Shooting with 5D MkII in the desert...?! at

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Old July 31st, 2010, 09:38 AM   #1
Join Date: Jul 2010
Location: Zurich, Switzerland
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Shooting with 5D MkII in the desert...?!


I'm a total newbie... well, I'm actually still pondering whether the 5D MkII is the right tool for what I'm up to. So, here's my situation.

I'm planning to shoot a documentary on salt production in an Indian desert. The working conditions for both, the people actually doing this, year in year out, as well as for the team shooting their labour are extreme: There's almost no shadow, anywhere. The sun is baking hot (up to 40C in the shade, if there were shade!). There is no power.

I'd be more than happy if anybody could come up will valuable advice on:

a) How to pack as lightly as possible but still have all the equipment necessary for shooting under such conditions?

So far I have been thinking of taking the body (should I think of taking a spare body or is the 5D MkII reliable enough to work under these conditions?), two zooms (24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8) plus a 50/1.4 or 1.8 (suggestions?). Do I understand correctly, that (only) the Canon lenses (which ones?) offer automatic follow-focus capability in video mode? What will I need in terms of monitoring, focusing? Is an external monitor mandatory (I'm thinking of the extra power consumption) or are there optical viewfinder extensions available, for low angle shots or the like?

b) How to best handle the power supply?

Take enough Canon batteries along, fully loaded? Get a big extra battery to bridge (or charge) the Canon batteries, should they run dry? A battery pack? Are there any tested and reliable solar panel solutions available? I'd like to be able to power/recharge not only the camera but also storage devices plus a 13.3" MacBook.

c) How to best go about storage and backup?

Take enough 16GB cards along? That's sounds expensive since I guess 16GBs hold less than 1 hour of HD video and I want to have a 10 hours autonomy once I go to the desert. Plus, the backup issue still needs to be solved, anyway. What to make of the so-called photo tanks (readers with incorporated HDs)? What are the field experiences with these, in terms of reliability, power consumption? Alternatively, I was planning to read the cards out on external HDs through the MacBook. Good idea? The MacBook 13.3 is said to have an 8 hour autonomy (no spare batteries avaible, though - can you believe it?).

d) Am I missing something?

Any other substantial piece of equipment or technical, practical aspect I haven't got covered so far? Will the 5D MkII be the appropriate tool for what I'm up to or should I better stick to the proven alternatives like a dedicated Sony HDV video camera and accept the extra bulk and loss in definition? What attracts me about the 5D MkII is the optical quality and interchangeability of the lenses available, the look of the full frame chip (shallow DOF, if wanted), low light capability and a relatively lightweight and compact package.

Any hands-on advice is highly appreciated!

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Old July 31st, 2010, 12:12 PM   #2
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Location: Kansas City, MO
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First, you can NOT follow focus with auto focus on the 5D when shooting video. So if you have to have auto focus, forget the DSLR idea. You can put it in auto focus, press the button and focus on your subject. But then if you need to shift focus, it will open up the aperture and hunt back and forth, ruining the shot. You need to keep everything manual with the 5D or 7D. It's more like shooting film than it is video.

Second, you haven't mentioned sound. If you're going to do anything other than recording ambient sound, you'll need mics and all. Also, while the 5D now has manual gain control in audio, you can't monitor the meter while shooting, only before, so you'd need a Juicedlink box or shoot double system sound with a separate recorder.

If auto focus and sound are not issues for you, then the camera could be great. I haven't had any heating problems, but then I haven't shot in a desert either. In between takes you can always lay one of those reflective cloths over it to shade it, or use an umbrella, etc. I'd probably do that with any camera in the desert.

Your lens selection should get you through about anything, but I would recommend the 70-200 f4 L lens instead of the 2.8. The 2.8 is a lot bigger and heavier, and I believe it requires mounting on the tripod by its collar, which would be a hassle to switch over in a hurry. With the f4 lens, if you should need more light, simply bump up the ISO--not a problem with the 5D. I normally shoot at 160 but have gone to 640 with no noticeable difference in quality.

I would take enough CF cards for the entire shoot. If power is a problem, there's no way you can load and back up. I'd also take enough batteries for the shoot as well, if power availability is a big thing.

If you're new to DSLR video, you most definitely would want to buy everything well in advance and learn to use it well before you go on the trip. You may find you'll need lots of other things as a rods support system with shoulder mount if you plan to shoot handheld...a follow focus system since you can't shift focus automatically. I'm sure there are more things as well. Oh yeah, ND filters too. You can't shoot video outside in bright light without some ND filters. I'd take an ND.9, a .6 and a .3 to cover the full range, and you can stack them if you need more under bright light. Some people use variable NDs.

I'd also consider a netbook computer, or some other laptop, with enough spare batteries for the shoot to use as backup, though I still would take enough cards for the shoot. But once the footage is copied into a computer's drive and you've reformatted the card...then your original lives on a hard drive and I don't consider that safe. So I would also take along one of the little USB powered hard drives, like the Western Digital Passport series. They're tiny and don't use lots of power from the computer. Copy your files to the computer, then to the drive. That way you've got them in two places.

However, I'd prefer to not have to depend on the computer during the shoot and I'd definitely have enough cards to get through the whole thing.

