Much like many of you I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Canon 5D Mark II. Many things intrigued me and excited me about the camera, but the points that stood out to me personally were: Higher quality/range ISO, increase of resolution, full 1080p video support.

My main body for shooting stills since November 2007 has been the Canon 1Ds Mark III. I love this camera and have been very impressed with it's performance. I had two 1Ds Mark IIIs, one as a backup body, but have since sold the backup body to replace it with the 5D Mark II. I like the idea of having two different cameras, both in function and in size - but with the same resolution sensor. The 5D Mark II utilizes the same 21.1 megapixel sensor as the 1Ds Mark III and I've been very eager to see how well that would hold up in a body that cost me over $5,000 (USD) less.

Beyond that, I do work full-time in motion pictures and have been utterly fascinated by the proposed implementation of full 1080p video on a camera of this size. I have experience shooting with the Panavision Genesis, the Red One, Panasonic HVX200, Sony F900, as well as many Arri film cameras and other miscellaneous prosumer and consumer HD cameras. So I'm approaching this new HD video feature with lofty hopes and extreme skepticism.

At the time of this review I've spent about 1 month with the 5D Mark II between preproduction and production cameras. The images in this review represent what I have shot over the last week with a full production camera. I've included links to CR2 raw images and some HD footage. All images were processed with Adobe Camera Raw 5. The movie was edited in Premiere CS4.

First Impressions
Reservoir Sunrise
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Canon 5D Mark II - 70-200mm f/2.8L IS
ISO 400 - f/10 - 1/100

The first thing I noticed about the 5D Mark II once out of the box was that the camera feels a little more substantial than the original 5D. I believe it's a little more rigid and slightly heavier. I didn't do a crash test or weigh the cameras, but this is my observation of the build quality.

Let's move on to the camera itself.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder is nice, big, and bright. I do prefer the viewfinder on the 1Ds Mark III because it protrudes further away from the body and helps keep my nose from being smashed into the back of the camera.

Batteries

In my experience thus far the battery life is impressive. I've been able to shoot about 650 raw files on a single charge without the battery dwindling. On the video side I operated the camera for about an hour shooting just video and the charge on a single battery went down to about 30% or so. I do not intend to get the battery grip for this camera, because I want to keep size down for this particular body. So I am impressed by the performance. As always though, you should carry at least two batteries with you at all times.

Button & Menus

The menu system of the camera is nice and simple and I have no complaints in that regard. I dread the dial that allows you to select between all the shooting modes. Mostly due to the fact that you can accidently nudge it and knock out of Av or Manual without totally being aware of it. On the 1Ds Mark III it's button driven and I've never switched modes on accident. Beyond that personal peeve most of the controls on the camera are logically laid out. The addition of a Live View button is a nice touch considering the new implementation of video. I could mention/beg/pray for a mirror lock up button, but the Canon gods are deaf to that cause. One thing that does bug me (and soon you too!) is the placement of the depth of field preview button. It is placed on the lower portion next to the lens and you'll find more often than not while you press play to review images you will inevitably hit that DOF preview and knock yourself out of review mode. Barring some sort of miracle in technology, this cannot be fixed by firmware.

LCD

The LCD screen is nice, bright, and sharp. Canon implemented a new automatic brightness feature that uses a light sensor on the back of the camera to adjust image playback brightness based on the ambient lighting conditions. This is a neat idea, but drives me crazy as the image will literally change before your eyes. For instance, if you are shooting a sunset, the image you look at on the screen will look different if you are facing the sun or facing away from it. I pretty much only use the histogram for image evaluation, but I didn't find the new feature useful and promplty switched it to manual brightness to save what is left of my sanity.

File Size/Memory

For those of you new to the 20+ megapixel world you'll be interested in investing in some nice 8gb and 16gb Compact Flash Cards. 8gb gets you about 300 images or about 24 minutes of full 1080p video.

Sensor Cleaning

New to the 5D is Canon's Sensor Cleaning technology. It seems to be the same system used in the 1Ds Mark III and I can speak from experience that this a welcome and much needed addition.

