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Manual video control coming to Canon 5D Mark II

A firmware update due June 2 will answer demands for manual control over video settings including ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

Updated 7:16 a.m. PDT with further details from Canon in Europe, and 9:20 a.m. with further details from Canon USA.

Canon plans to release firmware June 2 to address a common complaint about its EOS 5D Mark II, a $2,700 digital SLR that's generally been lauded for its image quality but criticized for its lack of manual controls when shooting video, the company said.

SLR cameras give photographers close control over settings including shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity, and the enthusiasts and professionals who buy high-end cameras often understand and use those options. Since the 21-megapixel 5D Mark II was introduced a half year ago as Canon's first SLR to feature video abilities, the video operated in a fully automatic mode in which the camera selected those settings.

Manual control over video will arrive with Canon's 5D Mark II through a June firmware update.
Manual control over video will arrive with Canon's 5D Mark II through a June firmware update. Canon

That became a common cause for complaint. For example, people couldn't select a wide aperture, or F-stop, to ensure a shallow depth of field that would direct attention to a video's subject while making the background an undistracting blur. The lack of manual controls contrasted with two big video advantages of the 5D Mark II, the ability to shoot 1080p video at 30 frames per second, and a large, full-frame sensor that's particularly good at dealing with difficult low-light conditions.

"This new firmware will accommodate a great number of user requests for manual exposure control in the EOS 5D Mark II video mode. Manual exposure control while shooting video on the EOS 5D Mark II is expected to make a big impact with cinematographers and videographers using the 5D Mark II for high-end HD video production," Canon said.

A customer newsletter said the feature will permit control over ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Canon's European press release was more forthcoming, saying that shutter speed would range from 1/30th of a second to 1/4000th and that ISO would include the camera's regular span of 100 to 6400 and also the extended H1 setting of 12,800.

Fully manual only
The mode will be fully manual, with independent controls over shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, said Ken Rowe, a technical specialist with Canon's professional products marketing division. "There will be no shutter or aperture priority," in which a photographer can set one value such as shutter speed and the others adjust automatically to maintain the same exposure level.

Rowe didn't comment on whether other video changes are planned, such as shooting at 24 frames per second, a common standard, or new autofocus features. And it's not clear yet exactly how users will activate the manual video control or whether they'll be able to change settings as they shoot a video.

"We don't have all the details about how it's activated," he said, though promising manual video controls will be simple and straightforward. "The actual instructions will be released with the firmware."

Canon couldn't rush the feature out, he added. "We've been listening to requests for people for months. It takes months of development to make sure it meets Canon's quality assurance," Rowe said.

The new video SLR era
Video in SLRs is changing how people see the cameras. Compact digital cameras have been able to shoot video for years, but only with the built-in lens and with a small sensor that makes it difficult to blur the background. In contrast, SLRs can be used not just with telephoto and wide-angle lenses, but also many specialty lenses such as fisheye or tilt-shift models.

Asked about the 5D Mark II's missing manual exposure controls for video, Canon technical advisor Chuck Westfall said earlier this year the omission was because video was more an option than the core feature of the camera, and Canon wanted more market information before deciding what to do.

"To be honest with you, one of the other issues is that adding the full range of manual controls on this camera makes it a much more complicated instrument. It's not necessarily that we're never going to do it, but it's generation 1.0. We'd like to get some market feedback, which we've already received now, before we start making any serious changes to the overall feature set or design," Westfall said.

Video in SLRs is trickier than with compact cameras. That's because SLR's feature a "reflex" mirror--thus the term "single lens reflex"--that directs light through the viewfinder and secondarily to an autofocus system. That mirror flips out of the way when a photo or video is taken, meaning the viewfinder and ordinary autofocus system can't work.

Video is on its way to becoming a standard SLR feature: Those that feature it are Nikon's D90 and D5000, Canon's Rebel T1i, and Pentax's newly announced K-7. But video still isn't universal: a trio of new lower-end Sony SLRs don't have the ability.

Canon's firmware is arriving in the nick of time. Photographer Rob Galbraith on Monday spotlighted work under way to hack the 5D Mark II firmware to provide features that people demanded.