Canon EOS 5D Mark II Review: Field Test Report


A full-frame EOS DSLR gets even better-with 21.1 MP CMOS sensor and much more.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II + 16-35mm lens. This is a versatile combination, which proved itself street shooting in New York City, with subjects ranging from street scenes to candid portraits-even a celebrity sighting at a film premiere. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II + 16-35mm lens. This is a versatile combination, which proved itself street shooting in New York City, with subjects ranging from street scenes to candid portraits-even a celebrity sighting at a film premiere. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.


I remember when long intervals would go by before a new SLR was introduced, back when we were shooting film. Today, those intervals are growing remarkably shorter and shorter, although not short enough for some of us who eagerly await the next iteration. Technology, it seems, waits for no man or woman.

When the original, and very reasonably priced, EOS 5D came out, I bought it and chucked my APS-C Canons. I had heretofore resisted buying EF-S glass expecting to make this move one day. And while I’d considered the pricier 1Ds-series cameras, I felt that, for my needs, the 5D would do. In fact, for the same price as a 1Ds, I could buy the 5D and several lenses.

More to the point, I bought a Canon fisheye for starters, to take advantage of the full-frame sensor. So I felt like I had my cake and could eat it too. To top it off, all my Canon EF lenses would now be true to form. No more dealing with sensor factors. My wide-angles would be truly wide, although I did miss that extra boost my telephotos got with the 1.6X factor (applicable to Canon APS-C). But coming back to that fisheye, I now could take pleasure in that unique fisheye perspective. (Sadly, it wasn’t till I bought the Tokina fisheye zoom-for an APS-C camera, no less, namely the D300-that I truly began to exploit the possibilities of fisheye optics.)

With continued use, I could sense that there were certain features lacking on my original 5D, but I wasn’t really looking forward to upgrading too quickly. Besides, for me to take the plunge, a new 5D would have to be packing some serious new hardware-or software (technically, firmware).

Well, I’ve finally got my hands on the 5D Mark II. But is it all it’s cracked up to be, enough so for me to upgrade? Having tested the 1Ds Mark III adds another twist to this story. That 1Ds is a marvelous piece of machinery, if pricey. Should I continue to play the waiting game? Well, the only way to find out is to put the new 5D through its paces and see how it compares. (Unless otherwise noted, all references to the 5D henceforward are to the Mark II, just as references to the 1Ds apply to the Mark III.)

1Ds MkIII vs 5D MkII

While both cameras boast a 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor, the similarities pretty much end there. There are obvious differences between the two cameras in size and heft, with the 1Ds-series always being the more robust. But aside from some functions we have yet to deal with on the new 5D and which are lacking in the more professional 1Ds, that camera does leave the 5D in the dust when it comes to autofocusing.

The 5D is as easily distracted as a horny teenager when a group of cheerleaders walks by. The big brother to the 5D, on the other hand, refuses to be distracted by subjects moving into the frame (unless you want it to via a custom function). For anyone photographing sports or capturing faces in the street, such distractions can prove annoying. More to the point, it can lead to missed shots. Hence, advantage 1Ds.

To me, this is the key difference, and I just wanted to get it out there for anyone still mulling over these choices or asking why I bothered with a review of the 1Ds Mark III so late in the game.
But if that’s not enough, the 1Ds’s resilient battery is another excuse to own this camera. And, if I hadn’t mentioned it, by comparison the hair trigger on the 1Ds gives it yet another advantage, no matter what you’re shooting. The 5D’s shutter button takes a little more effort to actualize an exposure. That hadn’t been a problem on my original 5D, but now that I’ve experienced the 1Ds, it becomes noticeable.

Okay. Enough about the 1Ds. We’ve come to talk about the 5D Mark II, so let’s commence.

Interface

5D Mark II - top panel. The changes here are also subtle, but you will note that the hot shoe has gone from black to silver on the new model, which shows less wear and tear. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

5D Mark II - top panel. The changes here are also subtle, but you will note that the hot shoe has gone from black to silver on the new model, which shows less wear and tear. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

You’d be hard-pressed to immediately point out the differences between the 5D and 5D Mark II on the surface, aside from the obvious larger LCD on the new model. But look closer and you’ll see new buttons and a slight reconfiguration of the button array.

