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How to Setup a Canon 6D DSLR Camera for Video

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This piece covers everything from the ground up to set-up and use your Canon 6D DSLR for video, for the completely un-initiated, this is everything you need to know. There are many pieces out there assuming a fair degree of knowledge… this isn’t one of them. In this case I am using the 6D to shoot HD video, but all points really apply equally to other Canon DSLRs such as the 60D, 70D and 7D, with the 5D having one or two extras that set it apart somewhat, but will still remain relevant.

   The Canon EOS-6D with 24-205mm EF lens How To Setup a Canon 6d DSLR for Video
The Canon EOS 6D                                                                                          with 24-105mm EF lens

I bought the 6D as a second camera for my corporate video production company about a year a half ago. I’d worked in TV for many years, and had seen the advent of this and the Canon 5D in many of the shows I’d worked on, and the quality was staggering, as was the price tag.

The look and feel, the bang for you buck, is truly something else. I was hoping to leap from video to cinema, and did I? Yes… but not straight out of the box.

To use a Canon DSLR for HD video takes a lot of tweaking, research and add-ons. In short, if you want to lift your piece to another level on a tight budget it can be done, and is indeed worth doing. But what are the hurdles? Why is it such a faff??

 

I should preface this by saying that though I am going to list the “drawbacks” of the Canon 6D, the build quality of the camera is great, as in my humble opinion are all the professional end Canon digital video cameras. They look and feel great, the images are exceptional, and you can even get them to the broadcast standard bitrate of 50 Mb/sec. Remember, the 6D is first and foremost a DSLR, a stills camera, it’s only that technology reached a tipping point with the introduction of the 5D (in 2005), and then the TV industry realised that these devices, with super sexy lenses and sensors, actually met the new HDTV broadcast pixel resolution spec of 1920 x 1080p, producing images with wonderful colour and depth of field, all at a fraction of the cost of the TV workhorses at the time like the Sony PMW-EX3 or Canon XF305.

 

In no particular order:

Electronic View-Finder

OK, so it has an EVF, you can see a digital image whilst recording video… but that’s about it. You can’t tilt and move the EVF like on dedicated camcorders such as the Canon C100, C300 or Sony models like the FS700 or PMW 200. When shooting video the image is displayed only on EVF, not through the view-finder, and the EVF has no eyecup. So to all intents and purposes shooting outdoors is impossible, as you’ll never adequately make anything out on the EVF with the sunlight reflected on it.

Camera's native EVF is non-moveable with no eye-cup for bright light

The solution?

Buy a clip-on eye-cup. The one I went for was the LCDVF 3/2 at around £75 off eBay. Essentially, you attach a metal frame around the EVF, which the viewfinder / eyepiece attaches to magnetically.

Clip-on viewfinder Clip on viewfinder attached to camera
The LCDVF viewfinder

 

ND filter

So not being a dedicated camcorder it doesn’t have an ND filter. What is an ND filter, and why do you need one? The only way we can shoot anything at all, or that film, video, and even sight is possible is down to light. Without light, it’s, well, it’s all black. There are of course optimal amounts, not too much and not to little, and a stills camera controls the amount of light hitting the lens via a well-trodden triangle of adjustable parameters:

  • ISO setting – the “film” or sensor sensitivity. In the digital world, the more sensitive you make the sensor to light (or the higher the “gain”), the lower light level you can shoot in, but the more grain and distortion there is to the image. These cameras have some cracking ISO ability.

            High ISO in low light leading to grainy distortion
            Interior evening meal, pushing to approx. 8000 ISO at f/4.0 – and starting to see the grain

  • Aperture or f-stop – the size of the hole letting light through the lens, the larger the hole, the lower the f-stop, e.g. f/4 is a lower f-stop than f/22. A paradox? Yes. f-stop is a ratio rather than an absolute number. So f/4 means an aperture of 1/4 of the focal length, and “higher” numbers such as f/22 are actually 1/22 of the focal length, not “higher” at all, and so mean a very small aperture. The more light through the lens, the renrrker the situation you can shoot in.

The lower the f-stop the shallower the depth of field. These low f-stops combined with the large sensors led to a type of picture totally different to the old TV workhorses.

