Canon's new 21 megapixel full frame digital SLR offers the same resolution as its EOS 1Ds Mk.III but for less than half the price. With the Nikon D700 and Sony Alpha a900 snapping at its heels what does the 5D Mark II have to say for itself?
This unprecedented level of interest wasn’t without justification. The 5D’s conception and following success marked it as a landmark model – not just for Canon but for the DSLR itself. Thanks to the physical and financial advantage it brought to the user, it became the darling of wedding, landscape and portraiture circles, as well as the oft-mentioned photojournalism genre, and helped pave the way for the future of the full frame.
So why the long wait for its successor? Years came and went with no solid word from the company, and when Canon did comment it said that the 5D’s performance was still something to be matched, and so a replacement wasn’t a priority. True, its popularity even today does nothing but confirm this, but its specifications had begun to show their age and so people rightly began to suspect that a replacement would soon arrive.
And arrive it has, this time with HD video recording at the helm, along with a new processor, 21MP sensor, and with the slightly less ambitious 5D Mark II moniker. Given the relatively long time gap between its release and that of the model it replaces, the 5D Mark II is a considerable upgrade, yet, unlike its predecessor, it’s now not the only contender in its field. So, three years on, and with Nikon and Sony watching closely, exactly what relevance does the EOS 5D Mark II have?
Developed in tandem with the EOS 50D the two models have much in common, though the new model’s sensor derives from that of the flagship EOS 1Ds Mark III. From a total 22MP, the effective output is 21.1MP and it’s of the CMOS variety that Canon has pioneered since its original D30 back in 2000. Measuring 36 x 24mm the sensor qualifies as full frame, and though it’s based on that in the 1Ds Mark III, there have been a number of refinements that allow Canon to claim that it ‘achieves the highest level of image quality of any EOS Digital SLR released to date’.
First, a modification to the colour filter array now allows for light to pass through more effectively to the photosites, while changes have also been made as to how the signal is amplified and read out from the sensor. In comparison with the 12.8MP sensor found in the 5D, the gap between the microlenses has been narrowed, while the on-chip noise reduction circuitry has been optimised for better noise suppression.
The EOS Integrated Cleaning system also welcomes a new fluorine coating for the repelling of dust – also seen on the recently launched 50D. The anti-dust system still uses piezo-based ultrasonic vibrations to shake dust away from the front of the first low-pass filter, and while it lacks a dedicated chamber in which dust can gather, adhesive strips around the side of the filter allow somewhere for dust to adhere. This is complemented by Canon’s Dust Delete Data function which maps shadows caused by dust, and removes them via the bundled Digital Photo Professional software.
Another reason for Canon’s optimism is the new DIGIC 4 processing engine, which debuted in the EOS 50D and has since been incorporated into a number of the company’s compacts. Benefits are said to include faster image processing (which for 21MP 14bit files is most welcome), an extension to the dynamic range, finer tonal gradations and improved noise reduction for images taken at higher sensitivities. Advanced signal processing is said to bring a benefit to write times, and predictably, it has also allowed for a faster burst rate, with a 3.9fps rate maintained for up to 78 JPEG frames, or 310 when using UDMA media. Raw files may be recorded at 13 and 14 frames respectively, while a capture of the two is limited to eight frames, regardless of the card used.
A final feature we see courtesy of the new processor is the Peripheral Illumination function, which deals with the perennial full-frame problem of corner shading. When an appropriate lens is mounted, the camera presents the option of enabling correction, though this is only applicable to JPEG files in camera. Raw images may be corrected, but only via the Digital Professional Photo program that ships with the camera. While the 5D Mark II only recognises 26 EF lenses at default it may store profiles for 40 in total, and as newer versions of EOS Utility are released, further lens options are said to be added to expand support for the function.
