Canon 5D Mark II Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Resolution: 21.10 Megapixels
Sensor size: 35mm
Kit Lens: 4.40x zoom
24-105mm
(24-105mm eq.)
Viewfinder: Optical / LCD
ISO: 50-25600
Shutter: 30-1/8000
Max Aperture: 4.0
Dimensions: 6.0 x 4.5 x 3.0 in.
(152 x 114 x 75 mm)
Weight: 56.0 oz (1,588 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
MSRP: $3,499
Availability: 11/2008
Manufacturer: Canon
Full specs: Canon 5D Mark II specifications
21.10
Megapixels
Canon EF 35mm
size sensor
image of Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Front side of Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera Back side of Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera Top side of Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera Left side of Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera Right side of Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera

5D Mark II Summary

The Canon EOS-5D Mark II raises the standards of the entire EOS line, as it is the first EOS digital SLR camera to offer both still and video capture. The Canon 5D Mark II also includes most of the hardware and software upgrades that the company introduced on the Canon 50D.

Imaging Resource rating

5.0 out of 5.0

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Canon 5D Mark II Overview

Reviewed by Shawn Barnett, , and Zig Weidelich
Review Date:

The Canon EOS-5D Mark II raises the standards of the entire EOS line, as it is the first EOS digital SLR camera to offer both still and video capture. The Canon 5D Mark II also includes most of the hardware and software upgrades that the company introduced on the Canon 50D.

Its upgrades are welcome, because though the Canon 5D leads the race for overall image quality for many photographers, it lags behind in a few key areas, most of which improve with the 5D Mark II.

Though no one at Imaging-Resource.com would say that 12.8 megapixels is insufficient, the new 21.1-megapixel sensor will likely be a welcome upgrade, especially to professional photographers who already use a 5D. Sony's latest digital SLR, the A900, raised expectations for high-end digital SLR performance, at least in terms of resolution, and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II indeed outperforms that camera in terms of its noise-to-detail ratio at high ISO.

Canon also takes on the Nikon D3 and D700 with this new high-resolution sensor, as the 5D Mark II also offers an expanded ISO range from 50 to 25,600. While the former two cameras achieve 100 to 25,600 expanded, they do it at 12.1 megapixels.

Canon has also included the new DIGIC 4 processor, capable of handling the extremely large 14-bit RAW images at the new high speed of 3.9 frames per second.

The new 920,000-dot LCD introduced on the Canon 50D also makes it over to the new Canon 5D Mark II, something the new 5D's competitors also have in their arsenal. The 5D Mark II also shares the Live View features found on the 50D, complete with contrast-detect autofocus and silent shutter modes.

Many of the other features that debuted on the Canon 50D are included in the 5D Mark II, but one major new feature that probably should have made it into the 50D makes its stand instead in the 5D Mark II: HD video capture. That's right, this high-end digital SLR can capture movies at 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30 frames per second. We'd have expected them to have this in the 50D simply to go up against Nikon's D90, which can do 720p video, but that'll have to wait until the next version, perhaps.

The Canon 5D Mark II is quite a camera, one that seems to trump the other two full-frame digital SLR cameras in this price range. Indeed, the fact that its expected body-only pricing will be $2,699, $300 less than the Sony A900 and Nikon D700, makes the 5D Mark II that much more appealing. The Canon EOS-5D Mark II is slated to ship at the end of November 2008. Canon will also offer a kit that includes a 24-105mm Canon L lens for a price tag of $3,499. See the User Report below for the full story.

 

Canon 5D Mark II
User Report

by Shawn Barnett, with Mike Tomkins

Called a Premium digital SLR at its introduction, the original Canon EOS 5D has aged significantly over the last three years. Nevertheless, it's still regarded by many as the best image-maker on the market in its class, with a remarkably smooth tone curve. Indeed, I said that images from the EOS 5D had an intangible quality that was difficult to quantify. Everything has a more "real" look to it, a truer representation, such that you feel like you could reach out and touch the object or person photographed.

Has Canon maintained that ethereal quality? So much has changed in the market since 2004, it's a good question. Nikon has thrown down the gauntlet in several areas of image quality, especially in terms of high ISO performance, that it would be understandable if Canon had to abandon the surprisingly good tone curve exhibited by the 5D.

Since there is no way to measure the unmeasurable, I'll have to leave it to you whether the Canon 5D Mark II maintains the same level of magic, but what's sure is that Canon's attention to the high ISO issue has produced a camera whose high resolution images stand up to substantial enlargement even at the highest settings. The 5D Mark II also gives you plenty of freedom to play confidently with ISO settings, moving with confidence up to ISO 800 with nearly no loss of detail and ridiculously low chroma noise, especially considering the 21.1-megapixel sensor size.

The Canon 5D Mark II is aimed at the high end of the enthusiast market, less so at the "doctor/lawyer" crowd we placed the 5D with. It's also aimed at the professional photographer looking for a smaller body. Today there are far more photographers willing to pay for a serious digital SLR camera, and the Canon EOS 5D delivers.

The Canon 5D Mark II is also a pleasure to use, feeling every bit a premium digital SLR, yet with the ease of a Canon 50D.

Look and feel. The appearance of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is all business, just like the rest of the cameras in this enthusiast lineup. Controls are almost perfectly placed, and will be familiar to owners of just about any Canon camera in its class dating back to the Canon 20D.

