As most of you probably know, the past few months have been an exciting time for Canon DSLR owners – especially 5D MKIII owners. The ingenious team at Magic Lantern has developed new firmware for Canon DSLRs, with which you can now record raw videos on your Canon 5D MK III in the format of DNG sequences (not to be confused with Cinema DNG). Not only can you take raw photos, you can also choose a variety of new image sizes, so you can take photos in 4: 3 2560 x 1280 mode even with anamorphic lenses.
Although the firmware works on other Canon DSLRs, you really need a 5D MK III to get the most out of it. For example, if you are using the firmware on a 550D or 600D, you can currently only record with a maximum resolution of 960 x 540 (if you are not in cropping mode). It's certainly still great to have the ability to take raw shots with these cameras, but it's a lot less convenient than raw full HD.
Since these developments of the Magic Lantern team have been going on for some time, I wanted to wait until the dust had settled before I wrote about it, hoping to understand exactly where I was going. Before I get into the ML firmware, I should anticipate the following: I really believe that what the ML team is doing is a miracle. They took a prosumer camera, which was only developed for recording highly compressed h.264 videos, and made it possible to record breathtaking raw videos. It’s just incredible. Even more impressive is the fact that, thanks to its firmware, the Canon 50D was also able to take raw pictures that previously had NO video function! Still, I don't think this development is necessarily a game changer – at least not directly. More on this below.
I've literally shot countless times on Canon (especially the 5D / 7D) over the years. They have paved the way for other video-oriented DSLRs and have repeatedly proven to be amazing tools. Although I have always had a preference for GH2 / GH3 over a Canon DSLR (mainly based on resolution / IQ), after the announcement of the raw hack, I started to wonder if it would be worth moving to another DSLR kit invest. specially developed for raw recordings on the MK III. Ultimately, I decided against it and here's why:
The practicality of a particular camera is extremely important to me, and the 5D with raw hack is currently anything but practical. I regularly deal with raw workflows from EPIC / Alexa / Blackmagic etc. and have no problems with raw materials. However, when I shoot with a DSLR as an A-camera, productions on a smaller budget benefit much more from easier set-up during production and faster processing time in the mail. We know that all cameras have their strengths and weaknesses and that different cameras are best suited for certain types of jobs. With the 5D (or other DSLR), productions were the case that required high-quality videos in a small form factor that was inexpensive and efficient both on the set and in the mail. Unfortunately, you lose what you gain with the 5D hack in terms of raw quality in terms of the practicality of taking cheap and efficient photos with a DSLR. For this reason alone, the camera is not suitable for most of my DSLR-based productions.
Media costs are another big problem for me. If you want to take photos in raw mode on the 5D MKIII, you need the best CF cards you can buy for money. And at around $ 300 to $ 600 per pop (for a 128GB card), you only get about 15 minutes of footage per card. This is a problem for smaller productions because the cost of media and storage (and later duplication) can be very high. If I point this out to people, they will often counteract this by pointing out the high cost of shooting Redmags on the RED. However, the fact is that for productions that can afford to shoot RED, media and storage costs are not an issue. And while the 5D MKIII looks awesome in Raw, it's not and will never be a RED camera. Large productions rarely, if ever, choose a raw 5D raw material over an Alexa or RED. Ultimately, this is still a camera for indie filmmakers on a budget and not for large-scale productions. And these indie films have to be very careful where the money is spent.
Next, I want to talk about image quality, which is a huge improvement over the compressed h.264 that you normally get out of a 5D. But for me, it's not overwhelming enough to justify the workarounds and additional costs. Don't get me wrong, I think that the quality of the MK III in raw mode is the best footage from any DSLR and is really nice. There is no question. But a well-composed recording on an MKIII raw versus a well-composed recording on another reasonably decent DSLR doesn't make much difference (unless you're in an extremely poorly lit situation). And it doesn't matter for customers who pay for DSLR production because they'll never know the difference. Check out this recently released comparison video of the 5D in raw form and with h.264 compression. The differences are absolutely there, but you can judge for yourself whether they make or break your project:
The last point I will address is the reliability of the camera. So far I have heard very positive things about the reliability of the firmware hack in everyday use, but I would not like to use the camera with paid recordings, as there is at least a certain risk that the camera will fail. This risk may be minimal, but I've learned my lesson the hard way. In a particular shoot a few years ago, I was shooting on a hacked GH2 that I had been shooting for hours without problems. But for one reason or another the hack gave me problems on the set and I couldn't record more than a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, I had a reversing camera with me, otherwise we would not have finished filming. Since then, I've only used cameras with hacked firmware for my own projects and never a paid job. There will certainly be a lot of people worth taking the risk of using their hacked cameras for paid shots, but to put it in perspective, no professional shooter I know of has currently hacked their 5D.
That brings me to my original point, why I don't think this will be a big game changer in the indie film world. Even though many disagree with my points above and go out of their way to get the most out of the 5D, these numbers are currently not large enough. As mentioned above, professionals who make a living from a 5D are unlikely to hack and risk losing their camera due to overheating problems or other unexpected problems that can occur. If the hack turns out to be stable over a long period of time, I'm sure that many of these DPs and cameramen will give in to hacking their cameras at some point, but although the developments have been very fast, they are still evolving and are still very premature. Just a few days ago, ML released a method that can be used to remove almost 14 stops of the dynamic range from the camera (see video above). Again, I think this is amazing. However, this can cause permanent damage to your sensor or other problems with the camera. We just don't know it yet.
In a year when the firmware has been stabilized and everyone knows that it is safe to use, I think it will simply be too late to ever achieve the effects that many expect. Until then, many other raw cameras will be available, which are not only better in quality, but also cheaper and much more practical. And I'm not just talking about cameras like the existing Blackmagic Pocket Camera, but also the cameras that will be released next year. Whether it is the Digital Bolex, a new GoPro camera, one of the major manufacturers that is making changes, or a completely new company that comes from the field on the left – there will be many more raw cameras in the coming year. Budget raw cameras are now clearly a reality, and there are many manufacturers who are ready to take advantage of the fact that the independent film community is demanding raw cameras at affordable prices.
Only time will tell, but as brilliant and talented as the ML team is, they still work with hardware that was never developed for raw footage and is ultimately limited by the stability of the camera and which inevitably affects how fast (if with) all) it is taken over by the general film community. I only wish Canon would be aware of Magic Lantern's activities from the start and develop cameras with these capabilities and functions. If they don't do it soon, they'll be out of luck as other smaller manufacturers are now starting to make Canon products overpriced and in some cases look dated.
If all of these hacking / tech conversations make you feel a bit geared up, read one of my last non-gear posts – The Importance Of Story
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!