My excitement about the step up from EOS 20D to 5D over three
years ago was largely to do with going "full frame" and having
the opportunity to use the 24-105L lens instead of the 17-85 EFS.
It was a big step up, which was more to do with the availability
of the better lens than the superior quality of the 5D's sensor.
Since then, of course, the "crop" cameras have caught up
somewhat as the 17-55 f2.8 EFS is, by all accounts, the optical
equivalent of the 24-105L.
The 5D Mark II, of course, uses the same lenses as the 5D so
improvements in image quality can only come from the camera
body. In terms of image size the step up from 5D to 5D II
is the same as from 20D to 5D - about 1.6 times as many pixels.
The 5D managed 1.6 times as many pixels as the 20D at the same
time as a whole stop better high ISO performance. That was
understandable as the pixel density of the 5D was lower than the
20D, meaning each pixel got more light so should, all things
being equal, have better high ISO performance. With the 5D
II, Canon are claiming that despite having the same pixel
density as the 20D, the new camera actually has better high ISO
noise performance than its predecessor. We will see about
that when I get to the pixel-sniffing part.
The weather has been horrendous in the week since I got my 5D II
so I'm afraid my sample illustrations are not as pretty as those
in Part 1. However I have been out and taken some real
photos. Swapping between 20D and 5D is easy, because the
user interface is almost exactly the same, as I mentioned in my
of those two cameras. A 20D would make a good second body
in a 5D camera bag for this reason. My first surprise on
using the Mark II is that whilst it looks almost identical to
its predecessor, the user interface is massively different.
As the battery and charger are also incompatible, it becomes
less viable as part of a system with an original 5D.
Radical Interface Changes
This week's Amateur Photographer magazine has a review of the 5D
II in which they say 5D users will be immediately at home with
the Mark II because the buttons are in the same place.
That's actually rubbish because not only have extra buttons
sprung up and others moved position, but also the buttons which
are in the same place as before perform different functions!
Porsche have been criticised in reviews of the 911 Carrera with
PDK automatic gearbox because the gear lever is the wrong way
around - you push to change up and pull to change down.
Porsche say it is done that way so that drivers of earlier
Porsches which used the same logic don't get confused.
Canon obviously do not have that design philosophy. One of
my gripes with the 5D was that the ISO button was unintuitive.
You naturally think that as the most used function it will be
set with the wheel next to the shutter button, not the one on
the back. You would also expect it to be on the button
closest to the wheel, rather than the next one along which is a
bit of a stretch away from the main control wheel and shutter
button. Well guess what, now it is! Changing the ISO
on the Mark II is done by a different button, and a different
wheel from the 5D. It is a definite improvement, but not
good for "backwards compatibility." It should make
professionals such as wedding photographers who need camera
operation to be like second nature think twice about keeping
their old 5D as a second body. However, I am all in favour
of the change. And, even better, whilst the default
setting is for 1/3 stop increments, there is now a custom
function to set ISO in full stop increments. Yay!
Another massive change is that there are now two ways of setting
everything. You can either use the buttons and wheels as
before, or you can use the joystick which sets the AF point on
the 5D (the "multi-controller") to navigate around a menu which
appears on the rear LCD and change everything from ISO to
aperture to white balance. This is marvellous for
tripod-mounted photography, especially where the camera is too
high for the top LCD to be easily seen. It is slightly less
marvellous for people who manually select the focus point,
because with default settings, this now becomes a two stage operation. On the
Mark II, as default, you can only use the multi-controller to select a focus
point after you've pressed the autofocus point selection button.
I was surprised to discover that button has always existed on
the 5D, as I don't think I've ever pressed it. On the
original 5D the multi-controller always selects focus point as
it has no other function. There is, however, a custom
function which allows you to set up the Mark II in the same way,
so you have the choice and nothing is lost.
Live view - Seeing the world through digital eyes
These are significant changes but the really major difference in
handling is the introduction of live view. Despite reading
every review out there I had no idea what a huge benefit this
would turn out to be until I got my hands on the camera.
Back in 2003 when I was shooting film, I
predicted that the SLR design
would be merely a transient stage in digital camera evolution,
as electronic viewfinders have so many advantages. It is
satisfying now to be able to benefit from some of those
advantages. The Mark II is a hybrid, of course, as it
retains the mirror box, prism and standard finder. But
live view is much more than a gimmick to keep point-and-shoot
upgraders happy. It is the future.
The 5D was just a 20D with better image quality. The Mark
II is a camera that can help you see differently. In
monochrome mode you can compose a black and white photo in
actual black and white on the LCD screen. As a bonus, if
you shoot RAW + JPEG as I always do, you can change your mind
and have the photo in colour instead. You are no longer
limited to shooting from your own eye level plus or minus the
amount you can stretch or bend. Holding the camera above
your head can give a completely different perspective to
compositions which would have been pure guesswork with the 5D.
One thing I do quite a lot is shoot from well below eye level.
It can give more interesting perspectives and, more practically,
can allow you to get away with a much smaller tripod! Low
angles were either a contortion, guesswork or trial-and-error
with the 5D. I had a lot of wonky horizons because when
I'm bent over at a funny angle my ability to judge straightness
is impaired! The pixel loss from straightening a wonky
horizon shouldn't be underestimated - it could easily be the
difference between the Mark II's 21 megapixels and the
(live-view-less) Sony A900's 24. Live view is worth it's
weight in gold in those situations. Actually it's worth
more than that, as it doesn't seem to weigh anything (the 5D II
actually weighed in slightly lighter than the 5D on the Virtual
Traveller labs sophisticated weighing equipment). On the
subject of weight, if you pick the Mark II up with just your
right hand it feels a lot heavier than the 5D. There must
be more weight in the grip side of the camera. Its not the
new battery as despite apparently having 30% more power, that
weighs the same as the old one within the margin of error of my
Live view helps you see compositions. One trick I use in
selecting photos for this website is the "rule of thumb(nails)."
