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 EOS 5D Mark II

PART 2 - A New Dawn - EOS 5D mark II (17 January 2009)

My excitement about the step up from EOS 20D to 5D over three years ago was largely to do with going "full frame" and having the opportunity to use the 24-105L lens instead of the 17-85 EFS.  It was a big step up, which was more to do with the availability of the better lens than the superior quality of the 5D's sensor.  Since then, of course, the "crop" cameras have caught up somewhat as the 17-55 f2.8 EFS is, by all accounts, the optical equivalent of the 24-105L.

The 5D Mark II, of course, uses the same lenses as the 5D so improvements in image quality can only come from the camera body.  In terms of image size the step up from 5D to 5D II is the same as from 20D to 5D - about 1.6 times as many pixels.  The 5D managed 1.6 times as many pixels as the 20D at the same time as a whole stop better high ISO performance.  That was understandable as the pixel density of the 5D was lower than the 20D, meaning each pixel got more light so should, all things being equal, have better high ISO performance.  With the 5D II, Canon are claiming that despite having the same pixel density as the 20D, the new camera actually has better high ISO noise performance than its predecessor.  We will see about that when I get to the pixel-sniffing part.

The weather has been horrendous in the week since I got my 5D II so I'm afraid my sample illustrations are not as pretty as those in Part 1.  However I have been out and taken some real photos.  Swapping between 20D and 5D is easy, because the user interface is almost exactly the same, as I mentioned in my comparison of those two cameras.  A 20D would make a good second body in a 5D camera bag for this reason.  My first surprise on using the Mark II is that whilst it looks almost identical to its predecessor, the user interface is massively different.  As the battery and charger are also incompatible, it becomes less viable as part of a system with an original 5D.

Radical Interface Changes

This week's Amateur Photographer magazine has a review of the 5D II in which they say 5D users will be immediately at home with the Mark II because the buttons are in the same place.  That's actually rubbish because not only have extra buttons sprung up and others moved position, but also the buttons which are in the same place as before perform different functions!

Porsche have been criticised in reviews of the 911 Carrera with PDK automatic gearbox because the gear lever is the wrong way around - you push to change up and pull to change down.  Porsche say it is done that way so that drivers of earlier Porsches which used the same logic don't get confused.  Canon obviously do not have that design philosophy.  One of my gripes with the 5D was that the ISO button was unintuitive.  You naturally think that as the most used function it will be set with the wheel next to the shutter button, not the one on the back.  You would also expect it to be on the button closest to the wheel, rather than the next one along which is a bit of a stretch away from the main control wheel and shutter button.  Well guess what, now it is!  Changing the ISO on the Mark II is done by a different button, and a different wheel from the 5D.  It is a definite improvement, but not good for "backwards compatibility."  It should make professionals such as wedding photographers who need camera operation to be like second nature think twice about keeping their old 5D as a second body.  However, I am all in favour of the change.  And, even better, whilst the default setting is for 1/3 stop increments, there is now a custom function to set ISO in full stop increments.  Yay!

Another massive change is that there are now two ways of setting everything.  You can either use the buttons and wheels as before, or you can use the joystick which sets the AF point on the 5D (the "multi-controller") to navigate around a menu which appears on the rear LCD and change everything from ISO to aperture to white balance.  This is marvellous for tripod-mounted photography, especially where the camera is too high for the top LCD to be easily seen.  It is slightly less marvellous for people who manually select the focus point, because with default settings, this now becomes a two stage operation.  On the Mark II, as default, you can only use the multi-controller to select a focus point after you've pressed the autofocus point selection button.  I was surprised to discover that button has always existed on the 5D, as I don't think I've ever pressed it.  On the original 5D the multi-controller always selects focus point as it has no other function.  There is, however, a custom function which allows you to set up the Mark II in the same way, so you have the choice and nothing is lost.

Live view - Seeing the world through digital eyes

These are significant changes but the really major difference in handling is the introduction of live view.  Despite reading every review out there I had no idea what a huge benefit this would turn out to be until I got my hands on the camera.

Back in 2003 when I was shooting film, I predicted that the SLR design would be merely a transient stage in digital camera evolution, as electronic viewfinders have so many advantages.  It is satisfying now to be able to benefit from some of those advantages.  The Mark II is a hybrid, of course, as it retains the mirror box, prism and standard finder.  But live view is much more than a gimmick to keep point-and-shoot upgraders happy.  It is the future.

The 5D was just a 20D with better image quality.  The Mark II is a camera that can help you see differently.  In monochrome mode you can compose a black and white photo in actual black and white on the LCD screen.  As a bonus, if you shoot RAW + JPEG as I always do, you can change your mind and have the photo in colour instead.  You are no longer limited to shooting from your own eye level plus or minus the amount you can stretch or bend.  Holding the camera above your head can give a completely different perspective to compositions which would have been pure guesswork with the 5D.

One thing I do quite a lot is shoot from well below eye level.  It can give more interesting perspectives and, more practically, can allow you to get away with a much smaller tripod!  Low angles were either a contortion, guesswork or trial-and-error with the 5D.  I had a lot of wonky horizons because when I'm bent over at a funny angle my ability to judge straightness is impaired!  The pixel loss from straightening a wonky horizon shouldn't be underestimated - it could easily be the difference between the Mark II's 21 megapixels and the (live-view-less) Sony A900's 24.  Live view is worth it's weight in gold in those situations.  Actually it's worth more than that, as it doesn't seem to weigh anything (the 5D II actually weighed in slightly lighter than the 5D on the Virtual Traveller labs sophisticated weighing equipment).  On the subject of weight, if you pick the Mark II up with just your right hand it feels a lot heavier than the 5D.  There must be more weight in the grip side of the camera.  Its not the new battery as despite apparently having 30% more power, that weighs the same as the old one within the margin of error of my kitchen scales.