Metering

I shoot almost entirely in Manual or Av. Metering seems to be consistent and accurate. I feel I'm having some issues in shady areas, but it's really hard to tell if it's a me problem or a camera problem. I'll consult a therapist just to make sure.

Auto Focus

Compared to the original 5D I feel the 5D Mark II is slightly improved in the auto focus department. Especially the center point. However, I do loathe the spacing of the 9 auto focus points and prefer a wider spread. Compared to the 1Ds Mark III the 5D Mark II doesn't come close in my opinion. I can lock focus in extremely low light situations consistently with the 1Ds Mark III, where as I found with the 5D Mark II the center point was really the only thing grabbing that same point in the same lighting situation. However, for those of you who don't take photos in caves and dimly lit bars you'll find the auto focus works just fine most of the time.

3.9 FPS

While not a blazing shooting rate, it does appear to work as advertised. I've tested the camera with Lexar 300X and Sandisk Extreme IV cards and have been able to verify that the camera shoots at this rate. I've never been a machine gunner when it comes to taking photographs, even when it comes to sports, and find the shooting speed well within the way I work.

Highlight Tone Priority

I won't go into detail too much on this here because I've covered it before in my review of the 1Ds Mark III. I will say that Highlight Tone Priority for the most part does a good job retaining bright whites at that clipping point. As mentioned by Canon, there may be an increase of noise in the shadows when enabling this feature. After shooting for over a year with the 1Ds Mark III with this feature I find I mostly use it in situations where I'm dealing with shooting people with white garments or landscapes, however, I use it pretty rarely as the 14 bit sensor captures an impressive amount of dynamic range already.

A very dangerous road.
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Canon 5D Mark II- 200mm f/2.8L
ISO 200 - f/11 - 1/320


Resolution
Reslution/Image Quality Test Image
Click to download 5D Mark II and 1Ds Mark III raw files.
Canon 5D Mark II 50mm f/1.2L
ISO 100 - f/8 - 1/160

I photographed the above test image with both the Canon 1Ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II using the same 50mm f/1.2L lens. Also, there is a link with both raw images in a zip file for you to play with. The little red squares are just the crop zones I'm about to speak about. Since I am comparing camera raw files of the same resolution and apparently the same sensor I applied the same modest sharpening in ACR 5 for both images.


Details

Detail 100% Crop 1

Very quickly I was able to determine that the image resolution and sharpness was deadly similar between the 5D Mark II and the 1Ds Mark III. This makes sense because they are indeed the same sensor technology. However, I am noticing something that is just very slightly different between the two images. It would appear to me that the 5D Mark II seems to be perceptually brighter than the 1Ds Mark III and for whatever reason the 1Ds Mark III, even with the same lens, holds a slightly bluer look to it. Perhaps it's a new anti-alias filter tint coming into play.

Detail 100% Crop 2

In crop two you can see what I'm talking about in the hammer handle. The 1Ds Mark III image is slightly darker and perhaps bluer. However, the resolution itself seems to be the same.

Detail 100% Crop 3

It's such a slight effect, but it is there. The blue vase is just a slightly richer blue than the 5D Mark II. At this point I was beginning to suspect some sort of curve difference perhaps between the base calibration of the bodies. I tested this a million (or so) times and kept seeing it.

Detail 100% Crop 4

In crop 4 you can pretty clearly see the blacks in the mask are just slightly darker in the 1Ds Mark III shot. You can also notice this in the shadows under the rock. Because this difference in tonal quality is so slight I don't believe it's "bad thing". I just think it "is". I did tests later on utilizing a laser level, protractor, and a frisbee (and I'll save you from those exciting results), but I found that this tonal shift was universal.


