Wednesday, December 17, 2008

REVIEW: Canon 5D Mark II - Canon FINALLY gets back into the game with Nikon

Updated 12/8/09


For the 3 or 4 Canon shooters left who survived the painful last 15 months or so since Nikon introduced the D3 and promptly made everything Canon makes look like toys, it is time to rejoice. Canon has finally got its head out of its a$$ and responded - and then some!

Rather than go over the well known features of this camera, I will point you to numerous resources that already exist. For example, Canon offers a 77 page whitepaper that discusses the technical merits of the 5D Mark II as well as comparing it to the 5D it replaces and its expensive sister the 1Ds Mark III. It also has an intro site, product tours, the manual and more on its site.

Canon is spending a fortune to promote this camera as the savior to its brand which has found itself fall second to Nikon for the first time in many years. In fact, while my girlfriend was in Tokyo she just so happened to be right next door to the Canon world headquarters for the 5D Mark II launch in November and was given a bunch of great info on the 5D Mark II(unfortunately its only in Japanese):

_MG_0447 as Smart Object-1

There are also reviews at the following sites:

and you can find a bunch of links at Enough of that though, let's get down to business and look at some pictures and videos.

Sample Pictures

5D Mark II Review001_Small

For this article I decided to do a controlled experiment where I took my photos indoors, under regular household lights, without using a flash using whatever I could find at the time in my house. In this case, a bottle of wine (complete with dust intentionally left untouched) and a hip-hop singing Seahawks frog. The purpose of this was to take shot that the "average Joe" could get.

I chose to use the "kit" lens (which I had purchased previously with my XTi back in February 2007), which is the only lens in my collection that I have owned from day 1 in my adventures into digital SLR photography.

The picture shown first in this section was taken on a tripod using mirror lockup and ISO 100 (which meant a long 2 second exposure) with a 2 second timer to avoid any camera shake from my finger pressing the button. I used f/8 to show the sweet spot of this lens. I will confess that this version has been processed slightly and downsized using onOne Genuine Fractals 6.0 so it would grab attention, but if you click on the image it will take you to the original on SmugMug where you can choose the O option to see the original unprocessed JPEG.

ISO and 1D Mark III Comparisons

It looks pretty awesome if you ask me, but what about higher ISO's? What about comparing it to a pro camera? Well, I had those same questions so I thought I'd conduct a little experiment. Of course, I didn't have a 5D or a 1Ds Mark III, so I had to settle for a comparison against my 1D Mark III pro sports camera ($4500 retail).

All images were exported from Canon's Digital Photo Professional 3.5.1 as JPEG with 10 for compression with no modifications from their original CR2 images.

The images shown in the left column (assuming your browser is formatting properly) are from the 5D Mark II. Both cameras were set to Auto White Balance and the 5D Mark II seemed to do a much better job of removing the yellow from the lights.

For each ISO I include a value in parenthesis for the exposure. I shot using Av mode, so this is the value that the camera chose. The versus value is for the Canon 1D-Mark III which was consistently slower. This confirms my belief that the 5D Mark II can be perfectly matched with the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM because it is such a "fast"/"bright" camera, so you can get the "speed" that was once only found in the 24-70mm f/2.8L USM but with the added benefit of the IS found in the 24-105 (at least until Canon comes out with the much hoped for 24-105 f/2.8L IS USM).

ISO 400 (0.6 sec exposure vs 1.0 sec)


ISO 800 (1/3 sec exposure vs 0.4 sec)


ISO 1600 (1/8 sec exposure vs 1/5 sec)

ISO 3200 (1/15 sec exposure vs 1/8 sec)

ISO 6400 (1/30 sec exposure vs 1/15 sec)

ISO H1 - 12,800 (1/60 sec exposure)

ISO H2 - 25,600 (1/125 sec exposure)

The net result is that the 5D Mark II images are better exposed and have a better white balance out of camera. It's a brighter camera with an extra two stops of ISO so it makes for an outstanding travel camera where light is typically less than ideal.

A surprising thing to me is just how fast this camera is. To prove this I conducted a test with both cameras using the same exact lens and settings. I used the same 24-105mm AF off, IS on, ISO 400, 1/3200, f/8.0 with the lens cap on writing to the same SCREAMING FAST Sandisk Extreme III 8GB (30/mb sec) and the results were shocking:

  • 1D Mark III (in L 3fps mode) - 24 RAW exposures 15 seconds to flush the buffer
  • 5D Mark II - 17 RAW exposures 10 seconds to flush the buffer

In fact, the write speed of the 5D Mark II was so good that its post buffer full wait time was about half of the 1D Mark III. The amazing fact here is that the 1D Mark III is only writing 14MB files whereas the 5D Mark II is writing 24MB files, so this camera is FASTER than its pro equivalent! In JPEG L mode, the 5D Mark II seems to run endlessly (56 frames until buffer delay), so you can really use this for sports (think kids soccer games).

