Happy 6th Birthday planet5D! A historical look at the DSLR Video Revolution

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

planetMitch note: This is great DSLR Video history written by Hugh – I'll have a post on Monday with more details about the planet5D history…

Cue up the opening seconds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”

Well, it’s actually only been six years since planetMitch founded planet5D on November 15th, 2008, but it sure feels much longer.

What’s happened to digital filmmaking since that red-letter day? And where are we going?

In the Beginning

It was precisely September 17, 2008 when Canon announced the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and within months it became – and for years thereafter remained — the undisputed leader among video DSLRs.

With full high definition capture (1920×1080), 30 fps progressive scan (24fps was added later because there was high demand for it), large sensor (21.1 megapixel, full frame 35mm), ISO up to 6400 (pushable to 12800 and even 25600), and interchangeable lenses (though image stabilization was still relatively new), the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was capable of delivering for the first time terrific low light, bokeh laden, cinematic footage in a DSLR form factor.

Canon had no idea what was about to happen: they created it in response to requests from news media who wanted to consolidate crews – letting photographers take video instead of having 2 people in the field.

What Canon didn’t expect was that the EOS 5D Mark II would become the darling of the indie crowd – and more than a few Hollywood pros. It was stunned.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II | Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Canon EOS 5D Mark II | Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Sure, it didn’t have a headphone jack or audiometers. Yes, the pre-amp was crappy as was the on-board monaural mic, and even the L glass would focus hunt and be loud doing it.

Who cared? For $2,699.99, the Canon 5D Mk II was a revelation.

Prior to 2008, the revolutionary darling of the indie crowd had been the tape-based Panasonic DVX100 with true progressive 24fps (priced at $2,995), but it was already growing long in the tooth shooting standard definition only (Canon’s XL1 was its only real competitor at the time, but it did not enjoy the same enthusiastic response even as it had its share of adherents).

Although the DVX100’s vaunted big brother the Panasonic HVX200 came out in '05 with solid-state cards and HD (still available today for $3,499.99 on Amazon, along with the proprietary P2 card at $325 for 32G), it wasn’t until 2008 that Panasonic launched the DVX100’s true successor, the AG-HMC150, a standard SD-card based 1080p camcorder with a list price of $3,995.

And while the RED ONE – announced in 2006 and first delivered to customers in August 2007 using a 4K Super35 sized sensor capable of 120fps at 2K and 30 fps at 4K – promised to revolutionize and democratize filmmaking — a base system price of $17,500 and an unproven track record kept it out of reach or consideration for many.

Thus the relatively modestly priced 5D Mk II, with its real world workflow of 1080p and the Canon reputation, arrived at a propitious moment.

Arch-competitor Nikon was immediately placed in catch-up mode following a number of unwieldy attempts at digital SLRs going all the way back to the news shooter world (beginning with its Kodak partnership and the 1.2 megapixel Kodak DCS in 1991) culminating that fall of 2008 with the too-little, too-late Sony crop-sensor based Nikon D90.

Even though – announced a month before the 5D Mk II – the Nikon D90 was the world’s first video recording DSLR and was actually a pretty great still camera.

Formerly august brands like Pentax (merged with Hoya just months earlier), Contax (already reduced to a brand name acquired by Kyocera in 1983), Konica, Minolta (the combined Konica Minolta had actually ceased camera operations in 2006 and those were acquired by Sony), Olympus (which with Kodak had been the founding members of the Four Thirds consortium back in 2001), Mamiya, Rollei, Hasselblad, and Leica had no answer whatsoever, and one can argue this alone would eventually relegate all of them to footnote status (Leica was caught wrong-footed when it announced within days of the 5D Mk II introduction its medium-format-in-an-SLR-body S2 at a breathtaking $21,999).

But it was the killer combination of still image capture (Michael Reichmann’s comparison of the 5D Mark II’s grandfather — the Canon 1Ds — to the Pentax 67 way back in 2003 was a landmark piece that set the wheels in motion for digital 35mm superseding medium format film for working professionals) AND high quality video that created an entirely new market opportunity.