The body-only weight of the 5D Mark II is 1.78 pounds (810g), and dimensions are 6 x 4.5 x 3 inches (152 x 113.5 x 75mm). These measurements are essentially identical to the original Canon 5D.

The camera is substantial, but not so bulky that it's hard to hold for those with medium-sized hands. The heft definitely adds to the 5D Mark II's stability when shooting, and the big grip has a notch to help guide your hand to the perfect position every time. Those with smaller hands might find the 5D Mark II a bit cumbersome.

From the front, the 5D Mark II has a slight redesign, with less of a nod to the 1D aesthetic, particularly around the pentaprism housing. Three new elements stand out, though. The first is the new infrared remote control sensor that appears right below the self-timer light (between the grip and the lens mount). This feature has been missing from all of Canon's high-end digital SLRs until now, confined to the Rebel series. So instead of purchasing a rather limiting cable or an expensive remote control unit, you can buy an RC-1 or RC-5 remote control for under $30.

Just beneath the 5D badge are three holes for the Movie mode's monaural microphone. Below that is the Mark II logo that clearly distinguishes this model from the last. I also like the grippy surface on this side of the camera, combined with a flat front, which makes it easier to hold the camera with the left when checking images or making settings.

One other item to consider when looking at the front of the Canon 5D Mark II is that big mirror inside. It's a full frame camera, equal in size to 35mm film. As great as that is, existing owners of more recent Canon hardware will have to leave their EF-S lenses out of the equation when considering a Canon EOS 5D Mark II as their next camera, because EF-S lenses won't even mount on the Mark II. Their short back focus design sticks into the camera body so much that it would get hit by the large mirror; as such, the camera won't accept the lenses at all.

Notably missing from the Canon 5D Mark II is a pop-up flash, something we were happy to see on the Nikon D700 full-frame digital SLR. Even for pros, a small flash in a pinch is a welcome option.

The larger 3-inch LCD pushed only a few items around on this decidedly large camera: the four buttons to the left have moved closer to the edge, and they're joined by the delete button (marked by a trashcan icon). The power switch, too, got nudged right a bit. Just right of the optical viewfinder are four holes for the speaker, where you can listen to audio recorded in Movie mode. The Print/Share button just left of the optical viewfinder also serves as the Live View mode toggle button. And the AF-ON button that first appeared on the Canon 40D arrives on the 5D Mark II. Also note the seal around the hot shoe, designed to mate with the Canon 580EX II to keep water out.

One bit that puts the Canon 5D Mark II into the premium category is the small light sensor that appears just right of the power switch, which adjusts the LCD brightness based on the ambient light.

The thumbgrip on the back is also large and textured for an excellent hold.

From the top we get a view of the finest kit lens Canon has ever bundled with a camera, the image-stabilized Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS zoom lens. (Click here to see our review of this lens on SLRgear.com). The Canon 5D, like its competitors, has no Scene modes, though it does have three custom modes where you can store your own settings. Another new addition from the Canon 50D is the new Creative Auto mode, which allows the user to adjust the Flash, resolution, drive mode, and Picture Style, as well as shoot RAW. A special menu lets you adjust aperture settings in terms of desired background blur, and exposure times in terms of whether you want the image darker or brighter.

The control buttons to the right, appearing above the Status LCD have been reshuffled and regrouped from their positions on the original 5D, with Metering and White balance bundled on the first button, AF and Drive modes on the second button, and ISO and EV compensation on the third button. The Status LCD light button has been moved from first position near the pentaprism to fourth. It might be that the larger pentaprism inside made this move necessary, as the Canon 50D's illumination button didn't move.

Larger viewfinder. Click for callouts.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder in the Canon 5D Mark II has a bigger pentaprism, and now offers 98% coverage instead of 96%, along with a 21mm eyepoint instead of 20mm. Owners of the original Canon 5D will also need to know that along with the viewfinder improvements comes a change to a newer series of interchangeable screens.

I still find that the 5D Mark II's viewfinder vignettes somewhat when I look through it, but it is indeed larger than the original 5D. It's also surprisingly larger than the Nikon D700; though the D700's viewfinder is more comfortable to use. Finally, the 5D Mark II's viewfinder is smaller than the 1Ds Mark III and Sony A900, by about the same amount.

LCD. The Canon EOS 5D Mark II's LCD display has also been upgraded to the same unit used in the Canon 50D, which has a resolution of 920,000 dots, a 160-degree viewing angle, and Canon's triple coatings that aim to reduce glare, smudges, and scratches. Though at first the blue reflection is unfamiliar, it is superior in sunlight to some other displays on the market, including the original 5D's clear LCD glass.

Extra AF points.

Autofocus system. The autofocus sensor from the original Canon 5D has been carried over in the new 5D Mark II, still offering nine user-addressable autofocus points (one cross-type) and 6 non-addressable assist points, but the 5D Mark II autofocus system does include the lens micro-adjustment and light source detection functions we've seen on the company's other recent digital SLRs, so there are AF improvements even if the sensor itself hasn't been overhauled.

In use, I found the AF system to be quite good for portraits and other work, though it's hard to get used to the array's concentration in the center of the frame. The same AF-array dimensions are used in the Canon 50D, where the array seems huge, but on the 5D Mark II, most of the 35mm frame area remains uncovered.

