Canon 5D Mark II Review
Canon 5D Mark II Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Accurate color with minor oversaturation of strong reds and blues.
Skin tones. Here, the Canon 5D Mark II also did quite well, producing natural-looking skin tones. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Canon 5D Mark II showed a few small color shifts relative to the correct mathematical translation of colors in its subjects, but had really excellent accuracy overall. (It's one of the most hue-accurate cameras we've tested to date.) Most noticeable was a slight shift in reds toward orange, with some very minor shifts in greens, blues and cyans as well. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Canon 5D Mark II has a total of nine saturation settings available, four above and four below the default saturation. This covers a very wide range of saturation levels, about as wide a range as you're likely to find photographically relevant, apart from special effects that are arguably better achieved in software. The fine steps between settings mean you can program the camera to just the level of saturation you prefer. Nice. (It's also nice that color saturation has little effect on greyscale contrast, something that's not always the case.)
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance settings, though good color with the 2,600 Kelvin and Manual. Average positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was very warm with the Auto white balance setting; we really expect better from an SLR selling at this price point. The Incandescent setting was better, but still on the warm side. (Like other Canon models, the 5D Mark II's Incandescent setting appears to be color-balanced for professional studio lighting, rather than the warmer household incandescent lights most US consumers have in their homes. This is normal for a professional SLR, but a bit of a pain for consumers. Still, you can use the 5D Mark II's excellent manual adjustment capabilities to tweak the incandescent setting to better match whatever lighting you're personally faced with.) The Manual setting produced the most accurate results, though the 2,600 Kelvin setting wasn't far off the mark either. The Canon 5D Mark II required an average amount of positive exposure compensation here, at +0.3 EV. (Many digital cameras reproduce the blue flowers here with a purplish tint, so the Canon 5D Mark II actually performs a little better than average here.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Bright colors overall, though a tendency toward a warm cast and slightly high contrast under harsh lighting. Slightly higher than average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Canon 5D Mark II tended toward a warmer color balance, though overall color was generally quite good. The 5D Mark II required +1.0 EV exposure compensation to keep the model's face from being too dim in the "Sunlit" portrait shot on the left. This is slightly more positive compensation we're accustomed to seeing among digital cameras for this shot. The far-field shot of the house came out just a bit hot at the 5D Mark II's default exposure setting. The 5D Mark II's default contrast is a little high, producing some washed-out highlights and dark shadows under the deliberately harsh lighting of our "Sunlit" portrait shot, but the 5D Mark II does better than most in this regard. The camera's contrast and highlight tone priority settings do help tame the highlights quite a bit, see below for examples of this.
Very high resolution, 2,000 ~ 2,200 lines of strong detail from in-camera JPEG, about the same from RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw.
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,200 lines per picture height horizontally, and about 2,000 lines in the vertical direction. Total extinction didn't occur until past 4,000(!) lines, but lines began to merge at about 2,600 lines horizontally and vertically (results from 2X target above are multiplied by 2). We weren't able to extract much more resolution by processing the 5D Mark II's CR2 files using Adobe Camera Raw, although there were fewer artifacts than the JPEGs near the resolution limits. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Slightly soft images overall, though almost no edge-enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects. Some minor noise suppression visible in the shadows.
Sharpness. The Canon 5D Mark II captures slightly soft images overall, though very few edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the crop above left. This indicates default sharpening is somewhat conservative. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows some minor noise suppression artifacts in the darkest areas of the model's hair, though quite a few individual strands are visible in the lighter shadows. The camera's overall response here is better than average. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Canon 5D Mark II produces slightly soft in-camera JPEGs. As is almost always the case, more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files than can be seen in the in-camera JPEGs. Take a look below, to see what we mean:
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking a link will load the full resolution file. Examples include in-camera Fine JPEG, a RAW file processed through Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software at default settings, and the same RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) version 5.2, then sharpened in Photoshop. (For the Canon 5D Mark II's images, I found best results with 500% unsharp masking with an 0.3 pixel radius.)
Note: we reshot this with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 at f/8, but found the results weren't markedly better than the above shot taken with the 24-105mm kit lens, so the slight softness is not due to the lens.
ISO & Noise Performance
Low noise except at the highest sensitivity settings, excellent preservation of subtle detail relative to ISO level.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 50||ISO 100||ISO 200|
|ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1600|
|ISO 3200||ISO 6400||ISO 12800|
The Canon 5D Mark II produced low image noise overall. Images are quite clean from ISO 50 all the way through 400. We start to see the beginnings of a very fine, tight "grain" pattern at ISO 800, and the image softens just slightly, but detail is still excellent, with very little chroma noise. The grain is slightly more evident at ISO 1,600, and the image softens a bit more, but detail continues to remain strong. At ISO 3,200, detail loss becomes more noticeable as noise reduction blurs subtly contrasting detail, however results are still excellent. At ISO 6,400, noise grain is coarser and blurring stronger, resulting in a noticeable drop in detail. There's also some chroma noise in the shadows and mid-tones, but less than you'd expect at this sensitivity, especially at such a high pixel count. Noise and the effects of noise reduction really become an issue at ISO 12,800 and 25,600, though, with bright noise pixels, increased chroma noise, some horizontal banding and a slight shift in overall color balance. Still, a really excellent performance overall, especially for a camera with a 21-megapixel sensor. As always, see the Print Quality section below, to see how we think this noise performance translates into practical print sizes at each ISO setting.