            Shallow depth of field over the North Downs - f/4
            f/4.0 – shallow depth of field (70-200mm EF lens)

            Large depth of field over the North Downs - f/28
            f/28 – large depth of field (70-200mm EF lens)

Why does do we get this effect? This article at Cambridge in Colour again explains the reasons very well, and this piece from Matthew Cole tells you pretty much everything you need know about DoF and how to achieve it.

  • Shutter Speed – how fast your shutter opens and closes – the longer it’s open the more light falls on the film or sensor during each exposure. In the stills camera this can be any speed you like – though dependent upon the style of image you want. You may want a fast shutter speed like 1/1000th of a second to capture really high speed action, such as splashing water, or you may want to demonstrate the motion of an object by selecting a slower shutter speed so everything is totally in focus, baring the moving object which will be blurred, for example a car or man running. This is a particularly well-written and nicely illustrated article on shutter speeds by Darren Rowse at the Digital Photography School.

Slow shutter speed example, 2 seconds     High Shutter Speed example 1/1000th second
            Slow shutter speed: 2 seconds                                                                 High shutter speed: 1/1000th second

But! Video doesn’t have the shutter speed choice. Aware of it or not, after years of Hollywood conditioning, our eyes know what looks right and wrong in terms of movement. A high shutter speed, with no blur, gives a very staccato unnatural movement; lower speeds allow “motion blur”, so an arm for example is not so much appearing in 5 distinct places across a path of movement but blends across it gradually. The magic number for Pal video is 50 (i.e. the shutter opens and closes in 1/50th of a second) twice the frame rate of 25 fps (for NTSC it’s 60, twice 30).

So shutter speed for video is essentially locked at 50 (60 for NTSC), with certain exceptions like sports where it could be 100, to show the action better. Here’s the conundrum: what if you’re shooting on a fairly bright day, you want that shallow depth of field, say at f/4, you have your ISO all the way down at 100, and shutter speed is locked at 50? Too much light will be hitting the sensor.

The Solution?

Video cameras get round this by using a neutral density (ND) filter – a piece of neutral coloured grey glass that drops in front of the lens blocking a percentage of the light across the whole colour spectrum. They have it built into the camera body itself, but for the 6D you just have to buy one. Either you buy a matte box and drop graded ND plates in front of the lens, or you screw a variable ND filter on the front of the lens, one point to beware of is that with this option at very wide angles there may be some vignetting of the image, so chose carefully. I personally went for the Tiffen 77mm Variable ND filter which got a good review, costing about £115.

Close up of the Tiffen ND filter, 77mm Tiffen 77mm filter fitted to 24-205mm EF lens
The Tiffen variable ND filter

An excellent and in depth reference on the subject of ND filters can be found here from Cambridge in Colour.

Shoulder rig

The form factor of this camera is beautiful, robust and brimming with quality. Perfect… for photography, where you snap for a fraction of a second and a steady hand must last but a fraction of a second. With film and video, in my opinion after correct lighting, the next way to make every shot and piece jump to the pro level is to get stable shots. “Wobble vision” screams amateur, and the pro’s will go to all manner of lengths to achieve a steady shot – tracks, dollys, sliders, jibs; but if it’s got to be handheld you go either steadicam or finally jam it on your shoulder and try to move smoothly! OK, you could chose to go for a gritty observational documentary fly-on-the-wall style, but a small DSLR open to far, far too much rock n roll from your hands and arms.

The Solution?

For long periods of time you need to either attach it to a strap anchored around your neck (a good, cheap solution) or ideally a shoulder rig, minimizing the effects of the arm and hand movements. Anchoring to the shoulder allows for far more control and means far less natural wobble.

I ended up buying a rig from CamSmart for £140, but there are a lot of similar cheap, serviceable options.

Shoulder stabilisation rig Attachment of camera to shoulder rig sliders
Shoulder supported stabalising rig

And the other advantage of this? It looks like you mean business.

 

Barn doors

An issue with all lenses in bright sunlight is lens flare, where unwanted spots of light are reflected onto the lens and sensor.