Olympus and Panasonic must have read the tea leaves, as they’d announced the Micro Four Thirds Standard – a mirrorless, interchangeable lens specification — just a month earlier on August 5th, 2008.

Meanwhile, something else was brewing in the world of mobile phones, but it was earliest days: the iPhone had been announced in 2007 ($499 with 4GB of memory), but the first video-capable iPhone, the 3G S, wouldn’t be introduced until the following June of 2009 with its 3 megapixel camera and VGA video capture.

iPhone | Photo Credit: Peace Tech

iPhone | Photo Credit: Peace Tech

Thus the seeds of the next two revolutions after the digital video SLR had already been sewn: mirrorless and mobile.

Oh, yeah – and YouTube was projected to make $200 million in 2008, after revenue just one year earlier had been categorized by Google as “not material.”

Yes, 2008 was quite a year for digital filmmaking – even as it was also the year of the sub-prime mortgage collapse that kicked off the fiscal crisis known as the Great Recession and changed so many things for so many people.

The Intervening Years

But let’s limit our focus to digital filmmaking.

Almost immediately after the Canon EOS 5D Mark II’s launch, Trammell Hudson created the Magic Lantern hack for it. From audiometers and a way to turn the remote port into a headphone jack, to electronic focus pulling and more, this piece of firmware unlocked much of the inherent goodness of the Canon DSLR platform for video.

Photo Credit: Magic Lantern

Photo Credit: Magic Lantern

With Magic Lantern, the 5D Mk II became more of the video machine it could and should have been from the beginning.

Canon responded to continued, wild market enthusiasm for video DSLRs by introducing the crop sensor, professional bodied, video-recording Canon EOS 7D in 2009, but also migrating video into its high volume, lower-priced lines like the crop-sensor Rebel series (known in the U.S., for example, as the Rebel T1i and outside of the U.S. as the 500D/EOS Kiss X3). The much smaller and less expensive Rebel T2i (EOS 550D/EOS Kiss X4), introduced in early 2010, became a gateway for many new filmmakers who couldn’t afford the 5D2, but still embraced the Canon line.

But Nikon didn’t stand still. It introduced a rash of new, video capable cameras in 2009, beginning with the D5000. In 2010, it introduced two more, the D7000 and D3100. They hadn’t hit their stride, and the sensors (both Sony and Nikon) were generally regarded as inferior to Canon’s, but Nikon was in the hunt, and the grand competition was afoot once again.

Yeah, sure: Pentax came out with the K7 and started shipping in the summer of 2009, but it was limited to 30fps in less than full HD, and it wasn’t Asahi Pentax of Spotmatic fame anymore, but a company merged with Hoya facing an uncertain future.

Then something really interesting happened late in 2010.

Sony – which had been building its DSLR presence beginning in 2008 with the stills-only A900 the same month that Canon announced the 5D Mk II – announced four video capable DSLRs in August.

And Panasonic – highly regarded in the camcorder business but a no-show in DSLRs – leveraged their video expertise with the introduction of their second quasi-DSLR, the prosumer GH2.


Smaller and lighter than comparable models from Canon or Nikon, the GH2 was also a superior video machine. Sporting the new micro four thirds system mount, it was the first big nail in the coffin of the 5D Mark II.

It had nowhere near the native lens selection of either of the big guns, and its much smaller sensor didn’t have the effective high ISO performance of the larger APS-C and full frame sensors in the Canon and Nikon lines, but it had something neither of them had: a completely electronic viewfinder (meaning no need for that big pentaprism or mirror mechanism, and thus less complex, smaller and lighter), and a mount that could take either Canon or Nikon glass via adapter. Sure, you’d lose autofocus and maybe even aperture control if you chose Canon or Nikon glass – but suddenly the market got an education on what a more thoughtful, less compromised video implementation could look like, and a keener sense of what tradeoffs made sense (and what didn’t).

Now everyone wanted in on the act. Canon’s and Nikon’s DSLR product introductions began to look more and more like the annual new car ritual, but they were hardly the only ones – and Canon had something else up its sleeve.

Things really started to pop.

Apple announced the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011 – and with it 1080p video.