Autofocus is fast, though, with full autofocus and image capture taking only 0.206 second. Focus speed varies by lens, of course, but the 5D Mark II's computation and slewing speed is among the fastest I've used. There's an advantage to having fewer AF points when it comes to computational speed, to be sure, as the 51-point AF system on the Nikon D300 and D700 can delay while the camera analyses the scene, while the 5D Mark II is quite a bit snappier.


Live View. Click image for callouts.

Live View. The Canon 5D Mark II also bests the original 5D by offering a live view function which is similar to that seen on the recent Canon 50D digital SLR, including a face-detection mode.

Though I advocate using the optical viewfinder most often when shooting the Canon 5D Mark II, Live View still has its uses, particularly when working on a tripod. But like other recent digital SLR offerings, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II offers two modes for focusing in Live View mode, one of which is faster than the other. Note that both modes are quite a bit slower than autofocusing via the optical viewfinder, hence my recommendation to use the optical viewfinder by default.

In both modes, you have to press the AF-ON button on the back of the 5D Mark II to autofocus. If you only press the shutter release, the camera will not focus. This takes some getting used to.

Quick mode. The first Live View focusing mode uses the traditional SLR method of flipping the mirror back down to use the phase-detect autofocus sensors for focusing. This can indeed be quicker so long as you put one of the nine AF points over an area with good contrast that enables fast focusing.

New to the system is that the selected AF points light up after the mirror flips back up to tell you which areas are in focus, rather than leaving that to guesswork as the Rebel XSi does. Autofocus in this mode is quite a bit slower than with the optical viewfinder, but faster than Live mode.

Live mode. Contrast-detect mode is called Live mode, because the Canon 5D Mark II does its focusing with the data that comes live from the sensor. You get a rectangle that you can move around the screen with the Multi-controller. When you press the AF-ON button, the Canon 5D Mark II focuses and changes the gray rectangle to green. You can zoom in either five or 10 times to confirm focus, the zoom following the AF point. It takes many seconds to focus in this mode, between 2.24 to 7.32 seconds in our testing. A histogram can also be overlaid over the image, though it's a shame that the histogram is still opaque, blocking so much of the image, rather than translucent as other companies have managed.

Live Face mode. We've all seen face detection by now, and if you've seen Canon's face detection on a simpler digital camera, you know about how well it detects faces on the Canon 5D Mark II: quite well. Autofocus is a lot slower on the 5D Mark II, however, as it has to process a lot more data to judge focus, and move far larger optics than are found in a digicam; but it's not bad. It'll take a few seconds to focus at times, especially when handheld. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. The system can track far more faces than other systems we've seen at this point, though, at up to 35 forward-looking faces.

If the Canon 5D Mark II detects more than one face, it adds two arrows around the frame it's placed around its top-priority face, telling you that you can turn the Quick Command dial to select another face as the priority.

Interface. The Canon 5D Mark II's interface is mostly inherited from the Canon EOS 50D. It includes a tabbed menu that you can navigate with either the Main dial and the Quick Control dial or the Multi-controller joystick. The Main dial moves among tabs regardless of your position in the menu, and the Quick Control dial moves up and down through the menu items. The Multi-controller moves through the tabs when pressed left and right, and moves up and down when pressed up and down. Pressing down on the Multi-controller or Set button (in the middle of the Quick Control dial) confirms selections.

It's a well-evolved menu system that is easy to learn.

Canon kept the top deck status display, which is good for me, because I still use that by default; but the new rear menu is also handy for making changes as well, especially when the camera is mounted on a tripod. I'm not always happy with it, as it doesn't always respond how I think it should. Sometimes moving down doesn't take you to the place you think it should, instead requiring several different direction changes to reach the control you need. But overall, I'm glad it's there as a live menu, rather than just a static display.

Modes. Like the original 5D, the 5D Mark II has no special Scene modes as are found on the Canon 50D and Rebel series cameras. Instead, the 5D Mark II emphasizes the basics: Program, Shutter (Tv for Time Value), Aperture (Av for Aperture value), Manual, and Bulb.

In addition to the green zone mode, or Full Auto, there's a Creative Auto mode as seen on the EOS 50D. The CA mode is a cross between the Auto and Program modes. When set to CA mode, the Canon 5D Mark II allows the user to adjust the Flash, resolution, drive mode, and Picture Style. Setting aperture and exposure are converted to easier concepts of background blur (blurred or sharp), and exposure level (darker or brighter) with a slider that's adjusted with the Quick Control dial. The more complex exposure decisions remain under automatic control in CA mode. The exposure slider is the more useful, standing in as a more comprehensible EV adjustment for new users.

Canon has also improved upon the single Custom mode offered on the 5D to include three Custom modes on the 5D Mark II. All of these new modes can be accessed directly on the camera's mode dial.

Speed boost. The Canon EOS-5D Mark II gets a mild speed boost over its 3 fps predecessor, being rated as able to shoot images at 3.9 frames per second. Our measurements come up with 3.89, which is close enough for us. That's not bad considering how many bits it's moving thanks to its 21.1-megapixel sensor. Burst depth varies depending on whether you're using a standard or UDMA CompactFlash card. And since the 5D Mark II is compatible with UDMA through mode 6, the buffer clearing speeds could get faster. For UDMA cards, the 5D Mark II allows unlimited burst depth when shooting large / fine JPEGs, or as many as 14 Raw files; slightly shorter than the 17 Raw file burst possible in the original 5D, but then that's perhaps understandable given the higher burst speed and vastly higher image resolutions and resulting file sizes. Non-UDMA CompactFlash burst depth in Raw mode is only just slightly shorter, at 13 frames.