Features we’ve seen previously also see a customary expansion. The Auto Lighting Optimiser now has three separate options, as does noise reduction for images taken at high sensitivities. Raw shooting, meanwhile, comprises three levels of resolution – standard, sRaw1 and sRaw2 – with each setting allowing for an accompanying JPEG to be shot at the same time. The camera’s sensitivity range has also seen its capabilities broadened, now running through a nominal range of ISO 100-6400, which may be extended to equivalent settings of ISO 50 and up to ISO 25,600. This range comfortably matches the Nikon D3, though how a 21MP sensor will manage such high sensitivities is something we’ll see later on.
As with Canon’s other full-frame offerings – though unlike Sony and Nikon‘s alternatives – support isn’t provided for Canon’s EF-S optics, nor is it for equivalent types from third party manufacturers. As Canon’s EF-S range constitutes a fraction of its lens range, and with none of them being particularly pro-oriented, I can’t see this being a great disadvantage to the prospective buyer.
Features Page 2
The 5D Mark II is the first EOS DSLR to allow for movie recording, only just beaten to the post by Nikon’s D90. How each system operates is very similar, though the 5D Mark II does – on paper at least – offer an advantage in several areas. The larger sensor enables a shallower depth of field (and much more so in comparison to that of a video camera), while its resolution is 1920 x 1080 pixels (‘full’ HD) in comparison to the D90‘s 1080 x 720 pixels. The frame rate is also slightly greater at 30fps, and files may be recorded for up 12 minutes at its optimum setting, while a reduced resolution records up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds, or 4GB in size, whichever comes soonest. A further difference is in the 5D Mark II’s support for autofocusing while recording, via the sensor-based contrast detection method. Movies are also said to benefit from Canon’s Image Stabilisation technology (when such a lens is used), while the EOS Utility program that comes bundled with the camera offers support for tethering movies to a computer.
In terms of audio, a small mono-recording microphone sits underneath the camera’s name badge, though stereo sound may be obtained with the use of an external microphone, for which a socket has been provided around the camera’s side. A small speaker has been located next to the eyecup around the rear, with playback options including slow motion, volume control and jumping through individual frames.
Live view too
Naturally the camera also supports live view, which, in addition to the contrast method offers phase detection AF for more speedy focusing, as well as a plethora of information regarding exposure (including a histogram) and the same tethering options as with movies. The new processor has also allowed the system to support Face Detection for up to 35 faces, though given the contempt with which most photographers still treat live view, I doubt this will be a feature much called upon.
Both live view and movies are displayed on the rear’s 3in LCD screen, which now sees its resolution match that of many recent models. With 920,000 dots to play with, it displays images with far greater clarity and contrast than on previous offerings, and is an immediate wow factor to anyone using such a screen for the first time. It provides a viewing angle of 170 degrees for more accurate viewing off axis, and incorporates a number of coatings to combat reflections, moisture and scratches, as well as a fluorine coating for the prevention of dirt build up.
Same as before
Not everything is new, though, and some features have remained the same. The camera’s metering pattern still features a 35-zone cell, with the full set of evaluative, centre-weighted, partial and spot options, while Canon’s Highlight Tone Priority option may be enabled via the Custom Functions. The focusing system is also largely unchanged, with the same 9-point configuration of its predecessor, and six invisible AF assist points at its centre. All points are sensitive at f/5.6 or brighter, with the exception of two vertically-sensitive assist points, which increase this to f/2.8. The new processor also claims to improve AF precision and speed up AF processing, while the ability to fine tune AF for up to 20 lenses is offered via the AF Microadjustment function.
There’s no built-in flash, though the market at which the camera is aimed is likely to require the flexibility that a built-in flash can’t provide, not to mention the greater power offered by external units and lighting set-ups. The E-TTL-II flash algorithm supports external Speedlite units and wireless multi-flash set ups are also possible, while a PC sync port around the side allows the camera to be used in the studio with other lighting sources. The sync speed is unchanged from the 5D, at 1/200sec.
The camera’s lithium ion battery promises a maximum 850 shots on a full charge, though live view, video recording and flash use will limit this. Although the battery is similar to the one used in the 5D the two can’t be used interchangeably, though you can now register up to six batteries with the camera, with their shutter count and percentage charge displayed, as well as the last time and date of use. A single card slot is provided for the recording of images and movies to either CompactFlash or UDMA media, and the addition of an infrared sensor below the camera’s self-timer lamp allows for infrared triggering via wireless remotes.
