Pattaya / Canon 5D Mark II User Review by Stickman

Almost two years ago Stick and I took a few days and headed out on the road for a photographic tour of no where specific.  Our goal was to get to know each other a bit better and share a hobby we both enjoyed.  At the time we left I knew Stick’s equipment list consisted of a Canon 20D (1.6x crop DSLR) and some basic lenses and because he enjoyed photography so much I felt it was my civic duty to expose him to some more advanced (read expensive) equipment so he could look forward to his next purchase.  I loaned him my original 5D for the entire trip and the full frame sensor and high image quality obviously wetted his appetite for an upgrade.  At the time we both thought the new 5D replacement would be only months away, but the original 5D was so successful that Canon didn’t see fit to upgrade it for another two years.

As an aside, during our trip I remember Stick asking what advantages the $8000 USD Canon 1ds Mark II offered over the 5D.  “Several I said, it’s a professionals tool.”  I then handed him the 1ds Mark II with the 70-200mm F2.8 IS lens attached and said “try letting the autofocus track the license plates on the cars heading at us at 100kph.”  After a few minutes he handed it back and said his 20D could never do that.. but best not to dream about a $8000 USD camera.. the $2999 USD 5D dream was quite enough and all that he needed as it will be for most.

The original 5D was ground breaking.  Previously if you wanted a full frame DSLR you had to spend $8000 USD for a 1ds or the new 1ds Mark II.  No consumer full frame model was available from any manufacturer.  Then Canon announced the 5D at the list price of $2999 and it took the photographic world by storm!  All of a sudden full frame DSLRs and their superior image quality became within reach of the well heeled amateur and hobbyist.  The 5D became the industry standard for overall image quality and high ISO low noise performance.  Even Nikon’s ground breaking 12mp (same pixel count as the 5D) D3 and subsequent D700 with four year newer technology couldn’t surpass the image quality of the original 5D below ISO 1600.  They did raise the bar in image quality with higher ISO performance from 1600 - 25600.  However, for nearly four years the Canon 5D was the ONLY full frame option for those not wanting to plunk down $8000 USD for a Canon 1ds Mark II and later the 1ds Mark III.

As we speak the 5D’s replacement, the 5D Mark II is hitting the shelves of camera stores the world over.  And it’s offering the same 21 megapixel count on a full frame sensor as the $8000 USD Canon 1ds Mark III!  The sensor in the 5D Mark II is newer technology than the one used in the Canon 1ds Mark III and the 5D Mark II offers newer tech features over the 1ds Mark III like a bigger LCD with a lot more resolution, HDTV 1080p movie mode and more.  For $5000 USD less!!!  There are legitimate reasons to choose the 1ds Mark III over the 5d Mark II despite the $5000 USD price premium, but these reasons won’t apply to most, only the professionals who need the advantages of the 1d series body.  The original 5D became a legend and image quality benchmark, and the 5D Mark II promises the same.  Rob over at www.1ds.com gave us a taste of the new 5D Mark II a few weeks ago, and this week Stick brings us another user report that I believe will be valuable to those considering the same upgrade.

This starts Stick’s User report.

I am not an impulse buyer.  I take time before I buy a new product and the more the product costs, the longer I linger over the purchase decision.  You’d therefore think that the 100,000 odd baht Canon 5D Mark II would have been something I’d pain over for a long time before making the purchase decision.  Wrong!  Within 30 minutes of the first tiny shipment of Canon’s latest wonder toy arriving in my local camera store I had plunked down the readies for the baby 1DS III and picked up a 35mm 1.4L for good measure.

Why the impetuousness?  Like BKKSW, I love photography and I keep abreast of the latest developments in the photography world.  After using BKKSW’s original 5D 2 years ago when we took a small photographic tour together, I had been in love with full-frame.  I’ve been waiting for the 5D II long before it was announced in September and had had a quiet word with my local store about getting one when it arrived.

What you need to understand is that I currently own a Canon 20D and as such have gone down the Canon path.  Professionals tend to use one of either Nikon or Canon - with some pros using both although that could get very expensive.  It is not just the camera but the system you buy into and as I am in the Canon system, so to speak, the 5D II was the natural upgrade choice for me.

Consider this a real world review, not a pixel peeper’s technical analysis.  The destination of choice to try out the mark II was Pattaya, a city that comes alive at night.  How would the 5D II’s auto focus cope in the low light of the Pattaya evening?  Would the high ISO exceed that of the original 5D?  Read on!

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

General Handling

The 5D II feels good in the hand and has a solidity about it that the 20D was lacking.  That said, I slipped over a couple of times with the 20D and dropped it once and you could barely make out a scratch.  The 5D II again inspires confidence.  Playing around with it the day I bought it a friend suggested that I should keep it in a bag to keep it new and shiny.  No way Jose!  My camera is a tool and while I do not wish to see it scuffed and marked, I have confidence that it will take the knocks and bumps and continue to work well for me.  That’s what I like so much about the 5D II.  It inspires confidence.

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

Auto Focus

Much has been made of the fact that the 5D II uses the same auto focus system as found in the original 5D.  It is fast and accurate.  Very accurate.  In fact there is a certain surety about it that gives confidence that it nails the focus first time, every time.  Wandering around Bangkok and Pattaya late at night and shooting in very low light I found the focus locked on to my subject every time.  Amazingly, I have not had one out of focus shot yet!