Variable RAW. The Canon 5D Mark II also offers a Variable Raw mode as seen in some of the company's past cameras. Given the huge 21.1-megapixel resolution, it's likely to be used quite often by photographers who don't need the vast file sizes but want the 5D Mark II's other features. The reduced Variable RAW sizes are approximately ten and five megapixels respectively, and are assembled from the full image frame without any cropping.

A few other useful features seen on Canon's past EOS 50D and carried over here are High ISO Noise Reduction (adjustable in four steps), an Auto Lighting Optimizer (again offering four steps), and perhaps most importantly for a full-frame digital SLR, Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction, or vignetting correction.

Sensor. Compared to the image sensor from the original Canon 5D, the pixel pitch in the 5D Mark II's imager has dropped from 8.2µm to 6.4µm -- the same as that of the 1Ds Mark III's sensor, as well as the EOS 20D's sensor, and the hardware architecture is also identical to that of the pro camera. However, the Canon 5D II's sensor sports new RGB color filters with an improved transmission rate.

A couple of improvements from the Canon 50D's image sensor also make their way into the 5D Mark II's imager: an improvement in the per-pixel, light-sensitive area, and nearly gapless microlenses. They've also improved the output amplifier to enable faster transfers, as well as a 30 fps HD movie output without heating up the sensor, and Canon tells us that there are other unspecified improvements to the way the image is developed on-chip. These changes are all said to come together to mean a cleaner signal that requires less amplification. According to our test results, Canon's engineers got it right, as the Canon 5D Mark II produces impressive images.

Storage and battery. The Canon 5D Mark II uses a standard CompactFlash Type I and II slot, but it supports UDMA Mode 6, which isn't even available on the market yet. Current UDMA cards support data transfer of up to 45MB per second, but when the Mode 6 cards arrive, they'll support up to 133MB per second.

The bigger news for the entire EOS line is the 5D Mark II's new Intelligent lithium-ion battery pack. Though it looks a lot like the old BP-511A that's still in the 50D, the 5D Mark II's LP-E6 has greater capacity (1,800mAh) and intelligence built in. While Sony has had these types of packs for some time, Canon's cameras have been quite a bit less informative about the battery status until the camera was close to running out.

The LP-E6 is even more informative than past systems, reporting battery life with six levels on the battery icon, and one percent increments in the Battery Info menu. The number of shots fired since last recharge is also recorded and accessible through the same menu, and the overall expected battery life is also tracked, giving an indication of when a battery has reached the end of its usable life. Since each battery has a unique serial number, this status can be displayed on the Canon 5D Mark II, making it easier to pick the best batteries from your arsenal on an important or longer shoot. It's quite a leap for the EOS system, and I'm hoping we'll see it on all future EOS cameras.

The new battery also has new recessed contacts, so it requires a new charger, the LC-E6 in the Americas, which includes the flip out prongs, and the LC-E6A which instead includes a power cord matched to the common power supplies in other regions.

Battery and Wireless grips. There's a new vertical battery grip, the BG-E6, which can accept either two LP-E6 batteries or a tray of AA batteries. There's also a new WFT-E4A wireless transmitter, which is essentially a clone of the WFT-E3A unit compatible with the Canon 40D and 50D, but with updates to support the power and connection requirements of the EOS 5D II camera body. This wireless transmitter allows you to attach either a GPS or a USB storage device.

Twig inventory. I'm not sure why I liked this big tree, but now I'm enjoying the fact that, if I wanted to, I could count every twig on this tree, thanks to the incredible detail recorded through the EF 24-105mm f/4 L lens at f/8.

Shooting with the 5D Mark II. If you've shot with any Canon EOS SLR for the past 20 years, you'll be quite familiar with the controls on the Canon 5D Mark II. They are laid out very well, making for a very utilitarian design whose true beauty is only discovered when you start to shoot.

Were it not for my familiarity with the Canon EOS design, the only criticism I'd give to the 5D Mark II is the location of its power switch, which is poorly located beneath the Quick Control dial. However, as I say, anyone familiar with EOS design will be accustomed to this oddity. I'm far more comfortable with the power switch around the shutter button, as it is on most Nikon SLRs. But that aside, I have to say it's all very easy to get used to.

Dark corner. I was pleased with the detail I found in this relatively dark corner of this Smith Family Plantation house. Normally I'd avoid ISO 6,400, but I flipped to it with confidence.

ISO is probably the setting I change most often, and I can do it with either the rear status display, the top status display, or the LED display in the viewfinder. I probably use each method about equally. When I need to make a change in a hurry while still composing through the viewfinder, the ISO button is easy to find on the top deck, just a half-inch behind the shutter button. Once pressed, I just turn the Main Command dial to make the change and the numbers change in the viewfinder. When I check and make my initial settings before I begin shooting, I alternate between the other two status displays. I'm more accustomed to using the top deck LCD, but find myself drawn to the colorful display on the back. The good feature is choice and versatility, since the creative photographer often looks at his camera from several directions depending on what and how he's shooting.