Sony introduced another spate of new video capable cameras in August, 2011, including the Alpha NEX-7, a 24 megapixel APS-C mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera which made no pretense of the DSLR form factor yet was still priced in DSLR territory – and walked off with a dpreview gold award.

Canon went upmarket and shook up the industry that same year with the introduction of the Cinema EOS C300 ($20,000) – bracketing it in 2012 with the lower end Canon EOS C100 ($7,999) and the higher end, the first 4k capable DSLR the Canon EOS 1D C ($15,000 suggested retail price at launch) and Canon EOS C500 ($30,000).

Canon Cinema EOS | Photo Credit: Canon USA

Canon Cinema EOS | Photo Credit: Canon USA

In March 2012, Canon also announced the 5D Mk II’s successor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. It was an evolutionary step with new larger sensor (and therefore even better low light performance), reduced moiré and – yay! – a headphone jack.

The 5D Mk II’s days were numbered, and it was discontinued in December 2012, even as wonderful films continue to be made with it to this day.

Canon’s other product introductions of note in 2012 – the full frame 6D at a much lower price point than the 5D3 (but based on the earlier 5D2 sensor) and the ill-conceived and ill-fated EOS M – were variations on a theme.

Panasonic’s GH3 – introduced in the fall of 2012 — was a modest upgrade of the GH2 draped in a new body.

At the end of 2012, it was Sony continuing on a tear with three more DSLRs and especially with the NEX-6, a de-contented but very capable follow-on of the NEX-7 priced under $600. It was not uninteresting that at this price, it competed with Canon’s Rebel.

With the introduction of the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 in March 2013, Canon signaled the limit of its response to the GH2. The SL1 was the smallest DSLR in the world, with video capabilities that exceeded those of the recently departed 5D Mk II – but no video-specific features like focus peaking or exposure assist.

The Canon EOS 70D brought some real excitement with its enhanced dual pixel auto-focus — and in fact this capability was so well received that it was migrated upstream into the Canon EOS C100 and Canon EOS C300 – but it left manual focus purists wanting, as they had been hoping for other video-centric features (like clean HDMI out) even more.

Fuji and Olympus continued to introduce interesting and sometimes mouth-watering still digital cameras whose video capabilities were not really competitive in the marketplace.

Hasselblad — the Swedish company which more than any other popularized the 6X6 format, was the go-to camera for fashion photographers and went with the astronauts into space — lurched from one ludicrous designer model to another (including an officially licensed Ferrari Hasselblad), while essentially turning over first sensor engineering and then entire cameras (like the Hasselblad Stellar, a rebadged RX100) to Sony.

Did you see Canon’s recent announcement of its special edition Stella McCartney Rebel SL1?

Stella McCartney ‘Linda’ bag-and-camera kit | Photo Credit: Canon

Stella McCartney ‘Linda’ bag-and-camera kit | Photo Credit: Canon

Sigh. And Leica, the brand that gave me my very first 35mm experience so many decades ago with the IIIa, just announced their first real video entry, the 4K video capable medium format S for $25,400.


So much has changed in such a short time.

What was once a novelty — digital video — is now de rigeuer, and what was once photographic royalty sometimes feels like the thread-worn aristocrats in an episode of Downton Abbey.

Hasselblad’s Treviso design center in Italy has just been closed.

Three days ago (November 9), NASA posted a video on YouTube of three astronauts playing with a GoPro – not a Hasselblad — inside a weightless water bubble. GoPro, founded in 2002 by Nick Woodman and which now sells their 4K-shooting Hero4 Black for $499.99, is a publicly traded company with a market cap of almost $10 billion.

YouTube is projected to bring in $1.13 billion in ad revenue in 2014, and as part of Google, contributes to Google’s market cap, which as of this writing is just north of $370 billion.

And Apple? It posted earnings for the fourth quarter of this year – just one quarter! – of $8.5 billion on revenue of $42.1 billion, thanks in large part to selling 10 million iPhone 6s over the first weekend it was available, 39.2 million of them within 9 days. Market cap as of November 11th 2014 is almost $640 billion.

