Great All I-Frame Video at a Great Price in a DSLR Form Factor, For Better and Worse

As a non-professional still photographer, my opinion is that the Canon 6D takes great still photos. That will conclude the still-photography portion of this review. Since this is StudioDaily, I will now consider the Canon 6D strictly as a video camera.  

I generally shoot with ENG-style cameras, but the wonderful video produced by the Canon 5D Mark II piqued my curiosity. It was followed quickly by similarly capable DSLRs from Nikon, Sony, and Panasonic. The 5D Mark II earned a cult-like following for DSLRs, with adherents of the technology stating that DSLRs were making standard video production cameras obsolete. I'll address those claims, but first let's talk about using the 6D in the field. 

The 6D is only the second DSLR I've had a chance to evaluate. The first was Canon's short-lived prosumer T4i, which was replaced by the T5i before my review was published. The 6D was missing a few things that I really liked on the T4i, including the “pop-out” LCD that was viewable from different angles and the touch screen that allowed you to rack focus by dragging your finger across the screen. The 6D is designed more for the professional who isn't used to such niceties, but the pro-level 70D does have these niceties, among others, and is gaining a lot of fans.

Before taking the camera out on any real shoots, I did some fun shoots. One was a community Chanukah celebration in an outdoor mall. It was at night, without much in the way of good lighting, but the low light capability of the 6D allowed for excellent video. At one point there was a fire dancer whose flaming baton was enough to light the shot without overexposing the flames. 

As my company copes with the ups and downs of the economy, and at the behest of our clients, we started doing event videography again after five years. On a recent weekend we were double-booked with a single-camera early-afternoon wedding, and an evening two-camera. Since I had a cameraman covering the early wedding, I decided to shoot some B roll with the 6D. For most of the shoot, I had it on a Manfrotto 546 Monopod for stability.  

Indoors it worked quite nicely. The initial manual white balance is a bit more involved then on a regular camcorder, where you aim the lens at something white and hit a button. On the 6D, as with other DSLRs, you must take a picture of something white, then go into the menu and find the manual white balance item and activate it. In many crowded shots, I missed the pop-out viewfinder from the T4i.  Many times, I had to guess what I was shooting, and whether it was in focus.  

Outdoors, I had it in auto white balance mode, and colors were correct and consistent. The main problem was direct sunlight on the LCD screen. If you are going to use it outdoors, a hood for the LCD is extremely important. This was my first time shooting in Canon's all I-Frame codec. The video showed noticeably less noise than standard Long-GOP (IPB) codecs, but you will quickly notice that space on the SD card goes quite quickly. All I-Frame will get you about a minute per GB. If you don't have enough SD cards, you may want to go to the more compressed IPB interframe codec, sacrificing some quality for longer run times.

While there is a VU meter, there is no way to monitor the quality of the audio signal. I was using an external mic, and the VU looked OK, but the sound was clipped in the mic.

My next shoot was an infomercial. Instead of using the standard lens, I used a vintage Canon 55mm f/1.4 manual lens. To solve the audio issue I had at the wedding, I used one Sennheiser lav on the talent and had two receivers on the same channel. One went into the 6D directly and the other into a Tascam DR-40 audio recorder that allows me to monitor and adjust the audio signal. As things on this set were less frantic than at the wedding, I was able to record and play back the audio on the 6D and get it perfect. We thought of the DR-40 as a back-up, but in the end the PCM audio recorded on the 6D was so good we didn't need what was recorded on the Tascam.

At the last minute, the producer decided the location wasn't working for him, so we hastily put up a green screen. We took some test shots and tried the key in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and got a great key without even using lights. This was the first time I ever used a green screen and didn't need lights. Naturally, that sped up the shoot.

I have nothing but praise for the quality of video that the Canon 6D can put out. If you are looking for the video quality of the 5D Mark III — the narrow depth of field and low light sensitivity —and don't mind the lack of a headphone out, for $1500 less than the 5D Mark III, the 6D may be your ticket. 

A lot of newbies are under the impression that if they buy a HD DSLR and a couple lenses, it grants them instant “filmmaker” or “cinematographer” status. Not so. Using the Canon 6D, or any other DSLR, for video will take a lot of practice and experimentation. An HD DSLR is not the right video camera for all shoots.

For me, I don't see myself replacing my traditional video cameras with a DSLR. The majority of productions I work on are ENG or live events, and most DSLRs can't handle those types of shoots. In order to get the 6D ready for the type of run-and-gun filmmaking and video productions that I do, it would need to be equipped with expensive rigging, costing from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars, to allow you throw it on your shoulder and shoot. Without the headphone jack to monitor audio, you'll have a separate audio person recording and monitoring externally, and you may need to sync audio to video in post. In the news business, where you need everything yesterday, post-syncing audio isn't practical at all.  

The shallow depth of field capability of the HD DSLRs is a desired look that many producers want and are willing to pay for. There are very good video cameras, such as Canon's EOS C100 and C300, that have the all the built-in features and jacks most video production pros require, but those cost $5,000 and $14,000, respectively. The Red Scarlet, Sony NEX-FS700, PMW-F3 and -F5 are also in this price range. There are some other shallow depth of field capable video cameras available under $4000, such as Blackmagic Design's 2.5K and 4K digital cinema cameras and Panasonic's AF-100, that use APS-C or micro-four-thirds sensors, but may not have the light sensitivity of a full-frame sensor. Sony's NEX-VG900 is a full-frame camera for under $3,400 that has most features one would want in a video camera and a DSLR — but it's still $1500 more than the 6D.

Ironically, when Canon added video recording to the 5D Mark II, it was so photojournalists could take video clips in addition to their normal job. It makes a lot of sense, as many of today's newspapers offer video on their websites. Instead of becoming a popular ENG tool, replacing standard ENG cameras, it splashed into the world of digital cinema, replacing cameras sometimes costing 25 times as much. Meanwhile, the running-and-gunning environment of ENG could make a HD DSLR unwieldy for shooters who have been using traditional ENG cameras.

In the end, the Canon 6D is an affordable HD DSLR with a full-frame 35mm sensor. With practice, it makes an inexpensive, high-quality addition to a videographer's toolbox. No one camera can do it all, but if you need full-frame 35mm and the shallow depth of field that many of today's productions demand, the Canon 6D would be a very good, economical choice. If Canon were to release a 6D Mark II with a headphone jack, it would nudge my rating up a notch. (Are you listening, Canon???)