But before I get into the function buttons, I have to remark on the shutter release. While this button doesn’t appear any more responsive on the new camera than on the original 5D, it has been very slightly repositioned-but enough to make it a truly ergonomic fit. I don’t feel as if my index finger is being twisted out of joint. It’s nestled in there, perfectly at home-and that’s as it should be.

In the move toward improved ergonomics, Canon also saw fit to move the LCD illumination button to the right, immediately behind the upper dial. But why they reconfigured the pairings of functions for the other buttons located next to it is beyond me. If you haven’t worked with the 5D, then no matter. If you have, this may take a little getting used to.

One of the features I like in Canon DSLRs is the mode dial. This dial makes it easy to switch shooting modes on the fly, with your left hand. The new dial adds more custom settings-not that I’ve ever used the custom settings on my own 5D. I like the idea of having multiple custom mode settings-three on this camera, but I can never remember which one is which, so it seems moot, unless you use it regularly.

On the back are the multi-controller, the thumbwheel, and the set button-all with lots of functionality. And what you will find especially welcome is that by pressing the multi-controller, you bring up a screen with all key functions displayed on the large monitor, which saves you from having to look for the individual buttons-not that they’re especially hard to find, but it is nice to have control centralized on this screen. Now it just becomes a matter of using the right combination of dials, controller, and set button to navigate and select them.

The Jump button on the back has been replaced with the Picture Style button. Picture style is a feature that I don’t normally use, so it’s wasted on me. And Canon has rearranged all the function buttons back here on the left, so that the delete button lines up with the rest (at the bottom). I actually preferred having it set off from the others, so it was easier to locate by touch. So without that Jump button, how do you jump from one menu screen to the next? Well, stay tuned…

A distinctly new AF-on button joins the two original buttons (governing sensor array and AE lock) at the top, behind the LCD panel. This button comes in handy in that it lets you separate AF from shutter operation, potentially speeding up the camera’s response time.

Soccer. I had just put camera to eye when I saw this action unfolding and quickly released the shutter (ISO 800/1/800 sec; shutter priority). While AI Servo (continuous AF) didn't work in every instance, notably when someone stepped in front of the camera, there was nothing to distract the sensor from capturing this moment. I did do some cropping, since I stood a bit far from the action, even with a 200mm f/2.8 lens. As for the doggie shot, well you can see the tie-in: to the victor go the spoils. This was another grab shot with the same lens. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Soccer. I had just put camera to eye when I saw this action unfolding and quickly released the shutter (ISO 800/1/800 sec; shutter priority). While AI Servo (continuous AF) didn't work in every instance, notably when someone stepped in front of the camera, there was nothing to distract the sensor from capturing this moment. I did do some cropping, since I stood a bit far from the action, even with a 200mm f/2.8 lens. As for the doggie shot, well you can see the tie-in: to the victor go the spoils. This was another grab shot with the same lens. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.



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Menus & Color Monitor

The real startling difference makes itself apparent when you switch on the menu. Now, instead of having to scroll through the menu options, or using the aforementioned jump button, you jump from one screen to the next with the aid of the main dial behind the shutter button.

The thumbwheel on the back scrolls through the options on each screen without you first having to activate that screen, speeding up the process and making it more user-friendly. Beyond this point, you’ll have to fall into a routine, since it seems that the multi-controller and set button can be used interchangeably. So make it a habit to use one or the other and avoid confusion.

But the real startling aspect of all this is the plethora of screens. Now, instead of simply three sub-menus, you have nine distinct sub-menu screens. The last one of these is My Menu, where you can go to quickly access your most frequently used menu options. So if it’s starting to look as if they’ve redesigned the 5D to make it more user-friendly, you’d be on the mark-Mark II, that is.