I've already said, but it bears repeating, that the AF cluster is probably the biggest adjustment a shooter switching from one of Canon's APS-C-sized digital SLRs will have to make. I think a lot more such people will and ought to make this move, but I think the caution is important. You'll have to adjust the way you shoot. It really is quite something to have a camera's AF system covering most of your frame. Even though I generally shoot with the center point, when shooting candids I will sometimes lean on Mulit-point AF systems to just make the best guess for me. Guesses were pretty reliable with the APS-C designs, but with a full-frame sensor, you not only have more to consider in the frame overall, the existing sensors, especially the center point, cover a far smaller percentage of the subject per point.

Add that the 5D Mark II's extremely high resolution full-frame sensor demands more from these lenses than ever before, and you start to see why getting focus right is so critical. The very narrow depth of field offered when shooting a closeup portrait indoors means that getting the eye instead of the eyebrow in focus will make or break a picture. I'm very grateful for the 5D Mark II's AF Microadjustment feature, because I was able to dial in several lenses before a recent shoot to ensure that my shots were indeed spot on, because I had a bad experience with the original 5D at times, especially when shooting portraits.

Spot-on. I was pleasantly surprised that though the depth of field in this shot was very narrow, it's right on his eye.

My first shot with the 5D Mark II illustrates the point nicely. It's not particularly noteworthy as a photograph, but I like it all the same. Click (twice) to see the full-size version, and you'll see that my son's eye is the only sharp point of focus on his face, as well as the halo of his hair right within the same plane. It's a good illustration of the problem one has when shooting wide open with any prime lens, as well as the main reason one chooses to shoot with a prime lens. The color balance is very cold on this image, but that was accurate for the light, so it's hard to fault the camera.

Also worth noting is how the image is framed a little more loosely than I normally would like. It's because I knew I had my EF 85mm f/1.8 attached, and expected that I'd need to be a little further back than I actually needed to be, because I'm used to how this lens performs on a cropped sensor. That's another adaptation you'll have to make when switching to or adding a 5D Mark II to your arsenal: your expectations for each full-frame lens before you pull it from the bag. I'd have done better with a 135mm lens for this subject, as that's about the equivalent of an 85mm lens on a Canon cropped sensor.

Live View makes it possible. Framing this down-angle shot would have required a ladder and very good balance, but the 5D Mark II's live view made it easy. Move the contrast-detect AF area to any one of the faces, and the rest was easy. Except having to get up and down between each shot (note the red face on the bearded photographer).

Handy View. Another good example of Live View's utility was when I shot our family portrait for this past holiday. Though I wish I had a taller tripod, it was good I didn't, because there was very little room in the basement, and I could just see the Live View on the LCD at that height and angle. I could have used a longer focal length and a taller tripod, but the main feature to see here is just the extraordinary detail. And yes, I did crop and touch up this shot before posting it here, since it features yours truly and I'm just not that honest.

Sports? Unless your timing is already well-developed, I don't recommend the Canon 5D Mark II for sports photography, despite its six additional autofocus points to help with focus tracking. Most of us need a faster frame rate than 3.9 per second. As such, I did not do any sports shooting with the 5D Mark II.

However, if you really want to capture sports with the 5D Mark II, why not try its HD movie mode?

Movie mode is what makes the Canon EOS 5D Mark II unique among other EOS digital SLRs: the addition of 1080p high definition video recording capability. Able to record 1,920 x 1,080 pixels or 640 x 480 pixels, both at 30 frames per second, this is a huge update compared to the original EOS-5D. The Canon 5D Mark II is limited to either a four gigabyte file size, or 29 minutes and 59 seconds of elapsed recording time.

The Canon 5D Mark II records its videos as .MOV files, using MPEG-4 compression. These files contain PCM audio sampled at 44Khz -- either recorded on the digital SLR's built-in mono microphone, or courtesy of a standard stereo microphone mini-jack. The Canon 5D Mark II is capable of offering both the Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction and Auto Lighting Optimizer functions for its movie capture mode as well as for stills. The same is not true of the camera's still image High ISO Noise Reduction function, however.

Movie sample. Click to download 52.3MB .MOV file. Note: This 1080p movie is only likely to play on fast, modern computers, with more recent movie players.

In use, though, the 5D Mark II's movie mode isn't as easy as a fully automated camcorder. It doesn't autofocus "live" on the fly as most will be accustomed to, and sudden changes of exposure level can cause momentary interruptions in the recorded video stream as the camera works to adjust settings. Exposure is also set automatically, including shutter speed (from 1/30 to 1/125), aperture and ISO sensitivity. You can use EV compensation to adjust exposure up and down, and focus manually by turning the focusing ring on the lens, but it's best to do these things before you begin recording, because making these adjustments makes noise that the microphone will pick up, and can cause camera movement whether on or off a tripod.

So unfortunately, you can't replace your camcorder outright with the Canon 5D like you can with some more conventional digital cameras. But what you can do is pretty impressive if you think of movie making like a photographer would. The best movies, in fact feature films, are made in small snippets that are cut together later to make the final story. Not unlike a wedding album. You're just planning and capturing more moments as video snapshots instead of still images. But it takes some practice.

