For those of you who are wondering if I magically obtained a test unit of the Canon 5D replacement model the answer is, sadly – no. My hands-on field report for the original Canon 5D does admittedly come three years too late, but we can use this as an opportunity to review and reflect upon the ‘old 5D’ and look forward to hopefully all of the wonderful things the new camera model will be loaded with. Please consider any faults outlined below about the 5D a guide for hopes of what they will fix in the new model. My sample images scattered throughout this article have only gone through basic RAW processing. None have been manipulated in Photoshop.
As it is probably obvious to discern from all of the information on this forum that I am a Nikon user. This does not mean however, that I will review nothing but Nikon equipment and/or praise Nikon equipment above all others. In fact, if I ever start acting crazy like that, I hope someone lets me know. There are so many great products out there from all manufacturers, and different products make sense for different people. Of course you must keep in mind that my product reviews will be heavily geared toward the equipment that I use daily.
This field report on the 5D comes shortly after a friend of mine allowed me to borrow his unit for the weekend. In addition to the camera body, I obtained a Canon 24-105 IS, 70-300 DO IS and a 50mm f/1.4.
Now, I had at least held and minimally used a 5D when it was initially released 3 years ago this Fall, but it was only for a few snap shots here and there. I was able to approach the camera this time around both seriously and with an open mind as I have been stuck in Nikon-land for the past 15 years.
Canon 5D 70-300 DO IS ISO 500
The Canon 5D was the first semi-pro (targeted towards consumers) camera body to utilize a full-frame sensor (a capture device the same size as a 35mm piece of film). This was a huge breakthrough in the camera industry and mega-points for Canon as Nikon had just announced they would not be going the route of manufacturing full-frame sensors, but rather explore the maximum possibilities of the APS-C sized sensor…which they continued to do until the announcement of their D3 Flagship camera.
The size and weight of the 5D is much more manageable than that of Canon’s 1-series professional bodies. In fact the Canon 5D is not much larger than a Nikon D200 or D300, but packed a whole lot more image quality. Thinking back to my initial conclusions on the 5D three years ago, it seemed like the digital camera that came closest to the output quality and feel of film. In fact, I remember almost changing over to Canon at that moment – the moment I made prints from 5D test images I shot. I would have had to change over all of my lenses, so I hoped that Nikon would have their own version soon. I ended up waiting longer than I would have liked.
Since ‘hindsight is 20/20’ I can now say that I am not as pleased with the construction quality of the 5D. You would think for a camera which at one point sold for $3,000, it would be made better than the Nikon D200, at half the price. The 5D is not exactly an ergonomic camera to handle either. and the button layout seems somewhat clumsy and un-orderly. Canon’s use of the dual-function buttons just above the LED screen on the camera’s top were somewhat frustrating to adjust settings. I will say however, the camera forced me to slow down and actually think more about the scene I was photographing, as it took me longer to access controls and make adjustments. I had to think about what I wanted to change and then figure out how to change it.
The auto-focus on the 5D operates quickly even in adverse lighting conditions. I have no complaints about this area of the camera’s operation. Between the full-size viewfinder, its brightness, and the speed and accuracy of the auto-focus, there was never a problem composing images. The viewfinder readout display is a bit different than Nikon’s, but not as difficult to get used to as the exterior button controls. I may go so far as to say that the differences were refreshing, in a way. When using my cameras, my hands find the proper buttons without any thought, hesitation, or taking my eye away from the viewfinder. Using the Canon I had to pause, think and perhaps sometimes as I was doing so I re-thought my shot. It was an interesting experience.
But, now the key feature to any digital camera review…what’s the image quality like? It’s superb. No question about it. The 5D was many years ahead of its time when it arrived. One thing I must note of is that the number of mega-pixels a camera has is almost a moot point in this day and age. What really matters is the size of the sensor. The 5D’s full-frame sensor allows one to print in excess of 20×30 inches. With careful RAW processing, it is possible to make 40×60 inch prints from a 12MP full-frame DSLR. I have made prints this size with my D3. Perhaps these details are best left to another article, but I just want to make that clear.
Canon 5D 24-105 IS ISO 3200
In doing side by side image comparisons, I have determined that the 5D behaves extremely well at ISOs up to 1600. Once you push on towards 2000 & 3200 noise reduction software is necessary beyond RAW conversion and the ability to print large is diminished. When comparing images of the same subject shot with the D3 both cameras produce similar noise levels up to ISO 800. Beyond this value the D3 begins to pull away exponentially. Once the 5D hits 2500 ISO, images are nearly gone. This is what I really love about my D3, when it hits 3200, it’s just warming up. I have hanging in my gallery a 16×20 print of an image shot at 6400 ISO. Flawless.
Other than the 5D being clunky and uncomfortable, I enjoyed using it very much and I am quite pleased with the image results. One interesting feature I found with the 5D is that it does have a custom function setting that allows one to shoot at ISO 50, which can be critical long-exposures and landscape images. Speaking of ISO, the 5D does not have a programmable Auto ISO mode. This can be frustrating when changing light situations quickly. One must remember to change ISO. This could cause you to miss shots.
Canon 5D 24-105 IS ISO 1000
An example of why Auto ISO would be nice. I forgot to move the ISO down when I went outside.
The anticipation of the 5D update is quite exciting. This competition between Canon and Nikon is great for the industry which in turn makes it even better for us photographers. Each manufacturer strives to outdo the other each year, and who benefits? Well, they do financially of course, but so do we (for the most part) with better and better tools with which to create memorable images.