Canon EOS-5D Mark II Review

Look and Feel

The EOS-5D Mark II is a fairly hefty digital SLR. It's not nearly as big as Canon's flagship full-frame camera, the EOS-1Ds Mark III, but at the same time, it makes things like the Rebel XSi look like plastic toys. The camera is built like a tank: it has a stainless steel inner chassis and a magnesium alloy outer shell. In other words, it feels like a $2700 camera should. The various doors, dials, and buttons on the Mark II are sealed against dust and moisture, and Canon says you can use in "light rain" for about three minutes without concern.

The camera is easy to hold, with a substantial grip for your right hand. Since it's a heavy camera, you'll definitely want to support the lens with your other hand. The Mark II does have more than its share of buttons, though figuring out what they all do isn't difficult. If you're moving up from something like a Rebel XSi or an EOS-40D, you'll feel right at home here.

The original 5D (left) and the Mark II; photos not to scale

The 5D Mark Ii shares the basic design of its predecessor, with the most noticeable change being its much larger LCD. There are also some new buttons to be found, while others have been rearranged slightly. And it shouldn't be surprising to hear that the 5D Mark II now has both a microphone and a speaker, which its movie mode takes full advantage of.

Now, here's how the 5D Mark II compares to its small group of competitors in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS-5D 6.0 x 4.4 x 3.0 in. 79.2 cu in. 810 g
Canon EOS-5D Mark II 6.0 x 4.5 x 3.0 in. 81 cu in. 810 g
Nikon D700 5.8 x 4.8 x 3.0 in. 83.5 cu in. 995 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 6.2 x 4.6 x 3.3 in. 94.1 cu in. 850 g

The EOS-5D Mark II is just a bit larger than its predecessor. While it's currently the smallest and lightest full-frame D-SLR on the market, it's still a lot larger than most entry-level and midrange SLRs.

Ready to tour the 5D Mark II now?

Front of the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

Here's the front view of the EOS-5D Mark II, with the lens removed. Undoubtedly, the biggest feature on the camera can be seen at the center of the photo (well, behind the mirror): its full frame, 21.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor. The benefits of full frame sensors include higher resolution and less noise (at least in theory) than their APS-C counterparts, and no focal length conversion ratio.

The lens mount supports all Canon EF lenses, with no focal length conversion ratio to deal with. In other words, a 50 mm lens actually has a 50 mm field-of-view. I said it before and I'll repeat it here: the camera does not support the EF-S lenses that are supported on the EOS-20/30/40/50D and Rebel cameras. You can release the attached lens by pressing the button just to the right of the mount.

Believe it or not, the original EOS-5D did not have any kind of dust reduction system. That feature was in its infancy when the camera was introduced back in 2005, but now it's a requirement. The 5D Mark II has several ways of keeping dust out of your photos. First, the low-pass filter has a fluorine coating on it, which keeps dust from settling on it in the first place. Any dust that does stick will then be subject to ultrasonic vibrations when the camera is turned on and off. If there's still dust left, you can create a "dust map", which allows the bundled Digital Photography Professional software to rid of any dust spots in your photos.

Under the "5D" logo is the camera's microphone, which records mono sound. Over on the opposite side of the camera body is the remote control receiver and the self-timer lamp.

In case you didn't notice, there's no built-in flash on the EOS-5D Mark II. The only camera in its class to offer one is the Nikon D700. The 5D doesn't have an AF-assist lamp -- you'll need to use an external flash for that feature.

Back of the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

And now onto the back of the camera. If you didn't know any better, you'd think that this was the EOS-50D, as the control layout is nearly identical. The main thing to see here is the Mark II's large 3-inch LCD display, up from 2.5" on the original 5D. This screen isn't just bigger -- it's a whole lot sharper, too. The screen has 920,000 pixels (the same as its competitors), so everything is exceptionally sharp, and the menus look great.

Live view, complete with histogram that blocks a good portion of the frame

On the original EOS-5D, the LCD was only used for menus and reviewing photos you've taken. On the Mark II you can also use it for composing still photos and recording movies, just as you'd expect in 2009. The benefits of live view are quite simple. You can see 100% of the frame, white balance and exposure can be previewed, a live histogram is available, and you can use either auto or manual focus. The downsides include slower focusing performance than using the viewfinder (especially if you're using contrast detect AF, described below) and some extra strain on your battery.

Let's talk about the three autofocus modes on the 5D now. Unlike with a compact camera, you don't halfway-press the shutter release to focus. Instead, you press the aptly named "AF-On" button. There are three to choose from: quick, live, and live with face detection. Quick mode uses the camera's main AF sensor for focusing. Thus, it must halt the live view, flip the mirror down, focus, flip the mirror back up, and enable live view. This takes a bit of time, but the camera focuses a lot faster than in the next two modes.

Live mode uses the CMOS sensor itself to focus, using the same contrast detection system as your point-and-shoot camera. Unlike with a compact camera, the 5D Mark II focuses very slowly when using contrast detection. You'll easily wait for one or two seconds for the camera to lock focus, and in some cases it could take upwards of five -- yes, five -- seconds before focus is locked. It's pretty lousy in low light too, and you can't use the AF-assist lamp on your external flash, either.