The advantage you have is the ability to use wide angle and telephoto optics the like of which would cost you many thousands of dollars to duplicate on a high-end video camera. What you can do with bokeh (out of focus areas) to isolate your subjects from background and foreground, especially with short to long telephoto lenses, is pretty impressive. Fast lenses will also open up some interesting indoor and night cinematography opportunities to the fastidious video artist.

Note that the Canon 5D Mark II's video also suffers from the same Jello-effect we saw on the Nikon D90. It's an effect produced by the top-to-bottom linear method that the camera uses to draw an image off the sensor. If you pan rapidly, vertical lines in the image will appear to lean in the opposite direction of the pan. Pan back and forth rapidly and the entire image shakes like Jello.

Movie snap. One other notable movie-related point is that the Canon EOS-5D II offers a "movie snap" function. Essentially, it has separate shutter buttons for movie and still image recording, and if the user presses the still image shutter during movie recording, the camera will capture a full-resolution still image without ceasing to record the movie. It also inserts the still image into the movie, rather than leaving a blank frame. This concept will be quite familiar to those who use a Canon PowerShot S5 IS. It'll also remind you of spy movies where someone is taking dossier pictures of some suspect through a camera lens.

HDMI output. There's a Mini-HDMI output port for viewing images on a high-definition display, and you can obviously also watch your movies this way. The output is 1080i (interlaced), not 1080p (progressive), whereas the 5D Mark II's movie files themselves are captured and saved in 1080p, which is preferred. No cable is included, unfortunately, so you'll need a Mini-HDMI to HDMI cable, or an adapter.

 

Canon 5D Mark II Image quality

Canon 5D Mark II vs Canon 1Ds Mark III @ ISO 3,200

The Canon 5D Mark II's image quality is remarkable. High ISO performance is improved over the Canon 1Ds Mark III, as is the ISO range (the latter stopped at ISO 3,200). As such, we'll compare their ISO 3,200 images.

Canon 5D Mark II
ISO 3,200
Canon 1Ds Mark III
ISO 3,200
On the left we see how much cleaner the shadow areas are, and indeed even the oil inside is clear on the 5D Mark II image. On the right, however, though chroma noise and contrast are higher, and the detail in the word MAS is a little more crisp. In most of Canon's digital SLRs, but especially pro cameras, Canon has been leaving image improvement to the photographer, but now the company is clearly leaning toward making JPEGs cleaner than before. It's probably a better approach, because most pros who will tweak on a computer will shoot RAW, while the non-tweakers just need a good image fast.

 

Canon 5D Mark II vs Nikon D700 @ ISO 12,800

For me, the real intrigue with these new SLRs capable of quality high ISO performance is whether they'll help you get the shot in low light without significant damage to detail from noise and noise suppression activity. So though it's comparing the 5D Mark II's 21-megapixel sensor to the Nikon D700's 12-megapixel sensor, it's interesting to see what you get from each JPEG file.

Canon 5D Mark II
ISO 12,800
Nikon D700
ISO 12,800
Naturally you get a larger image from the 5D Mark II, since its sensor is almost twice the pixel count as the Nikon D700. Viewed at 100% it's surprising that both sensors deliver a similar level of detail after noise suppression is applied and the JPEG is created. The 5D Mark II leaves a few more black dots behind than the D700's image. Once cleaned up a bit more, or translated from RAW, I'm sure the Canon's higher resolution would ensure a slightly larger printed image, but the results are still quite comparable.

Out of curiosity, I resized the D700 image to roughly match the pixel dimensions of the 5D Mark II image using Photoshop's Bicubic Sharper, with a 0.3/100% Unsharp Mask, and the detail is still comparable, if a little softer (see bottom right image). When shooting at higher ISOs, the real test is whether you have enough detail to work with after the fact, and it seems that both cameras do quite well.

Lest it seem like I'm trying to advocate for the D700, the impressive bit is that the Canon 5D with its smaller pixels and noise suppression active does as well as it does against the Nikon D700's far larger pixels. Both cameras will deliver sufficient detail at higher ISOs than most any other camera for the money. Remember, though, that the D700's other key advantage is the ability to capture up to eight frames per second at full-frame with the battery pack, while the 5D Mark II is limited to 3.9 fps. So it really comes down to what you're looking for in a digital SLR.

 

Canon 5D Mark II vs Sony A900 @ ISO 6,400

Next we have to compare the Canon 5D Mark II's highest common ISO with the Sony A900 and Nikon D3x, since these are its most obvious competitors at this resolution, at least as of this writing. Starting with the A900:

Canon 5D Mark II
ISO 6,400
Sony A900
ISO 6,400
In the case of the Sony A900, higher resolution does not support higher ISO quality. Either the Sony's 24.6-megapixel sensor's smaller pixels can't gather sufficient light for better performance, or the anti-noise processing technology hasn't caught up to what Canon and Nikon are doing at the moment. Though I'm still a strong admirer of the A900's image quality at ISO 800 and below, it's clearly not the camera to bring along for handheld low-light shots.

Canon 5D Mark II vs Nikon D3x @ ISO 6,400

The Nikon D3x just came out, which we've assumed shared a sensor design with the Sony A900, so its full-frame quality is also worth looking at next to the Canon 5D Mark II.

