The reason not all cameras are the same is that we all have
different shooting styles and needs. What a professional
photographer at a football match does and what I do are two
completely different things. The original 5D
almost seemed like it was made especially for my needs - a jack of all
trades which not only matched the best of the rest for
high-resolution landscape photography but also beat them for
low-light candids and street shots. With the 5D II, Canon
have moved into a niche which fits exactly with my style of
shooting, but others may now be better off with the competition,
such as the Nikon D700 or Sony A900. The Nikon
(allegedly - I have not used one)
offers better autofocus for sports and wildlife photography and
lower noise whilst the Sony (allegedly) has superior resolution for landscapes.
I can no longer validly claim to have the "best" camera in
humanity, as the competition has caught up!
For my use, whether other cameras have better autofocus is
something of a moot point, as
I cannot point to a single instance where the autofocus on the
old 5D let me down. All I have is lots of perfectly
in-focus shots like the example above, taken with the 200mm f2.8
prime lens at f8, which is about as sharp as things get. I have
read a lot of complaints about
the 5D's autofocus on internet forums, a large number of which
were probably written by people who haven't ever been in the
same room as a 5D never mind used one. At times I also forget that
some people like to use the
lottery-focus feature and let the camera choose which of the 9
weirdly-arranged autofocus points to focus on. I suspect like any lottery that can
lead to disappointment. I almost always use the centre focus point and recompose
if necessary (and if I have time).
Paradoxically, I suspect that if the 5D's high ISO noise performance had been worse,
a few of my images might have come out much improved. I say that
because I am often tempted to rely on image stabilisation and
high quality high ISO results rather than resort to the tedium
of a tripod. This picture is a pretty extreme example,
taken at ISO 1600, hand held (using the "dual image
stabilisation" techniques of Canon's finest IS plus my knee) for
1.3 seconds at maximum aperture (f4 on the 24-105 f4 L).
It is lightened slightly in processing which makes it noiser.
The bottom image is an "actual pixels" 100% crop (processed in
DPP). It's pretty noisy as you might expect, but is pretty amazing,
considering, and most importantly it is perfectly printable.
1.3 second exposure hand-held! Wide-open at f4! At 1600ISO! A few years ago when I was shooting Velvia 50
ISO in a Minolta Dynax film camera without image stablisisation, I would never have got away
with this sort of laziness and would have been forced to get the
tripod out and take a better quality photo. But that said,
going back to film scans, even with a good scanner like my
Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 and top film like Velvia 50 ISO,
grain rarely looks much better to me than that in the sample
above. It's pretty amazing how far things have come.
Sometimes, however, tripods don't help and only fast film speeds
will do. I've had some good results from the 5D in those
situations. Of course better high ISO performance is
always welcome, but the 5D is an excellent compromise between
good high ISO performance and high resolution. I would not
want to trade high ISO performance for more resolution.
The image above was shot on the 5D at 3200ISO, hand-held at
1/20th second, wide open again (f4) at 70mm. 3200ISO was
therefore needed. 1600ISO would not have done (the shutter
speed would have been too slow as it was already seriously
pushing the limits) so it is a valid real-world high ISO noise
Above are two 100% crops from that image. The top one is
the JPEG straight out of the camera. It is perfectly
decent. The bottom one is from the RAW file (I always
shoot RAW + JPEG) processed in DPP with no luminance noise
reduction and chrominance NR of 50%. I think it
illustrates that you should always shoot RAW at high ISO as to
my eyes the bottom crop has much more detail and the noise has a
more acceptable "film-like" look. Look at the detail in
the girl's hair, and the crunchy film-like graininess of the
out-of-focus background compared to the colour-blotchy
digital-looking smeariness of the JPEG above it. Of course
the difference would only be visible, if ever, in a very large
When I first got my old EOS 20D, I went a bit mad with the
awesome 5 fps frame rate and machine gunned everything that
moved. No decent images resulted. The Cambodian and
photos above were the result of single, well timed exposures.
Both were the only images I took of those particular subjects. My shooting
style has evolved to avoid continuous shooting, so higher frame rate is
quite an irrelevance to me and not on my wish list for 5D
upgrades. Other people, of course, have different
Everybody wants more resolution. Why? Because there
are two things you can do with it - more cropping and making
bigger prints. For some reason the prints I've wanted to
make big have not needed any cropping whatsoever. The
Cambodian family on their bicycle and the Thai waterfall images
above are straight out of the camera with no cropping.
