Optimising your 5D Mark II for filmmaking

Since purchasing my Canon 5D mark II, I have spent significant amounts of time changing the settings, researching ISO, noise levels, picture settings and stabilisation techniques. The 5DM2 feels like a cinema-grade production camera because the footage it produces is amazing. Already, it’s being used in Hollywood to produce commercials, TV spots, music video promos and even the last episode of House on primetime network television. All this attention has come at some surprise to Canon themselves who created the video option almost as an afterthought when choosing to give journalists opportunity to shoot video in the field. Little did they know what a revolution they would spark amongst the indie filmmaking community!

The full-frame 35mm sensor creates an incredible depth of field in low light situations, allowing filmmakers to work fast and efficiently in up-close situations.


1. Which ISO Settings?

One aspect most owners of a 5D Mark II do not know is that noise levels do not increment in tandom to sequential ISO numbers. Far from it. The sensor chip of the 5DM2 is designed to have optimal levels that are similar to the old ASA ratings on non-digital SLRs.

Try and stick to the following ISO levels only: 160, 320, 640 & 1250. Why? Because the sensor chip design was optimised for these settings and will produce the least noise. The lowest ISO setting I use is 160, I never use 100. Believe it or not, ISO 640 is the lowest noise ISO setting for your Canon 5D Mark II. Study the graph below to see how these and other ISO settings deal with noise:

Canon 5D Mark II ISO/Noise level chart


2. Shutter Speed at 1/50

This may appear obvious to some, but in filmmaking, your shutter speed will always be half your frame rate for normal film capture. Anything more or less will reduce the filmic look of your footage, unless you are purposely aiming for a special effect. This is called the 180 degree shutter rule. For a framerate of 24 fps your 5D has a shutter of 1/24 that represents a 360 degree shutter. If you want the regular film look then you should go for 1/48. Since that isn’t available, use 50. Then you get a subtle but nice motion blur. Any faster than this and it significantly reduces motion blur making your film look more like video. Similarly, if you are shooting 60 fps on the 7D, you would use a 1/120 shutter.

I wish there were a way to lock this down on the 5DM2 as it is too easy to move it with the jog wheel when working quickly. Shutter lock-down would be a nice feature for a future release.


3. Custom Function Settings

Custom Fuction Settingds 5DM2

Custom Fuction Settingds 5DM2

Buried deep in the Canon menus are a number of custom functions that can be enabled or disabled. To be in with the best chance of locking out any undesirable side effects to your valuable footage, the following custom function value settings are recommended:

  • C.Fn II -2 High ISO Speed Noise Reduction – Set this ‘3’ (Disable)
  • C.Fn II -3 Highlight Tone Priority – Set this to ‘0’ (Disable) – Unless you don’t mind noise in the shadow regions
  • C.Fn II -4 Auto Lighting Optimizer – Set this to ‘3’ (Disable) – This would auto-change your brightness/contrast levels


4. Picture Style Effects

Page 63 - Customizing a Picture Style

Page 63 - Registering /Customising a Picture Style

This section is pretty much down to personal style and also, to some extent, your environmental conditions at the time of shooting.  There are no right or wrong ways to use these settings because your shooting conditions will always be different. There are, however, a few rules of thumb which I will cover here. Some people use the automatic picture style of ‘Neutral’, leave it on that setting and then colour accordingly in post production.

Personally, I set exposure first by using the default ‘Neutral’ picture style setting. Then after exposure and WB is set, before I actually roll camera, I switch to a customised, personal picture style I like best. I do it this way because in some shooting conditions, I struggle to set the exposure and colour temperature properly with my customised picture style already on. The picture style I use for shooting footage is a custom, registered one based off the ‘Neutral’ picture style. You can find out how to do this by looking up page 63 of the Canon 5D Mark II Manual: Canon 5DM2 Manual

  • Sharpness. More often than not, turn it all the way down to ‘0’. There are three reasons I do this. High-end Hollywood films, even on blue-ray, will look soft. Pause one of these films and take a closer look for yourself. There are no sharp defined edges in films. The other reasons are reduction in aliasing and moire patterns. High aliasing and moire is one of the reasons the BBC and Sky don’t like using footage from the HDDSLRs. Post compression (employed in network television to be able to broadcast material), heavy moire patterns and aliasing show up more. The sharpening feature in the 5D exasperates the problem.
  • Contrast. This is another setting that needs to go all the way to the left (-4). There’s more dynamic range open to you later when editing and it’s easier to crush the blacks at that point if you need to – You can’t bring back the definition at that point!
  • Saturation. This is a bone of contention I have with other filmmakers. Many peers will have it a couple of stops to the left (-2). Listen to them! My personal style is high saturation – Although again, it really depends what kind of look you are after for the gig you are doing.
  • Tone. Some people leave it as it is. I have it all the way up to +4. Personal style, it’s up to you.