Canon 5D Mark II
ISO 6,400
Nikon D3x
ISO 6,400
Talk about erroneous assumptions! Now you have to ask yourself how the Nikon D3x could possibly use the same sensor design as the A900, when it outperforms even the Canon 5D Mark II at its highest ISO setting. Those who have been belly-aching about the D3x's $8,000 price point should pipe down. Still, the 5D Mark II does compare well considering its $2,700 price and video capability. And though it seems clear that the D3x's 24.5-megapixel sensor could go to higher ISO settings, the Canon 5D Mark II can go two stops higher and still capture reasonable detail in low light.

 

Resolution. 21 megapixels is sufficient that you really needn't worry about the slight softness to the Canon 5D Mark II's JPEGs when viewed at 100 percent onscreen. You'll be very happy with prints from the camera at up to 24x36 inches. Of course you can get much more resolution and detail if you shoot RAW and develop the file with a program like the included Digital Photo Pro, Adobe Photoshop's Camera RAW, or Bibble Pro.

See the Sensor section on the Image Quality tab of this review for much more on the Canon 5D Mark II's superb performance.

Black dots. Shortly after the Canon EOS 5D Mark II shipped, users began reporting a strange "black dot" error, where small points of light were rendered with an accompanying black dot just to the right. We didn't see the phenomena until we took a special photo to demonstrate the issue. It took several lighting, lens, and ISO changes to get a shot that showed the effect. Note that these elements are very small in the frame, and you are unlikely to see them except when the image is enlarged significantly.

Before
1/60 sec, f/8.0, ISO 3,200, 24mm
Enlarged 400%
Firmware 1.0.6
After
1/60 sec, f/8.0, ISO 3,200, 24mm
Enlarged 400%
Firmware 1.0.7

 

In December of 2008, Canon announced that they were aware of the problem and working on a fix, and on January 7, 2009, they released a firmware update to address the problem. Above you see the before and after shots, taken from the same location with all the same settings.

A banding issue related to the sRAW1 format was also fixed with the firmware update, but we do not have before and after shots for that.

Appraisal. The Canon 5D Mark II is one amazing photographic tool, designed and built to be used by serious photographers, without a lot to distract from making great pictures. That's the beauty of the line, and one of the key carry-overs from the 5D itself: elegant utility borrowed from the Canon 20D and 40D designs, combined with revolutionary image quality brought down from Canon's professional line of cameras.

It doesn't have the highest resolution on the market, but the Canon 5D Mark II does more with what it has than we've seen at this price range and size. The difference between 21.1 megapixels and 24.6 really isn't that large, so even if you were to stick to the lower ISO range, the 5D Mark II is a bargain compared to the Sony A900. It also delivers more pixels at lower resolution than the more expensive Nikon D700, though they are pretty well similarly competent at higher ISO settings. Yes, it is bested by the Nikon D3x, but at less than half the price, who's surprised?

Each of the sub-$3,000 full-frame digital SLRs offers its own unique strength. The Nikon D700 may "only" be 12.1 megapixels, but it can fire off eight frames per second, and has some very impressive high-ISO performance. The Sony A900 offers astonishingly high resolution, at 24.6 megapixels, and yet still cranks out a respectable five frames per second. And the Canon 5D Mark II has very high resolution of 21.1 megapixels with the added benefit of HD movie capture. Unless you need high speed capture, and a 30fps HD movie is out of the question, the Canon 5D Mark II appears to offer the best of both of its competitors, with high resolution capture and excellent high ISO performance. Your needs and your lens collection will help decide which way you lean; the big story is that for the first time you have a choice.

 

Canon 5D Mark II Basic Features

  • 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor
  • 3.9 frames per second
  • 3.0-inch LCD with 920,000 pixels
  • Top Status LCD
  • ISO range from 50 to 25,600
  • Shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/8,000 second
  • Compact Flash Type I and II UDMA slots
  • Lithium-ion battery
  • 6.0 x 4.5 x 3.0 in (152 x 114 x 75mm)
  • 2.02 pounds (920g) with battery and card, but no lens

 

Canon 5D Mark II Special Features

  • DIGIC 4 image processor for faster image processing
  • 14-bit A/D conversion for finer color gradation
  • 1080p HD video recording at 30 fps
  • Built-in microphone
  • 3.5mm stereo mini jack for attaching external mic
  • Supports UDMA cards for future transfer speeds of up to 133MB/sec
  • Shutter rated for 150,000 shots
  • Better moisture sealing
  • Peripheral Illumination Correction fixes vignetting for many lenses
  • EOS Integrated Cleaning System to reduce the negative effects of dust
  • Bigger optical viewfinder
  • New focusing screens
  • Improved AF sensor compensates for focus errors due to different light sources
  • AF Microadjustment setting lets you tune lenses to be their sharpest
  • Dirt, smudge, and glare resistant LCD cover glass
  • Face detection autofocus picks out the closest face and even allows you to move among up to 35 faces
  • New battery offers greater capacity and safer contacts, as well as data exchange with the camera to track number of shots and battery strength
  • Mini-HDMI video output port
  • Accepts battery grip for easier vertical shooting and greater battery life
  • Accepts Wireless File Transmitter grip for connectivity to WiFi networks, LANs, GPS units, and USB drives
  • Auto Lighting Optimizer helps retain shadow detail
  • Highlight Tone Priority helps maintain highlight detail