The menu system’s architecture will be familiar to EOS users, though a handful of additions have been made to support the camera’s expanded specifications. As with its feature set the new camera shares many commonalities with the EOS 50D, with the processor allowing for a more fluid transition between menu options than on previous EOS models, tying in nicely with the enhanced resolution of the LCD screen. Colours are a little bolder and the typeface has also changed, but the general idea has remained the same.
In contrast to the annoyingly long, all-inclusive list format seen on the 5D, the menu’s structure has adopted the tabulated format seen on most recent EOS models. The power switch is a little more defined and easier to quickly click into position, while the mode dial – which has been made slightly taller and easier to operate – now fits in three custom settings for access to pre-determined sets of shooting parameters, as well as the Auto and Creative Auto settings, and staple PASM modes. Long-exposure enthusiasts will also be pleased to know that, as with the 5D, the option to access the camera’s bulb setting has been given equal consideration, nestling between the manual and custom options on the dial.
At its default setting, the 5D Mark II shares a trait found with its predecessor of having a relatively dim LCD screen, though, of course, this may be brightened to taste. The top plate LCD, meanwhile, sees its lamp button sneaking over to the other side of the screen, and it’s much more recessed into the body than on the 5D – an odd move considering it’s the first button you’ll be fumbling around for in the dark. Also, the dual-function controls which sit beside these – for metering, AF etc – have had the functions they’re twinned with changed. Canon claims this is so that the most frequently used controls are closer to the mode dial, though this would probably prove an initial inconvenience for upgrading EOS 5D or 40D users.
The camera’s pentaprism viewfinder sees a marginal 2% coverage increase over the 5D to make 98%, and while it doesn’t quite match the 100% coverage offered by the competing models (Sony A900, et al), it nevertheless presents itself with good clarity and is thoroughly bright. It also appears a touch more neutral in colour than the slight yellow tint seen through the 5D’s viewfinder, though this is only noticeable by comparison. Both the full frame and exposure information may be seen concurrently, and information regarding ISO settings, black and white shooting and white balance adjustment is also visible, should you forget to change any settings from a previous shot.
I’m just as impressed by the camera’s dimensions and weight, which have been kept identical to those of the 5D. With no integrated vertical grip the body is significantly smaller than the current 1D and 1Ds duo, and at 810g without its battery and any accessories it weighs in lighter than both the Sony A900 and Nikon D700, without feeling any less solid because of it. A stainless steel frame is encased in magnesium panelling, though rather than the matt finish of the 5D, the Mark II is finished in the same satin coat seen on the 1Ds Mark III. The body has been sealed to resist any dust and moisture incursion, and as with the grip and a panel on the side of the lens release, much of the rear has been rubberised for comfort and security. Internally, the shutter has also seen its life span extended to 150,000 cycles.
Performance Page 1
How good is that movie mode?
Having reviewed the Nikon D90, I came to the 5D Mark II with some expectations as to how its video functionality may perform. From a specifications point of view, the 5D Mark II has the advantage of allowing contrast-detect autofocusing while recording, though I soon found this to be of very little benefit. Anyone who has used contrast-detect autofocusing via the live view function on their DSLRs will know that the process works via a trial and error stepping of various points of focus. In the context of a video this looks unnatural and is only of any real use when predetermining focus prior to recording, although this may be done quicker via the mirror-moving phase detection mode before video recording is initiated.
The other problem with focusing during recording is that the camera’s microphone picks up all manner of sounds, which include the whirring of the lens’ motor, the tapping of each focusing step, the image stabilisation system (if using a lens with the function) and the beeping of focus confirmation (though this may be disabled). As may be expected, a comparison with the USM-enabled lenses I used during the test showed them to focus much more discretely, though as some sound was still noticeable (and given the stepping problem) I still wouldn’t advise relying on their quieter AF systems for video recording. The manual advises that these sounds may be minimised, or even eliminated, via the use of an external microphone, though I didn’t have one to hand to check by how much this would be the case.
