Downsizing from a Canon 5D Mk II… to the Rebel SL1? Huh? Really?

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Earthlings, this is the first guest post by planet5D friend Hugh Brownstone.

I met him on the chat (the one in the lower right corner of every page here at planet5D) and we got to chatting about the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 – come to find out he's in love with the SL1 — and he's downsized from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II when everyone else seems to be moving UP to bigger cameras! I asked him to tell us all why!

Very interesting read! What do you think?

Trading the Canon 5D Mk II

From By Hugh Brownstone at Three Blind Men & An Elephant Productions:

I recently finished my first shoot with a newly-acquired pair of Canon Rebel SL1s; an old EF 50/1.4; and three EF-S lenses (the newest 18-55 and 55-250 STM’s, and an older 10-22).

It was a PSA short for a local social impact organization in Philly – North Light Community Center – created through the auspices of the Second Annual Philly doGooder Video Hackathon. We had 12 days from first meeting the great folks at North Light to posting our finished product on the competition web site.

We had a fantastic time and are proud of our work.

The kicker? I traded down from a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a pile of L-glass to do it — and couldn’t be happier.

Your mileage may vary.

Light of Manayunk

A Long-Time Canon Guy – and Upgrade Junkie

My fascination with photography began as a little boy when I saw my very first Kodachrome slide. My mother had photographed a piece of driftwood at water’s edge with her already-ancient Leica IIIa, but the gear was irrelevant, really:the composition and those brilliant colors leapt through the image and captivated me forever.

I subsequently became agear head anyway – and a Canon guy at the age of 12. That’s when I bought my first SLR, a Canon FT-QL with FL 50/1.8. It was a giant leap forward in ease of use and speed (for me) compared to the Leica, and a huge jump in quality – and bragging rights – compared to my Sears 126, their version of the Kodak Instamatic.

I flirted with movie cameras around the same time – my first (and last) film for many years was entitled “Boney & Klutz” and was shot and edited in-camera on a Fuji P1 Single 8 –but my heart lay with the still photography of Cartier-Bresson, Arnold Newman and others.

As Canon 35mm SLR’s evolved over the years, I went on the journey with them. F-1. AE-1. 10s. EOS3.

Bigger. Better. Faster. Almost always more expensive.

I replaced some great FL and FD lenses with the (then) new EF series, beginning with the very pedestrian 35-135 that came as a kit lens with the 10s before rapidly upgrading to L glass: 28-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8, 17-35mm f2.8, the mighty 200mm f1.8 – along with the usually underrated 50mm f1.4 and 100mm f2.8 macro.

By then I was a corporate guy with an insatiable appetite for all gear related to my photographic habit.

When the 10D came out, I began the transition to digital. It didn’t hold an aesthetic, functional or ergonomic candle to the EOS3, but the handwriting was on the wall. I sold the EOS3 while it still commanded a good price. I put more photos up on the wall than I ever had with film, up to 3’ x 4’ — if the great photographers could do it with Tri-X, I figured I could do it with modern electronics.

Every now and again I’d take another peek at filmmaking. Back in the early ‘80’s I’d played with a two-piece Sony camera/VCR combo, but found it too conspicuous and heavy. I looked at the Panasonic DVX100b around 2006, but its operation was so different from the Canons – and so much bigger and took so much longer to get what I wanted – that I let it slide. Filmmaking was hard!

But I did write my first feature-length screenplay.

My upgrade path continued with the 1D and then the 30D – the crop factors didn’t bother me too much, though I did miss the sharpness of the old FD 24/2.8 and the even older FL 50/3.5 macro.

But I always had that filmmaking itch, made all the more irritating by my screenwriting.

The Arrival of the 5D Mk II

And then I bought the 5D Mk II.

It pushed me over the edge into video. A form factor familiar to me, bundled with 1080p video and the shallow depth of field possible with the lenses I already had, the 5D Mk II was a no-brainer.

Still, I was — for the most part — the gifted (if that) amateur. I took paying photography gigs that only very occasionally fell into my lap.

But somewhere along the way, the 5D Mk II encouraged me to get more serious. I started to shoot video shorts for the consumer products company I co-founded.

I became hooked. All I wanted to do was make films.

Of course, just like everybody else, I quickly understood the limitations of the 5D Mk II for video and followed THAT now well-worn upgrade path, too. A Zacuto Z-finder and companion EVF. A Zoom H4n along with a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic.and Sennheiser EW100 G2 wireless set-up. Magic Lantern. A Cartoni Focus tripod to complement my Gitzo.

And an Arri Softbank IV kit to replace my Profoto 7A system.

Time to Get Serious

Then I got really serious.

I left the company I founded and went into corporate video fulltime.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the only hope I had of being profitable in the near term was to be pretty much a one-man band. I needed to be light and nimble, even as I needed to be able to film from a second angle. I was just getting plain tired of lugging around all that gear. Sure, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and L glass were outstanding in a studio setting – but I knew this was not going to be the only place I’d be shooting.

Interloper: The Panasonic GH2

I couldn’t imagine acquiring a second 5D Mk II or even a 7D. They were already outdated, and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III didn’t seem like enough of a jump – especially at the price. Based on the strength of so many reviews and the famous Zacuto shoot-out, I bought a Panasonic GH2 with a couple of Lumixlenses just as the GH3 hit the market. I got a great price.

The GH2 was so small! It didn’t need Magic Lantern (absolutely amazing software, BTW, but my middle aged eyes were screaming in protest at having to wade through the menus)! And the image quality was… great! The autofocus was MUCH better – so much better that on occasion I’d actually use it. In some situations, I preferred the Panny image to the Canon – it seemed to “pop”. And it worked with all of the gear I already had for the Canon except for the lenses. I was a bit shocked, really: how could it have fewer megapixels than the vaunted 5DM2 and still be better?

