Canon EOS-5D Mark II Review

Using the Canon EOS-5D Mark II

Record Mode

Flip the power switch and the EOS-5D Mark II is ready to shoot almost immediately. The camera does run a sensor cleaning cycle at startup, though you can interrupt this by pressing the shutter release button.

Autofocus speeds depend not only on what lens you're using, but whether or not you're using live view. If you're shooting with the optical viewfinder, focus times are extremely quick. You'll wait for 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle and 0.4 - 0.6 seconds at telephoto -- at least with the 24 - 105 mm kit lens. The Mark II struggles a bit in low light, since it has no AF-assist lamp. However, if you have an external flash attached, the camera will use its AF-assist lamp, thus keeping focus times fairly snappy.

Focusing speeds are live view are a different story. If you want the best experience, then (please) use the quick mode AF. This mode requires some mirror-flipping (which interrupts the live view) -- which makes it a bit slower than shooting with the viewfinder -- but it's much faster than the "live" AF modes. In the live AF modes, you can expect to wait multiple seconds (sometimes as many as four or five) for the camera to lock focus. And forget about low light -- more often than not, the camera just gives up.

If you're shooting with the optical viewfinder then shutter lag won't be a problem. There's a tiny bit of shutter lag with live view, but it's really not much, as the mirror is already out of the way, and the focus is locked.

As with all digital SLRs, there's no delay between shots, even if you're shooting RAW+JPEG. You can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot.

You can delete a picture as it's been saved to the memory card by pressing the delete photo button.

Now, here's a look at the numerous image size and quality choices available on the camera:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB card (optional)
5616 x 3744
RAW 25.8 MB 144
3861 x 2574
14.8 MB 240
2784 x 1856
10.8 MB 340
5616 x 3744
Fine 6.1 MB 620
Normal 3.0 MB 1220
4080 x 2720
Fine 3.6 MB 660
Normal 1.9 MB 1980
2784 x 1856
Fine 2.1 MB 1820
Normal 900 KB 3360

There are three RAW sizes available on the EOS-5D Mark II. There's your everyday full resolution RAW mode, plus two lower resolution modes (sRAW 1 and 2) which record at 10.0 and 5.2 MB, respectively. You can take a RAW image alone, or along with a JPEG at the size of your choosing (I left those out of the chart to keep things simple). I explained the benefits and drawbacks of the RAW format earlier in the review.

Images are named XXX_YYYY.JPG (or .CR2), where X=100-999 and Y=0001-9999. File numbering is maintained as you swap or erase memory cards.

The EOS-5D Mark II has a detailed, yet easy-to-navigate menu system that looks great on its ultra high resolution LCD. The menu is divided up into several tabs, covering shooting, playback, setup, and custom settings. Here's the full list of menu items:

Shooting 1
  • Quality
    • JPEG (Large/Fine, Large/Normal, Medium/Fine, Medium/Normal, Small/Fine, Small/Normal)
    • RAW (RAW, sRAW 1, sRAW 2)
  • Beep (on/off)
  • Shoot w/o card (on/off)
  • Review time (Off, 2, 4, 8 sec, hold) - post-shot review
  • Peripheral illumination correction (on/off) - see below
Shooting 2
  • Exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV) + AE bracketing - see below
  • White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, flash, custom, color temperature) - see below
  • Custom white balance - see below
  • WB shift/bracketing - see below
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Picture Style (Standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful, monochrome, user 1/2/3) - I described these earlier
  • Dust Delete Data - creates a "dust map" for use with DIgital Photo Professional
Playback 1
  • Protect images
  • Rotate
  • Erase images
  • Print order - tag photos for printing
  • Transfer order - tag photos for auto transfer to your computer
  • External media backup - backup data to a USB flash drive when you're using the wireless file transmitter

Playback 2

  • Highlight alert (on/off) - shows clipped highlights
  • AF point display (on/off) - shows the AF points that were used
  • Histogram (Brightness, RGB)
  • Slideshow
  • Image jump with main dial (1, 10, 100 images, screen, date, folder, movies, stills) - how many images are skipped when using the main dial