Example of lens flare around red ribbon
Lens flare demonstrated near the red ribbon

 View from the North Downs - no lens flare
Using a lens hood eliminates the lens flare

Sometimes it’s a look that is wanted, but mostly it just looks unprofessional. A photographer will add a lens hood or flower to combat this:

Camera with lens hood / lens flower attached
Canon 6D with lens hood

But with your ND filter on, you’ll not be able to screw the hood on.

The Solution?

Attach a set of “barn doors” to your rig. The rigs often come with ones attached, so you can kill two birds with one stone, but those I got with my rig were cheap plastic and snapped fairly quickly.

Full shoulder rig kit with barn doors
Shoulder rig with viewfinder and barn doors (& ND filter) – full kit

Seems like quite a hefty piece of apparatus to achieve quite a small job, but that’s what you need. The plus side again, it gives a professional look.

I got myself an M3 Matte Box Rail Rod Support System for £85 off eBay, to fit the (standard) 15mm rails of my rig.

 

No high speed shooting option

Although the 6D is touted as having no high speed, that’s not quite true. It does have a 50fps (Pal) 1280 x 720p option, which comes out fairly well. I shot all of this using that setting:

For the web it turns out pretty well, as a lot of what people watch is 720p anyway.

Of course it could use a little more development in this area, but since the C100 mark II has only just got 1080p 50fps, I just don’t think Canon are the guys to go with for high speed. If you feel the need for speed, go Sony’s FS700 at 200 fps 1080p.

 

Mini jack audio in

Audio into any pro grade camera will be via XLR connections; not only is this a 3-wire balanced system, but the plugs are sturdy and not prone to being knocked out. The 6D simply has a mini-jack audio in socket – so it’s a low quality analogue signal, with a low quality connection that can be easily dislodged, as is very likely to happen on shoot.

Ain’t no solution to this!

 

No head-phone jack

Yes, the 6D has no head-phone, Jack. So you can’t monitor audio straight out of the box, bad news as you’ ain’t never, ever going to get away with recording audio for an interview for example without listening to what’s being recorded – there could be all manner of glitches, hums and drop-outs.

The Solution?

Either record to a second device such as those from Zoom or Tascam, or I currently pipe my audio into my other camera, the Sony Z1-E, which although it sounds great is quite long winded considering all the syncing in the edit as well.

Or you can do it via the magic lantern (ML) firmware add-on, which allows monitoring via the AV out. Not only do you have to install the specific audio monitoring version of ML, but you need to buy a handful of small pieces of kit too, which then have to be hung off the camera.

Additional headphone monitoring kit required Canon 6D with extra headphone monitoring kit
Extra equipment required for headphone monitoring

If you really want to do this you will need:

– AV cable out to RCA video and stereo RCA audio – supplied by Canon with the camera

– Male 1/8” mini jack to dual female RCA

– Mini amplifier to boost AV level audio to headphone level. I have the FiiO E06 (which needs to be charged)

A good tutorial on how to hook it all up is here courtesy of David Disponett (NB: it’s recently been brought to my attention that the link to the Magic / Tragic Lantern firmware gvien here amongst the other info is no longer valid, so I’ll look to get an alternative source for that ASAP.)

A word of warning is that I found the ML audio monitoring add-on had a small bug in it – changing the aperture setting on the camera whilst recording created unusable distortion, so no stopping up or down whilst recording audio! All kind of like trying to do it with one arm tied behind your back, standing on your head and juggling fire, I’m not pursuing this route. Could be an advert for the 5D right there.

 

Magic lantern – allows histograms, peaking, zebras, audio meters, timelapse, and increases the bit rate

I’m going to move on to the software / firmware side of things now. With every pro grade camcorder out there you will have the following visual tools to help adjust the levels for your shots:

  • Histograms to monitor exposure levels
  • Zebras as an alternative way of monitoring exposure
  • Peaking to assist with focus
  • Audio meters to visually monitor audio input levels

And without them, life is kind of hard.

The solution?

Is called Magic Lantern, same as the audio monitoring section above. There is a more generic firmware add-on I use that doesn’t have the bug of the audio fix, and works trouble free for me in everyday shooting. They have various disclaimers about it potentially breaking your camera, but I’d be bold and take the gamble, as I don’t really think there is one.

It’s out there for the Canon 5D, 6D, 7D, and the 60D, but NOT the 70D at the moment.