But take note: Samsung, Apple’s fiercest competitor, has just announced the NX1, their first serious foray into 4K mirrorless, with a 28.2 megapixel sensor recording 4K internally with the new H.265 codec – for $1,499. As of 2013 (the latest year for their annual filings), net income for the year had more than doubled in only two years to $27.2 billion.

Finally, Canon – creator of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II that really kicked off the video DSLR revolution – after several years of relatively flat sales, cut its full year 2014 revenue estimate in July by 2.1% to $37 billion, citing smartphones cutting demand for compact cameras. They’re looking to their partnership with Hewlett-Packard in office equipment, among other things, to help make up the difference.

They’re doing better than Sony, which although generating roughly twice Canon’s revenue, reported a net loss for the second quarter of 2014 at $1.25 billion.

With about the same revenue as Sony, Panasonic has had flat sales for the past five years, though they swung from a net loss of ¥754 billion (-$6.5 billion) in 2013 to a much healthier gain of ¥120 billion ($1.03 billion) for their fiscal 2014, which ended in March. With almost 300,000 employees, their market cap stood at just about $28 billion as of May – only two thirds that of Canon, and less than 5% that of Apple.

But of course, what the last six years have shown us is that it’s not just the equipment or the equipment manufacturers, but the ecosystem around the equipment that has changed so profoundly – not just with YouTube and Vimeo, not just with Netflix and Amazon becoming studios, but with crowdsourcing (e.g., Shutterstock, and other more recent entries like Story & Heart; crowd funding (Kickstarter was founded in 2009); collaborative filmmaking environments (like the just announced movidiam); and more.


But back to the gear.

At the moment the Sony A7s; Panasonic GH4; Apple iPhone 6; and (surprise!) Sony a6000 – all delivered in 2014 but all having clear antecedents in 2012 and 2013–have most profoundly altered the landscape that prompted planetMitch to launch planet5D six short years ago.

And yet at the same time, these cameras absolutely confirm his instincts about the future of filmmaking, irrespective of the fate of the spiritual mother of them all, the Canon 5D Mk II.

They continue the trends of faster, better and cheaper – and thus bring the means of production to an ever-wider audience, with an incredible array of films to show for it.

Thus an iPhone 5s was used earlier this year to make an absolutely beautiful, no-compromises Bentley commercial but the iPhone 6 introduced in September is even better: it sports honest-to-goodness 1080p video up to 60fps, and slow motion frame rates of 120fps and 240fps at 720p.

It’s a cell phone.

The GH4 with internal 4K recording and external 10-bit clean HDMI out – at just under $1,700 – is an incredible value and piece of digital filmmaking kit. Not only can it use Canon glass courtesy of Metabones – it now has some incredible native mount (albeit manual focus) lenses in the Voigtländer Nokton f/0.95 series. It can capture sharper images than Canon’s C100 and C300.

The Sony A7s at around $2,400 simply blows the Canon 5D Mk III out of the water on high ISO capability, weight, cost, and video features – and can use Canon glass, too.

Finally: the Sony a6000 – at just under $600 – looks like a better video machine for what many people do than any Canon or Nikon digital SLR bar none. (See Sony a6000 video review)

Emmy and BAFTA-winning documentary film director Christopher Swann just bought one and calls it (quite tongue-in-cheek) “alarming.”


Yes, Canon has just announced the Canon EOS C100 Mark II, and we’re hearing rumors of a Canon EOS C300 Mark II, possibly with 4K. But Sony’s FS7 ($7,999) already has them beaten on price alone.

And while it’s true that today it takes a Sony FS7 to bring together all of the positive attributes of the Panasonic GH4 and Sony A7s into one rather larger and more expensive package, at the rate things are progressing, how long do YOU think it will take before we have a mirrorless internally recording 4K hybrid with incredible low light performance?

I’m betting one more product cycle, two tops.

Still, for now 1080p is the delivery king; 4K is still a bit of a novelty; but that hasn’t kept rumors floating of an 8K DSLR form factor camera from Sony in 2016.

planetMitch, here’s to you, my friend: you called it right, and you called it early. We live in a golden age of filmmaking, and it’s only getting better.

(cover photo credit: the first planet5D logo)

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