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Saturday, 31 January 2009

Canon 5D MkII Review - Part 1 - The Stills Camera

The Camera That Defies Light

Canon 5D MkII Review - Part 1 - The Stills Camera

by Edmond Terakopian

Canon TS-E 45mm f2.8 (Tilt and Shift). F2.8, 1/60th shutter speed at 4000 ASA.
The London Eye, London, UK. December 04, 2008. Photo: Edmond Terakopian


When Canon introduced the 5D it was a revolutionary camera. Although DSLRs had been around for years and Canon already had the full frame 1DS and 1DS MkII, the 5D was the first affordable camera with full frame. On top of this, and equally as important, it was small. It was a departure away from big, bulky and heavy “pro” DSLRs. It soon became the modern day “Leica” as it opened up a whole new market to digital photography; that of the photojournalist. Press photographers took to it in a big way too. We all now had a full frame camera which was small. Naturally the question of image quality was of paramount importance, and in this respect the camera didn’t disappoint. In fact it astonished us all with its image quality. The number of double page spreads in quality news magazines and  number of winning World Press Photo images are a testament to this.

Canon had big shoes to fill. What ever the replacement was going to be would have to be stellar. I’m happy to say that it is. Canon took a winning recipe and improved it even more. At a quick glance not much seems to have changed physically, but the camera is almost totally new. The body, chassis and button layout are totally new. One of the requests from users was weather sealing and the new camera has this feature. Although practically the same size and weight, it feels more sturdy in the hand. The menu system is also completely new and very straight forward to use. As with all the Canon DSLR range, customization is abundant and you can set up the camera in a way that suits you; physically with button and camera behaviour programming (with 25 custom functions) and visually with its various fully customizable picture styles.

One of the camera’s headline features is that its the first ever DSLR to shoot 1080p full HD video. On top of this its also the first DSLR to have an external microphone input for better sound recording. The video aspect is so huge that it will be covered separately in part two of this review in a following issue.

Another stunning feature is its high ASA capability. The 5D MkII goes all the way from 50ASA to 25,600ASA (when the appropriate custom function is enabled. The standard ASA range is 100 to 6400).

A quick run through the specifications leaves one speechless; a full frame 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor with a viewfinder covering 98% of the frame. A continuous shooting speed of 3.9 fps and a nine point AF system (with six assist points) and a gloriously large and sharp three inch rear LCD screen. The rear screen is of high importance as it is used for live view and video capture. I’m happy to report that unlike the average rear screen of the 1D MkIII, this one is superb with accurate colour.

Although the continuous shooting is only 0.9 frames a second quicker than its predecessor , it actually feels much quicker than that. Another point of interest is that apparently the focusing module is the same as the 5D’s. I was rather disappointed at this, but in use its actually much quicker as the processor is the newer and faster DIGIC 4, and as a result AF computations occur much faster. The other innovation to the AF is the addition of micro adjustment which was first introduced on the 1D MkIII. This allows you to tweak the AF behaviour of individual lenses which may back or front focus, in camera.

As the body is completely new, older accessories, including batteries have changed. The battery has higher capacity which is needed for live view and even more so for video. Other accessories such as the grip won’t fit, so there is a new range of these. One particular accessory which caught my eye is the new WFT-E4 wireless transmitter which is also a grip with a vertical shutter release.

In The Field

Canon EF 300mm f2.8L IS, f4 at 1/500th shutter speed at 3200ASA.

The Prime Minister of Great Britain Gordon Brown will host the Global Europe Summit on Monday 8th December. Along with President Nicolas Sarkozy and President of the European Commission Jose? Manuel Barroso he will meet with business leaders from across Europe to discuss the global economy. Gordon Brown greets his guests at the door of 10 Downing Street, London. December 08, 2008. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

Having been a user of the 5D for around two years, I had certain expectations. The 5D had enabled me to make some good images, especially in low light and the 5D MkII had to better this. At first when I heard of the camera’s specifications, I was rather dismayed by the 21.1 megapixels. More pixels usually mean more noise and I found myself initially hoping that Canon had left the megapixel count the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Well, the 5D MkII has bettered its predecessor by a huge margin. As always with my reviews, I took the camera on real assignments. Whilst on assignment for Polaris Images, I covered President Sarkozy’s visit to Downing Street to meet Prime Minster Gordon Brown. Arrivals happened at 3pm when the light was already low. Sarkozy left at just gone 4pm by which point it was almost pitch black with the only available light coming from street lamps and a very weak TV light set up across the street which wasn’t even pointing towards the door of number 10. As my colleagues around me began to curse at the lack of light and grab their flashguns, I found myself feeling rather smug and content. I had the 5D MkII and a 300mm f2.8L IS trained towards the door. I’d cranked up the ASA to 6400, and knowing the camera’s abilities felt confident. The problem with direct flash is that it kills the mood and looks artificial; on top of this, the door to number 10 is painted in a very high gloss and reflective black. F2.8 and 1/250th shutter speed and I managed to nail a picture that the others simply could not. When I showed a couple of colleagues the image, an argument ensued as they were sure I’d used flash or caught someone else’s. When they realised that this wasn’t the case, there were expressions of disbelief as they looked down at the little camera on the end of my 300mm.