5D Mark II vs. 5D - menu/back panel. The back may not appear that different on the two cameras, but the menus and LCD scream "notice me!" (You'll get the "scream" part when you get to the later shots). Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

5D Mark II vs. 5D - menu/back panel. The back may not appear that different on the two cameras, but the menus and LCD scream "notice me!" (you'll get the "scream" part when you get to the later shots). Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

A typical night in New York City. It turns out that the movie Zombieland was premiering nearby and everyone came dressed for the occasion. I obviously used flash (Canon 430EX) for these shots. The 16-35 lens was at 16mm for the "I almost got bit by a zombie" shot; 35mm for the others. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

A typical night in New York City. It turns out that the movie Zombieland was premiering nearby and everyone came dressed for the occasion. I obviously used flash (Canon 430EX) for these shots. The 16-35 lens was at 16mm for the "I almost got bit by a zombie" shot; 35mm for the others. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

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Celebrity sighting. Actor Woody Harrelson entering the movie theater for the premiere of his new flick Zombieland. I know, he's not exactly in focus, but I didn't have time to do more than raise the camera above the heads of the crowd and hope for the best. As it turns out, he's very amiable, to the point of shaking hands with fans. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Celebrity sighting. Actor Woody Harrelson entering the movie theater for the premiere of his new flick Zombieland. I know, he's not exactly in focus, but I didn't have time to do more than raise the camera above the heads of the crowd and hope for the best. As it turns out, he's very amiable, to the point of shaking hands with fans. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.




As for the larger color LCD on the 5D MkII, the increased real estate does help when reviewing captures. And if I were one to use live view regularly, I’m sure I’d be happy to have it. But I never found the smaller screen on my old 5D to be a detriment.

EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM Lens

While fast lenses have the advantage of speed, they come at a cost. When you add the price of this $1500 lens to a $2700 camera, it certainly begins to add up. On the other hand, the lens will stay with you for a very long time (and may lose little resale value), whereas you may be swapping out the camera in two or three years. So, in my book, a good lens is a better investment than a camera body.

The other price you have to pay is size and weight. At 4.4 in. and 22.6 oz., this lens is long and heavy in comparison to the 17-40 f/4 (3.8 in./17.6 oz.), not to mention twice the price of that other lens. But for me, the real difference, aside from the faster maximum aperture on this lens, is the 82mm filter diameter, since my filters top out at 77mm. And do you know what it means to buy a filter that size-and schlep it around along with those 77mm filters for my other lenses (okay, I could buy a stepper ring, but really-spend still more money?).

So, now it comes down to performance. Sadly, this lens is not rectilinear. Barrel distortion is readily apparent at the 16mm setting, and pincushion distortion can be seen at 35mm and even at 25mm. I found less distortion on the EF-S 10-22 than on this lens, albeit I can’t use that lens here. But the point is, that APS-C lens is much less expensive, albeit much slower. Other than that, I had no complaints. Vignetting is well-controlled here. Sharpness may falter at that f/2.8 maximum aperture, but it’s only noticeable when compared to a similar image produced with the lens stopped down. So all in all, I was very happy with the results.

Focal length range. I'm not sure why this attractive young woman was standing there, but she made a nice addition, helping me illustrate the focal length range of the lens at the 16mm and 35mm settings. ISO 400: f/3.2, 1/60 + Canon 430EX flash. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Focal length range. I'm not sure why this attractive young woman was standing there, but she made a nice addition, helping me illustrate the focal length range of the lens at the 16mm and 35mm settings. ISO 400: f/3.2, 1/60 + Canon 430EX flash. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.



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Other Stuff

The 5D MkII also features automated sensor cleaning, which we’re beginning to take for granted in a 35mm-style DSLR these days-but it’s still worth mentioning, since this feature was notably absent in the original 5D (to my chagrin). Battery life on the 5D MkII is longer than in the 5D (1800 mAh for the new battery vs. 1390 mAh for the old). The specs say you should get 50 more exposures.