Color

Color Crop 100% - 5D Mark II
Color Crop 100% - 1DS Mark III

Beyond the tonal shift the color calibration between the two cameras is rather interesting to me. The 5D Mark II seems to have a fuller richer red. The dark blue swatch seems to be a little richer for the 1Ds Mark III. It's just a very slight difference and nothing I would be terribly worried about. (Please excuse the well abused MacBeth Chart, I work for a living and am hard on my gear)


Real World Resolution and Image Quality

The dead tree at the bottom of Spider Hill
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Canon 5D Mark II 85mm f/1.2L
ISO 400 - f/10 - 1/125

The dead tree at the bottom of Spider Hill
100% Crop

In this "real world" example you can see that the 5D Mark II does a nice job of capturing detail. I chose a subject that has both subtle colors and lot of highlight, middle, and shadow detail. If you have ever shot with any of the higher end PhaseOne backs you'll notice the still rather strong effect of the anti-alias filter getting in the way of true pixel sharpness on the 5D Mark II, but this is the way of digital SLRs. What I'm saying is the sensor itself and the lens used for this photograph could likely squeeze more detail out of this scene, but the anti-alias filter (which removes moire patterns) is softening up the image a bit. That said, these are amazing results for a camera at this price point.

Let's move on to something a little more tangible.

ISO Performance
ISO Noise Test Image
Download CR2 Raw Files
Canon 5D Mark II - 85mm f/1.2L
f/8 multiple ISO and shutter speeds

Okay, so above I have created a test setup with lots of highlight and shadow detail. I've also included a link to a zip file with this same setup from the 5D Mark II from ISO 50-25600. Feel free to download them and see what you can come up with. One warning though, the zip file is 280 mb. So go grab a drink or something while it's downloading.

Let's look at some 100% crops.

ISO Test Crop #1
100% Crop

While using this hammer and painting at some point my fingerprint got stuck in the paint apparently. Again, the 1Ds Mark III seems to have more of a blue tint to it, which is easily correctable (and vice versa for the 5D Mark II). Details are pretty much retained all the way up to ISO 6400, which is pretty awesome in my opinion. I think with more aggressive noise processing you can certainly use the ISO 12800 and 25600 images, if nothing else, for web reproduction. For me I think the highest I'll be going is ISO 6400 to maintain print quality.

ISO Test Crop #2
100% Crop

In the above crop I would focus more on the gray left side area and not worry about the sharpness here. It was likely an issue caused by misalignment when I set up the test shot, but again lets look at the gray area. The 5D Mark II does indeed seem to have a slight advantage in the noise department around ISO 800-3200. However, in contrast, I am impressed at how well the 1Ds Mark III is doing at ISO 3200. Results, in my opinion, that beg me to ask.... Why was ISO 6400 not included with the 1Ds Mark III? Hmmm.

Let's look at a real world example.

Devon
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Canon 5D Mark II - 85mm f/1.2L
ISO 6400 - f/1.2 - 1/60

Here's Devon. She's hosting karaoke and preparing her next track. She's only illuminated by a laptop screen and the ambient house lights which are VERY dim. Let's take a closer look at an unprocessed crop of an ISO 6400 image from the 5D Mark II.

Devon ISO 6400 Unprocessed 100% Crop

Whoa Nelly! This is the image straight from the camera's belly. An unprocessed, unsharpened, no noise reduction raw file. Now you would never do that because raw files need some sort of tinkering (which is really half the fun of it anyways) to get an exceptable image. Let's do that.


Devon ISO 6400 Processed 100% Crop

Ah. There we go. Processed in ACR 5, with a little chroma and luminance, a hair of sharpening, eye of newt, and toe of frog and we have an extremely usable image. In fact I could probably go in with Noise Ninja or even just Photoshop itself to clean things up more.


Stephanie 1
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Canon 5D Mark II - 50mm f/1.2L
ISO 400 - f/8 - 1/160


HD Video

Santa Monica Sunrise
Click for HD resolution
Canon 5D Mark II Sample Movie

Possibly the most interesting and yet controversial features on the new Canon 5D Mark II is the ability to record full resolution 1080p movies. It's sparked quite a buzz through out the industry. Many photographers apparently don't like the idea of this new breed of combo cameras. However, if you are an independent filmmaker you are likely drooling out of your ears with ideas and possibilities.