Is it so good that it out resolves the lenses?

Ken Rockwell suggests that the Canon 5D Mark II is so good that it will out resolve most lenses and make zooms under perform. While I wish this were the case, I think you'll find that you are very happy with any quality lens you choose with this camera - zoom's included.

Sample Video

The cool thing about the 5D Mark II is that it saves its files in Apple's Quicktime (MOV) format which means the video is silky smooth with fantastic quality. If you see any skipping or problems with these videos then it is your machine or Internet connection, not the source videos.

Canon has some sample videos on its web site, and there's some REALLY COOL aerial footage, but I thought I'd do my own experiment with my singing frog:


While I'll doubt that there will be a Golden Globe sitting on my doorstep anytime soon for that video, what you can see is that the picture quality is very good. In fact, I'd say outstanding. In fact, if you compare the video to the still images, they appear to be very comparable.

Video Gotcha's

There's a few caveats that I've learned about video on the 5D Mark II. While it is true that you can record full 1080p video in all its glory, the way you do it is going to be entirely different than what you'd do with your HD camcorder or even point and shoot.

The first thing, and this is probably the most important, is that you have to manually focus for video which means you either set your lens to focus on infinity or your pick your point and stick with it without moving your camera body for the entire video clip (for best results).

The second thing, and it is really an annoying thing for me, is that the ISO will auto adjust upwards to 6400 ISO to get the shot, which will result in video that isn't going to make you super happy. Sure some of the sample videos on Canon's web site were shot in 3200 ISO and still look pretty good but it is obvious they've either been post-processed or had lights on the set to get those kind of results. The short of it is that you and I aren't going to get those kind of results, but that's okay.

The third thing is that you are limited to a 4GB video file on your CF card because CF cards in Canon cameras use the FAT file system and that's as large as files go on that file system. I've read this translates into about 12 minutes of HD video, so plan accordingly. Honestly though, I don't want to watch your videos if they are > 12 minutes for a single scene (yes, even if Jessica Alba was naked)!

Lastly, and perhaps the most annoying to some, is that while you are recording you can't change your settings (other than manual focus). However, I'm fine with this one since proper video is supposed to be done in short clips and fused together using Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 Video Editing Software for Windows (Mac) or Adobe Premiere Elements 7 Video Editing Software.

What does all of this mean? Well, with some careful planning (just like Photography) you can get some amazing video as Canon and others have proven. For people like me who just want to grab a video of something like my son's birthday party, you'll find it easy to get bumpy and out of focused shots in real world applications. In short, don't sell your HD camcorder just yet.

Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and the 5D Mark II

Unfortunately Adobe has chosen to block support for the 5D Mark II in Photoshop CS3 and Lightroom 1.x, so if you want native support you'll have to upgrade to the latest versions. Of course, Adobe's upgrade (or more specifically downgrade) policies are bizarre, so be careful in that adventure that you don't end up with an upgrade that doesn't work (like I did when I tried to downgrade from CS3 Design Premium to just CS4 Photoshop - that's not allowed).

If you can't afford the upgrade now, then you can get the DNG Converter with RAW 5.2 support and convert your images to DNG format (embed your raw's if you are paranoid) before you try to use them in older Adobe products. Here's the settings I used which took about 12 seconds each to convert the RAW files to DNG on a quad-core Dell XPS 420 system running 32-bit Windows Vista with 3GB of RAM:


This of course has the nasty side effect of taking the already huge 23MB CR2 files and turning them into larger 44MB files, but if you don't embed the original (which makes me nervous) it takes about half the time and results in a smaller 20MB dng file. However, once you've done this you can open the file in Lightroom or Photoshop and work on it as normal without submitting to extortion by Adobe as shown here:


Alternatively you could convert your images into TIFF files in Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) that comes with the camera, but that results in files that are over 100MB. While DPP arguably has a better RAW convert than Adobe Camera Raw 5.2, personally I just stick with the added flexibility that ACR adds to my workflow.

If you are using Lightroom 2.2 you have a third option that is probably the best. When you choose the option in Lightroom to edit your photo in Photoshop or open as a smart object you'll get this dialog:

2008-12-18_080248 copy

Simply choose Render using Lightroom and Lightroom will create a PSD file for you and then open that in Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop CS3. This is  a great workaround, so I am pleased to see that Adobe isn't leaving its loyal Lightroom customers out in the cold.

Live View Enhancements

Live View is probably the most misunderstood feature in the digital SLR photography community. Because point and shoot cameras have a video display on the back to allow you to take pictures instead of using the view finder, people assume that Live View is for doing point and shoot with a DSLR. However, the reality is that the view finders are so terrible on point and shoots that the LCD shooting is necessary to see something that will actually look like your final image, but in the case of DSLR's the purpose is different.

