Review of the Canon EOS 5D
Yes, you saw it right in the headline, the new Canon EOS 5D has 13million pixels spread out in a lovely rectangular grid in a full-frame sensor. For those who don’t know, full frame is digi-speak for an imaging area the same size as a frame of 35mm film, or 24x36mm. For a time, this was the holy grail for digital SLRs, with only a handful of cameras in the past three years achieving it. Canon was one of that handful, with the 1DS, while Kodak and, oddly, Contax, being the only other operators in the field. Sadly, Canon is the only company now producing full-frame cameras, and this is the latest one.
Other cameras with this sized sensor have been aimed squarely at the professional, or very rich enthusiast, and have commanded a high price tag. The EOS 5D differs because Canon is aiming it at the enthusiast – although again, the fairly well-heeled enthusiast.
To be truly accurate, this sensor is not completely full frame. In fact it’s 35.8×23.9mm, if you want to split hairs. If you really want to be pedantic, you could even say that the full-frame sensor is a bit of a misnomer anyway – a 35mm frame size is a more accurate term, as film formats have always been of different sizes. But I digress. More to the point is that the image area offers a 3:2 imaging ratio, the same as 35mm, and will have a negligible effect on the focal length of lenses.
The sensor is a CMOS type, which Canon has long promoted and had much success with. The total pixel count of 13.3 million drops down to 12.8 million effective pixels, after you subtract the outlying black pixels used to set the sensor’s exposure parameters. The sensor also uses an RGB primary colour filter, and a three-layer low-pass filter to reduce aliasing and moiré effects.
What’s also interesting about the sensor, theoretically at least, is the pixel pitch of the sensor. As it’s a larger sensor than is usually found in the majority of DSLRs, the size, or pixel pitch, of the individual sensor is larger. This means the less should display less noise and have a greater dynamic range from current offerings using the APS-C sized chip.
Canon has also developed a new system of image processing for the camera. Essentially an advanced form of scene modes, Picture Style allows you to set processing profiles within the camera. For example, within the camera menu already are a set of five options – Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome. These parameters apply digital filters to provide the best results for those subjects.
The Standard profile offers crisp and vivid colours, suited to the majority of users’ tastes. Portrait offers a softer texture and better skin tones. Landscape enhances important natural colours such as skies and greens. Neutral is a slight flat, subdued look, and is better suited for work that will be post processed, while Faithful remains true to the colours and tones. Monochrome speaks for itself, with a slight boost in image sharpness as well.
There are also three custom options available, to which you can add your own parameters, like colour or contrast; or download custom versions from the Canon website. These versions at present include Nostalgia, giving a flat faded look; Clear, which helps to reduce the effect of ultra violet light and increase sharpness; and Twilight, which adds a warm tint to images.
The good thing about the Picture Style is that it can work with RAW images, much like White Balance. The filters can be downloaded directly to the camera, by transferring or added to files on the PC using the latest version of Canon Digital Photo Professional software. Incidentally Picture Style is backwards compatible and can be used with RAW files from any Canon SLR since the EOS 30D, although the in-camera option isn’t available on the older cameras.
The idea isn’t especially new; scene modes work in much the same way, though with more automated exposure functions. And the Kodak Pro SLR had a similar system, though limited to Portrait and Product ‘looks’, primarily for studio photography.
While the Picture Style system may offer a personalisation of colour, tone and so on, the camera still has a more standard approach to profiles, with Adobe RGB and sRGB colour spaces available. For standard use, sRGB will suit most of your needs; but for better colour and for times when you will be performing more processing, then AdobeRGB is the way to go, with its wider colour gamut.
The camera includes a noise-reduction system, primarily for longer exposures. Like other such systems, it seems to make the camera add a blur over the image to hide the noise rather than remove it, so images look less sharp than they would behind it. A plethora of software-based noise-reduction systems is available, including within the Photoshop CS2 RAW processor, and this may be a better option to use because it reduces the colour artefacts rather than blurs them.
As for White Balance, the Canon EOS 5D has a multitude of options. As well as a set of presets and auto WB, all of which are pretty darned good, there is also the option of setting the colour temperature, as well as a WB bracketing option.
Unlike the lower-priced cameras, the Canon EOS 5D boasts several options that push it into the semi-pro bracket, or even (at the price) professional bracket. These include little touches such as interchangeable focusing screens, of which the Canon has two. Obviously the back catalogue of lenses, flash guns and so on are also included. The 5D has no built-in flash, so a Canon-compatible flash needs to be added to your shopping list, but at least the camera has a PC sync socket for external flash, so the camera can easily be used in the studio.
Next page: Canon EOS 5D design and build quality review
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Design And Build Quality
The EOS 5D may be described as an EOS 1DS-lite, or a ramped-up 20D, sitting perfectly between the two cameras in terms of specification and size. It’s certainly a chunky monkey, heavier than the 20D, but weighs in at less than a kilo (without lens) which is less than the 1DS series, as well as being physically smaller. What impresses is that Canon has managed to fit the large sensor into such a small space, especially when you consider the size of the 1DS and 1DS MkII, which are seriously big cameras. The EOS 5D, by comparison, is a midget.