5. Colour Temperature (White Balance)

It’s vital to get the colour temperature setting correct in camera before you shoot. You can’t rely on fixing this in post because although it is later correctable to a point, your footage will still look rather flat and strange-looking. If you appear to be having a problem setting white balance correctly, go back into your picture style effects and set it to default ‘Neutral’. Although you can use many of the presets available as on many cameras, it’s particularly easy to dial in the colour temperature value directly on the 5DM2 (check out page 67 of the Canon 5D Mark II manual: Canon 5D Mark II Manual

If you’re not very good at judging this yourself, use an 18% grey (gray) card to callibrate your WB. Such a tool can be invaluable for scenes where setting exposure is difficult.


6. Filters and Lenses

Nobody thinks Tiger Woods would continue to play to international standard with a junior set of clubs. Neither will you manage to capture exceptional footage by throwing any old lens in front of the 5D. A camera is only as good as what you mount in front of it. Selecting quality glass and filters will transform bog-standard footage into wow-standard film in the blink of an eye.

Prime Glass

I can’t afford to buy cine lenses, so I rent them for the bigger budget gigs. If I’m doing a self-shooting, budget gig, I use my own set of prime lenses. These range from Canon to Nikon to Zeiss primes. Make sure you use prime glass and not zoom lenses. Primes are premium quality glass optics and produce images head and shoulders above their variable size counterparts. You can buy great manual lenses cheaply off eBay, but remember that it’s worth paying that little bit more for faster lenses if you can afford to. The faster the lens the better. I have a Nikon 50mm f1.2 and I love it. I use the 50mm a lot, but I also get lovely colour rendition from my Nikon 85mm 1.4 which I use for close quarter dialogue, portraits, interviews. I also have a 35mm Zeiss for midrange and 14mm for ultra-wide on long shots (although I don’t use that one very often and usually stick to 17mm for my widest shots on the 5D).

Filters can be expensive to buy too, especially if you want to buy them for all your prime lenses. So why should you? A clever trick is to buy the best filters for your largest diameter lens, then to buy step up adapter rings to connect between your prime glass and the filters. So which filters to buy?

Variable ND Filters

Light Craft Fader ND Filter

If you plan on doing timelapses, especially during the day, a neutral density (ND) filter is going to be a mandatory purchase. Unlike prosumer camcorders, the 5DM2 (or any DSLR for that matter) doesn’t come with internal ND settings, especially if you want to drag your shutter (which is likely). What has become very popular indeed amongst filmmakers is the variable ND filters. This allows you to ‘dial in’ your neutral density filtration simply by turning the glass ring. The good ones don’t increase image softening or produce any significant colour casting or vignetting. There are two that I recommend.

  • The Light Craft Mark II Fader ND filter. Superb variable ND filter and excellent value for money. This is the one I use. Make sure you get the Mark II as it is much improved over the mark I and also make sure you get it from a reputable dealer as there are a lot of fakes around.
  • The Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. Allegedly the best variable neutral density filter you can buy today (and for the price it should be!) However I have compared it next to the Light Craft Mark II Vari-ND and I see no difference in quality whatsoever. In fact in some footage, I found the Light Craft M2 to perform better with the Singh-Ray actually producing a slight greenish colour cast to the footage (perhaps it’s just my eyes!)

Polarising Filters

The most useful filters for digital SLR lenses are polarising (polarizing) filters. They are essential in many respects because you cannot reproduce the look you will get from them in post production. They saturate color, provide better contrast and remove unwanted reflections from non-metallic surfaces such as water or glass. The circular type are designed for HDDSLRs like the Canon 5D. B+W MRC (Multi-Resistant Coating) or Hoya HMC are the best choices. Hoya Circular Polarizer Glass Filters are a value buy and what I use. I haven’t tried the B+W filters, so I can’t help with a comparison there, but the Hoya ones work very well indeed for me.

UV Filters

Don’t bother! Use a hood or a matt box to prevent flare. Replace your lens cap after use to protect your lens. Enough said!


7. Follow Focus System

When you’re working with shallow depths of field as you undoubtedly will be when shooting films with your 5D, you will need a good follow focus system. The difficulty with touching the barrel of the lens to change focus during the shot will, more often than not, shake the body of the camera. It’s also very difficult to judge where the new focus setting will be ‘pulled’ to.  As many filmmakers will tell you, a follow focus system can be an essential piece of kit, but which ones are the best?

Redrock Micro microRemote Follow Focus

Redrock Micro microRemote Controller

For around 850 USD, the Redrock Micro Follow Focus v2 package is faultless. The only problem with a system like this is that you are limited to where you can use it. Pretty much, tripod only. It won’t work handheld, on a steadicam unit like the Merlin and you wouldn’t be able to use it on a crane.

Cinevate also do a Durus Follow Focus system which looks a solid build. Haven’t used it myself so I can’t comment. But at 1,200 USD, it’s somewhat pricey.

