cameras are the multitude of lens options available, the low cost compared to equivalent sized video camera sensors, and the flexibility of using the camera to shoot excellent stills as well. These cameras both excel in this respect.
Clip Length, Storage Type & Clip Compatibility
The cameras are equally enabled and hobbled here. By using high speed Compact Flash cards as opposed to camera-specific cards, prices are driven by the market and good deals can be found.
Due to EU tax regulations the cameras are limited to 30 minutes of shooting in their SD modes, which equates to a 4 gig quicktime h264 file. At HD bitrates this results in a 12 minute shot. Neither camera has been found to have issues with immediately shooting follow-on shots, so the limitation seems solely based on the EU video camera tax limit. This does present an issue for shooting longer form events where you may not have a convenient time to stop one clip record and start another. In these cases having two cameras can give you cross-cut coverage.
The video clips produced by the 5DmkII and 7D are Quicktime compliant H264 files and can be opened in recent versions of Quicktime on both Macs and PCs. The files can be dragged directly into a Final Cut timeline, however transcoding to something like ProRes is recommended due to the high CPU requirements for editing native H264 footage.
The 7D’s Alternate framerates (24p, 60p, 50p) cannot be read by Final Cut Express or iMovie, a limitation which may exist in other low end editing applications. Final Cut Pro has no issues with these framerates.
Winner: Tie, they both have the same limitations and benefits
Both cameras use Canons EF lens mount. As such they have access to the wide bredth of Canon’s lens lineup, third party EF lens manufacturers like Tamron, and can use adapters to use Nikon lenses.
The 5D Mark II uses a full frame 35mm sized sensor while the 7D uses a smaller APS-C sized sensor. This results in the 1.6x crop factor well known to those shooting with Canons EOS lineup. One result is that the 7D can use Canons EF-S lenses while the 5D cannot, however the EF-S lenses have generally not been as desirable as Canon’s standard Prime and L glass. The 5D has access to cheaper wide angle lenses, while the 7D gets a longer telephoto for ‘free’.
On the 5D, since it’s a full frame camera, all lens mm equivelents are true, so a 28-135mm lens is a reasonably wide to intermediate telephoto. On the 7D this same lens (the kit lens, incidentally) becomes a 45-216mm, not very wide but longer on the telephoto end.
If you want dramatically wide angle shots, the 5D is the clear winner here. If that isn’t a worry, the 7D is a compromise that Canon SLR shooters have been making for many years.
Winner: Canon 5D for compatability, 7D for cost
Low Light Performance and Depth of Field
One of the most striking thing about the first released 5D videos, including Vincent Laforet’s famous short Reverie, was the shallow depth of field and excellent low light performance. Due to the size of the full frame sensor, a much more film-look style could be achieved, often in available light.
The 7D’s sensor is smaller than the 5D Mark II’s, more in line with a standard 35mm frame shot for film. Early reports indicate that the noise level is one step better on the 5D than the 7D at any ISO level, but the 7D’s new sensor technology (a new gapless sensor) does an excellent job. The 7D fundamentally won’t have the ability to have as shallow a depth of field as the 5D, but it should be entirely sufficient for all but the most extreme cases.
Winner: 5D by a hair
When the 5D was released the camera control scheme for video appeared to be nearly an after-thought. It was ungainly and awkward. While the firmware update and Magic Lantern have helped, the 7D has a clear advantage here. Canon’s engineers have obviously spent more time on the ergonomics of the movie mode this time around, and it shows.
The 7D also has a new glass LCD cover that increases visibility in sunlight.
Manual Lens Control
The original 5D Mark II firmware was almost a green-box automatic only camera, with limited control over the image from shot to shot. Due to this problem many users started using the 5D with Nikon manual focus glass and lens adapters. A partial twist-off option for Canon EF glass was also discovered. Neither solution was as elegant as an in-camera option, though the Nikon route does give you access to a wide variety of very fast glass for low cost.
Announced on May 26th, 2009, the 5D Mark II firmware update added manual exposure control to the 5D’s video modes, removing the need for the twist-off solution and enabling more control shot-to-shot with Canons EF glass.
The 7D retains the 5D’s enhanced manual control functionality.
The Magic Lantern firmware adds some additional features such as zebra stripes, custom crop marks and other focus controls to the 5D. These features may be available on the 7D soon, assuming the firmware modifications can be ported.
Winner: 5D with the firmware update and Magic Lantern, by a hair
Frame Rates, Resolutions & Bit Rates
The greatest improvement for filmmakers from the 5D Mark II to the 7D is the addition of NTSC standard optional framerates. The original 5D Mark II only shoots 30p, and by 30p they mean exactly 30p, not 29.97. This is fine for the web, and workflows have been devised to convert this into other framerates, but it’s not as elegant as shooting natively.
The 7D offers 1080/30p (29.97), 1080/25p, 1080/24p (23.976), 720/60p (59.94) and 720/50p. Aside from making the camera a viable option for broadcast capture in PAL countries, this opens up slow-motion options and removes the workflow steps needed to achive true 24p for ‘film look’.
