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Canon EOS-5D Mark II Review

How Does it Compare?

The EOS-5D Mark II isn't just the original 5D with some new buttons and a larger LCD. Canon also put in a CMOS sensor (with nearly double the resolution), a new image processor, live view support, HD movie recording, HDMI output, dust reduction, and much more. The camera retains the excellent build quality of its predecessor -- the Mark II feels like a $2700 camera should. The camera is easy to hold, with a substantial grip for your right hand. The controls are similar to those on Canon's other midrange D-SLRs, but that doesn't make them any less intimidating to the beginner. The Mark II supports all EF-mount lenses, with no focal length conversion ratio to worry about. In other words, your 50mm lens will actually be 50mm. Those of you upgrading from APS-C Canons should note that your EF-S lenses will not work on the EOS-5D Mark II. As with the original 5D, there's no built-in flash on this camera, so consider an external flash a required purchase.

On the back of the camera is a beautiful 3-inch LCD display with 920,000 pixels. Whether you're reviewing photos or using the menu system, I think you'll agree that the sharpness of this screen is stunning. When the original EOS-5D came out, live view was in an infancy. Now, almost all D-SLRs have it, so you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the Mark II does as well. You can compose your photos on the LCD with composition grids, a histogram (that takes up way too much of the screen), and the ability to zoom in to check focus. The camera offers three AF modes in live view, including contrast detect AF (with or without face detection). Unfortunately, this mode is very slow, with focus times that go on for several seconds, instead of a fraction of one. The quick AF mode is probably the best thing to use in live view mode, even if it does briefly interrupt what you're seeing on the screen. I figure that most people will be shooting with the optical viewfinder most of the time, and the one on the Mark II is a nice one. It's the smallest viewfinder in the group of three "budget" full-frame SLRs, but not by much, with a magnification of 0.71X. It displays 98% of the frame.

The 5D Mark II is strictly a camera for people who know how to operate a complex digital SLR. The closest thing to a scene mode here is the "creative auto mode", which uses friendlier terms for aperture and exposure. In terms of manual controls, take your pick. Of course, there's aperture and shutter speed control (including a bulb mode). You can set white balance in numerous ways, fine-tune it, and even bracket for it, if need be. The camera supports the RAW format at three different resolutions, so if you don't need 26MB RAW files, you can shoot 10 Megapixel images at the sRAW1 setting, which only take up 15MB. The Mark II's Auto Lighting Optimizer does a good job of brightening the dark areas of your photos, while the highlight tone priority feature does an "okay" job at restoring highlight detail. If you've got a lens that always front or back focuses, then you can use the lens micro-adjustment feature to compensate for it. One last cool feature is the ability to control the camera right from your Mac or PC.

One of the biggest features on the Mark II isn't related to still shooting -- it's about movies. The camera has the ability to record Full HD video -- that's 1920 x 1080 -- at 30 frames/second, with sound. You can keep recording until you hit the 4GB file size limit, which takes roughly 12 minutes (a VGA size is also available, with longer recording times). Just like the other D-SLRs that have movie modes (with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 being the exception, and it's not technically an SLR), there's no autofocus once movie recording is underway (well, there is, but it's not very usable). That means that you have to be awfully good with the manual focus ring if you plan on filming a moving subject or using the zoom.

The Mark II is a capable performer. It starts up instantly, though you may want to let it finish its dust reduction cycle before you start snapping away. Autofocus is very quick if you're using the viewfinder, though you'll want to use an external flash and its AF-assist lamp in low light situations. Live view focusing ranges from "a bit slower than regular" if you're using Quick Mode, to "ridiculously slow" with the Live (contrast detect) Mode. Shutter lag isn't a problem, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal, regardless of the image quality setting you're using. The 5D Mark II has an impressive amount of buffer memory that allows you to fire off plenty of shots in continuous mode. It is worth pointing out, however, that both of its competitors have a higher burst rate (5.0 vs 3.9 fps). Same goes for battery life: both the Nikon D700 and Sony A900 do a little better in this respect.