On a PR assignment I found myself photographing Fearn Cotton in a recording studio. I’d set up a Lumedyne and a Quantum Q-Flash with a couple of softboxes. I needed to get a deep depth of field as the shot featured a prop, so I shot at 400ASA. When I was editing the images I was stunned by the quality of images. They looked like 50ASA transparency and had picked up every bit of available detail and perfect colour.

AP sent me to photograph the UK premiere of the film “Australia” with Nicole Kidman. I had a 70-200mm f2.8L IS on the 5D MkII and spent the night at 3200ASA using only available light. One of the images was chosen by AP as its top 20 images of the day internationally and two images made it into the top 200 of the week.

On a different evening I found myself by the Thames and decided to take some shots using a Canon 45mm TS-E (tilt and shift) lens. I set the ASA to 4000 and began to shoot away. Not only was the lack of noise a huge advantage, but the colour rendition was spot on.

The camera almost makes you feel like you’re cheating. This camera genuinely defies light. You can make images where ever you want. When the sky looks black, it picks up subtle blues that the eye just misses. I think the days of not being able to take a picture because its too dark are behind us. When married to the 50mm f1.2L or 85mm F1.2L, I can’t think of a single situation where you couldn’t work. If you can see it, you can photograph it. It just opens up so much. When I’m walking around with the camera it just makes me take pictures. Its brought back the same childish enthusiasm I had for taking pictures as when I first picked up an SLR 23 years ago; with this camera you feel like a kid as there are no boundaries any more.

Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS, f2.8 at 1/250th shutter speed at 3200ASA. This picture was chosen by AP as one of its best 20 pictures from the world on the day and was also included in the best of the week. Actress Nicole Kidman being interviewed by TV at the UK Premiere of "Australia", Odeon Leicester Square, London, UK. December 10, 2008. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

The standard lens supplied with the camera in kit form is the Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS. I’d never used this lens before but have always been interested in it as its range is ideal for a walk around or travel lens. I must say that I was surprised by just how good it is. Naturally its somewhat let down by being an f4 lens, but with IS and the 5D MkII’s high ASA ability you’re actually not that effected by its aperture. I managed to take a beautiful portrait of a friend in a very dimly lit restaurant. I wouldn’t even have thought of taking this picture with any other camera, let alone using an f4 lens.

Live View

I must admit that I thought this was rather gimmicky before I used it. You need to activate Live View for shooting video. However, I can see this mode being of real use for photographing micro and macro subjects as you can magnify the Live View for extremely precise focusing. In fact its also very useful for very shallow depth of field shots taken on a tripod.

Black Dots

This is a bizarre issue which has cropped up in a few places on the internet. In certain circumstances small black spots (appearing to be a couple of pixels in size) appear next to bright pin lights of photos taken at night on long exposure. Images have to be inspected at over 400% for this to show. In the three weeks that I’ve been shooting with the camera I didn’t come across this, even in my shots at night including bright lights, although admittedly my longest exposure was probably 1/50th of a second. Canon is investigating this and an announcement is imminent.

Note: This has now been sorted out with a firmware upgrade.


As I mentioned earlier, the video aspect of the camera will be handled in a separate article.

Following on, one of the biggest features is the ultra high ASA ability of this camera. It truly opens up so many opportunities for making pictures that you will find yourself exploring more photographic avenues and expanding your creativity. One very useful and often overlooked aspect of clean high ASA files is that you can sharpen them properly with un-sharp mask and sharpen edges which will really make your images pop.

On the subject of post processing, its always a little annoying when new cameras are introduced as you have to wait for RAW converters to become available. Being a big fan of Apple’s Aperture I was rather disappointed that I couldn’t use my normal workflow, but had to use Canon’s supplied DPP program for RAW conversion to TIFF and then to import these files into Aperture do do the final tweaking needed. This isn’t unique to Canon, but I do wish that camera manufacturers would work closely with the main software vendors well before launch to allow the needed RAW converters to be ready as the camera is launched. DPP does the conversions nicely but is clunky to use; it made me appreciate the elegance and smoothness of Aperture even more. Still, in my opinion Canon is a photographic equipment manufacturer and not a software specialist.