Hocus Focus Wireless Remote Focusing

Hocus Focus Wireless Remote Focusing

Wireless follow focus is a lot more expensive as you can imagine, but they possess a much wider range of use. Redrock Micro now do a wireless follow focus system called the microRemote. It’s availability was supposed to be this summer, but we haven’t seen it available as yet. It also seems expensive, but it looks very slick indeed.

A great value wireless remote and one that is on my wish list right now is the Hocus Focus Wireless Remote. It’s been around for a while now and was independently designed and manufactured by an enthusiast. It has slowly been developed over a number of years and is reasonably good value at £1250 for the complete system.

With wireless remotes, however, you need to be careful of sound. There is a motor involved and they make noise! Check out some reviews before you buy.


8. Sound

Speaking of sound, the 5D mark II has inputs for sound, although I never use them. There are a few 2nd system products on the market that link into the 5D audio inputs but to be honest, I have found a myriad of reasons why I can’t use them. You can watch this video to see a review of such systems including the ‘JuicedLink’ which was the overall winner after tests. But even using that system interferes with me using my Zacuto Z-Finder system.

Juicedlink on the 5D - Too Cumbersome for me

Juicedlink on the 5D - Too Cumbersome for me

My solution is still to use the onboard recorded sound to sync up with my 2nd system sound which I always run whenever doing any important gig. However using the 5D to record production sound is not an option for me. I think one of the 5Ds greatest assets is its size and the ability to get into tight close encounters when filming. Rigging it with XLR cables and what not is simply reducing that advantage all the time and, to be honest, it isn’t worth it. The Canon 5D2 is a product that was designed preominantly to produce images, not sound.

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17 Responses to “Optimising your 5D Mark II for filmmaking”

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  3. Connor Bell says:

    Hi, brilliant recommendation and an exciting article post,
    it’s going to be interesting if this is still the case in a few months time

  4. digz store says:

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a very well written article.I will make sure
    to bookmark itt and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.

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    Helpful info. Fortunate me I found your website by accident,
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  6. kquovalan sasi says:

    thanks Kris, These ISO levels are also optimal for mark III ?

  7. DDVM says:

    How much of this applies to a Canon 60D?

  8. Claude says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I am shooting more and more in manual mode, and it helps a lot to know the optimal settings for the ISO.

    Awesome and bookmarked!!! :)

  9. Hi Kris
    Just came acros your useful set-up guide. Thanks
    A question: Do you suggest turning of IS when shooting viseo – particularly of moving subjects – eg shooting video to front or rear of moving car.
    best wishes


    • Kris Koster says:

      I think you’ll find it might help to smooth the video a little, but won’t make a lot of difference. Although IS helps to reduce/eliminate hand shake, it just can’t compete with the vibration and rickety movement of a vehicle.

      What a lot of people forget is that IS works great for static subjects or scenes but pretty useless for moving ones. Your scene outside is definitely moving.

      Of course it depends what you’re shooting, but natural shake from a car can often lend an ‘organic’ feel to a scene. If you want to reduce or eliminate it as much as possible, I’d suggest treating the footage in post with stabilization software (After Effects is pretty good at this) or some other third party plugins.

  10. Jimmy D. says:

    Hi, great article…thanks for the information!

    I noticed in your paragraph about Sound, you mentioned interference issues between the Juicedlink preamp and the Zacuto Z-Finder…can you expand on that a little? Just because I am in the process of assembling my camera package for the 5DMKII, and I planned on getting the Juicedlink RA222 and the Z-Finder.


  11. winner says:

    Cool review I use individual nd filter grads on my matte box it works 4 me good one

  12. aaaaaaaaaaaaa! says:

    Uh, only an idiot would shoot without a UV lens filter on your more expensive lens. Sure, there is a slight degrade in image quality, but it gives you an extra level of protection for your more expensive lenses. Just using a lens cap after your shooting is not enough security.

    • Veteran Filmmaker says:

      Seriously? I have shot with Panavision lenses on major motion pictures that cost upwards of $50k without UV filtration. To say that does nothing but demonstrate ignorance. In fact, most of us in the real filmmaking world use lenses fitted in the filter stage of a matte box and NEVER directly filter the lenses. Most of the optics we use start at $15-20k per lens.

  13. Intriguing submit. With thanks for discuss

  14. Tony Ashcroft says:

    Your eyes are fine, Kris. The Singh-Ray does have a barely noticable color cast, but I still rave over it. Not used the Lightcraft – worth thinking about.

    Great new site, btw.

    • Kris Koster says:

      Thanks Tony – I’m going to try and write two or three quality posts a week, but only if I’ve got something interesting to say! ;-)

      I sold my Singh-Ray and use the Light Craft all the time. I can’t use it to full density though. A large black cross begins to form over the footage.
      I am strongly considering the blue/gold Singh-Ray filter, but I wonder if it will get the use for the price…

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