Some quick notes about the video above before I go on. All of that was shot in approximately 1 hour and edited in about 22 minutes. The song, "Last Night in L.A.", is from my last album. I start out by pushing the camera pretty hard to see if it can even shoot the sand comber in the dark. Then when the sun comes out I popped on -6 ND on the 50mm f/1.2L while shooting the rings to see if I could even get that aperture to happen automatically.

A little background on this whole video mess. For a very long time achieving "film like' depth of field has been the bane to the existence of the independent filmmaker. Years ago people who were handy with machining and macro lenses developed their own "35mm Depth of Field" adapters to use 35mm lenses and motion picture lenses on their consumer/prosumer level video cameras. Later on this actually spawned into an industry with companies like Redrock Micro, Cinevate, and Letus offering much nicer commercially available adapters. However, these adapters have never been perfect and always result in some sort of light loss. And on cameras at this price point that is not a good thing and the next really clean options range in price from $18,000 and up.

Enter Nikon and Canon with their new "combo cams" (credit I think goes to Michael Reichmann for coining that phrase). These new cameras promised larger sensors which allowed for greater control over depth of field and much improved noise performance. However, both Nikon's and Canon's offerings have tremendous downsides as well as their own advantages. Let me focus back on the 5D Mark II.

In the world of motion pictures most movies are filmed on a Super 35mm Motion Picture frame, or 4perf (24.89x18.66mm). Now the really fascinating thing about the 5D Mark II is the image area you record on is a full 35mm still frame (36x24mm). Which is actually much closer to the larger image area of the Vista Vision 8perf frame (37.7x25.17mm). This format is rarely used today and I myself have only worked on a handful of Vista Vision movies. So in the broadest terms the Nikon D90, with it's crop factor sensor - is closer to a Super 35mm frame, while the Canon 5D Mark II is closer to the Vista Vision frame. (Which I personally think is cool)

Okay, enough history and geekery. The downsides to having full HD on the Canon 5D Mark II is that Canon has limited photographers/filmmakers to just one shooting mode. And that my friends is the Devil born "fully automatic" mode. Meaning, the camera selects the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO range that you'll be shooting in. You do however have a 2 stop adjustment range and you can indeed lock exposure.

Other downsides. You are limited to about 12 minutes of recording (not really a bad thing in my book), you are forced to shoot 30fps, and due to the CMOS sensor design and data reading properties of the sensor we are presented with a horrible image artifact that people have affectionately called "jello". Meaning if you pan too quickly your vertical lines in frame suddenly turn into diagonals. Even much more expensive cameras have this issue, and it's a much bigger issue projected on a 40 foot screen.

Okay. Enough negatives. The Canon 5D Mark II is a tool and if you play to it's strengths when it comes to video you can indeed produce some extremely lovely footage (<--we really need a digital term for footage nowadays).

So just what are those strengths? Here's a few...

- Full frame depth of field
- The ability to utilize a wide variety of lenses.
- High quality video codec that produces workable footage.
- Light and compact camera form factor. (this is good and bad)
- Relatively inexpensive entry level camera price considering the alternatives.
- Amazing low light performance that rivals cameras that are MUCH more expensive.

Also, what I and many others have done is purchased up some old manual Nikon AI-s lenses and the adapter ring that fits to Canon's EF mount. This allows you to at least have control over aperture. Utilizing this and a cautious metering method with a large gray card you actually have a camera that can produce some extremely professional results somewhat consistently.

Canon has also included an autofocus feature in video mode as well, but in reality if you are doing any serious work making films, music videos, or commercials you'll be using manual focus anyways. There is also an on board microphone. For more controlled work you'll at a minimum want something like the Sennheiser MKE400 or a much nicer external setup with a Marantz PMD660 with an external shotgun mic and maybe some wireless units to sync up later.

If you are new to it, the world of motion pictures is pretty scary and daunting at first. You'll want to get fluid video head on your tripod quickly. Eventually you'll want something like a GlideCam, maybe even find the need for some jib and crane shots, most definitely you'll find a need for a track and dolly, not to mention that lighting for cinema and stills is a wildly different and much more expensive world. All of this is going to end up costing you moolah, but don't panic! There are cheap solutions, some you can even make yourself, and if not - you can rent most of this stuff when you need it anyways. However, I will say that you'll likely need to buy a pretty capable computer if you plan on editing full HD footage.