Setup 1

  • Auto power off (Off, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30 mins)
  • Auto rotate (Camera+PC, PC only, off)
  • Format card
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset, manual reset)
  • Select folder
  • WFT settings - control the wireless file transmitter
  • Recording function + media select - for use when a USB flash drive is attached to the optional wireless file transmitter
Setup 2
  • LCD brightness
    • Auto (1 - 3) - camera adjusts brightness based on ambient light
    • Manual (1 - 7)
  • Date/time
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Sensor cleaning
    • Auto cleaning (enable/disable) - at startup and shutdown
    • Clean now
    • Clean manually - flips the mirror up
  • Live view / movie function settings - I described most of these earlier
    • Live view function setting (Disable, stills only, stills + movie)
    • Screen settings (Stills display, exposure simulation, movie display)
    • Grid display (Off, grid 1, grid 2)
    • Silent shooting (Mode 1, mode 2, disable)
    • Metering timer (4, 16, 30 secs, 1, 10, 30 mins)
    • AF mode (Quick, live, live w/face detection)
    • Movie size (1920 x 1080, 640 x 480)
    • Sound recording (on/off)

Setup 3

  • Battery info - displays battery type, capacity, and health, plus the shutter count
  • Info button (Normal display, camera settings, shooting functions) - which of these screens is displayed
  • External Speedlite control
    • External flash func. setting - these next three require a 430EX II or 580EX II flash; options will vary
    • External flash custom func. setting
    • Clear external flash custom func. setting
  • Camera user setting - save current settings to the mode dial
    • Register (C1, C2, C3)
    • Clear (C1, C2, C3)
  • Clear all camera settings
  • Firmware version

Custom functions

  • I. Exposure
    1. Exposure level increments (1/3-stop, 1/2-stop)
    2. ISO speed setting increments (1/3-stop, 1-stop)
    3. ISO expansion (on/off) - opens up ISO 50 on the low end, and ISO 12,800 and 25,600 on the high end
    4. Bracketing auto cancel (on/off)
    5. Bracketing sequence (0/-/+, -/0/+)
    6. Safety shift (enable/disable) - whether the shutter speed or aperture are automatically adjusted in Av or Tv mode to get a good exposure
    7. Flash sync speed in Av mode (Auto, 1/200 - 1/60 sec auto, 1/200 sec fixed)
  • II. Image
    1. Long exposure noise reduction (Off, auto, on) - for exposures longer than 1 second
    2. High ISO speed noise reduction (Standard, low, strong, disable)
    3. Highlight tone priority (enable/disable) - improves highlight detail and dynamic range, but increases noise in shadow areas; minimum ISO setting rises to 200; see below for more
    4. Auto lighting optimizer (Standard, low, strong, disable) - see below
  • III. Autofocus/Drive
    1. Lens drive when AF impossible (Focus search on/off) - whether the camera keeps trying to focus when it's having trouble
    2. Lens AF stop button function (AF stop, AF start, AE lock, AF point selection, one shot <-> AI servo, IS start) - for super telephoto lenses only
    3. AF point selection method (normal, multi-controller, quick control dial)
    4. Superimposed display (on/off) - whether focus points are illuminated in the viewfinder
    5. AF-assist beam firing (enable/disable) - for use with an external flash
    6. Mirror lockup (enable/disable) - to avoid blur caused by the vibrations of the mirror flipping
    7. AF point area expansion (enable/disable) - whether the six assist AF points are used when you're using AI servo mode and center point AF
    8. AF micro-adjustment (DIsable, adjust all by same amount, adjust by lens) - lets you fine-tune the focusing on lenses; see below for more
  • IV. Operation/Others
    1. Shutter button/AF-On button (Metering + AF start, Metering + AF start/stop, Metering start/Metering + AF start, AE lock/Metering + AF start, Metering + AF start/disable) - define what the shutter release and AF-On button do
    2. AF-On/AE lock button switch (enable/disable) - swap the function of these two buttons
    3. SET button when shooting (Disabled, image quality, Picture Style, menu display, image replay, Quick Control screen, record movie) - what the button in the center of the Quick Control dial does
    4. Dial direction during Tv/Av (Normal, reverse)
    5. Focusing screen (Eg-A, Eg-D, Eg-S)
    6. Add original decision data (on/off) - whether image verification data is stored along with the photo
  • Clear all custom functions