Manual focusing is, therefore, a much more logical step to take when using video, ideally using prime lenses with either relatively wide or standard focal lengths, (and ones which can be supported easily while recording). It goes without saying that the design of these didn’t take into account their use for video capture, which soon becomes apparent in use. For example, the EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II lens features a shallow manual focusing ring towards the front of its barrel, and when focusing a stray finger would often be captured mid-recording. It’s perhaps slightly ironic that I found the older Mark I version far better suited to the task, as its manual-focusing ring is not only positioned further towards the rear of the lens, but is also easier to operate while still supporting the camera in the left hand.
Despite this, once focused I found the video mode very capable, so long as I remained relatively immobile and I didn’t need to change the focus too drastically. On a tripod, and handholding in more relaxed environments, I developed a more fluent differential focusing technique between two subjects, and it was clear that a bit of practice was all that was needed. So, the AF is useful for initially confirming focus but then a polished manual focusing technique is advised for optimum results.
Performance Page 2
The standard focusing system is largely unchanged from the original 5D, though its square markings are a little darker and more defined. Canon’s reason for not including the all cross sensor system seen in the EOS 40D is that it found the AI Servo tracking mode to be more effective on the original 5D, despite having only one cross-type point. As with the 40D, its configuration sees nine points arranged in a diamond pattern, though the increased size of the sensor means that their spread is over less of the total area, and more confined in the centre.
This presents a problem with the camera finding subjects off-centre, meaning that focusing using the more sensitive centre-point and recomposing is sometimes necessary. Worse still, trying to pan a subject horizontally when holding the camera in a portrait orientation means that the camera only has three points to work with (in addition to the six invisible points inside the spot metering circle). As the points are so close in the centre of the frame, once your subject steps outside of these the camera is no longer sensitive to picking up any of its movements. It’s less of a problem along the horizontal as the points are spread out over a greater area. Overall, though, the camera works well to track subjects providing you keep them in the centre of the frame, and focusing in general is also very good. What’s particularly impressive is that the outer points are still quite responsive, in comparison to the central point.
I knew the 920,000dot LCD screen would be a huge improvement (and boy was it time for one) but I was still surprised at just how well it could be viewed in bright conditions. With no less than five separate coatings, even harsh sunlight didn’t prevent a sufficient level of contrast displayed for reviewing images. Comparing it with that of the Nikon D3X (which we’re also reviewing at the moment), the 5D Mark II’s screen seemed to have the edge in terms of contrast and its refresh rate was noticeably quicker.
On a different note, I did notice images were written relatively slowly to non-UDMA cards, when capturing Raw and JPEG images simultaneously. It’s also a little disappointing that the optional BG-E6 battery grip offers no increase in the camera’s burst rate, in the way that this is possible with Nikon’s MB-D10. I am, however, happy to report that the Periphal Illuminantion Correction feature works well and lifted vignetting effectively from images shot wide open
The 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM lens that ships as a kit option with the 5D Mark II proved itself to being a capable partner, with very good sharpness, excellent defocusing chracteristics and smooth, round bokeh. It’s no stranger to chromatic aberrations though, particularly at the edges and corners, where softness also appears – even when stopped down. There’s also noticeable barrelling at the wide end.
Finally, despite shooting a number of long exposures, I couldn’t find any instances of the black dot phenomenon which early users have spotted. My guess is that the issue is confined to a number of samples, rather than being an inherent flaw to the camera. In any case, Canon is currently working on a firmware update that should resolve the issue for any affected cameras.
Exposure and Tone
With the exception of high contrast scenes, where the camera occasionally underexposes, the metering system is hard to fault. The Highlight Tone Priority does a slight but noticeable job at taming blown highlights, though this also has a marginal effect on the lighter tones elsewhere in the image. Otherwise, tonality is excellent, with smooth gradations and no visible artifacts.