All of that said I'd like to recommend a few things to young and new filmmakers that I think will make life easier. I'm not Speilberg, Cameron, or Lucas - but I have been working in motion pictures for a decade and I do teach occasionally. Hopefully some of this can get you on your way.

1. Buy a nice tripod with a fluid head. This is the most basic tool in your arsenal and you'll use one for everything you shoot. A steady shot looks much more professional and cleaner.

2. Start out small and work your way up. What I mean by this is I'm sure you've been dreaming of finally making your 4 hour epic story about Peter Prancer and how he learned to dance in the wilds of Australia by a dragon name Pohpetto, but it's going to likely cost you some real cash to get to Australia, and day rates on dancing dragons are through the roof right now.

Movies are 3 acts. 1. Man is hungry. 2. Man makes sandwich. 3. Man eats sandwich and is satisfied.

Then think about adding things like side plots, inserts, etc. What if there was no cheese in the fridge? How does he get to the grocery store? What if he meets a pretty girl in the dairy section? Does she like sandwiches? Where did the keys to his car go? You get the idea.

3. Be creative. Do not let the cost of tools shake you down to a pile of broken nerves. Think of what you want to do and what you can do to make it "real".

Enough pep talk, let's wrap up the review.

Stephanie 2
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Canon 5D Mark II - 85mm f/1.2L
ISO 400 - f/2.8 - 1/320

If you would like to view more images shot with the 5D Mark II that were not in this review click this link.


Final Thoughts

These are interesting times for photographers. It wasn't too long ago that cameras of this quality would cost your your soul and your first born. Now it seems the big three camera manufactures are hip to the 20+ megapixel game and I imagine that this is the current sweet spot for digital SLRs in terms of resolution. How does the 5D Mark II fair? I'd say pretty well, especially within Canon's current body line up.

The original 5D was no slouch for the price and the new 5D Mark II is an upgrade in pretty much every possible way AND for $600 cheaper than the original. Do I have issues with the camera? Yes. However, I am extremely realistic about these magic picture taking boxes and utilize them as tools. I really don't favor a brand in any way shape or form, but I admit I am indeed a Canon shooter. However, I also occasionally use PhaseOne backs and whenever there is new technology from Nikon I'm usually the first guy on my block who wants to play with the new toy. I was also impressed by Sony's offering with the A900, but didn't love the feature set.

In reality though at this price point, even with the limitations of the HD video mode, it's still an amazing deal. I've already shot footage that I could not shoot with rigs that cost me 3x the price of this camera and in higher quality no less.

Is the camera for you? I don't know. That's why I wrote this and provided the raw files for you to look at. Me? I was looking for a smaller back up body for my 1Ds Mark III and having the added ability to shoot video was only a bonus. I think some will hate that feature, while I think some photo journalists are going to fall in love with it. The 1Ds Mark III will still be the thing I reach for first in my bag. The body and autofocus alone make it my camera of choice. However, if I shot more street work, shot weddings, or just needed to finally get rid of that pesky Canon D30 finally (you guys know you're out there) I'd say the 5D Mark II is a great buy.

Canon is no longer the highest resolution game on the block, which is rare for them. I do think that a year from now they will have a new 1 series of some sort with a 16 bit sensor, maybe a weaker anti-alias filter (or non at all), full manual video, selectable frames per second in movie mode (1fps-120fps). It will likely be in the 28-34 megapixel range as I feel we are encroaching on optical quality with some lenses already. I'd love to see some push for a raw movie format and Adobe Camera Raw to have some sort of support to color correct footage.

For me the new camera is fun and functional.

Now go out and takes some pictures! erm... I mean make some movies! Or whatever!

I hope you enjoyed the review,

Phil

phil@artbyphil.com
www.phfx.com

Phil Holland 2008