The Canon 7D: Film is Dead.

Posted on 25 July 2010 by Quaid

Hi all, Quaid here.  As you may or may not know, my day job involves acting as cinematographer for a premiere film and video production company here in Louisville, KY.  We do everything from marketing videos to commercials, image pieces to PSAs.

In addition, I spend most every other waking moment writing about and even making films.  I just started production on the low-budget action comedy Overtime, acting as writer, producer and director of photography.

While the production company I work for has many high-end cameras whose price tag is in the $20-30k range, we’ve decided to shoot this new film on a Canon 7D…the cheapest camera we own.  At $1,600, the 7D is affordable to just about all indie filmmakers, and because it uses the imaging technology of Canon’s Digital SLR still cameras, it mimics the “film look” (aka shallow depth-of-field, variable lenses and convincing film gammas) almost perfectly.  So I think it’s finally time for me to say it out loud for the world to hear.

Film is dead.

Below you’ll find a review of the 7D I’ve submitted to my friends over at MicroFilmmaker Magazine.  While the review is a bit technical and aimed toward a production audience, I thought it might be nice to put up here on MovieChopShop.

All the images on here are screen grabs pulled from the Overtime shoot.  They were all shot on the 7D at 1080P/24fps.  If that’s greek to you, no worries.  It just means we geeks are happy.

And stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis of the changing landscape of digital cinematography, including updates on the Red, the Canon 5D and 7D and other awesome low-budget shooting options…

Now for the review:

The future is here. For years (decades, even?), low-budget filmmakers have dreamed of being able to achieve the look of film without the headache and cost of film equipment, processing etc. Over the past decade we’ve seen digital cinema grow and develop, starting with 3-chip DV cameras and moving to SD 24P cameras and, most recently, prosumer HD camcorders that shoot true, native 24P video.

And while all these cameras did their best to mimic the look and feel of film by simulating film gammas and frame rates, they have all been a bit lacking with their smaller chip sizes and hardware limitations.

Unless you wanted to upgrade to a more expensive camera, say the Red One, you were stuck with these limitations. But now comes the 7D, out of nowhere, to redefine what we think of as a “video camera.”

The 7D, like the 5D before it, is first and foremost a still camera. Built in the body of a digital SLR, the camera takes fantastic images at high resolutions. But it also shoots video, and here is where we get the true advantage. By using a sensor size more comparable to that of film, we get a more robust image. And the interchangeable still lens system finally brings a filmic depth-of-field within the sights of the prosumer price range.

Basically, the 7D works so well because of its CMOS sensor. This censor is capable of scanning extremely high resolutions for still photographs. The images are then down-rezzed to create the 1080P video image. Basically, it looks more like film because the image system is closer to the way film works, complete with film lenses and a film-style sensor.

Of course, there are drawbacks to this system. First of all, it is in the unwieldy body of a still camera, so handheld work is difficult. The controls are often buried in menus, and there is no servo for smooth zooms. Also, because the lenses are still lenses, the focus distances are very short, making racks more difficult to pull off.

And the image, itself, has some problems. CMOS sensors are prone to the dreaded “jello effect.” This means that in high-motion camera movement, the processor has trouble down-rezzing the image on the fly for video, and so the image is distorted. Lines that should be straight are warped and bent. For this reason, the 7D might not be the best choice for handheld or high-impact action shooting.. And while shooting at 60fps seems to lessen this effect, there can still be problems with fast pans, tilts etc.

Finally, the camera has yet to develop a truly satisfactory audio system. While Magic Lantern is hard at work creating software to allow the camera to take mixed audio sources, the current audio track is auto-leveled and inconsistent. If you want to shoot with audio, you’d better get an external recorder and slate your takes.

Still, the image quality cannot be denied. And if you’re a filmmaker with only a couple grand to spend on a camera, this really is the only option to consider.

Ease of Use

If you’re used to a Beta body type (or even the Panasonic HVX-200), this camera is going to throw you for a loop. Lots of options are buried in menus, and the body style is not terribly conducive to video. Handheld shooting, zooms, and quality focus racks are extremely difficult to accomplish. While there are a few rail systems available for the camera, like those made by Redrock Micro or Zacuto, they can get to be pretty expensive–especially when compared to the relatively low cost of the camera. And they still fail to solve some of the body problems like button placement and menu accessibility. Focus assist systems can help with racking, but the focus wheel is so sensitive (due to the nature of still lenses) that it’s still hard to keep the subject in focus while dollying.

The whole thing works more like a film camera than a video camera, too, with variable film speeds, shutter speeds, and a fairly involved white-balancing process.

Another headache is the camera’s inability to monitor out in HD via SDI. Instead, the camera opts for a mini HDMI output which can also be used for low-quality SD video monitoring.

Also, the audio options are almost non-existent, requiring a separate audio recorder and slating takes.

Depth of Options
The versatility of being able to switch from still to video mode is a great feature to have. Images can be shot at different resolutions including both JPEG and RAW, and video can be shot at various frame rates. The camera includes a 60 fps mode to allow for slo-mo shooting, too..

In video mode, the 7D can shoot 1080P at 24 and 30 fps as well as 720P at 24, 30, and 60 fps.

Performance
The image is stunning…as long as you don’t try to pull off wild camera moves, focus racks or zooms. This one is definitely not a camera for all occasions, but is a great option for most low-budget filmmakers.

Value
The 7D is all about value. Very few cost-comparable cameras can compete with the 7D’s pure image quality. The headaches of operation, then, can be looked at as a necessary evil to get such a good picture for such a low cost.

Final Comments
There was a lot of talk about the 7D being a “Red Killer.” And while that might be a bit of an overstatement, I have been able to cut spots that use both Red One and 7D footage…the two cameras intercut seamlessly (with a little color correction, of course).

The cost of high-quality filmic images just dropped drastically with this camera, and you won’t regret buying it. At the same time, though, there is part of me that says “hold off.” There are rumors of Canon (among others) putting the guts of this camera in a more user-friendly body with better audio options and a more powerful processor that eliminates the “jello effect.” And if they can do that and keep the price tag under five grand, all my dreams will have come to fruition.                  

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Steve Wheatley Says:

    Brian, you were talking the other day about how its hard to do follow focus with your hand. I think I found the answer to your problem.

    http://lifehacker.com/5455016/add-a-fine-focus-knob-to-your-camera-for-5

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