Live view helps you see compositions.  One trick I use in selecting photos for this website is the "rule of thumb(nails)."  Images with fundamentally appealing arrangements of shapes, light and colour usually jump out even as tiny thumbnails in a browser.  Tiny thumbnails, like slides on a lightbox, give you a different perspective - in the absence of detail you are able to step back from the subject matter and appreciate the abstract arrangement of the image's elements.  The LCD allows you to see this different perspective, from outside the image, with the image clearly framed by the edges of the LCD.  The viewfinder puts you in the image, the frame is less obvious but the details more so.  Crop-factor DSLRs with their "tunnel" viewfinders are somewhere in between, which whilst usually criticised as a bad thing has something to be said for it.


I understand from what I have read that the primary (non live-view) autofocus sytem on the EOS 5D Mark II is effectively the same as that on the 5D.  As I mentioned in Part 1 of this article I have always found the standard 5D autofocus to be effective for my shooting, but as I've never tried to shoot birds in flight or football games I've hardly been testing that element of the camera to its limits.  However those who say the Mark II has not advanced in terms of autofocus are missing two very important things:

1) The Mark II has TWO autofocus systems, the 9-point SLR-style one and the live-view "contrast detect" one, and

2) The Mark II has user-adjustable lens calibration microadjustment (the 5D has this capability but it is not user-adjustable - the camera and lens would need to be sent to a Canon service centre for calibration).

Autofocus in live-view mode has more than 9 points - In fact I suppose it has 21 million as any area on the sensor can be used to focus.  Importantly, live view is also incredibly useful for accurate manual focus.  You can zoom in to two levels, and tiny adjustments to focus are clearly visible on the screen.  I tested it focusing on my phone in the distance.  Through the viewfinder you could just about make out the brand sticker.  Through zoomed-in live view, the ridged texture of every letter of the word "Philips" was clearly visible.  Zoomed-in live view also amplifies every tiny camera movement so you can tell whether your tripod is steady in windy conditions - something which was just total guesswork without live view.

Depth of field preview

One of the main reasons I upgraded my first ever SLR, a Pentax ME Super, was that it lacked a depth-of-field preview, which is a useful feature for landscape photography.  But one of the issues I've found with the 5D is that the resolution is so high, and the print size you can successfully make is so big, that you don't get a good enough idea of depth of field through the viewfinder even with the depth of field preview.  You can only properly evaluate depth of field on a proper PC monitor after the photo is downloaded.  With live view, by contrast, you can focus on one area of the image, then move a little box around with the "multi-controller" and check out depth of field at various points in the image at different apertures in real time.  In live-view, the image doesn't go dark when you press the depth-of-field button (unless there is insufficient light).  You can also use this to check light fall off/vignetting.  Just point the camera at a white wall and the vignetting (which is hardly visible through the viewfinder) is incredibly obvious on the screen.  You can see it change in real-time at each aperture.  Another thing you can see which is completely invisible through the normal viewfinder (unless you change the focus screen) is the depth of field difference between f1.4 and f2.8.  

Other improvements

It seems that Canon's engineers were given a brief to improve everything by 30%.  Battery life is up 30%.  Full-resolution frame rate is up 30% from 3fps to 3.9 (although if HD video resolution (about 2 megapixels) is enough, of course, you have 30 frames per second, ten times faster than the 5D.)  The viewfinder is a touch bigger and sharper and now shows the ISO all the time as well as the battery level (which is more precise than before).  There is a proper 2 second self-timer - hooray! And infra-red remotes (which have weirdly always been compatible with Canon's lower models but not the better ones) now work so you can trigger tripod-mounted shots without messing around with a tangly wired remote.  The top panel LCD is a bit bigger (30%, I suspect) although it is still an old-fashioned digital-watch style black and white effort, showing almost exactly the same information as before.  There are three custom modes instead of just one, and an extraordinarily pointless "Creative Auto" mode has been added.  Creative Auto mode allows you to adjust depth of field, brightness etc with sliders instead of by actually knowing what you're doing.  As such it is quite offensive as it is deliberately obfuscatory, hiding the mechanics of aperture and shutter speed from the user and encouraging ignorance.  A potentially significant feature which has been added is sensor cleaning.  However disappointingly my camera arrived with a big blob of dust/dirt already in place right near the centre of the image, which the sensor cleaning doesn't shift.  I will get Canon to clean it when I take the camera for a firmware update (as I had a 100% catastrophic failure rate with updating firmware on the original 5D I don't fancy risking doing it myself!)  Another improvement is that there is now partial weather-sealing.

Things which are worse

The battery charger is a tiny bit bigger and heavier than before, and both battery and charger are incompatible with the 5D ones.  So whilst the 5D, 50D, 40D, 30D, 20D, 10D, D60 and D30 and even some of Canon's earlier "G" models can all share batteries and chargers, if you are thinking of putting together a two-body system which includes the Mark II you will need two sets of batteries and chargers.

One other minor annoyance is that the red LEDs which light up the focus point which has been selected "bleed" across to the surrounding area of the viewfinder.  The LEDs seem brighter than those in the 5D, which may be an advantage in some situations but the original 5D did not suffer this "bleeding" effect.



Part 3 - pixel sniffing!