Now, not only does ML provide all the above visual tools, it has a couple of absolutely fantastic extras, so I think you simply have to have it. Firstly, it will also allow you to shoot timelapse, which the camera itself does not otherwise do, and works a treat. I used a slider and the timelapse function to shoot this:

Secondly, it can bump up your shooting bitrate to, well, 500 Mb/sec! But how you find an SD card to keep up with that, or why you’d need to go there I don’t know. It natively shoots at about 30 Mb/sec, which is fine, but pushing it to 50 or 60 gives you loads more versatility in post production, undoubtedly you get a far better grade in post; and of course 50 Mb/sec means it can be used for broadcast (although a TV program generally allows for 10% non HD content).

For a more comprehensive list of what makes Magic Lantern awesome, see this post by Hugh Brownstone from Planet 5D.

 

The Codec can be used for Avid AMA, but is unwieldy

So now I’m going to deal with what happens when the files hit your computer. Some files are easier to handle than others, and essentially the more you pay the better the encoding, the more info in the file itself, and the easier it is for a computer to process / read them.

The 6D records video as a .mov file, using the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec, which can be linked via AMA if you are using Avid editing software (as I do), and in fact nearly all file formats can now be linked this way. That means you can look at your footage directly off the drives from your shoot, with no further processing through Avid. And that’s great! It’s such as timesaver, which only a few years ago was impossible. But the long GOP intricacies of the compression require such a considerable amount of processing power from your motherboard that AMA is not a reliable or stable way to edit long-term. The advice is to initially link your files or folder via AMA and then transcode copies to your local hard-drive.

Media Composer v7 and v8 have taken big strides to handle AMA more effectively, and will now transcode in the background. Hats off Avid, I love that. I have personally found that Sony XDCAM files (using the MPEG-2 codec) can work natively, without transcoding, and without issues; but the Canon stuff, not a hope, not even the AVCHD file generated by the C100, you have to step up to the C300’s XF codec (MPEG-2 in an MXF wrapper) to edit natively, which saves a lot of time ingesting footage.

 

Do I Recommend Canon Cameras With Video?

I’ve come to look at my 6D like a precocious child, I love it, but it ain’t half a pain in the backside. It takes so much to persuade it to do what you want.

But ultimately, let’s not forget it’s only £1k for the body! About 15 years you could spend 50 times that for an SD Betacam camcorder and not reach this quality.

It has a full frame CMOS sensor, and you can use it to shoot great looking video (admittedly within the 30 minute maximum clip length DSLR limitation), and create a great looking piece. I shot this mostly using the 6D (with some on a 60D).

When you buy the EF lenses to fit this camera, which are fantastic, they can be used if you upgrade to a dedicated video model like the EOS C100, C300, or C500.

So I think the ultimate question is, “if I had my time again would I make the same choice and buy the 6D?”…

To get all the features I’ve outlined you need to go up to the C300 at around £10k. Too much? If you cherry pick to get a workable camera, for example the Sony FS700 or Canon C100 mkII will set you back about £4k. But the 6D is £1k- and that difference in cost for me means the choice is made for you. Hey, these Canon DSLR cameras can do everything you need, if you force them!

If budget is the prime factor, then the 6D it is, but I’d say that the Canon 5D mkIII is ultimately the best Canon camera for video, for only an extra £600 or so.

The 5D mkIII will give you the headphone out, HDMI out, dual SD and CF card slots, and crucially a far more efficient elimination of moire. This may actually be the deciding factor, moire on buildings (and clothing) can be crippling, and yes the 6D does suffer from it, and so if I had my time again I would find the extra cash and get the 5D. This is the broadcast option, and there is a reason why.

In conclusion, the 6D is genuinely best as a second camera, albeit an exceptional one. Yes, go ahead and buy a Canon DSLR and set it up for video: implement the necessary adjustments… and produce some great looking shots that you’d never have got close to 10 years ago.

And don’t forget… they take photos too!

Filming on the 6D in Piedmont near Alba, Italy

 

A review of the Canon 6D’s all round capabilities can be found here by stalwart photographer Ken Rockwell

And a review of it’s video capabilities by Marc Franklin at invaluable resource Studio Daily, who comes to a similar conclusion.

 

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