Moving back to the camera, not all is perfect. It could really do with more cross type AF sensors and faster AF. A small annoyance amongst  my colleagues and I is the fact that the mode dial doesn’t have a lock. In a situation where you’re running around, the dial can catch on clothing and change. I’ve had the occasional situation where I’ve raised the camera to my eye and discovered that its in “bulb” mode. One last thing that the interface lacks is a protect or tag feature. Many news photographers use this as a means of quick editing when on deadline; after import you can set your software to show only tagged images and you can edit at speed. I hope that this can be implemented in a firmware upgrade.

So, is this the perfect DSLR? Well, that depends. I’m a news photographer who covers everything from breaking and fast moving stories, to features, portraits, fashion and music.

I already use my two 5Ds for over half of what I shoot and can see that the 5D MkII will raise this percentage considerably. The 1D MkIIIs come out for all other situations involving extreme environmental conditions or fast moving stories.

My dream camera would have the CMOS sensor and low light ability of the 5D MkII but with the added sturdiness, weather proofing and focusing speed of the 1D MkIII. To boot, I’d like a faster motor drive too. All of this would fit into something the same size and weight as the 5D MkII. These are my wishes and by adding these naturally the cost will rise, and the camera will jump from its segment of top end prosumer and pro camera, firmly into the pro category of the 1D series cameras.

If you’re constantly working in hostile environments or covering sports, then one of the 1D series would suit better. Having said that, I know several friends who have taken their 5Ds to Afghanistan and Iraq several times and never had any issues. If your photography is more considered and you need the highest quality available, or a second or third body, then I can’t recommend this camera highly enough. Canon have produced an astonishingly good camera that ticks many boxes. It allows you to unleash your creativity and not be hindered by difficult or low light. The fact that it has a street price of around £2300 makes its existence even more unbelievable. As far as image quality is concerned, I’d say that it even gives the 1DS MkIII a run for its money; its that good. Lets not forget, we haven’t even begun to talk about video yet!

Part II - The Video Camera

Note: This review first appeared in the BJP on December 24, 2008.


  1. Good review... I agree with almost everything you say.

    Image quality is unequalled, really superb, particularly the low-light capabilities which are truly amazing. I haven't shot RAW, only JPEG, but the files are really beautiful. Going from 1DMkII files to these really slowed my computer down a lot, they are huge. I found Photo Mechanic ground to a halt until I upgraded the RAM and allocated more (512mb) to PM's memory cache.

    White-balance is also very good indeed. I haven't run tests, only my experience, but I find the images very clean in terms of colour as good or probably better than any other camera I've used.

    Two imaging functions interested me - "Highlight Tone Priority" and "Auto Lighting Optimizer". I've tried a few combinations, but my gut feeling is both are probably a "good thing" to have on. How's that for unscientific? I would love for someone to really explain the advantages and disadvantages of them, beyond the fairly simple explanation given in Canon's white paper.

    Auto-ISO mode is also very handy, particularly if you run around quickly changing between scenes of vastly different lighting. I do find when using it on "Av" in lowish light though that it selects a shutter speed insufficient to eliminate motion-blur, and there doesn't seem any way to change the curve.

    Focusing isn't as great as my old 1DmkII, a bit disappointing but not a deal-killer. Personally, it's not so much the actual focusing that's the problem, but the way to select the focus points with the dial you have to go around in a stupid circle, instead of just left-right with one dial, and up/down with the other. If I could limit it to just the left/right axis while still using the back dial, I'd be fairly happy. In terms of actually focusing on things, I don't find it that bad, at least for the cross-type center point. Like you say, it would have been nice to have more cross-type points.

    Frame rate sucks. Well, I guess it depends what you are used to. If you came from the 5D MkI etc, then I suppose you are used to it and it won't be a big deal. But coming to it from a 1DmkII (8 fps) it feels painfully slow, let alone compared to a 1DmkIII (10fps). This is not a camera for sports use, that's for sure, and even covering general news may be frustrating. It's a trade-off for the excellent image quality I guess, and whether that is acceptable will depend on the photographer's individual needs and shooting style.

    I just used it for 10 days in Gaza, and I feel the build quality to be pretty good. It's not a 1DmkIII or MkII, built like a tank, but then it weighs a hell of a lot less too. As "sub-pro" cameras go, I think they've done a good job with the build-quality, much better than 20D/30D/40D/50Ds. I have the grip, and with it the handling is much improved, particularly if you shoot a lot of verticals and/or have big hands. Of course it's then a lot bigger and heavier... so... depends how you will use it. I do like the way the normal battery cover slots inside the grip for safekeeping through, nice touch.