The 7D also seems to record at a higher bitrate than the 5D, though rigorous tests haven’t been conducted yet.
The last difference between the cameras is that while the 5D records audio as 44.1k stereo, the 7D records at 48k stereo. This won’t have an effect on most people, but it’s something to be aware of.
Winner: The 7D covers all filmmaker complaints in this regard and is the clear winner
HDMI Out Monitoring
The 5D only outputs 480p to the HDMI port while shooting, limiting the ability to achieve true sharp focus. According to early reports, the 7D does not downsample to 480p, but does leave UI elements on the screen. We’ll have more details as we get our hands on a unit. A new Magic Lantern release will likely remove the 480p limitation, as the modification has been demoed by the developer.
Winner: 7D for now, Tie soon (with Magic Lantern)
Size and Weight
The cameras are nearly identically sized and weighted, in case you were wondering.
The 7D has more processors packed in the same body, and may have more sensitive thermal properties due to temperature settings or the fact that it has more extensive environmental sealing. In any case, many 7D users have reported temperature warning lights when shooting video, especially when shooting 720/60p or 50p. While some cameras have been reported as defective, this appears to be a general issue of too much heat in too small a space.
Audio Inputs and Automatic Gain Control
Both cameras have built-in mono mics as well as stereo microphone mini-jacks. With the right external mixer you could record two mono signals, one to the right stereo track and the other to the left stereo track. This would let you, for instance, record a camera-mounted external mic to the left channel (downmixed to mono) and an off-camera lav to the right channel.
Both cameras, stock, have automatic gain control (AGC) turned on for their audio inputs. This means that when audio levels are low (such as when no one is talking) the gain is turned up, so you will hear more background noise.
The Magic Lantern firmware released for the 5D Mark II has an override for this, allowing for manual gain control as well as on-screen audio meters. This is clearly a winner for the filmmaker, but since it’s supplied by a third party firmware, lets call it a half-point.
Winner: 5D, but only because of third party firmware
Addons and Modifications
Since the 5D has been on the market for a year, there is a vibrant aftermarket add-on industry built around it, including stereo mics for the hot-shoe, brackets and accessory rigs, focusing aids and even Magic Lantern, a third party firmware modification.
The 7D is new, and while many of the same accessories will work on the 7D, it’s not as mature. The firmware modification for the 5D was only possible after Canon released a firmware update, giving modification developers access to the entire camera firmware file. It is not known how long it will take to port Magic Lantern to the 7D, but interest is high and efforts will no doubt be underway as soon as the camera ships.
Winner: 5D, though this may change with time
Cost and Availability
The 5D Mark II is hard to find and the body only will run you $2,699 MSRP. The 7D hasn’t been released yet, but the body only will run you a grand less, $1,699. When it is released, the 7D will probably be more widely available, due to it being a wider market product.
Winner: The 7D by a G-Unit, assuming you can wait until it actually hits the streets
The 7D is an evolution from the 5D, and will likely be Canon’s HD shooter in it’s price range for some time. It’s possible that Canon may introduce another full frame camera with enhanced HD shooting options in the next year, but it will likely not be a 5D Mark III.
You can expect true hybrid options with large SLR type sensors and video specific options such as continual autofocus late next year. What price point they will hit at is anyones guess. Canon has merged its photo and video divisions, and everyone knows that’s where the future is headed, but an APS-C sized sensor with autofocus and a nice zoom lens in a video camera body for less than $5,000 would upset a lot of markets. We’ll get there eventually, but don’t expect the transition to be swift. While RED and other camera manufacturers are pushing towards the ‘ultimate HD shooter’, we’re not there yet and there are a lot of hurdles to work out before we are.
These cameras will work great together, you’ll be able to use all your EF glass on both the 5D and 7D, though if you buy EF-S lenses those will only work on the 7D. Most of your accessories are going to work fine since they’re roughly the same size and have similar mounting points. CF cards are cross-compatible, and the images out of the cameras should have a very similar feel. If you have the money to spend and want a a complimentary kit to get around the 12 minute clip limit, these cameras mate exceptionally well.
Unless you can’t wait a few weeks (and can actually find a 5D Mark II), the 7D deserves serious consideration. If you’re shooting vast landscapes or have an extensive collection of full-framed L glass (or just have the money to spend), the 5D Mark II is an excellent camera and you’ll be very happy with it, but you shouldn’t plan on getting 24p or other framerates via a firmware update. Buy it for what it is, which is an excellent full frame still shooter with very nice and well understood 1080/30p capabilities.
The 7D is a generational leap, not the revolution that the 5D was. It will integrate easier into a workflow, and for most purchasers it will be easier to justify purchasing multiple cameras for coverage, considering the lower price point. It will produce lovely footage, use many of the same accessories and options as its big brother, has more features out of the box and may get even more features if Magic Lantern is successfully ported.
Aside from the availability of Magic Lantern, the only benefit the 5D has over the 7D is a slight edge in low light performance and full frame for truly wide angles.
Winner: The 7D, unless you really need to go wide.
Links and Samples
Shorts shot with pre-production units: