With a camera of such pedigree, there are naturally high expectations. Find out how good it is in the What Digital Camera Canon EOS 5D Mark III review
Four years on and we now have the arrival of the third generation of the 5D series, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. With this new camera, Canon says they’ve listened to feedback from existing users and claim to have improved performance in every area. There are naturally high expectations for the Canon EOS 5D MkIII, especially with its pedigree. Has it been worth the wait?
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Features
Many were surprised when the 5D MkIII was announced that there wasn’t a jump in resolution over the 5D MkII. Compared to the 5D MkII’s 21MP chip, the 5D MkIII’s resolution has only marginally increased to 22.3MP, while it also trails the recently announced 36MP Nikon D800. While it may not achieve the same headline-grabbing resolution as the D800, Canon believes the route they’ve taken provides the best combination of image quality and performance, and when you look closer at the specification, it’s hard to argue with.
While the resolution remains similar to the 5D MkII, the design of the 22.3MP CMOS sensor inside the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is completely new, with gapless microlenses for improved light gathering capabilities. This has led to a native ISO range that runs from 100-25,600 – two stops better than the MkII, while the expanded range is now up to an ISO equivalent of 102,400. It’s not only good news for lowlight shooters, as the ISO can now be dropped as low as an ISO equivalent of 50.
At 3.9fps, the MkII was not a camera suited to action photographers, but with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, this looks likely to change with a maximum frame advance of 6fps. This is all thanks to the 8-channel readout and the new DIGIC 5+ image processor – the same image processor that’s featured in Canon’s flagship EOS 1D X.
While the 1D X has the benefit of two processors, the 5D MkIII relies on a single processor. However, it’s quite a performance jump compared to the DIGIC 4 chip used by the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, running seventeen times faster.
As well as single, low and high speed continuous shooting, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has two silent drive modes. Designed for times when you want as minimal noise as possible when you fire the shutter – such as shooting wildlife or photographing a wedding ceremony, the travel of the mirror when the shutter is fired is slowed, reducing noise. As well as a single shooting advance drive mode, there’s also Silent Continuous Shooting, though because of the slowed travel of the mirror, the frame rate decreases to 3fps.
One of the weak links in the 5D MkII’s arsenal was the fairly conservative 9-point AF system – when it came to advanced AF tracking, it just wasn’t up to the task compared to some rivals. This has changed dramatically with the AF used by the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which now utilises a virtually identical 61-point AF system as the EOS 1D X.
Of the 61 points, 41 of these are the more sensitive cross-type variant, while 5 of those AF points are dual cross-type to even greater AF precision. Within the menu (AF now has its own dedicated section), there are a host of AF presets to cover a range of subjects for AF tracking. These vary the AF depending on how unpredictable your subject is and as you become more experienced with the system, can be fine-tuned as well.
The metering system in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has also been overhauled, with the iFCL (intelligent Fluorescent Luminance Colour) metering system being used. This was first seen in the EOS 7D and the 63-zone dual layer system is linked into each point of the AF system, which is then combined with colour and luminance signals to produce the exposure.
The 5D MkIII uses a large, bright 100% viewfinder, while the screen size has increased slightly. Its now 3.2in and has a 3:2 aspect ratio to mirror the ratio of your images so they fill the frame when they’re reviewed and a resolution of 1,040k-dots – the same screen as the 1D X.
There’s now dual card slots on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III – as well as a CompactFlash card slot (the camera’s compatible with the latest UDMA 7 class of cards), there’s also an additional SD card slot as well. There’s a host of options if you want to use two cards at the same time – the second card can be used as a back-up for instance, as an overflow or one for stills and the other for video.
The 5D MkIII now has its own Creative Photo button which provides access to three modes: Pictures Styles, Multi-exposure and a dedicated HDR mode. In this mode, the 5D MkIII allows you to capture handheld HDR images – images are captured in quick succession with an exposure range of up to 3-stops, which are then merged and aligned automatically to produce the final image.
If you’re thinking of upgrading from either a 5D MkII, 7D or 60D, then the good news is that the Canon EOS 5D Mark III has the same battery, so if you’ve got a couple of spares, then you won’t need to invest in a new set. There is a new battery grip however, with controls to mirror those on the body.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Design
While viewed from a distance it may appear that the 5D MkIII looks almost identical to its predecessor, there’s been quite a few changes once you get them side-by-side and look a little closer. From the front, the newer model is a bit taller, while the pentaprism is more rounded and pronounced, making it look more like a 1D series DSLR without the built-in vertical grip.
Turn to the back of the camera, and the differences are more obvious. Here Canon has used the research it took out when developing the 7D and implemented with the 5D MkIII. The On/Off switch is now positioned round the collar of the mode dial, which now also has a button lock on it so it can’t be knocked out of the desired mode inadvertently.
Where the On/Off used to be is now replaced by a lock switch for the rear dial, while there’s also a dedicated Live View/Video switch positioned next to the viewfinder. You’ll also find a Q button to gain access to a range of shooting functions, and over to the left of the screen, the column of buttons have also had their functions changed. Along with Delete and Playback buttons, you’ll now find the Zoom button and Rate button – you can give images a star rating which will be recognized by image editing programs such as Lightroom, while above that is the new Creative Photo button, along with Menu and Info buttons.
While there’s quite a bit changed from the 5D MkII, existing users should feel right at home, while also these alterations make for a more polished and refined interface.
The body is constructed from high-grade magnesium, and there’s now the same level of weather-sealing on the MkIII as there is on the 7D – a welcome improvement over the MkII, which was weak in this area. This means you should be able to carry on shooting with more confidence when the elements are against you.
All this means is that when you pick the 5D MkIII up, it instantly feels like a different class of camera to the 5D MkII. It feels much more durable and ready for business than its predecessor, and is more closely related to the 1D series. The handgrip is well proportioned, offering a comfortable grip, with the tactile feeling being enhanced by the high-quality textured grip.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Performance
One of the most obvious improvements when you start shooting with the 5D MkIII over the MkII is the new AF system. It’s a massive improvement over the basic 9-point that found its way into the 5D MkII.
In Single One-Shot AF, focus locks on very quickly. You can use all 61 AF points if you wish, using the joypad or a combination of using the rear dial/front command dial. If this is a bit overkill for general shooting, then the active AF points can be reduced to either the 41-point cross-type points, 15 points spread across the frame or 9 points.
Switch over to AI Servo, Canon’s predictive AF system, and this is where the changes are most noticeable. It even has its own section in the camera’s menu, with the first section of which is given over to 6 preset Case Studies. These case studies offer different mixes for focus tracking depending on your subject. To help you decide which one is the most suitable, there’s a short summary for each, while you’ll be able to alter the bias of the Tracking Sensitivity, Acceleration/Deceleration tracking and AF point auto switching for each case study should you wish. It’s a very sophisticated system, though it can still be a little daunting if you haven’t used anything like this before. Even if you don’t get to that advanced level where you’re fine-tuning the set-up, the AF tracking is very clever and works very well in the test we undertook. It’s light years ahead of the system found in the 5D MkII in terms of performance and is a match for similar advanced systems found on top-end Nikon DSLRs.
Switch to Live View and the MkIII can use either the 61-point phase-detect system (with a brief interruption in feed while focus is acquired) or a contrast-detect system, which is uninterrupted. It’s relatively quick in contrast mode, though don’t expect instantaneous AF – it’ll take a second or two to lock on, while the AF area is selected via the joypad at the rear of the camera. If you’re going to be using manual focus, then you can zoom in on the area of focus (either 5x or 10x) to check everything’s pin-sharp and precisely fine-tune if necessary.
Match this advanced AF with the 6fps that the 5D MkIII is capable of, and you have a pretty decent action camera. In our tests, we managed to shoot 22 Raw files at 6fps before the buffer slowed with a UDMA Class 7 Lexar card, while its easily capable of shooting over 100 JPEGs at the same rate should you ever need to do so.
The 3.2in, 3:2 aspect ratio display is an improvement on the older 3in version found in the MkII, which was pretty good in itself. When reviewing your shots, images fill the frame thanks to the screen mirroring the same ratio as the images captured – something that’s not the case with many cameras, while there’s a good level of contrast. The LCD brightness can be adjusted manually if necessary as well, while it’s also possible to review images side-by-side. In the playback mode, hit the Creative Photo button and the screen will split in half. You can then toggle through your images, zooming in on them both to compare the sharpness and focus of images side-by-side.
On of the real benefits of a full-frame DSLR is their large, bright viewfinders, and the one in the MkIII is no exception. It’s lovely and bright, with a magnification of 0.7x and a full coverage of 100%. To aid composition, a grid display can be overlaid over the viewfinder.
As well as the inclusion of a whole section for the AF, the menu interface has also been refreshed. It’s now split into six main sections: Shoot, AF, Play, Set-up, Custom Functions and My Menu. These are then split into subsections, with navigation via the joypad. To jump quickly from section to section, hit the Q button.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Image Quality
Tone and Exposure
The Canon 5D MkIII uses Canon’s iFCL metering system, and offers the choice of either Evaluative, Centre-weighted, Spot or Partial metering.
The iFCL metering coped well under a range of light conditions, though we did find that it underexposed a touch, with shots requiring a touch of (+0.3/0.7) exposure compensation to get a more balanced exposure. This isn’t a major issue, with Raw files easily corrected in post-processing.
The results display a nice, smooth tonal range, while there’s also Highlight Tone Priority to improve graduation in bright areas of the image.
White Balance and Colour
The Auto White Balance of the 5D MkIII is reliable, delivering pleasing results under a range of light sources, both indoors and out. On top of the Auto White Balance setting, the MkIII has a host of presets on offer: daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, flash, custom, colour temperature setting
There’s also a host of Picture Styles – found now via the Creative Photo button: Auto, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome and three User Defined options as well, where you can fine-tune sharpness, contrast, filter and toning effects.
Sharpness and Detail
As the 5D MkIII sports a very similar resolution to the MkII, there’s not a dramatic change in the size of prints you can expect to produce. Thanks to the 22.3MP chip though, files are 63.3MB once opened in Photoshop, so it’s possible to produce A3+ prints at 240ppi without any interpolation, while high-quality A2 prints are easily possible thanks to the high level of detail captured by the sensor. If you want to produce high-quality, large scale prints, you’ll have no problems with the results from the 5D MkIII.
The 5D MkIII is bundled with Canon’s Digital Photo Professional v3.11 Raw image processing software, which now features Digital Lens Optimizer (DLO). This new feature imitates lens performance and is designed to correct optical aberrations and loss of resolution from the MkIII’s low pass filter. On top of that, the 5D MkIII’s Raw files are now readable in Lightroom 4.1, again offering lens correction.
Side-by-side and the JPEG and unedited Raw files are very similar at low ISOs, though the differences are more pronounced as the sensitivity increases. JPEG files have image noise applied, with Luminance and Colour noise subdued, though this does come at the expense of sharpness, which the Raw file maintains to a better standard.
The ISO range of the 5D MkIII is very impressive, running from 100-25,600, while this can be expanded to an ISO equivalent of 102,400. What should also appeal to a lot of photographers is the baseline ISO can also be extended to an ISO equivalent of 50 – great for extending the exposure on landscape shots, and adds more versatility overall.
Image noise is very well controlled, with results up to ISO 1600 looking relatively noise-free. Above that at ISO 3200 and 6400, image noise does become more noticeable, but it’s still kept in-check. Go to the upper reaches of the ISO sensitivity, and luminance noise is an issue, with detail suffering. Considering the sensitivity you’re shooting at though, its impressive stuff and one of the best ISO performances we’ve seen from a DSLR
The 5D MkII became the king of video-enabled DSLRs, and the 5D MkIII builds on the features offered by the older model. Audio can now be monitored and the sound level adjusted thanks to an audio output socket. It’s not just sound that’s been tinkered with – there’s depth-of-field control and improved processing to reduce moiré, false colour and other artefacts. There’s also an enhanced range of high bit-rate video compression options, with intraframe (ALL-I) and interframe (IPB) methods both supported.
Value & Verdict
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Value
The 5D MkIII comes in at £2999 – quite hike in price from the launch price of the MkII, which can now be picked up for under £1700. Canon believe that it’s a whole different class of camera to the model that it superseeds, and we’re inclined to agree with them. That aside, its naturally going to draw parallels with Nikon’s 36MP D800, and despite its recent price rise to £2599, does make the MkIII the pricier of the two.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III review – Verdict
While the MkII was more suited to specific photographic disciplines, the MkIII is a whole different ball game.
Its a much more well-rounded, versatile DSLR than its predecessor. This is thanks to the boost in performance – namely the AF, while the quality feel is much more fitting for a camera of this calibre. While the resolution may remain similar to the MkII, Canon hasn’t stood still. The ISO improvements now make the MkIII one of the best cameras around for shooting at high sensitivities, while the detail and resolving power make large prints a reality.
All the weak areas that the MkII suffered from have been ironed out with the MkIII, and there’s now very little to fault it on, and the more you shoot with it, the more you realise what a complete and capable camera the MkIII is. Whether you shoot landscapes, portraits, editorial, action or nature, the MkIII will be right at home. The EOS 5D MkIII is an excellent DSLR.