Compared to my 20D, the focus is more accurate and this instills a certain confidence in the photographer.  The 20D’s focus was as fast, but it was "temperamental".  With the 24–70L attached, the 20D nailed focus 99.9% of the time but with other lenses you’d find 5% of shots were mysteriously out of focus - even in ideal light.  And with the 70-200 F4L it really could be described as a bit of a lottery.  That remains my only lens slower than 2.8 and it never really performed consistently on the 20D, at least in terms of focus.  When it was good it was great, but there would be many occasions when it would miss focus in bright conditions for no apparent reason.

The 5D doesn’t hunt like the 20D did in low light and while it may not be quite 1-series accuracy, I tell you, it is more than good enough for me and as such I’d guess it’s more than good enough for most.  If you have decent technique, I really cannot see any reason to complain about the autofocus system.  Even in very dimly lit bars the 5D didn’t hunt AT ALL.  It locked on the target and held it.

The AI servo works great and I had no problem capturing fast moving targets like motorcyclists roaring around Pattaya, as can be seen from the shot below.

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

(Both the 20D and the 5D Mark II have 9 AF sensors and the same basic AF scheme.  However, the 5D Mark II does offer some not so obvious upgrades that explain the performance difference Stick describes.  In the 20D only the center AF sensor was a “cross-type”, which means it detects motion in both the horizontal and vertical planes making it twice as sensitive as the other 8 AF sensors.  In the 5D Mark II ALL 9 AF sensors are cross-type, and if you use a F2.8 lens they’ll all be activated and at full sensitivity.  The way the sensors work exactly in relation to the largest available aperture is beyond the scope of this user review, but if you care to look on page 87 of the 5D Mark II manual it is well documented.  Also, the AF programming in the firmware is constantly tweaked and upgraded with newer models --  BKKSW)

Image quality

I cannot explain just quite how good the image quality from this baby is; superlatives really don’t do it justice.  The images literally leap off the screen at you and the level of detail as well as the ridiculously low amount of noise is breathtaking.  Even with no tinkering in Photoshop whatsoever, as per the snap of the motorcycle taxi rider below, they have real punch and just plain look great right out of the camera.  Whereas the files from my 20D often needed some work in Photoshop to give them that "pop", the 5D II files out of the camera are phenomenal!

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

ISO Performance

There is ZERO noise from 100 – 400 and zero noise at 800 ISO if you expose correctly.  800 ISO really is as clean as a whistle and no different to 200 ISO on the 20D.  Noise arrive starts to rear its ugly head from 1000 ISO up but even at 1600 ISO it is very, very mild and not an issue at all.  You have to view an image at 100% on a monitor to see it - in other words, it is not really noticeable at all.  By 3200 ISO noise is apparent but still hardly an issue and in fact all the way to 6400 ISO, if you nail the exposure noise is not problematic.  I imagine that printed images at 6400 ISO would look just fine although I must admit I have yet to test that theory.  3200 ISO images that were properly exposed on the 20D looked just great printed so I think I can safely say that any decently exposed image from the 5D is going to look even better.  (Smaller prints show much less noise than larger prints, you’ll find that 4x6” or 5x7” prints will look great from the 5D Mark II even at the highest ISO’s if the image was properly exposed. – BKKSW)

It has to be said that while noise is not an issue, colour tone and contrast starts to drop at 3200 ISO.  The noise level is no real issue but the colours lack a little saturation and need a tweak or two in post processing.

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

12800 remains quite useable whereas 25600 ISO would really only be used in a pinch and would remain best as an option for images that will just be shown online.  That said, these high ISO levels become somewhat obsolete if you have fast glass.  Match the affordable 50mm 1.4 with the 5D II and you will never need to go even as high as 6400 ISO!  12800 and 25600 become academic.

Pattaya through Canon 5d MarkII

Battery Life

Canon claims that the battery life of the 5D II is much improved over the mark I.  I ripped off 550 shots in Pattaya and was examining and pixel peeping every other shot so I was using the LCD a lot.  Also, as I was shooting people moving and motorcycles roaring around the streets I often used AI Servo which can drain the battery.  I charged before I left Bangkok and did not need to charge again before I returned.  The battery level indicator showed that there was around 1/3  battery charge remaining indicating that shooting several hundred shots with much LCD screen use is quite possible on one charge.

Overall

One of the unnecessary accessories I bought with the 20D was an extra battery and I don’t think I will make that mistake again.  I seldom shoot more than 250 – 300 shots in one shoot before returning to base so one battery should suffice.  (In my opinion a spare battery is cheap insurance.  It’s not so much about the battery running out of juice, which it will do much quicker as the battery ages, but it’s more about the risk of the battery failing. Everyone with a cell phone, IPod, laptop, or other device running off a lithium-ion battery knows how these batteries can be perfectly fine one day, and stop working for no apparent reason the next.  A charged spare battery is cheap insurance and a solid practice.  --  BKKSW)

What don’t I like about the camera?  It’s pretty hard to find anything to gripe about really.  If I had one small complaint, it would be that the information in the viewfinder is a little dim.  It could have, even should have, been brighter.  But that is nitpicking and it really is about the only issue I can find with the camera.  Some say there should be less plastic in its construction.  Nonsense.  It is built like a little tank.  Ah yes, perhaps a flash would have been useful.  There was one shot I took during daylight hours which really needed just a little fill flash to brighten the subject.  There seems to be a notion that on a semi professional level camera a fill in flash is not appropriate but I cannot say I agree with that.

I guess also the fact that the files the camera produces are so big is a bit of a pain. but we can blame that more in the fact that I am processing them on a 3-year old laptop.  A new computer with a faster processor and more RAM would make a much better fist of handling the files.

(Great User Review!!!  Thanks Stick!  I’m looking forward to more of your images!  -- BKKSW)