Monday, November 03, 2008


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Vincent Laforet's Stealth Weekend with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Sept 18, 2008
By Dan Havlik, PDN Technology Editor
Reverie Frame Grab

And you thought you had an interesting weekend! Commercial and editorial photographer Vincent Laforet spent a couple of recent "days off" hanging out of a helicopter in the skies over Manhattan trying to figure out the high-definition movie feature on a prototype digital SLR from Canon that only a handful of people even knew was in this country. The camera, a pre-production Canon EOS 5D Mark II which was set to make its worldwide debut this past week after months of Internet buzz, had fallen into Laforet's hands through a combination of luck and kismet.

Laforet, a member of Canon's Explorers of Light program who recently covered the Beijing Olympics for Newsweek, happened to be visiting Canon USA's offices in Long Island for a meeting when an advanced shipment of pre-production 5D Mark II's arrived, as if on cue.

"I caught a glimpse of one of the white boxes being unpacked which is always a sign of a new prototype camera," Laforet told PDN. "I hadn't been told by anyone that it was going to be coming out this week. I had just read the rumors like everyone else and happened to be there at the right time."

Before he knew what was happening, someone from Canon had shoved an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) form in front of him and asked him to sign it so he would remain quiet about the camera until the launch last week. Laforet agreed and a short while later he was shooting high-def (1080p) video with the 21.1-megapixel 5D Mark II in Canon's offices. But Laforet, who admits he has "a terrible weakness for gadgets," wanted more. "I told them: 'You've got to get this camera into my hands.'"

After much cajoling over a lunch of sushi, Canon's reps finally relented, telling him he could borrow a 5D Mark II body for the weekend but that it must be returned by Monday morning and it must be kept on the major downlow. Two long days and over $4,000 of his own money later, Laforet had shot and edited a three-minute test commercial in high-def using the 5D Mark II, a camera for which he didn't even have a manual.

"The fact that a photographer who has never shot a film before can use this camera to produce a commercial this quickly is incredible," he said. "This was so much fun that I'm not sure I ever want to work as a still photographer again."

To view Laforet's commercial, entitled "Reverie," click here.

Shooting Reverie
After getting the ok to borrow the camera, Laforet had to head to White Plains, New York that evening where he was scheduled to give a speech. While he gave his talk, one of his assistants stealthily played with the camera in the car to figure out how it worked while another went in search of a Camera Armor case to cover up the 5D Mark II's identity badge and markings.

Laforet rounded up models using his iPhone, spending $700 on their clothes which included a tuxedo, and an additional $2,000 to book a helicopter for an hour. After finding a video editor and a co-director – André Constantini and Yoni Brook – he was ready to shoot by 4pm Saturday. His total overhead for the commercial including fees for the models and a makeup artist – $4,300.

"Basically the concept was to shoot a fake commercial centered around a love scene. We didn't have the money to get more than two models and they weren't actors and we didn't have time or the budget to get external audio, so we shot a silent movie and then added music over it later."

He noted that what had held him back about shooting video in the past were its limitations in low light and a lack of affordable, high-quality lenses. Since you can use any Canon lens to shoot a video with the 5D Mark II and since its full-frame sensor produces very low noise, the new camera fit the bill for Laforet.

Canon lenses he used to shoot "Reverie" included a 15mm fisheye, 16-35mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.2, 135mm f/2, 200mm f/1.8, and 500mm f/4. He shot most everything wide open to achieve a cinematic, shallow depth of field and get the best results in low light. Other gear was minimal including a Profoto pack with a beauty dish and a grid with two heads, an LED light source, and a Bogen suction cup so he could mount the camera on the hood of a car.

"It takes a bit of daring or stupidity to mount a prototype DSLR that nobody's supposed to know about on the hood of a car in New York City but we just went for it. We were running on adrenaline, finishing shooting at about 4am and wrapping everything up at 6am, getting a few hours sleep and then going back out to shoot on Sunday. We were done with the rough edit about 7pm on Monday and the final edit Tuesday night."

Overall, his total crew consisted of three assistants and one co-director. Editing was done using Apple Final Cut Studio.

"The camera's HD mode was really easy to shoot with. So easy it was kind of scary. I shot wide open at 1600 ISO the whole time, and the only thing I had to adjust was the exposure compensation, either up or down depending on the scene."

The Great Equalizer
The only area where Laforet felt the prototype DSLR stumbled while filming was in the exposure which was difficult to lock down, with the camera occasionally vacillating between two readings and sometimes closing down completely. As for the autofocus which uses a slower contrast detection-based focusing in video mode – as it does in Live View – he said that while it works, it's "choppy."

Laforet's quick to reiterate that the 5D Mark II he played with was only a pre-production model. And after just a few hours of sleep and many hours of shooting and editing HD footage, he's clearly excited by the results.

"This will radically change what the definition of a photographer is," Laforet said. "This is 10 times more important than when the first digital camera or the first 35mm camera came out. This trumps both of them. Those were tools that let you change how you worked. This will change what we do, blurring he lines between what a videographer and a still photographer is. It's the great equalizer."
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