I've tested quite a few full-frame D-SLRs by now, and if there's one thing that I've learned, it's that "lenses count". These cameras push your lens to their limits, so if you buy the EOS-5D Mark II or any of its competitors, you'll want to slap on a high quality lens to get the best results. That said, the Mark II produces photos of superb quality, though there are some issues to bring up. The camera handles exposure and color very well. Exposure was almost always accurate, and highlight clipping was uncommon. I was pleased with the accuracy and saturation of the photos the Mark II produced -- most of the time. I did notice that the white balance system struggled in our macro and night test scenes, though you can tweak the white balance to get the color you want.

My biggest complaint about the Mark II's photos is that they're too soft straight out of the camera. High end D-SLRs tend to be this way, so people have the option to sharpen the images to their liking on their computers (since you can't go the other way). If you agree with my assessment, then you can try cranking up the in-camera sharpening using the Picture Styles features. I didn't find noise to be a problem on the Mark II until the very highest ISOs. Want to print a 4 x 6 of a photo taken at ISO 12,800? As long as the lighting was good when you took the photo, it's totally doable. The camera keeps noise in check through ISO 1600 in low light, and ISO 6400 in good light -- very nice. The reason there isn't much noise is because the camera is applying a fair amount of noise reduction to its JPEGs. You will see smudging in low contrast details, even at the lowest ISOs, something I'm used to seeing on high resolution compact cameras. You can adjust how much noise reduction is applied, so at least you have some control over it. Purple fringing has a lot to do with your lens, and with the lenses I used with the Mark II, it wasn't much of a problem.

All things considered, the Canon EOS-5D Mark II is a very impressive digital SLR. For the Canon enthusiast who wants to step up to a full-frame body, it's an excellent choice. I'm not quite sure that it's the ideal camcorder replacement, due to the lack of continuous AF when you're recording a movie. I've spent time with all three of the "budget" full-frame D-SLRs, and I'd place the Mark II second on my list. My favorite camera in this class is the Nikon D700, with its slightly better photo quality, faster continuous shooting, more elaborate autofocus system, and built-in flash (though it lacks a movie mode). But honestly, whichever of these cameras you choose, you can't really go wrong -- they're all excellent.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality, with a good lens (though see below)
  • Low noise levels through ISO 1600 in low light, and ISO 6400 in good light
  • Exceptionally well built body, with limited weather sealing
  • Beautiful 3-inch LCD display, plus a nice, large viewfinder
  • Fast startup, focusing (with viewfinder), and shot-to-shot speeds
  • Full manual controls, and then some
  • Three RAW sizes available; capable editing software included
  • Live view with three focus modes, histogram and composition grids, and frame enlargement
  • Healthy amount of buffer memory allows you to take 14 RAW and an unlimited number of JPEGs at 3.9 frames/second
  • Can shoot HD videos at 1920 x 1080, 30 fps, with sound
  • Peripheral illumination correction effectively reduces vignetting
  • Auto Lighting Optimizer brightens shadows
  • Dust reduction system
  • Remote capture software included
  • Optional battery grip, which supports AAs
  • Available (and very expensive) wireless file transmitter
  • HDMI output and external mic input

What I didn't care for:

  • Soft images straight out of the camera; requires a good lens for best results
  • Some detail smudging from noise reduction, even at low ISOs
  • White balance accuracy disappointed in several photo tests
  • Very slow contrast detect AF in live view mode; even worse in low light
  • No continuous autofocus in movie mode
  • Behind the competition in terms of AF system, continuous shooting rate, and battery life
  • Built-in flash would've been nice
  • No photo or video editing features in playback mode

By now you know the EOS-5D Mark II's competitors: the Nikon D700 and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the EOS-5D Mark II and its competitors before you buy!

Conclusion updated 6/6/09

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.