It seems to me that a file based DSLR system may not be the best thing for this type of shoot, if you're starting from the very beginning. I could put enough batteries and tapes into a single Petrol or Portabrace bag with my XH A1 for the entire shoot and not have to worry about downloading files at all.
Bill Pryor is offline   Reply With Quote
Old July 31st, 2010, 12:50 PM   #3
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Thanks a lot Bill, for your generously exhaustive reply!

Well, in fact I was relying on external sound recording and use whatever can be recorded on the 5D just as a sync reference, to be substituted later on in the edit. As far as auto focus is concerned, it would be a nice to have but i am basically used to (and more confident with) manual follow-focusing.

The camera I've last been using was a Sony Z1 camcorder. Not too bad even though optically limited with a rather average wide angle add-on option, only. So, what I am attracted by is the optical quality of the Canon lenses and the DOF signature of the full frame chip.

Thanks for pointing out the ND filters and reflective covers. Also, I think you have a valid point as far as the 70-200 f4 is concerned, which I'll be primarily using in daylight, anyway.

Still, having to bring enough cards and batteries to cover 10 hours of footage (read 30 hours of stand-by) would put quite some stress on the budget... So, some alternative solution for the power supply issue would still be most welcome.

One last question: Apart from the difference in chip size and inherent signature, what would the major advantages/disadvantages of the 7D be, by comparison?

Last edited by Lutz Konermann; July 31st, 2010 at 12:53 PM. Reason: typos
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Old August 1st, 2010, 12:20 PM   #4
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The smaller chip size of the 7D means your lenses will act like longer lenses. I had a 7D but switched to a 5D because I wanted better quality wide angle lenses. The cost of Canon's 16mm L lens, for example, is very close to the price of the 5D, and it comes out to slightly wider than a 28mm lens on the 5D. I already had numerous old Nikkors that were just what I needed on the 5D.

But if you need longer lenses, then the 7D can be advantageous there. I know one person who had a 7D and added the 5D. He has only two lenses--the f1.4 35mm L and the f1.2 85mm L, but with the two different camera bodies, he has, in effect, four lenses. The same lens on a 7D is not any longer, ie., the focal lenth is the same, but the area of coverage is like a longer lens.

The 5D has about 20% more resolution, and it seems to me there's a bit more latitude. However, there's not a huge difference between the look of the two cameras. People intercut them all the time. If you go to and look at all three episodes they shot comparing the leading DSLRs to each other and to film, you'll see that the 7D and 5D are very close. Under extreme low light conditions, the 5D holds up better. I've found that at higher ISOs under normal conditions it does too. Going to 640 on the 7D, for example, adds just a little grain but on the 5D it really isn't noticeable unless you do a really picky side by side comparison. It's perfectly useable on the 7D but you do see a little degradation. In the final Zacuto episode it seemed to me the 7D looked very close to Fuji film stock while the 5D looked more like Kodak.

The biggest difference you'd notice in the two cameras is in depth of field. If you want a really blurred background, you need really fast lenses on the 7D. From what I've shot with both cameras it seems that around an f2 to 2.8 on the 7D blurs the background about like an f4 to 5.6 does on the 5D. I shot some interviews last week using the 70-200, and at f4 the background was too soft, so I raised my ISO and stopped down to 5.6 to add a little DOF. It's nice to have that kind of contro--there are times I want to totally blur a background so you can't identify what's there, and other times I want it to go just a little soft to pop the subject but not so soft you won't know what the objects are.

I'm wondering if there's any reasonably priced and effective solar battery charger you could get? I vaguely recall something about them from a few years back, but you might try some googling and see what you come up with.

Having enough cards for 10 hours of footage would probably set you back a thousand bucks or more, depending on what cards you get. A cheap netbook and external drive would probably be around $400. But I don't know how long netbooks last on batteries, or when running the small external drive. Also, additional batteries might be expensive. They are for a Macbook. It's too bad you can't use something like an iPod to transfer your footage direct via USB. Maybe there is something out there. I knew a kid who went to Europe a few years ago with a 20D when they first came out and he got one of those digital photo devices that held a lot of still photos and used that to archive his pictures. If you had some device that would hold a couple hundred gigs that would take USB without a computer, that would be cool. There are devices out there but the ones I've heard about are pricey.

One other consideration in terms of 7D or 5D...Having used both I can say that in my opinion the 7D is the better built camera. It feels more solid. It could be that's because it's a little more compact. If blowing sand is an issue, the 7D with L lenses that are well sealed might be a better option. Actually the 1DMKIV is the one that's more bullet-proof than anything, but it's also much more costly. I'd probably be comfortable with the 5D and the lenses I have because I'd keep things protected and wouldn't shoot in really bad conditions if possible.

You've got a lot of things to think about here. It's good to explore all sides, positive and negative.
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Old August 1st, 2010, 12:24 PM   #5
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My curiosity got to me. Damn, I'm starting to forget what life was like before Google. Check it out:
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Old August 1st, 2010, 03:42 PM   #6
Join Date: Jul 2010
Location: Zurich, Switzerland
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Bill, your input is very much appreciated! Thank you very much for being so generous. I just checked out the link for the solar panels - great gear here, might just be the solution I was hoping for. I will report on my musings and findings. Thanks again!
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