Of course, the 1D series of cameras comes close, but doesn’t have a full-frame sensor, an 8MP sensor, and has a higher price tag to match the increased build quality and weatherproofing. That camera also offers more speed than the 5D, at 8fps. The 5D still offers a respectable 3fps over 60 frames in JPEG mode, which is all the more remarkable when you think about the size of file that needs to processed and pushed through the pipeline. The initial RAW file is between 10 and 14MB, while a compressed JPEG is around 5MB. The processing power and memory buffer size needed to process three of those a second 60 times, without a break is quite impressive, especially given the price.
In regards to the build quality of the camera, the magnesium alloy body may not be up to the rigours of the Iraqi desert, but is tough enough to take the knocks that everyday life can throw at it. It has a comforting weight and balance that makes you feel you have a tough, precision tool in your hand. The grip feels secure, and the buttons and controls on the camera are far from flimsy to the touch.
The camera controls are closer to that of the 20D too, better serving the needs of the advanced enthusiast, or semi-pro, than the complicated EOS 1D cameras do. This makes the camera an attractive choice to those who wish to upgrade from a 20D or 10D. The camera will feel natural and intuitive. New Canon users, of course, should still find the control of the camera relatively easy because most of the photographic controls follow the traditional layout.
Of course, new and experienced users both will need to experiment with some of the newer features such as the Picture Style modes and the broader range of digital control cameras such as this can offer.
Next page: Canon EOS 5D handling review
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There are some handling issues to overcome, though. For a start there’s Canon’s continued insistence of putting the depth-of-field preview in the wrong place. This is placed on the front of the camera, in exactly the wrong position for the left hand to reach it, especially when using a long telephoto lens, which is usually the kind of lens that needs depth of field preview. If you try to reach it, you’re bound to move the camera and lose your composition, so it becomes useless. Unless you’re using a tripod, of course. I’ve complained about this several times in the past and will continue to do so until it’s corrected, which it probably won’t be – Canon has used the same system for years and I don’t really see it affecting camera sales too much.
Canon also doesn’t make the Exposure Compensation system immediately obvious. Where is it and how do you use it? In fact, a further position on the power switch transforms the rotary dial on the back of the camera (usually used for menu or playback navigation) into the exposure compensation dial. I’m not fond of this system at all, and would much prefer a ‘±’ button located near the right thumb position, and use the front or rear command dial to make the change. Regular users will get used to this, but I defy a newcomer or occasional user to find or remember this function. Again it’s not a major problem, and is obviously not putting people off; I just don’t like the system.
Next page: Canon EOS 5D image quality review
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I had great expectations of this camera, from past experience of the 20D and 1D series. Was I disappointed? Well, it’s not perfect. The problem with full-frame cameras is that you’re more likely to use older lenses, and unless you’ve spent on quality optics in the first place, image quality will suffer in comparison to film, especially at the edges.
Luckily I used good lenses with this camera, and although there is minor purple fringing and some loss of definition, results tended to be first rate – especially RAW images. JPEGs will always show some image degradation, though the vast majority of people wouldn’t notice. In RAW however, I made some fantastic prints up to A3 with little trouble.
I can’t say I’m a massive fan of the Picture Style system, especially using the Canon defined profiles, but I can see the benefit of the custom profiles. Unfortunately a magazine review doesn’t allow the time to play with this in-depth, but I look forward to further investigation. Nevertheless, it does work, I just don’t like the colour parameters it uses. This is personal, and I’m sure others will find a huge benefit from it.
As far as the all-important noise issue goes, there is, alas, noise at ISO 800 to 1600, but it’s extremely well controlled. You certainly won’t notice it on a 10×8” print. Even better, I would say the noise that is there is less noticeable than the grain visible on a similarly rated film, which is the ultimate aim of digital anyway – better than film.
Next page: Canon EOS 5D specifications
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This is a superb camera, with only minor niggles, mainly ones that can be levelled at any Canon c’s face it: they’re unlikely to dissuade people from investing. In terms of performance and image quality, there’s not much this camera can’t do and it should win many fans.
Images are good and, more important, big, allowing large prints to made, plenty of detail to be captured and will satisfy publishers, stock libraries and many other potential clients. On the professional side, I can see this being popular with wedding, landscape, fine art photographers and others who may not always have £6000 to invenst in a 1DS.
For semi pros and enthusiasts, however, that investment is still substantial at £2500 and this isn’t a mainstream camera. But it does show us where cameras are going to be in the not-too-distant future. Canon leads the way in consumer DSLRs, first with the EOS D30 and latterly the 8MP 350D. Others have followed since but Canon continues to advance faster and often better. If Canon can, why can?t anyone else?
View sample shots of the Canon EOS 5D
View product shots of the Canon EOS 5D
Adobe RGB, sRGB
9-point AF: One shot, AI Servo, AI Focus, M
USB 2.0, A
CF I/II, M,
Evaluative, partial, spot, centre-weighted
Single, continuous 3fps for 60 Jpegs/17 RAW
A, 6 preset, custom, colour temperature, bracketing
A, AP, M, P, SP, Custom
30-1/8000 sec, Bulb
2.5-inch TFT LCD, 230,000 pixels
21.84×14.56-inch at 200dpi
35.8×23.9mm CMOS 12.8 MP effective/13.3MP total