Images with fundamentally appealing arrangements of shapes,
light and colour usually jump out even as tiny thumbnails in a
browser. Tiny thumbnails, like slides on a lightbox, give
you a different perspective - in the absence of detail you are
able to step back from the subject matter and appreciate the
abstract arrangement of the image's elements. The LCD
allows you to see this different perspective, from outside the
image, with the image clearly framed by the edges of the LCD.
The viewfinder puts you in the image, the frame is less obvious
but the details more so. Crop-factor DSLRs with their
"tunnel" viewfinders are somewhere in between, which whilst
usually criticised as a bad thing has something to be said for
I understand from what I have read that the primary (non
live-view) autofocus sytem on the EOS 5D Mark II is effectively
the same as that on the 5D. As I mentioned in Part 1 of
this article I have always found the standard 5D autofocus to be
effective for my shooting, but as I've never tried to shoot
birds in flight or football games I've hardly been testing that
element of the camera to its limits. However those who say
the Mark II has not advanced in terms of autofocus are missing
two very important things:
1) The Mark II has TWO autofocus systems, the 9-point SLR-style
one and the live-view "contrast detect" one, and
2) The Mark II has user-adjustable lens calibration
microadjustment (the 5D has this capability but it is not
user-adjustable - the camera and lens would need to be sent to a
Canon service centre for calibration).
Autofocus in live-view mode has more than 9 points - In fact I
suppose it has 21 million as any area on the sensor can be used
to focus. Importantly, live view is also incredibly useful
for accurate manual focus. You can zoom in to two levels,
and tiny adjustments to focus are clearly visible on the screen.
I tested it focusing on my phone in the distance. Through
the viewfinder you could just about make out the brand sticker.
Through zoomed-in live view, the ridged texture of every letter
of the word "Philips" was clearly visible. Zoomed-in live
view also amplifies every tiny camera movement so you can tell
whether your tripod is steady in windy conditions - something
which was just total guesswork without live view.
Depth of field preview
One of the main reasons I upgraded my first ever SLR, a Pentax
ME Super, was that it lacked a depth-of-field preview, which is
a useful feature for landscape photography. But one of the
issues I've found with the 5D is that the resolution is so high,
and the print size you can successfully make is so big, that you
don't get a good enough idea of depth of field through the
viewfinder even with the depth of field preview. You can
only properly evaluate depth of field on a proper PC monitor
after the photo is downloaded. With live view, by
contrast, you can focus on one area of the image, then move a
little box around with the "multi-controller" and check out
depth of field at various points in the image at different
apertures in real time. In live-view, the image doesn't go
dark when you press the depth-of-field button (unless there is
insufficient light). You can also use this to check light
fall off/vignetting. Just point the camera at a white wall
and the vignetting (which is hardly visible through the
viewfinder) is incredibly obvious on the screen. You can
see it change in real-time at each aperture. Another thing
you can see which is completely invisible through the normal
viewfinder (unless you change the focus screen) is the depth of
field difference between f1.4 and f2.8.
It seems that Canon's engineers were given a brief to improve
everything by 30%. Battery life is up 30%.
Full-resolution frame rate is up 30% from 3fps to 3.9 (although
if HD video resolution (about 2 megapixels) is enough, of
course, you have 30 frames per second, ten times faster than the
5D.) The viewfinder is a touch bigger and sharper and now
shows the ISO all the time as well as the battery level (which
is more precise than before). There is a proper 2 second
self-timer - hooray! And infra-red remotes (which have weirdly
always been compatible with Canon's lower models but not the
better ones) now work so you can trigger tripod-mounted shots
without messing around with a tangly wired remote. The top
panel LCD is a bit bigger (30%, I suspect) although it is still
an old-fashioned digital-watch style black and white effort,
showing almost exactly the same information as before.
There are three custom modes instead of just one, and an
extraordinarily pointless "Creative Auto" mode has been added.
Creative Auto mode allows you to adjust depth of field,
brightness etc with sliders instead of by actually knowing what
you're doing. As such it is quite offensive as it is
deliberately obfuscatory, hiding the mechanics of aperture and
shutter speed from the user and encouraging ignorance. A
potentially significant feature which has been added is sensor
cleaning. However disappointingly my camera arrived with a
big blob of dust/dirt already in place right near the centre of
the image, which the sensor cleaning doesn't shift. I will
get Canon to clean it when I take the camera for a firmware
update (as I had a 100% catastrophic failure rate with updating
firmware on the original 5D I don't fancy risking doing it
myself!) Another improvement is that there is now partial
Things which are worse
The battery charger is a tiny bit bigger and heavier than
before, and both battery and charger are incompatible with the
5D ones. So whilst the 5D, 50D, 40D, 30D, 20D, 10D, D60
and D30 and even some of Canon's earlier "G" models can all
share batteries and chargers, if you are thinking of putting
together a two-body system which includes the Mark II you will
need two sets of batteries and chargers.
One other minor annoyance is that the red LEDs which light up
the focus point which has been selected "bleed" across to the
surrounding area of the viewfinder. The LEDs seem brighter
than those in the 5D, which may be an advantage in some
situations but the original 5D did not suffer this "bleeding"