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Very high resolution with strong overall detail, slightly high default contrast. Excellent low-light performance, great exposures to the lowest limits of our test, and the autofocus worked that low as well, even without an AF-assist light.
|+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV||+1.3 EV|
Sunlight. The Canon 5D Mark II produced slightly high contrast with some washed-out highlights and deep shadows under the deliberately harsh lighting of the test above. However, highlight and shadow detail were both actually quite good. The model's face was a little dim at the +0.7 EV setting, so we preferred the image with +1.0 EV of exposure compensation, which actually resulted in surprisingly good highlight detail. There were some blown highlights in the shirt, broach and flowers, but not to the extent we're used to seeing. The shot at +0.7EV almost perfectly preserved detail in the shirt; the only significantly blown out detail is in the red channel in the orange flower, and to a lesser extent in the red flower itself. At the other end of the tonal scale, there's good detail present pretty far into the shadows, although the very darkest shadow areas become plugged and posterized. That's picking at nits, though, you have to go really far into the shadows to see those problems. (In real life, of course, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. As was the case with its saturation adjustment, the Canon 5D Mark II's contrast setting meets both challenges very well.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the Canon 5D Mark II did an excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. The camera lost essentially no detail at all in the model's shirt; the only part of the image that was blown out was a few areas in the orange flower, in the red channel. Shadow detail is also improved, with significantly less posterization and plugging. The 5D Mark II captured good color outdoors, though again, just slightly on the warm side. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with the default as well as the two extreme contrast settings. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image. The Canon 5D Mark II's contrast adjustment worked well, with very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled adjustments, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. As usual, Canon did a good job here.
Highlight Tone Priority
Shadow Detail, Brightened in Photoshop
(Levels control, midtone slider down to 3.98)
Canon's Highlight Tone Priority
The two shots above show the results with Highlight Tone Priority "Off "and "On". As you can see from the crops, fewer highlights in the shirt and yellow flowers are clipped, although a minor price is paid in the very deepest shadows. (There's no free lunch: If the camera is devoting more of its available dynamic range to rendering highlights, there's less left to handle the shadows.) Note that these are really deep shadows that we're looking at above. Lighter shadows and quarter tones show very little noise increase, at least that was visible to our eyes with this test subject.
More Highlight Tone Priority Examples
The 5D Mark II's Highlight Tone Priority can result in undesired results when applied to subjects with a more normal tonal range, but here, it did much better than the 50D with the same Still Life scene. It worked quite well for the high-contrast outdoor house shot as well, where HTP preserved most of highlights in the white trim that were lost with it Off.
|Automatic Lighting Optimization|
Automatic Lighting Optimization
The Canon 5D Mark II offers three levels of ALO, plus "Off" (the same as in the 50D). All four shots above were taken with the same exposure settings. When we first tested this feature on the Canon XSi, we found relatively little effect from the Automatic Lighting Optimization option on this shot. With the 5D Mark II, however, the various ALO settings do make a noticeable difference. ALO has the effect of shifting shadows and mid-tones in the histograms to the right, lightening the overall image without clipping too many additional highlights.
Off (0.0 EV)
On (0.0 EV)
The Canon 5D Mark II's face detection (available in Live View mode only) did a pretty good job of automatically adjusting exposure (and focus) for the model's face. Both the shots above were taken with no exposure compensation (0.0 EV), but the camera automatically dropped the shutter speed from 1/70s to 1/40s to better expose for the face when face detection was turned on.
Low light. The Canon 5D Mark II performed very well on the low-light test, capturing usable images at the lowest light level (1/16 foot-candle), even with the lowest sensitivity setting (ISO 50). Noise naturally increases as ISO goes up and light levels go down, but remains remarkably low up to ISO 1,600. At ISO 3,200, noise is more noticeable but still a good bit better than average. At ISO 6,400, noise is moderate and bright pixels appear, along with some horizontal banding. Noise, bright pixels and banding are quite evident at ISOs 12,800 and 25,600. Color balance looked a bit warm with the Auto white balance setting, but remained fairly consistent up to the highest ISOs. The rightmost column in the series above shows the results with the 5D Mark II's long-exposure NR turned off.