For DSLR's there are times when your image through the view finder simply can't tell the whole story to help you get the best focus and sharpest image. While the autofocus systems are good, they are still no substitute for a trained eye and a precise manual focus. To aid in this process (think macros and landscapes), Live View was introduced.

This was a great win for photographers, but with its arrival on the Canon 1D-Mark III and 40D came a slew of complaints that it didn't support autofocus because people misunderstood it to be a point and shoot feature making its way to the DSLR world. As a result of this many people never took advantage of Live View, but not me. I loved live view because it allowed me to get precise 10x zooming so I could focus when doing macros like this and get both the trumpet and seeds in clear focus (by striking a focus balance between the two - something autofocus would never do - it's one or the other).

In the 5D Mark II Canon has conceded and added autofocus to Live View - with one exception - you have to hold the AF ON button to get it to autofocus, which I'm sure will irk the clueless masses. However, for me this is great because it gives you a faster starting point for autofocus before you have to dial in the exact focus intention of your shot. This combined with support for video live view (I've gotta admit - video through the LCD is always going to be better than through the view finder) means that rear display is more important than ever. Which leads me to my next topic...

FANTASTIC Rear Display

Oh my God, if there is one thing that I notice right away on the 5D Mark II that stands out above all other Canon's is the AMAZING high resolution rear display at 920,000 pixels (4x over the 1D Mark III's display) means that 10x zooms are super crisp and clear. You no longer think you need stronger glasses when zooming because ever detail is in crisp clear focus - woohoo!!!!! Using Live View for Landscapes where you are doing a 10x zoom on a far away object to check your focus (for your narrow aperture shots) is going to be heavenly!

More megapixels that really count!

Have you ever wondered why consumer point and shoot cameras with 12 megapixels don't create images that look way better than DSLR's with only 8 megapixels?

Sure, part of it can be attributed to the DSLR having a better lens, but that's not it - the answer lies in the sensor size and the ratio of pixels to that sensor size. The net result here is that more megapixels aren't always a good thing such as the case of the Canon 50D which has 15 megapixels versus the 40D which only has 10, yet the 40D has less grainy images. As a result of this, some pundits were expecting the 21 megapixel 5D Mark II to be inferior to the Nikon D3 and D700 and some were even expecting its predecessor the 5D to be better at high ISO noise performance and overall picture quality. However, Canon has shown what they've spent the last year doing in their long overdue release of the 5D Mark II - they've figured out how to get more megapixels and better quality out of a huge full frame sensor that will simply blow your mind!

UPDATE: If you want to do some head to head comparison with better images, check out this site where you can see images taken with a 1Ds Mark III and Nikon D3x right next to the 5D Mark II. To my eyes, the 5D Mark II is the clear winner against Nikon D3x in terms of color (the D3x has a blue tint), exposure (the D3x is a bit overexposed), and focus but it has a slide edge in sharpness (which can be done in Photoshop). The 1Ds-Mark III is very close, but does seem to have a slight advantage in black level and sharpness, but not enough to justify the extra cost.


While it still ranks 4th behind Nikon's amazing D3 and D700, as well as the super expensive 1Ds Mark III, I think that its added features and USABLE megapixels make it the best camera on the market today. It's fast, it takes amazing pictures which need little post processing, it is very well built, easy to use and at $2700 it is reasonably affordable for what you get compared to its closest competitors the 1Ds Mark III at $6500 and the Nikon D3x at $8000 neither of which can do video!

Run, don't walk to order yours...

If you've been on the fence about upgrading, fear not your wait is over. This is THE camera to own if you have an investment in Canon lenses, and Adorama (where I purchased mine) was the only online place I've seen that is consistently taking (and filling) orders:

NOTE: The 5D Mark II picture in this article is courtesy of Canon USA.

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Mitch said...

Wow - thanks for the review and the comment about the wiki - of course we've added this to the 5D wiki at We've got more 5D reviews/still/video samples than anywhere else on the planet.

Anonymous said...

I was able to get a Canon 5D Mark II on the day of its' release and it is indeed a fine camera. Excellent file - nicely built - a terrific improvement over the original 5D. (which I killed via a drop on volcanic rock)

Although I like the camera a lot, I must say the omission of a mode dial wheel LOCK is a step back into the dark ages. This is a significant omission, in my experience,

About 25 or so years ago Nikon recognized this problem and came out with a button-lock so that once you set your camera where you want it, it was literally impossible for it to be accidentally bumped to another setting.

I have already missed several potentially important photos due to the fact the dial accidentally managed to get bumped onto the wrong mode. I do both calculated photography (where it's easy to check the dial) as well as "run and gun" sort of work where I am required to shoot instantly and without hesitation. (where there is no time to confirm the mode is correct)

I can fix this problem with gaffer tape but that seems a bit of a dark ages solution on such a technically advanced camera.

I'd love to see Canon address this issue in future versions of the 5D since this regression absolutely does create a scenario where a Pulitzer Prize winning photo, etc, might get away.

Gary Parker

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