My Menu settings

  • Up to six of your favorite menu items can go here; menu can be set up on the camera or in EOS Utility

I touched on the various live view options earlier in the review, but I want to go over exactly what you can select in the Live View/Movie function settings menu. You can:

  • Choose whether live view is active, and whether it's used for movies, or just for stills
  • Whether the image on the LCD is optimized for easy viewing, composing movies (a 16:9 overlay is shown), or for exposure preview
  • Choose to have a rule-of-thirds or complex grid pattern displayed on the LCD
  • Select a silent shooting mode (described earlier)
  • Set the metering timer
  • Select between Quick AF (highly recommended) or the live / live with face detection AF modes
  • Set the movie resolution (1920 x 1080, 640 x 480)
  • Select whether sound is recorded with movies

The peripheral illumination correction feature is new to the 5D Mark II, and it aims to reduce vignetting (dark corners) in your photos. The camera has data for 20 lenses built in, and you can add more via the EOS Utility software. I didn't even intend for this next photo to be used as an example. I was taking a photo of our favorite macro test subject after a horrible accident (he's been repaired, don't worry), and it just happened to have some vignetting in it. See?

Peripheral illum. correction off Peripheral illum. correction on

That's a pretty nice improvement, if I do say so myself. By the way, if you take a picture with the RAW format, you can manually tweak how much vignetting correction is applied by using Digital Photo Professional.

As you'd expect, the 5D Mark II features an auto exposure bracketing option. This feature takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. The exposure interval can be ±1/3EV, ±2/3EV, or ±1EV. If you've got a large memory card, this is a good way to ensure properly exposed photos every time.

WB shift and bracketing (at the same time, no less)

The EOS-5D Mark II has plenty of manual white balance adjustments. First, you can use a white or gray card as a reference, for accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. Another option is to manually set the color temperature, which can be adjusted between 2500K and 10000K, in 100K increments. If either of those are a little off, you can use the white balance shift to move the white balance in the green, blue, magenta, and amber directions (see screenshot). If that's still not enough, you can bracket for white balance, with the camera taking three shots in a row, each with a slightly different WB setting.

There are three items in the custom function menu that I want to mention: highlight tone priority, auto lighting optimizer, and AF micro-adjustment.

Highlight tone priority aims to increase the dynamic range of your photos, by producing more detail in the overexposed areas of a photo. One of the side effects of this feature is that the ISO is increased to a minimum of 200. I took what I thought would be a good photo to test out this feature, but the results are very subtle, as you'll see:

Highlight tone priority off
View Full Size Image
Highlight tone priority on
View Full Size Image

The first thing you'll probably notice in this comparison is how much darker the foreground gets when you turn on highlight tone priority. You do, however, get much better detail and contrast in the sky, which is a little blown out in the first shot. This feature certainly doesn't work miracles, but it does help, at least a little bit.

View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
ALO Standard
View Full Size Image
ALO Strong
View Full Size Image

The auto lighting optimizer attempts to improve overall contrast, though it's almost as subtle as the highlight tone priority feature I just discussed. You can select from low, standard, or strong applications of ALO, or you can turn it off altogether. There isn't much of a difference between low and standard, and you won't really see the feature kick in until you put it on strong. Seeing how the 5D Mark II tends to slightly overexposed, I'd probably keep this setting at its default -- standard.

Fine-tuning focus for a lens

The last menu item to mention is lens micro-adjustment. This allows you to fine-tune the focus for up to 20 lenses, for one lens or for all of them. So, if you own a lens that always back-focuses, this is one way to fix it.

Alright, enough menus -- let's do photo tests now. Since the camera has no built-in flash, I did not perform the redeye test. I'll tell you which lens in the discussion of each of the tests below. Ready?

The macro test shot was taken with my Sigma F2.8 50 mm EX macro lens. As you can see, Mickey had his arms glued back on, though he's scarred for life. The colors on the figurine look good overall, though the background is slightly greenish (this is where white balance fine-tuning comes in). Our subject is on the soft side, which is "normal" for this camera. Forget about looking for noise in the photo -- there isn't any.

The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you have attached to the camera. The Sigma 50 mm macro lens that I used has a minimum focus distance of just under 19 cm.

The night scene (taken with the 70-200 mm F4L IS lens) didn't turn out as originally planned. I usually take this photo using auto white balance, but the 5D did a poor job, giving the scene a brownish cast. Thankfully, I was shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, so I opened up the RAW file, changed the white balance to tungsten, and everything looked great. So, keep in mind that all of the photos of the night scene are RAW conversions (using Photoshop CS4).

That said, the photo (taken at ISO 100) is stunning. The camera captures an unbelievable amount of detail -- you can count the chairs in the office windows, which are miles away from where I stood. Yes. the image is slightly soft, though it sharpens up nicely after a quick trip through the Unsharp Mask filter. There's no noise to be found here, and purple fringing (which is usually a lens issue) is minimal. Something else that's barely noticeable: highlight clipping.

Now, let's use that same scene to see how the Mark II performed at high sensitivities in low light. Remember, these are all RAW conversions!

ISO 50 (L1)

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800 (H1)

ISO 25,600 (H2)

You'd be hard-pressed to see a difference between the ISO 50 - 200 shots. At ISO 400 you start to see a teeny-tiny amount of noise reduction, though there's still more than enough detail for a large print. The ISO 800 shot is slightly worse, but still just as usable. Details start to go south at ISO 1600, reducing print sizes to medium (or perhaps larger, if you use noise reduction software). ISO 3200 is probably as high as I'd take the EOS-5D Mark II in these situations, since after that, details get soft and you get some nasty static-like noise. I also spotted some banding at ISO 6400 and above.

We'll see how the Mark II performed in normal lighting in a moment.

There's quite a bit of barrel distortion at the wide end of the 24 - 105 mm kit lens. There's also some vignetting, though the peripheral illumination correction feature is keeping things from looking a lot worse. While this isn't the sharpest lens, I didn't find the corners to be abnormally blurry.

Here is the second of the ISO tests in this review. Since the lighting doesn't change, you can compare it with other cameras I've reviewed over the years (so open up the Nikon D700 review if you'd like). Since the images are so huge, the crops are a lot more zoomed in than you may be used. Thus, it's even more important to view the full size images. Get ready, here they come!

ISO 50 (L1)

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800 (H1)

ISO 12,800 (H1), RAW -> JPEG conversion (ACR)

ISO 12,800 (H1), RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

ISO 25,600 (H2)

ISO 25,600 (H2), RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

The 5D Mark II produces soft, but noise free images through ISO 1600. It's only at that point, if you look hard enough, that you'll see any evidence of noise or noise reduction artifacting. Things get a little bit worse at ISO 3200, but still, pretty nice. At this point the Nikon D700's images have less noise reduction (but more of a grain-type noise) and better sharpness than the 5D. Noise reduction finally starts to stick out at ISO 6400, though making a midsize or large print is still a good possibility. Next comes ISO 12,800, and I've thrown in a RAW conversion, one untouched and the other retouched. You can see that you do get some detail back by shooting RAW at this point, but the images are still best-suited for small prints. ISO 25,000 has a fair amount of detail loss, but believe it or not, it still makes an "acceptable" 4 x 6 inch print (I tried it myself). Post-processing with noise reduction software helps, but only a little bit. I think the D700 does a slightly better job at the highest sensitivities, but not by a whole lot.