I can hear some of you laughing or nodding your heads in amusement.

The Beginning of the End: Route 66

And then a funny thing happened on the way to our summer vacation along Route 66: I didn’t even bother taking the Canon gear. I packed up the GH2 and a pair of lenses, stuffed them into a small Domke bag, and went on our way.

And then an even funnier thing happened. I found myself leaving the GH2 in the bag and taking more images – still and moving — with my iPhone 5.

I didn’t like the Lumix lenses – they didn’t compare to the L glass in the real world. I didn’t like the EVF. I missed my Canon control layout.

Yet at the same time I found myself thinking about my idol, Cartier-Bresson. If he used the Leica because it was fast, small, unobtrusive – and neither minded the grain nor made use of much more thana single lens – well, isn’t that the equivalent of the iPhone today?

And the SL1 has capabilities FAR beyond the iPhone. Wouldn’t that be enough for me?

Beyond a certain base level of image quality, wasn’t it ultimately about story and making the best use of what one had anyway?

I came back from our vacation and shot a video series in a studio with the Canon and the Panny. I couldn’t match the output from the two sensors no matter how hard I tried.

My infatuation with the GH2 was over. I sold it and the Lumix lenses and was relieved.

What to Do Now?

Just about this time the reports started coming in about the Canon 70D. I’d been thinking about the 60D or even 6D, but the autofocus on the 70D really caught my attention.

Still, I wanted something lighter. But with the memory of the incredible lightness of the GH2 still fresh and no alternative in sight, I began to price the 70D.

And yet…

I decided to take a look at the little Canon EOS Rebel SL1.

• In theory, it had the size of the GH2 with the familiar Canon operation and compatibility with all of my Canon glass.

• I could buy two SL1’s and a pair of STM lenses for less than the price I could get for my used 5D Mk II alone. Or I could still buy two SL1 bodies for the price of a new 70D body, itself a 1.6x crop factor camera.

• The SL1’s Live View autofocus was supposedly better than on any other Canon (including the 5D Mk II) except for the 70D.

• According to DxOMark, the SL1’s sensor was actually rated slightly higher than those found both in the GH2 and the T5i – which are pretty darned good and only slightly less performantthan the 70D’s 20mp sensor.

• And while the lowlight sensitivity of all of these sensors don’t compare to that of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II or Canon EOS 5D Mark III, I wasn’t going to shoot in the dark much anyway.

• Finally, fascinatingly enough, the L glass superiority was not, according to DxO Mark, readily accessible to 1.6x crop-factor Canon bodies. Especially at 1080p, I was betting the difference would not be critical to my filmmaking.

I took the plunge, just in time for the Philly doGooderHackathon II.

“Light of Manayunk”

We began pre-production the same afternoon we first met the great people from North Light Community Center at the Hackathon.

Pre-production for the film “Light of Manayunk”

Pre-production for the film “Light of Manayunk”

Three days later, we began filming “Light of Manayunk” and posted our entry a week later.

The first shooting day was the most important: we’d made the decision to use the severe weather (5° F and almost a foot of snow) as an integral part of our story. It was also the day that we had to get up to the roof of the community center to shoot a couple of long establishing shots.

If we hadn’t had the SL1s, I don’t think we would have made it. It was so cold that we could only be outside for a few minutes at a time – and we could barely control our fingers they were so raw. We brought the cameras up through a very narrow hatch, one with the 55-250mm already attached, the other with the 18-55mm already attached – no tripod need apply.

[tentblogger-vimeo 87082066]

And I had my iPhone 5 in my back pocket.

It was all hand-held. The IS was outstanding. The equipment operated without a hitch 27° below the lower end of their stated operating range. The gear fit my hands just fine (my glove size is large).

And we got the shots we were after.

In the ensuing days, we filmed young children, teens and adults at the community center. The key was to be unobtrusive and fast. No rigs, no lights – the SL1’s were great.

And when we DID shoot static interviews with lights, diffusers and reflectors, the quality was great – I didn’t feel we were giving up image quality of any consequence.

Shooting static interviews with lights, diffusers and reflectors

Shooting static interviews with lights, diffusers and reflectors

Of course, for tripod-mounted shots like the one above, we often do use a rig – though not on this particular day.

Shooting static interviews with lights, diffusers and reflectors

Shooting static interviews with the Rebel SL1 and with lights, diffusers and reflectors

What’s Next?

Those Arris have got to go. LED panels, are next – we used little Neweers for the interview above, and they were not only light and small, but we dialed in the exact intensity we wanted.

In the End

Each of us has our own way of telling stories, choosing what we wish to emphasize, and our own sense of priorities. I well understand why so many people love the Panasonics; I get that the SL1 doesn’t perform the way some people wish. And yes, I’d love to bump into a 70D.

But for our work, we’ve already found the combination of real-world capability and price point of the SL1 is nothing less than staggeringly good.

Consider us converts to “small is beautiful.”

About Hugh: Hugh Brownstone is a former corporate executive and serial entrepreneur with degrees in Psychology from Cornell University and an MBA in Finance from The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. A life-long photographer, Hugh left the purely commercial world to return to his first love, the communication arts. His videos are short-form, on-line commercial from interviews to product presentations, while his screenwriting includes a feature length screenplay; a couple of TV pilot scripts; and several documentary treatment). The goal of his new production company, Three Blind Men & An Elephant, is to deliver big stories for small business – and do it with authenticity, humanity and wit.

(cover photo credit: snap from Hugh Brownstone)

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