Interestingly the manual for the 5D Mark II suggests that full
21 megapixel mode on the Mark II can be used for "A2 or larger"
prints, whilst 9.9 megapixel SRAW1 mode is good for "around A3"
and 5.2 megapixel SRAW2 mode "around A4." I have an A2
print of the 12.8 megapixel 5D image below in my office, which
looks stunningly sharp to me. Others have commented
similarly. At that size, despite the relatively small
aperture of f8, the depth of field is very noticeable. The
daisies in the foreground are not as sharp as those in the plane
of focus, in the centre of the image where the tallest burnt
The canvas print of the Thai waterfall I mentioned at the top of
this article is 130x90cm - that's bigger than A0, more than four
times the size of A2! So lack of resolution hasn't stopped
me making great prints as big as I've ever wanted.
Nevertheless, more resolution is "nice to have", so would make
it onto my wishlist of upgrades.
Operation and handling
It seems to be fashionable on internet forums to mention the
"clunky" handling of the 5D, and Nikon's superiority in that
respect. I can't comment on the comparison as I've never
used a Nikon DSLR in anger. But I can confirm that the 5D
handling is, indeed, pretty "clunky." The handling is
basically exactly the same as the old 20D but with the added
annoyance of lots of useless 1/3 stop increments for ISO
adjustment. A common complaint is that the mirror lock-up
facility is fiddly. I couldn't care less as I've never
used that feature (I suspect Canon buried it in a menu on
purpose after their evaluation confirmed that it makes no
difference - I will have to do my own test some day).
Another complaint I've seen repeated a few times is that writing
to the CF card stops abruptly when the card door is opened (to
avoid corrupting data if the card is removed during writing).
That seems wholly sensible to me. My top 10 operational
and handling annoyances for the 5D are:
1) No USB charging. If my blackberry can do it, why not
the camera? This would be an awesome feature, as at the
moment if you lose the battery charger, it breaks or you leave
it at home, your photography is over once your batteries are
used up. High streets in Easter Island don't sell these
things! With USB charging you could top up the battery in
the car using a Blackberry charger between locations.
2) No auto-ISO. This is a real pain, as it forces you to
think about ISO for each shot and usually fiddle around changing
it, which is made worse by the next point...
3) ISO adjustment is not intuitive. You would think after
over 10,000 shots, often changing ISO every 3 or 4 shots, my
hands would just go straight to the relevant control
automatically. Nope. It's so badly designed, 50% of
the time I adjust the drive mode instead, usually to self-timer,
then have to change that back and start again trying to remember
how to change the ISO. When I do get the right dial I
always want a full stop of adjustment, but have to move the
wheel 3 clicks to achieve that because it advances in pointless
1/3 stop increments. Awful.
4) No 2-second self timer. Having to wait 10 seconds each
time when taking night-shots and I've forgotten the cable
release is a pain.
5) Dust. It's not a major problem but it is an annoyance.
6) No SD card slot. I actually bought a CF to SD adapter
so I can use SD cards in the 5D (very handy as I can use the
same cards as my little Canon Ixus 850, and they can then slip
straight into the laptop to be read without needing a card
reader or adapter).
7) LCD "flashing highlights" show burnt-out areas on the JPEG,
not the RAW data. It took me ages to realise that
blown-out areas which flash on the LCD review can often actually
be recovered from RAW files and I was misinterpreting that and
underexposing unnecessarily to avoid blowing-out highlights in
8) The camera broke. Twice. First time it froze up
and would not shoot again until I replaced the memory card.
All the pictures on the "corrupted" memory card were lost.
I don't know what caused it, but I've never had any problems
with that card again. I suspect it was the "auto-rotate"
bug which was mentioned in the firmware update literature,
because I worked around it by turning off the auto-rotate
feature and the problem never recurred. Fortunately I
didn't attempt to update the firmware whilst in Vietnam because
when I got home and updated the firmware, it killed the camera!
This time nothing would persuade it to come back to life and it
had to go back to Canon, who replaced the "motherboard." I
never did realy get a straight story out of them but Canon's UK
agent suggested that this was a "common" problem with early 5Ds!
Whilst I'm on this subject, my original 24-105L got replaced
under warranty too, as it had the "flare" issue which was the
equivalent of the current "black dots" hysteria. Out of
thousands taken with that lens, I had about 2 (which were
rubbish anyway) which featured the flare.
9) No weather sealing. Didn't stop me using it in the
spray at the Iguassu falls. Camera and lens got pretty
saturated, but didn't break. Weathersealing would not,
therefore, have made any difference to the result but it would
have reduced my stress-levels!
10) LCD is rubbish, particularly the colour. It is quite
disheartening to see photos which you have high expectations for
on that manky little LCD. You can only tell what the
colours came out like once the images have been transferred to a
computer. It is rumoured that later model 5Ds have a
better LCD than my early one.
11) Autofocus points are bizarrely arranged in a funny shape and
too close to the centre of the frame. The 20D was better.
My subjects are never located at any of those points, so I
simply don't use them. I know I said it would be 10
annoyances but I couldn't let this one go without comment!