Canon EOS 5D Mark IIThough it may not be the "game changer" it's been billed as, this long-awaited DSLR will certainly change your options as a photographer.
Feb 2, 2009
By Dan Havlik
In addition to being the long-awaited (three years plus) successor to the 12.8-megapixel Canon 5D—the first digital SLR to help so-called "full-frame" digital SLRs enter the mainstream—the 21.1 megapixel 5D Mark II rode a wave of excitement over its high-definition movie feature. Thanks, in part, to photographer Vincent Laforet's pre-release workout of the 5D II's HD function which resulted in his now legendary "Reverie" short movie, it seemed every professional photographer I spoke with post-5D II announcement had visions of adding "movie director" to their list of billable services in 2009. Now that's change we'd all like to believe in!
But of course with the hype came the inevitable backlash, and then the inevitable reassessment, and then finally the simple acceptance that this imaging tool doesn't really have the power to change your life though it could, certainly, make a few things easier.
And that's kind of how I felt when I finally got the camera in late December, exhausted from the hype and the over-the-top positive and negative chatter on the blogs, and just itching to go out with the thing and take a ton of pictures.
Though the HD (1920 x 1080, 30 fps) movie feature was intriguing to me, I knew from my experience editing video that there was a black cloud around the silver lining of high def on the 5D Mark II. Sure the footage from the 5D II looks great—when you can keep it in focus and exposed properly (more about that later)—but editing video is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming process if you want to produce something of even halfway decent quality.
So if you expect to start selling HD movies shot with the 5D II to clients, you definitely better consider brushing up on Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro. Otherwise, you'll need to work with an experienced video editor which is, incidentally, what Laforet did to create his short film "Reverie." And of course, good video editors don't come cheap.
But what does this all have to do with photography? Nothing and everything, as the saying goes, and the Canon 5D Mark II is that kind of camera. It promises a lot and while it doesn't totally deliver on its pre-release hype—how could it?—it actually offers quite a good deal for its price.
With an MSRP of $2,699 (body only), the 5D Mark III is a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D700 and $300 less than the 24.5-megapixel Sony A900 (reviewed here.) Even better if you don't already have a lot of Canon glass, the 5D II comes in a great kit option, with a high quality 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens for $3,499. Though certainly not a bargain basement model, the 5D II offers good value in these tough economic times.
Image quality, which is thankfully still the main reason any photographer buys a DSLR, was near the best I've seen in a range of shooting conditions, with the 5D Mark II really shining at high ISOs. (That's a feat in itself for a camera that nearly doubles the resolution of its predecessor.)
While there are some definite stumbles—in particular, the focus system in low light was disappointing—other features live up to the hype. As a very solid low-end full-frame camera, the 5D II is definitely no flash in the pan. Here's why.
For all their claims of technological innovation, Canon and Nikon are some of the most conservative companies around when it comes to camera design. Pick up the Canon 5D Mark II or just about any model in Nikon's recent lineup of prosumer or professional digital SLRs and you're not going to be struck by any bold changes from the previous version. If you're like most photographers, you'll find this static view of product design to be rather comforting. If it ain't broke, don't fix it right?
Usually, I'm all for product and technological innovation, but when it comes to DLSR camera bodies, I guess I'm pretty conservative too, so the minor changes to the 5D Mark II suited me just fine. First off there's the larger and more beautiful 3-inch screen on back which also gets a much-needed boost in resolution to 920,000 dot (307,200 pixels).
Images and HD movies looked really good on the screen—a little too good actually. In the days of lower-resolution, smaller LCDs on cameras, everyone knew not to pay too much attention to how their photos looked on the screen—usually they were much better than they looked in playback. With the dawn of bigger and better screens, however, I find that the opposite is true—don't trust that LCD on the back because your photos might not be quite as good as you thought. When blown up to a 100 percent on a computer monitor or printed at 13 x 19-inches, your cool 12800 ISO night shot could look like a noisy mess. Innovation can be a double-edged sword at times.
Otherwise, the 5D Mark II has the same familiar, wide body—as opposed to Nikon's slightly taller, narrower models—as its predecessor with a durable rubberized finish to give it some basic protection against the elements. The 5D Mark II looks a lot like its non-full-frame brother, the 15-megapixel 50D, but instead of moving the buttons to the bottom of the big screen as on the 50D, the 5D Mark II has them all lined up on the left side of the camera. Obviously a necessity because of the bigger screen, the rearrangement drove my friend and frequent co-tester Jason Groupp crazy since he kept hitting the trashcan button rather than the playback button. (On the original 5D —which Jason uses—the trash button is below the screen and playback is on the left side.)
Canon's tried to offset this by slightly recessing the trash button and putting a raised dot on it but accidentally pressing it is still an easy mistake to make. (Luckily simply hitting the trash button will not erase your images.)
Other changes to the layout are minor; there's still no pop-up flash on the 5D II though Canon's changed the mode dial slightly, offering three programmable options for saving your favorite settings combos. (I liked this.) They've also added the Creative Auto option (I hated this) which first turned up on the 50D. Creative Auto offers you suggestions on how to "blur the background" or "lighten or darken an image" on the menu screen. You'll likely want to wipe this mostly useless option off the mode dial. Otherwise, there's nothing else to irritate and you'll likely find the 5D II's familiar body oddly soothing. (If that doesn't sound too weird.)