More remarkable is control over digital noise-and that’s without invoking in-camera noise reduction! Yes, you do see luminance and color noise at high ISO levels, namely 3200 and beyond, but not at disturbing levels. And if you apply a noise-reduction filter, then, as we say in my Brooklyn neighborhood, fageddaboudit! And did I mention you can climb the ISO ladder all the way up to 6400? And that’s not interpolated. That’s an actual stated value. The original 5D only went to ISO 1600.

Digital noise. I found that digital noise was well-controlled, even at high ISO settings. For this shot the camera was set to ISO 3200. While a close look will reveal that the image is grainy, that graininess is certainly tolerable and easily corrected with noise-reduction software. The same holds for shots made at ISO 6400. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Digital noise. I found that digital noise was well-controlled, even at high ISO settings. For this shot the camera was set to ISO 3200. While a close look will reveal that the image is grainy, that graininess is certainly tolerable and easily corrected with noise-reduction software. The same holds for shots made at ISO 6400. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.


"How much is that doggie in the window?" You may have heard the song, but I was lucky enough to see the picture. As the dog was repositioning itself in the frame, I repositioned myself to get this shot, again with my Canon 200mm f/2.8. Even at ISO 1000, the image looks quite clean. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

"How much is that doggie in the window?" You may have heard the song, but I was lucky enough to see the picture. As the dog was repositioning itself in the frame, I repositioned myself to get this shot, again with my Canon 200mm f/2.8. Even at ISO 1000, the image looks quite clean. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.



And I guess I have to talk about live view and movie recording. Some have made a big to-do about shooting movies with this camera and even considered buying it for this feature. For me, it’s much ado about nothing. When I read (in the user manual) about all the caveats associated with live view and movie shooting-especially noise buildup with increased heat levels during prolonged use, I look back at my Sony Handycam and think: All I had to do there was look in the optical viewfinder (I had that option), select any of a myriad of effects, and press a button. Simple. Using a digital still camera for movies-with all those caveats, it seems so caveman! When you bring digital still movies out of the Stone Age, come and talk to me.

Candid portrait. As this distinguished-looking gentleman passed me on the street, I quickly snapped his picture, then asked him to pose for this shot, captured by available light (ISO 800: f/3.5, 1/400). Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Candid portrait. As this distinguished-looking gentleman passed me on the street, I quickly snapped his picture, then asked him to pose for this shot, captured by available light (ISO 800: f/3.5, 1/400). Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.


Why is it I can never find two pairs of black leather pumps in my size? Again a grab shot, at ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/800 sec. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Why is it I can never find two pairs of black leather pumps in my size? Again a grab shot, at ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/800 sec. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.



Verdict: Buy it. If you’re upgrading from the original 5D, you’ll find the enhancements well worth it. If you’re new to full-frame DSLRs, this is certainly the right step to take. If you’re already a Canon DSLR aficionado, the only proviso is this: no, if you’ve stocked up on EF-S lenses; yes, otherwise, or willing to start building your lens armory from scratch.


Indoor portrait. As I was heading toward my train, I came upon this very talented blues singer, so I grabbed the 5D Mark II with 16-35mm lens and composed the shot. The first image was made by available light (at 1/25 sec.-who need image stabilization?); flash was added for the second. If you're wondering why the performer is pointing at me, I was moving in for the shot and he noticed not me and the camera so much as my Tilley hat, which he obligingly incorporated into the song-to the amusement of the crowd. A little laughter at my expense, but it was worth it. Copyright  ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.

Indoor portrait. As I was heading toward my train, I came upon this very talented blues singer, so I grabbed the 5D Mark II with 16-35mm lens and composed the shot. The first image was made by available light (at 1/25 sec.-who need image stabilization?); flash was added for the second. If you're wondering why the performer is pointing at me, I was moving in for the shot and he noticed not me and the camera so much as my Tilley hat, which he obligingly incorporated into the song-to the amusement of the crowd. A little laughter at my expense, but it was worth it. Copyright ©2009 Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.