The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject at less than the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted (and that's a good thing, as the 5D Mark II does not have a built-in AF assist lamp). We did, however, find that some of the shots in the Low Light series shown above were a little out of focus, despite the fact that the camera confirmed focus for every shot. You therefore may need to watch your focus when shooting in very dark conditions: The brightest light level above (1 footcandle or ~11 lux) roughly corresponds to typical city street-lighting at night. - So the darker levels get pretty dim indeed. Other than landscape or architectural photography, it's thus highly likely that you'd be using a flash (and thus have access to a bright AF-assist light) in such dark conditions. If you're shooting with available light under very dark conditions, you may want to grab a few shots, to give the focus system the opportunity to give you a sharp image. Also (as always), keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here absolutely demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
High ISO/Low Light Noise Reduction. The table above shows the effect of the Canon 5D Mark II's four available levels of High ISO Noise Reduction at the lowest light level we test. (These were actually the result of minor mistake: We don't normally run a NR series like this as part of the low-light test, just show results at the lowest light level with long-exposure NR turned on or off. Once we shot these, though, we figured we might as well share them with our readers.) Results here are similar to those at higher ISOs: Images up to ISO 6,400 are surprisingly clean, but noise gets the upper hand at ISO 12,800 and 25,600 (particularly in the red and blue channels).
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Canon 5D Mark II do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Exceptional print quality, good color, sharp 24x36 inch prints from camera JPEGs (with a little unsharp masking). High-ISO shots are surprisingly clean, ISO 6,400 is good up to about 13x19, albeit with a little noise in the shadows and some loss of subtle subject detail.
We kept running out of superlatives to describe the Canon 5D Mark II's printed output: These are some of the cleanest, highest-quality images we've seen yet from a digital camera. In-camera JPEGs are a little soft looking, due in part to conservative in-camera sharpening, but likely also in part to noise-reduction processing, even at low ISO settings. Adobe Camera Raw (our default RAW converter, due to its wide availability and very broad support for different camera models) reveals significantly more fine detail, particularly in areas of subtle subject contrast. Sharpening the in-camera JPEGs helps a little, but for best results doing that, you'd need to first dial down the sharpening that the Canon 5D Mark II applies to its JPEG files: At the default setting, it tends to leave slight halos around contrasting objects, coarsening the detail somewhat and making it difficult for post-processing to extract any more.
Working from RAW files, we thought that 24x36 inch prints would be very acceptable for viewing at any sort of normal distance: We could see softness in them when we looked at them really closely, but at normal viewing distances of anything greater than a foot or so, they looked crisp and highly detailed. The in-camera JPEGs looked OK printed at 24x36, but were a little soft: Fine for wall display if people wouldn't view them too closely, but soft-looking at close viewing distances.
At higher ISOs, the 5D Mark II's images held together surprisingly well. For 13x19 inch prints, ISO 6,400(!) was about the limit, as the noise in shadow areas began to be noticeable at that size, and detail was obliterated in areas of subtle contrast. This is really a remarkable performance from a camera with this much resolution: Comparing their images side by side, prints from the Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 6,400 were quite comparable (similar or slightly higher luminance noise, lower chroma noise, a bit softer overall) than those of the EOS-1Ds Mark III at ISO 3,200.
ISO 12,800 from camera JPEGs was a bit rough (lots of chroma noise with some horizontal banding) no matter what size we printed at. You might be able to use it for subjects with a lot of texture (which would tend to hide the chroma noise and banding somewhat), or with heavy processing of RAW files via good third-party noise-reduction software, but the chroma banding could be tricky to deal with in shadow areas with a flat tint. (As seen in the light shadows behind some of the bottles in our Still Life test shot.
Detail throughout the ISO range stayed pretty strong, although we did notice that the red fabric swatch that gives other cameras such fits in trying to hold its detail is now also causing trouble for the 5D Mark II's noise reduction: The 1Ds Mark III managed to hold the tone-on-tone detail of that swatch pretty well at high ISO settings, but the improved chroma noise performance of the 5D Mark II's NR system apparently requires sacrificing detail in that particular fabric swatch.
In terms of color, we certainly found nothing to complain about, as the Canon 5D Mark II has about the most accurate color rendering we've seen in a digital camera to date. Amateur shooters moving up from consumer-level SLRs may find the 5D Mark II's highly accurate color a little dull compared to what they've become accustomed to on their lower-end cameras: Most consumer cameras pump up saturation to make brighter, punchier photos that consumers tend to prefer, so the 5D's more accurate color may seem dull by comparison. (Except for the reds, which are still a little hot.) Thanks to a fine-grained saturation adjustment with a nice range of control, though, you can tweak the 5D Mark II's color to exactly match your personal preferences.
Finally, as we've been pointing out lately, remember that we're holding digital SLRs like the Canon 5D Mark II to a somewhat higher standard with these printed results than we do point-and-shoot digital cameras: As glowing as our remarks above are about the 5D Mark II, we're actually judging it more harshly than we would a consumer camera that competes with other cameras in the $150-300 price range.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 review for details on that model.)
Canon 5D Mark II
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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.