The camera has detected at least two faces here

You can also enable face detection in the Live AF mode. This feature works a bit differently than on your typical compact camera in that it only highlights one face at a time. If it shows arrows pointing to the sides (see screenshot above) then you can use the joystick to move between the other faces that have been detected.

Checking manual focus in live view mode

Live view is probably most useful when you're manually focusing (and using a tripod). You can enlarge the image on the LCD by 5 or 10 times and then scroll around the image, which makes fine-tuning the focus a snap.

An additional benefit of the live view feature is called silent shooting. Since the camera isn't doing any mirror-flipping (when the photo is actually taken), you can take photos with a lot less noise than if you were using the optical viewfinder. Silent shooting mode 1 is what most people will want to use, with the only caveat being that the burst rate drops a bit, to 3 frames/second. Silent mode 2 will keep the shutter closed until you let go of the shutter release -- so you can get the camera away for your subject before the "click" disturbs it. You cannot shoot continuously using this second mode. You can also turn this feature off entirely, which Canon recommends when using Tilt-Shift lenses.

When the LCD is not being used for live view, you can use it for showing the current camera settings (Canon calls this the Quick Control screen). You can change virtually any of these settings by pressing the joystick inward and then navigating to the option you want to change. A secondary info screen (not pictured) is also available, showing things like the color space, white balance shift/bracketing, color temperature, and more.

Enough about live view -- let's get back to the tour. Above the LCD is the camera's optical viewfinder, which displays 98% of the frame (compare that to 95% on the Nikon D700 and 100% on the Sony A900). The EOS-5D's viewfinder is the smallest in its class, but not by much: its magnification of 0.71X is just below the 0.72X and 0.74X numbers on the D700 and A900, respectively (it's still quite a bit larger than what you'd find on cheaper D-SLRs, though). Below the field-of-view is a line of data showing things such as shutter speed, aperture, focus lock, shots remaining, and much more. You can adjust the viewfinder's focus by using the diopter correction knob to its upper-right.

Direct Transfer menu

To the left of the viewfinder is the button used to activate live view. If you're connected to a Mac or PC, pressing this button (known as Print/Share) will bring up the Direct Transfer menu, which lets you select which photos are transferred to your computer. This button is also used for printing photos when you're connected to a compatible photo printer.

To the lower-left of that button are five more, which do the following:

  • Menu
  • Picture Styles - see below
  • Info - toggles what's shown on the LCD
  • Playback mode
  • Delete photo
Picture Style menu Editing a Picture Style

Picture Styles have been on Canon's digital SLRs for a few years now (even the original 5D had them). These are sets of shooting parameters that you can easily adjust and switch between. There are six preset Styles, plus three spots for custom styles, as well. The presets include standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful, and monochrome. There are also three spots for custom Styles that you can create on the camera or your computer. Here are the parameters that can be adjusted in a Picture Style:

  • Sharpness (0 - 7)
  • Contrast (-4 to +4)
  • Saturation (-4 to +4)
  • Color tone (-4 to +4)
  • Filter effect (None, yellow, orange, red, green) - for monochrome styles only
  • Toning effect (None, sepia, blue, purple, green) - for monochrome styles only

Now let's jump over to the top-right portion of the 5D Mark II's backside. Here you'll find these three buttons:

  • AF-On - activates the autofocus system in live view mode
  • AE/FE lock + playback zoom out
  • Focus point selection + playback zoom in

The focus point selection button lets you use the joystick or the command dials to select from one of the camera's nine focus points. You can also leave it in auto area mode, which will have the camera pick one for you.

Moving closer to the LCD, we find the camera's joystick (Canon calls it the multi-controller) and speaker. The large dial under those is known as the Quick Control dial, used for adjusting manual settings as well as navigating menus and reviewing photos you've taken. If you've got the camera set up for movie recording, pressing the "set" button in the middle of the dial starts and stops recording. Under that is the power switch, which can also be used to lock out the Quick Control dial, so you don't accidentally change any settings.

Just to the left of the power switch is a light sensor, which allowed the LCD brightness to adjust automatically. And that's it for the back of the EOS-5D Mark II!

Top of the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

There's a lot more to see on the top of the 5D Mark II, and I'll start with the mode dial. The target audience for the camera is made apparent by the mode dial, which doesn't have a single scene mode. Here's what it does have:

Option Function
Full auto mode Point-and-shoot, with many menu options locked up
Creative auto mode An auto mode with a twist; see below for more
Program mode Point-and-shoot, but with access to all camera options; a Program Shift feature lets you use the control dials to move through various shutter speed/aperture combinations
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You set the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture; shutter speed range is 30 - 1/8000 sec
Aperture priority (Av) mode You set the aperture, and the camera selects the appropriate aperture; aperture range will vary depending on your choice of lens. For the 24 - 105 mm kit lens, the range is F4.0 - F22.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the shutter speed and aperture, with the same ranges as above
Bulb mode Allows you to take exposures for as long as the shutter release button is held down. Use of the remote shutter release cable is recommended.
Custom 1/2/3 Your favorite camera settings, easy to reach

You wouldn't expect anything less than full manual controls on this high-end camera, and Canon delivers the goods.