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For more information on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Visit Canon USA
Tech specs/EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM: Visit Canon USA
For Prices and User Reviews: Visit B&H Photo (about $2699) and Amazon (about $2699) Canon EOS 5D Mark II 21.1MP Full Frame CMOS Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)





Comments

  1. Jack,

    Great review. A few things I’d like to add:

    1) the high-ISO capabilities of this camera are not to be underestimated. Someone told me, “If you can see it, you can shoot it with this camera.” They were right. I’ve taken night-time shots, moonlit shots … High ISO capabilities will save you in many situations and locations. Dark wedding venues? No problem. Shooting sports in dark gymnasiums? No problem.

    2) I recently went and shot a lot of sports over a three week period (at the Deaflympics – photos at http://photos.usdeaflympics.com ) – I was packing a 5D Mark II and a 1 D Mark III. The 5DII photos were consistently clearer, had less noise, and were sharper than the 1DIII images. After several days, I traded in the 1DIII for another 5DII – and it did great on the 300 f/2.8, 400 f/2.8.

    3) Much ballyhoo is made about the “extra reach” of the 1.6 crop factor. There is no extra reach. It is just a cropped sensor. If you want the apparent extra reach of a crop factor sensor, then just take the picture with a full-frame camera, and crop to the middle, discarding the outer pixels.

    4) 21 megapixels isn’t really necessary in most situations for a final print. However, having 21 megapixels to START WITH allows for much more creativity in cropping to a final image. I can crop a horizontal to a vertical (or vice versa), and still have an image that can print large.

    5) The movie function – I agree, it’s not as easy as your Handycam – but it is capable of so much more. Right now, it’s the equivalent of an Indy 500 racecar – amazing capabilities, but it’s missing a lot of comfort. Look at the work of Vincent Laforet, and many others, to see what they are doing with this camera. There is a convergence coming, and the 5DII is at the forefront of this.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. I thank you very much for all the researches.
    I am a novice in photography. My very first camera was a CanonT90 and since i am a canon adept.
    I am thinking of buying the 5D Mark II and i just needed a little more understanding about it and I found it in reading your beautiful and well written review.

    Thank you

  3. Hi Meansis – glad you enjoyed my review.

    Since I don’t have the camera – we return them as soon as we’re done reviewing them – I can’t tell you any more than what’s in my review, which I felt was quite thorough. I recommend you read it again, and if you have specific questions about certain features, I’ll certainly try to help.

  4. Good article! I really like it! Thanks

  5. Bernt Ersson says:

    Focusing screen comes loose on EOS 5D Mark II

    I have owned the following cameras: EOS 30D, 40D, 50D, EOS 5, EOS 1D Mark III.
    I am a semi-professional photografer and I have published 8 books with more than 2000 pictures taken with these cameras. I am not a new beginner.
    -
    I worked with the camera with no problem a couple of months ago, stored it about two weeks without taking the lens off, when I took it out again I could not use the camera. When I took the lens off both the focusing screen and the superimpose plate fell out of the camera house.
    This has happened on numerous occasions for several users even on brand nes cameras, see: http://www.dvinfo.net/forum/canon-eos-5d-mk-ii-hd/484053-focusing-screen-fell-out.html
    -
    Canon does not acknowledge this problem and do not accept that this is a construction fault or a guarantee matter. I had to pay fully for the “repair”, even though they “found nothing wrong with the camera house”.
    This is obviously a bad construction!
    I cannot recommend this camera house to anyone because I just can´t trust it anymore working out there on a sports arena or taking pictures out in the field, worryingabout the entire thing falling apart!

    Very unprofessional behaviour of Canon Corp!

    • The focusing screen will fall if you try and use an EF-S lens with the camera as it clips against the focusing screen release button. This happened to me once. I learnt my lesson :-)

  6. Thanks for the read. I’ve been shooting with the 5D II for three years and have never had any issues with the focusing screen. I’m also surprised that someone is this section claims to use this camera for sports? I will say that I owned the 1Ds III before buying the 5D and there was a difference in quality between the two. 1Ds won, but just barely.

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