    Battery life is fantastic by the way. I shot 1500 images (large jpegs) in a day and the battery was only at half.

    Mode dial - As you point out - why the hell didn't they put a lock on it? It got jogged by accident a bunch of times when I was in Gaza, resulting in unuseable pictures. Annoying, to say the least.

    As for the tagging, you can do it, just not with a dedicated button as per the 1DMkII or MkIII, you have to use a menu. Go to Menu > 3rd icon along > "Protect images" then scroll through your images and use the set button to tag them. Essentially you can't tag directly from the normal playback mode, you have to enter the "Protect images" mode first via the menu, then can start tagging. It's not as elegant as having a dedicated button, but it works and the tags show up in Photo Mechanic. I added the "Protect Images" function to the top of the "My Menu" settings page, to get faster access to it.

    I've played with the video a bit, but will leave comments until your review of that.

    Thanks for the interesting review... good work... Regards, Ben

  2. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for your comments and also the image tagging tip; didn't know about that one! Still, it needs a button!!
    For the focus point selection, you can use the "joystick" on the back which works well once you get used to it.



  3. I agree, a tagging button would be much better. As for the joystick, personally I just find it too fiddly to use accurately when the camera is up to my face. Perhaps I'll try it again now I have the grip.

    A lot of all the niggles stem from (in my mind) Canon's desire to deliberately distinguish between a "Pro" line (1DMkIII) and a sub-Pro line (5DMkII, 50D, etc).

    For example, it would be great if on the 5DmkII you could choose the first 4-digits of the file name, like you can with the 1DMkIII, but you can't. Presumably it would only be a few simple lines of code in the firmware, but I'm sure Canon won't do it.

    I understand the reasoning, product-differentiation and all that, but it can be annoying.

    All said though, the 5DMkII is really a great camera....

  4. Got some good news for you! You can choose the file name through EOS utility. I haven't tried this myself, but know that it can be done.
    I agree about certain frustrations with regards to pro Vs prosumer. The problem is that the 5D and the 5D MkII are such great cameras and give so much as a pro tool, that we end up wanting more and hence, become frustrated!

  5. Are you sure you can change the filename that the camera saves images with? I installed EOS utility just for that purpose, but my understanding is you can only rewrite the filename of files as they get imported via EOS Utility i.e. the camera still saves it as img_1234, but the utility changes it when you copy it to your computer.

    Perhaps I'm missing something though, if it can be done, that'd be great...

  6. Hi Ben,
    As I've now returned the camera, I can't check it out, but I'm certain I read this in the manual somewhere....however, if you can't find it, chances are, I may be wrong! Maybe check the literature that came with EOS Utility??

  7. Hi Edmond!
    Thanks for your review, I enjoyed it (and learned a bit too).
    I'm very happy with my 5DII too, and as I'm not a pro, I don't have the 1Dxx experience!
    Coming from an EOS400D, you can imagine the change ! (yes we can!), I'm amazed though with the high ISO stuff, at 3200ISO it's so much better than 1600ISO with the 400D (again, there is no comparision).
    I love the auto ISO thing, I've shot a demonstration against violence in Gaza here in Brussels and enjoyed the autoISO, as light was changing fast with the sun.
    I've noticed also a bit of difficulty to autofocus with low light, okay, I used a EF 28-135 / 3,5-5,6, not so fast, but it was all I had. (by the way, the pics are on my front page :P)
    I'm still looking and testing different configs to find mine...


  8. Hi Olivier,

    I'm glad you liked the review. Enjoy your camera - its a superb tool.
    I would suggest you try getting a faster aperture lens. Even a cheap Canon EF 50mm f1.8 will amaze you both with speed of focus and also image quality. The "problem" with the 5D MkII is that the sensor is so good that it will show the weakness of lenses. You don't need to spend too much money and get an "L" series zoom. The 50mm I mentioned is very good as are the 28mm f1.8 and the 85mm f1.8. Have fun!!

  9. Hi Edmond,
    I used to had one 50 1,8 but got my "old" gear robbed, so I have to buy another one. Yes, you're right, the 50 1,8 is a very nice lens, and this time it will be a real 50mm, not an 80mm (for the 400D).


  10. Ben,
    I think I've made a mistake; it wasn't file re-naming but adding a copyright notice into the file that I was thinking about. Sorry buddy.


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