White Balance and Colour
Canon DSLR have a tendency of producing slightly saturated reds, and this is visible in certain images from the 5D Mark II. Otherwise, colour is excellent, with vibrant tones at default. There’s a definite boost in saturation on the Landscape Picture Style, but when used in good weather its effects can verge on comical. In terms of white balance, Canon’s characteristic warmth is present in some images – outside this translates to a slight magenta cast, and results under tungsten light can look a little too warm, too. The camera handles fluorescent lighting much better, though again there is a slight warmth.
At lower sensitivities, it’s hard to find differences between images from the 5D Mark II and those from the Sony A900, but as you climb up the scale chroma noise is more visible in images from the A900, particularly around ISO 6400 where the A900 is a full-on noise fest. In comparison, images from the 5D Mark II remain detailed and colourful despite showing noise. If I’m being picky, I did see traces of noise at ISO 400 in overcast conditions, though I was surprised at how little noise is exhibited at ISO 1600 – it’s present, but very finely textured and not at all destructive, with a film-like appearance. Up to ISO 3200 colour fidelity is good, but noise becomes more apparent, though fine detail is still present in highlight and shadow detail at ISO 6400. ISO 12,800 has much less detail, though images still can be salvaged. ISO 25,600 is unusable, with a liberal helping of chroma noise – even if you do manage to reduce it successfully, more often then not there’s plenty of banding to contend with, which is much harder to process out. Slight banding also appears on lower sensitivities but nowhere near as much as on ISO 25,600.
Detail and Sharpness
As we may expect, the camera can capture an astonishing level of detail, and does this very well even on higher sensitivities. If I do have any complaints, it’s that the camera seems less willing to process out chromatic aberrations to the extent that the Nikon D700 manages, nor does it claim to have a particular function for doing so.
Raw and JPEG
The JPEG output is relatively soft; JPEGs still show good detail, but only when you sharpen their corresponding Raw file do you realise their full potential. Then again, if you’re spending £2000 on a camera, to say you should shoot Raw is stating the obvious.
Traditionally, Canon and Nikon’s approach to the pro market was to have one model built for speed and one for cold, hard resolution, though the advent of highly-specified offshoots at a cheaper price point means that this concept isn’t as defined as it used to be. Canon users may now have the resolution of the 1Ds Mark III in a smaller and much cheaper body, but it’s clear that the similarities end there. Rather than being a straightforward derivative of its pro sibling, the 5D Mark II has its predecessor as its template, but with its 50D sibling as a strong influence. As such, the newer model may not be expected to perform to the same ‘pro’ standard as the 1Ds Mark III, and its specifications, to a degree, reflect this.
For speed, responsiveness and high-sensitivity shooting (and at the moment, price, too), it’s clear that Nikon’s D700 still maintains a comfortable lead, and it’s no surprise that many pros have defected that way. However, much as comparisons are drawn between the two, it’s perhaps more sensible to look towards Sony’s A900 as a direct competitor, whose spec sheet and price more closely resemble that of the 5D Mark II. Both these models are suited to their applications almost equally, though Canon’s extensive support system is something that will no doubt swing the ball very much in Canon’s favour – particularly for the professional.
On the issue of movie recording I remain enthusiastic, and I completely side with Canon on having included it in the 5D Mark II. After all, the 5D Mark II isn’t designed necessarily for the average person with £2000 burning a hole in their pocket, but for the professional who is likely to call upon it as required. A photojournalist or wedding photographer with the ability to record video – even if compromised by a number of limitations – is without question a much greater asset than one who cannot. Purists will argue otherwise but no-one’s under any obligation to use it, and its future development could potentially lead to benefits outside of its use, such as with advances in sensor cooling.
Perhaps critically, we not only get the best EOS image quality yet, but at less than half the price of the existing 1Ds Mark III. Nikon and Sony are hardly taking this lying down, but they certainly have a fight on their hands, because in our estimation the EOS 5D Mark II is, all things considered, probably the best ever Canon DSLR.