on April 1, 2011
Don't get rid of the camcorder yet.
I bought the 600d hoping that I could use it as an all-in-one camera on work and holiday trips, capturing video and stills of usable quality. I've been using the powershot range and had hoped that the 600d would provide, in functional terms, an enhanced version of this capability.
There's no doubt that the 600d is technically capable of doing that. The stills are far and away the best quality I have ever managed to get; portraits, landscape and action shots are stunningly good an the ease of use factor is very high. I'd hoped that it would be good for stills but it's so much better than good.
Getting high quality video is certainly technically possible, but getting usable video easily is more problematic. The first time I used it for video I get a shock when I played it back on the screen; the amount of grain visible was appalling; equivalent to the point-and-shoot powershot camera that we already have. And the old-fashioned mini dv HD camcorder had it beaten hands down for quality. It was caused by the 600d's automatic settings which had adjusted the F-stop and the ISO and the shutter speed to get the most usable footage with the available light. Not good. So that meant tinkering manually with the settings and learning - rather quicker than you might usually - all about the limitations of using DSLRs for video if you haven't first mastered the art of filming. It soon became apparent that one of the problems was using standard lenses - perfectly acceptable for stills but not always able to cope with reducing light for video.
So the next thing was to get was another lens - the 50mm f1.8 portrait lens from Canon, being the most affordable. That made things a whole lot better but still left a lot to be learned. A problem is though, that the bigger the lens in terms of f-stop, the more precise the focusing needs to be. So you'll need to master all kinds of handling techniques in order to get the best out of it, and it's not straightforward.
Focusing is difficult to accomplish easily. Using the shutter button to focus usually throws completely whatever focus you may have gotten to at that point, stops down the aperture briefly, so everything goes darker, and it makes the kind of noise that non-mortgage scale lenses usually do. The only way of avoiding this is to focus manually.
But you can't use the optical viewfinder and you have to rely on the live-view screen. It's good but still takes longer to set properly by hand and, if, like me, you have to wear glasses for close up work but don't need them for looking at your subject, this can be awkward, especially if you're not in control of the action in front of you or if you're on the move.
Interestingly the swing-out screen proves valuable in this respect; if you hold the body with the right hand and swing screen swung out tilted upwards resting on the left wrist leaves the camera very stable and the fingers of the left hand are free to deal with focusing and or zooming. You're looking down at the screen rather than in the general direction of the action, but it's producing reasonable results so far.
Then there's light sensitivity. The grain you get in lower light, especially indoors, can be quite a surprise compared to the sheer and undoubted quality you get outside in bright sunlight. If you want to use this for serious video, you'll need to invest in serious glass and think through in advance what you're going to film. You'll also need to learn much more about f-stops, shutter speeds, ISO settings and focus pulling than you might have expected. That said, if you want to do serious video you ought to do that anyway.
But when you get it right, and especially from a tripod, the quality is absolutely stunning. And the zoom facility in HD video takes the breath away. I shot the `super moon' in March , using a F8 500 mirror lens and zooming in x3 and x10 meant the moon more than filled the screen. Adjusting the shutter speed produced video with real detail and quality, spoiled only by the slight pollution haze in the air.
I'm now looking at other lens options for everyday use, including old Nikon, Pentax and Olympus lenses with adapters. I suspect - well I hope - that Canon will now be frantically developing dedicated lenses for DSLR video with quiet, fast autofocus, wide and controllable apertures and so on. But a word of warning; these need to be cheap; the 50mm F1.8 for around £90 is a good start; but what's needed is a 28-70 f1.8 with usm for under £300. I know, dream on. But the lens and focusing system of the Canon Legria camcorders is pretty good and adapting it for the EOS range couldn't, surely, be that problematic? I guess the next step might be future models having a lanc controller socket with an electronic focus wheel ... I know, I know, if you want that, buy a camcorder ...
In summary; for stills, the 600d is fantastic. Way, way better than the 300d that I've been using for couple of years. Versatile, crisp and clean handling and the colours and details are fantastic.
For video, you need to accept that you can't simply use the 600d as you would a compact cameras with video or a conventional HD camcorder. It doesn't do point-and-shoot that well and the standard lenses don't like low light much.
It's outstanding for video in terms of tripod work, set-piece filming and for any filming you'd want or need to use a specialist lens for. But it's not a point-and-shoot camcorder with SLR scale lenses and if this is what you want, there are souped-up hybrids in the range which might suit better. Or you could stick with an HD camcorder.
As for HD video on the 600d, you'll have to work at it to master its undoubted capabilities, and until you succeed, you'll have to live with the way it reveals your own limitations.