Overall, the EOS-5D Mark II is capable of producing some brilliant photos. The camera has exposure and color down -- with the only niggle being the occasional clipped highlight. My biggest complaint is that the photos are too soft straight out of the camera (though the lens is certainly a factor here, as well). They do sharpen up nicely in Photoshop, but if you want to skip that step, you might want to visit the Picture Styles tool and bump up the sharpness a notch or two. The Mark II isn't really a "noisy" camera; instead, it has some issues with noise reduction, even at low ISOs. As with compact cameras, when you start cramming too many pixels onto the sensor, you need more and more noise reduction to keep things noise-free. You'll spot smudged details in areas of low contrast: in scenes with grass and water, or flower fields. You won't notice the softness or noise reduction unless you're making huge prints, or inspecting the images on your computer screen. The Mark II does let you adjust the amount of noise reduction being applied to images, so it's worth fooling around with that setting to see what you like best. Purple fringing is largely a lens-dependant issue, and I saw it occasionally, but it was never enough to be considered a problem.

Now, I invite you to have a look at our photo gallery. View the photos, maybe print a few if you can, and then decide if the 5D Mark II's image quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

One of the most talked about features on the EOS-5D Mark II is its ability to record Full HD videos. That means that it's recording movies at 1920 x 1080, at 30 frames/second, with sound. The camera can keep recording until you hit the 4GB file size which, as you might imagine, doesn't take long (12 minutes, to be exact). If you want to record longer movies, you can drop the resolution to a more conventional 640 x 480. At that setting, you can record continuously for 24 minutes.

The Mark II records monaural sound with its movies. If you want stereo sound, you can attach an external microphone to the mic input on the side of the camera. One sound-related feature I wish the camera had is some kind of wind-cut filter.

There are some advantages and disadvantages of shooting movies on a digital SLR. On the plus side, you can use lens you own, from fisheye to super telephoto. You can zoom in and out as you please and if your lens has image stabilization, that's available too. You can fool around with Picture Styles, for unique color effects. There are a few downsides, though. For one, the camera is not focusing continuously while you're recording a movie. You can press the AF-on button to use contrast detect AF, but that results in slow focusing, clicking noises, and other weird effects. That means that if you adjust the focal length or your subject moves out of focus, you need to adjust the focus manually. That's a lot harder than it sounds -- it takes practice, for sure.

Canon added manual control for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in movie mode in a recent firmware update

While the camera is recording, you can press the shutter release button to take a photo. The movie recording will stop briefly while this occurs.

Canon uses the H.264 codec inside a QuickTime wrapper. That means that you'll get high quality with smaller file sizes than M-JPEG (relatively speaking, of course). Even so, a 20 second movie takes up nearly 100MB on your memory card. And speaking of which, you'll need a high sped CompactFlash card to take full advantage of the HD movie mode.

If you want to see a professionally produced video taken with the EOS-5D Mark II, check out this one on Canon's website.

If you want to see the exact opposite, look below. I've downsized this compilation of video clips to 1280 x 720, and posted it on Vimeo to keep bandwidth costs down. Do note that Vimeo is doing some pretty heavy compression here, so it's not representative of the best the camera can do. To view the movie in all its glory, hit the full screen button, and make sure that HD is checked and scaling is off. If you want to download the movie before Vimeo compressed it, you can do so here.

If you absolutely must see the original 1080p video that I created, you can download it here. Be warned, it's a 154MB download!

Playback Mode

The EOS-5D Mark II has a pretty basic playback mode, with no retouching features or gimmicks. Features include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and zoom and scroll. This last feature lets you enlarge your photo (by up to 10X), and then move around in the zoomed-in area -- perfect for checking focus. By using the quick control dial, you can move from one photo to another (maintaining the zoom setting), which is quite handy.

Lots of ways to jump through images

You can "jump" through photos using the main dial on the top of the camera, in groups of 10 or 100 photos, or by thumbnail screen, date, folder, or file type (movie or still).

The only "editing" tool on the camera is for image rotation. There's no way to resize or crop photos on the camera. Despite having a fancy movie mode, the 5D Mark II doesn't let you edit your clips on the camera.

Photos can be deleted one at a time, in a group, or all at once.

By default, the 5D Mark II doesn't tell you much about your photos. However, if you press the Info button, you'll see a lot more, including two different types of histogram.

The camera moves through photos instantly, as you'd expect on a D-SLR.