This is how you adjust the aperture in Creative Auto mode

Want something easier to use? There's a point-and-shoot Auto mode, plus a "Creative Auto" option. This lets you adjust the exposure, aperture, and Picture Style using less-scary words like "brightness", "depth-of-field", and "color tone". I have to admit that this mode feels a bit out of place on nearly $3000 digital SLR, but there you go.

Controlling the 430EX II on the 5D

The next item on the top of the EOS-5D Mark II is the hot shoe, one of two ways in which you can connect an external flash to the camera. Canon's own 220EX, 430EX II, and 580EX II Speedlites will work best with the camera, as they integrate with the camera's metering system. The 430EX II and 580 EX II even let you adjust their settings right from the camera's menu system. If you want to use wireless flashes, then you'll need to use either the 580EX II or the ST-E2 as the "master" --- the camera itself cannot do it. The two high end Speedlites also allow you to use high speed FP sync mode, which lets you use any shutter speed that you'd like, no matter how fast. For third party flashes, you'll have to set the exposure manually, and turn off the silent shooting mode if you're using live view. The maximum flash sync speed with a non-Canon flash is 1/200 sec with a regular flash, and 1/60 sec with large studio strobes.

Continuing to the right, we find the camera's LCD info display, which shows every setting you could possibly imagine (I'll spare you by not listing there here). You can turn on a backlight by pressing the small button located to its upper-right.

Above the LCD info display are three buttons (in addition to the one for the backlight). They do the following:

  • Metering (Evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted) + white balance (auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, flash, custom, color temperature)
  • AF mode (One-shot, AI servo, AI focus) + drive (single-shot, continuous, 2 or 10 sec self-timer/remote)
  • ISO (Auto, 100 - 6400) + flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV)

There are three AF modes on the 5D Mark II: One-shot AF is for stationary subjects (focus is locked when you halfway press the shutter release), AI servo is for moving subjects (the camera continues to focus, even with the shutter release pressed), and AI focus automatically selects one based on what's going on in the frame.

There are plenty of white balance options to choose from. There's an auto mode, the usual presets, a custom mode, and the ability to manually set the color temperature. I'll have more on this subject later in the review.

Now let's talk about the EOS-5D Mark II's continuous shooting performance. Despite having nearly twice the resolution to deal with, the 5D Mark II still manages to shoot a bit faster than its predecessor. Here's what kind of numbers I was able to get out of the camera:

Quality setting High speed
RAW+ Large/Fine JPEG 5 shots @ 3.9 fps
RAW 14 shots @ 3.9 fps
sRAW1 16 shots @ 3.8 fps
sRAW2 22 shots @ 3.8 fps
JPEG (Large/Fine) Unlimited @ 3.8 fps
Test performed with a Kingston Ultimate 266X CompactFlash card

The first thing to mention is that the camera doesn't stop shooting after the buffer fills up. For example, after the camera takes its 14 RAW photos at 3.9 frames/second, it keeps on shooting, just at roughly 1 frame/second (the sRAW modes will be faster). Overall, the 5D Mark II performed quite well considering the massive amount of data it has to work with, though both the D700 and A900 can shoot at a higher burst rate (5 fps).

The 5D Mark II supports both automatic and manual adjustment of the ISO sensitivity. The auto ISO setting varies depending on what shooting mode you're using. In most of the shooting modes, it'll pick something between ISO 100 and 3200. In manual, bulb, and when using the flash, it'll be fixed at 400. The ISO range can be expanded by adjusting one of the custom settings, allowing for sensitivities as low as 50 or as high as 25,600 (!).

The final items on the top of the camera include the main command dial and the shutter release button.

Side of the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

The first thing to note in this photo are the AF/MF and image stabilization switches on the optional 24 - 105 mm kit lens. On the camera itself you can see the side of the lens release button, with the depth-of-field preview button below that.

Continuing to the right, you'll find the camera's I/O ports, which are kept under rubber covers. Let's take a closer look at them:

Close-up of the I/O ports on the EOS-5D Mark II

The ports here include:

  • Flash sync
  • Wired remote control
  • External microphone
  • A/V out
  • USB
  • HDMI

The external mic and HDMI ports are both new to the 5D Mark II. The HDMI port is for connecting to a high definition television, though be sure to buy the cable from someplace cheap -- don't get ripped off spending $100 on one.

As you'd expect, the 5D Mark II supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to your Mac or PC.

Side of the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

On the other side of the 5D Mark II you'll find its CompactFlash slot. This supports "regular" Type I as well as thicker Type II cards, including things like the Microdrive (if anyone actually uses those anymore). The camera supports UDMA-enabled CF cards as well, for maximum performance. The plastic door over this compartment is of decent quality.

Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the camera. Here you'll find the "extension system terminal" (for the wireless file transmitter), a metal tripod mount, and the battery compartment. The door over the battery compartment is fairly sturdy, and (like the other doors on the camera) is sealed against dust and moisture. The door needs to be removed when you're using the optional battery grip.

The included LP-E6 battery can be seen at right.