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Canon SLR video upgrade: New feature or new era?

The 5D Mark II gets video modes professionals have been craving. Is this a one-off fix or part of a shift to products that are continuously improved?

In an unusual move, Canon released a firmware upgrade for its high-end EOS 5D Mark II camera that substantially expands its video capability nearly a year and a half after the SLR was released.

Customers of the $2,500 camera had sought more flexibility in the 1080p video frame rates to better match their medium of production. The camera initially only supported 30 frames per second, but the firmware 2.0.3 update changes that to 29.97fps "to comply with TV production standards," adds a 23.976fps option for those in the cinema world, and for those who set the camera to use the European PAL video standard, there's also a 25fps option. (As is common, the terminology on the camera itself is rounded up to 30fps and 24fps.)

Now available on the 5D Mark II: 1080p shooting at 24.976 and 29.97 frames per second.
Now available on the 5D Mark II: 1080p shooting at 24.976 and 29.97 frames per second. Canon

There are other significant changes in the update (downloadable from Canon's Web site). First, video can operate with a set shutter speed or aperture, with the camera maintaining exposure by varying other settings. Previously only fully automatic or fully manual settings were possible. The shutter speed changes let photographers choose between freeze-frame-style video or smoother but blurrier motion, and the aperture settings make it easier to keep a shallow depth of field to focus attention on the subject.

Second, the audio sampling rate has been increased from 44.1KHz to 48KHz for better sound quality desired by professionals, and input recording levels can be set manually. And third, a histogram can be overlaid in manual shooting to gauge exposure.

"I have been lucky enough to have played with the new firmware for the Canon 5DmkII over the past couple of weeks. It has utterly revitalised my love for the camera," said Philip Bloom, a filmmaker with 20 years experience. "The 30p has always been a problem. It's a frame rate that is of no real use to me as I need 25p or 24p for my work. Converting your rushes [rough video from the day's shoot] from 30p is more than a nightmare...This can take sometimes over a day depending on how long your rushes are."

Absent is support for 60fps modes for 720p video in the lower-end but newer 7D, the higher-end 1D Mark IV, and the newest Canon SLR, the lower-end Rebel T2i, aka 550D. The 60fps frame rate is better for slow-motion video.

Dawn of a new era
The video SLR era is significant because it offers videographers higher-end features such as interchangeable lenses that are relatively expensive to come by in the video world. In addition, the 5D Mark II's full-frame 36x24mm sensor has much better low-light sensitivity. However, for professional use, where people need camera rigs to mount the SLR, separate audio recording gear, external monitors to aid in focusing, and expensive gear to edit video, the costs still can mount quickly.

Canon's EOS 5D Mark II CNET

Canon had promised the new 5D Mark II frame rates in October and said more recently the changes were planned for March. I had no trouble downloading and installing the update Tuesday morning.

Here's why the changes are significant: Canon is adding major new features to a camera that's almost old in today's competitive market. Perhaps if Canon had a 5D Mark III ready to go right now it would have behaved differently, of course, but it chose to invest significant resources into improving a product.

A grouch would carp that these are the features that should have arrived when the camera did. But in fairness to Canon, the 5D Mark II was its first video SLR and only the second on the market after Nikon's D90, and it was probably more important to get something for sale as soon as possible than to get it out perfectly. In addition, many of the features that were added appeal to professionals, and it wasn't clear from the outset that documentary videographers and the like would be so drawn to the camera.

Canon has issued plenty of firmware fixes for autofocus problems, mistranslated menus, imaging errors, and other nuts and bolts. This upgrade is more substantive, though. It's not clear how much Canon will adopt this practice for other products or if this is an exception resulting from the novelty of video in an SLR, but the move illustrates what's possible in the digital photography era.

Cameras were once mechanical devices that were developed relatively slowly and that lasted many years in the market. Now they're miniature computers, with Moore's Law bringing both new capabilities and new competitive pressures. Consequently, cameras change much more rapidly today than even 10 years ago. A lot of what an SLR does is baked into the hardware--the autofocus subsystem, the shutter motor, the image sensor itself--but other parts of the camera are mutable.

But perhaps camera makers can earn more customer loyalty by making cameras more of a living product. It might cut into upgrade revenue, but realistically, most customers don't have the spare money to upgrade often anyway. And as with the rest of the computer industry, as time goes by, software will assume an ever-greater role in camera function.