 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

  • 5D Mark II body
  • Body cap
  • Battery
  • Battery cap LP-E6
  • Charger LC-E6
  • Camera strap
  • USB cable
  • AV cable
  • Software CD 19.1
  • Instructions CD
  • Manuals
  • Pocket guide
  • Other literature

 

Recommended Accessories

  • Extra LP-E6 battery
  • Large capacity CompactFlash memory card (These days, 8GB is a about right if you're going to shoot JPEGs; if you shoot JPEG+RAW, though, or movies, think 16GB or higher.)
  • Camera bag

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Canon 5D Mark II Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent image quality
  • Solid construction
  • Well-placed controls
  • Large viewfinder
  • 3 comprehensive status displays
  • 14-bit Analog to Digital conversion
  • Wide ISO range
  • Excellent high ISO performance
  • Faster frame rate than its predecessor
  • Large, high-resolution LCD
  • Live view mode with contrast-detect AF and Face-detect options
  • Face detection works to improve exposure on faces
  • 5 or 10x zoom allows more accurate manual focus
  • Silent shutter modes
  • HD video capture
  • Excellent grip; good grip surfaces
  • Built-in IR remote control sensor (no remote included)
  • Built-in microphone for audio when recording video
  • External stereo mic jack
  • Speaker to play back video with audio
  • Movie snap mode allows capture of full-res stills that are also dropped into video
  • Hot shoe sealed when used with Canon 580EX II
  • Ambient light sensor adjusts LCD brightness
  • Creative Auto mode allows new users to look at camera settings differently
  • AF system is fast and accurate
  • Unlimited burst depth when shooting JPEGs
  • Captures up to 14 RAW files in burst mode
  • Auto Lighting Optimizer works to save shadows
  • Highlight Tone Priority mode works to preserve highlights
  • Lens Peripheral Illumination Correction compensates for vignetting
  • Variable RAW sizes
  • Fast UDMA CF card interface, built to support future high transfer rates
  • Intelligent lithium-ion battery pack tracks sensor count and battery condition by serial number
  • Recessed battery contacts make shorting less likely
  • Available battery and wireless grip offers GPS, greater storage options
  • ISO is easy to change
  • AF Microadjustment allows you to tune lenses to the camera body
  • Mini-HDMI output port
  • Very smooth images with noise suppression enabled
  • Multiple levels of noise suppression available
  • Excellent low-light sensitivity
  • Printed output good up to 24x36 inches
  • ISO 6,400 shots are usable up to 13x19 inches!
  • Fast startup and shutdown
  • Fast buffer clearing time
  • Very fast autofocus
  • Fast shot-to-shot times
  • Very fast upload speeds
  • Excellent battery life of 850 shots with no Live View usage
  • Very good kit lens
  • Aggressive pricing
  • JPEGs are slightly soft
  • Camera may be too large for those with smaller hands
  • Doesn't accept EF-S lenses
  • No pop-up flash
  • Only single cross-type AF sensor
  • AF array is small compared to overall image area
  • Relatively slow frame rate of 3.9 frames per second
  • Odd power switch location
  • Movie mode doesn't quite replace a camcorder
  • No AF in movie mode
  • Movies pick up all sounds when adjusting settings, including using the manual focus ring
  • Video has Jello-effect
  • Video gaps slightly when exposure changes rapidly
  • Oversaturates reds somewhat
  • Auto white balance leaves incandescent lighting way too warm
  • Live View mode drains battery rapidly
  • No IR sensor to dim LCD when you bring the camera to your eye

 

The Canon 5D Mark II is indeed a premium digital SLR. It's not just the very high resolution that makes it stand out, but the excellent high ISO performance, effectively giving you the freedom to shoot handheld in conditions where you'd normally need a flash or a tripod.

Improvements over the original 5D abound, including a bigger viewfinder image, faster frame rate, a larger image buffer, and a faster data path. Nearly all of the new features from other recent models have also been added, including a two-motor shutter and mirror arrangement, silent shutter mode, a comprehensive Live View mode, multi-stage noise suppression options, and several features designed to improve common problems, like blown highlights, plugged shadows, and vignetting. Two minor options pile on to make the 5D Mark II even more premium: a built-in remote control sensor and an ambient light sensor to automatically adjust the LCD.

The addition of High-Definition movie mode opens up new avenues for enterprising photographers, giving them the ability to capture video snippets as well as high resolution photographs, enhancing what they can offer to their clients. Since the advent of Live View, it's been an obvious play, and this is the best implementation we've seen. It's important to note that this is still a tool for photographers, though, and doesn't yet replace the ease of the most basic camcorder, because it lacks autofocus; and significant exposure changes can result in momentary gaps in the video. Still, video hobbyists have seldom had so much optical variety at their disposal for so little money.

When the original 5D debuted three years ago, it wasn't clear why most enthusiasts would want such a camera. Though it captured excellent, high resolution images, it was slower and bigger and more expensive. Today the market has changed significantly, and it's clear that the market is ready for full-frame digital SLRs that can turn out high image quality. High quality is one thing, but being a camera that can deliver high quality over a wide range of lighting conditions and different ISO settings is what makes the Canon 5D Mark II such a compelling choice, and a clear Dave's Picks.

 

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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