I have been shooting a documentary recently, and I decided to get a 550D (called a Rebel T2i in the States) for that purpose. I’d heard a lot about the camera, and it seemed the most cost-effective way to get cinematic video. It’s cheaper and lighter than the Z1, but now shooting has wrapped, how did it perform?
I’d seen some amazing video from the Canons, so when it came to choosing a DSLR for video, the Canon 550D was top of the list. It’s significantly cheaper than its brothers, the 5DMkII and 7D, yet comparable with both in terms of video (See The Great Camera Shootout 2010). I’d read criticisms about it being a bit flimsy and much lighter than the 7D and 5D, but it outweighs the Minolta X-300, the last SLR I’d owned. I bought it with the Kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6), and the results were pretty good. Of course, I needed a better lens, so I picked up a 28-105mm/f/3.5-5.6 quite cheaply, and it’s even better. While it’s not very intuitive, it doesn’t take long to get to grips with, and the video settings are simple to customize. The one thing I found frustrating was that for video the display screen is constantly on, and the SLR viewfinder is closed, which is a shame. There’s also no headphone socket, which means you can’t monitor the sound. Of course, I prefer getting my sound separately anyway, so it’s less of an issue. There’s also an external mic socket, although I tend to prefer getting the sound separately anyway.
The 550D is very useful for shooting documentary – it’s small and unobtrusive, and all but the most nervous interviewees quickly forget it’s there. It also minimises the amount of louts gawping down the lens, which is a blessing. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, particularly for dramatic shoots, as “bigger is better” seems to be the movie maxim for the general populace. However, a quick playback of the first take is all most people need to quickly reconsider – in fact the presenter of the documentary became the camera’s champion, extolling its virtues to all and sundry.
Some things don’t work as well as others. To someone considering getting this camera with the kit lens – don’t. Barrelling became apparent on the wider shots, and it’s pretty bad. A wide-angle close-up of someone gives a “fish-eye” look. It’s fine if you want that, but if you don’t you’re stuck with it. There’s the rolling shutter issue, which is apparently down to the amount of the camera’s sensor used for video, which is then compressed before being sent to the SD card. Every third scanline is used vertically, but every pixel horizontally. The result of this is that any very fast movement is too quick for the process, resulting in a tilting effect. The worst thing is that this could quite easily be reduced significantly in firmware by the process only grabbing every other (or third) horizontal pixel, halving the data to work with. On the bright side, this only occurs with high speed movement; for the most part it’s fine.
Visually, it’s a treat. The DSLR’s aesthetic gives video a very professional look, better than any results I’ve had from a Sony (including the EX3), and has afforded me plenty of compliments (which I do feel a little guilty about). I’ve found it quite difficult to shoot anything which looks bad, though if you try hard I’m sure it’s possible. Everything can be adjusted, from the ISO setting to the aperture, to the shutter speed. There are limitations to this – the minimum shutter speed is 30fps (the maximum is 4000), the ISO is 100 to 6400 (12800 is only available for stills), and the shutter is dependent upon the lens. It’s worth mentioning at this point that if you like zooming, you need a lens without aperture correction, because when you zoom in or out, the image changes brightness in steps, accompanied by a little click each time. That said, I hate using zoom anyway, so it wasn’t an issue.
One thing which can be an issue is the amount of constant shooting you can manage – the maximum file size for a take is 4 Gb (about 12 and a half minutes) – but then this is still more than 100ft of 35mm film. The file format is H.264 in a Quicktime wrapper, with a data-rate that requires the use of 60x (category 6) SD cards. Although slower cards can work, they’re prone to buffer underrun, which stops the recording. The sixes are much better, although it does happen now and again – the cards work best when filled then re-formatted, without deleting the odd file on the fly, and some people insist on using category 10 cards. The use of h.264 and cards has other ramifications. Like the Red, or other tapeless cameras, data wrangling becomes a priority. Whereas you can grab a DV tape and capture at your leisure, SD cards are by nature re-usable, and without a data wrangler I ended up spending all my time copying from the SD cards to a hard drive (and a secondary hard drive, and a stack of DVDs) to make them ready for the next day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still cheaper and more convenient than something like 35mm, but unless you’re willing to shell out for a stack of cards for each project, there’s a lot of laborious file-transfer to do. To illustrate, I have been using six 8Gb cards, which gives me about 2 1/4 hours of video before wrangling; Because the camera records in true HD, there’s more information to store than with HDV. As I’ve shot about 250Gb, all told, I would have needed 32 cards, which is heading towards £1000, as opposed to 12 miniDV tapes for about twenty quid. And I still haven’t backed it all up to 50-odd DVDs yet.
Battery life is better than I expected, especially considering that the screen is on whenever the camera is. I bought a replacement from ebay, and it seems I was lucky, as it performs just as well as Canon’s own. For a full day’s shoot, getting through all six cards, I went through three batteries. Obviously mains power would be preferable, but this is a separate accessory which comes with a power adaptor you have to insert into the battery slot. It’s worth mentioning the overheat problem oft-mentioned on forums – because the 550D has a plastic chassis as opposed the the metal of the 7D or 5D, it’s apparently more prone to overheating. In the instruction manual there is a note to avoid touching the casing if it’s too hot. I did encounter this, but only once, and in a warm, sunny library with a few redheads, after an hour of shooting. Despite the temperature light flashing annoyingly, I was still able to finish shooting the last 8 minutes of the interview. I then turned the 550D off for a few minutes while we changed the set-up, and it was fine for the rest of the day.
I love my 550D. It has its bugbears like any other device, but they’re negligible enough that shooting with it was an utter joy. I’d recommend a Canon to anyone.