Digital Camera Home > Digital Camera Reviews > Canon Digital Cameras > Canon EOS-5D

Canon EOS-5D

By: Dave Etchells

Slightly smaller and lighter upgrade brings greater speed and ease of use along with higher res and lower image noise.

<<Intro and Highlights :(Previous) | (Next): Design>>

Page 2:Field Test

Review First Posted: 04/02/2006

Field Test
By Shawn Barnett

One company has radically changed the digital camera marketplace in only five years of participation. Starting with their consumer EOS D30 in 2000, Canon quickly went pro in late September 2001, a month that was overshadowed by distracting events only days earlier. Since then Canon has shipped nine more SLRs in five years, both pro and consumer grade, and launched a new digital-specific lens line aimed at the consumer line of cameras. Today's current lineup of five shipping SLRs is the most comprehensive in the business. Taking up the middle position is the new EOS 5D, a full-frame SLR with the easy-going personality and solid build of the EOS 20D, plus what could be called the holy grail of digital SLRs: a full frame sensor, previously only available at the top of Canon's pro line. It has a 12.7 megapixel sensor with an 8.2 micrometer pixel size that Canon considers optimum for low noise images; it's the same pixel pitch as the smaller sensor on the EOS 1D Mark II.

Canon is calling the 5D "The world's first premium DSLR."

The title fits.

Each of Canon's five SLRs has served to define the category they occupy. The Rebel XT is the current consumer benchmark camera, with 8 megapixels, a tight, small package, and excellent image quality for under $1,000. The EOS 20D/30D is the next step up, with similar image size and quality statistics to its little sibling, along with a more rugged body, faster frame rate, greater buffer depth, and features that are attractive to both beginners and professionals. Its body-only price is currently between $1,200 and $1,400, attracting more affluent and dedicated photographers, and offering excellent value despite the higher price tag (given that the D30 debuted in 2000 with 3.1 megapixels at $2,500, the 30D is a comparative bargain).

The gap between the 20D/30D and the two current pro cameras, the 1Ds Mark II and the 1D Mark II N is significant, as are some of the specs. Without going deeply into detail, the 1Ds Mark II is a full-frame 16.7 megapixel camera that many say rivals medium format film. This three-and-a-half pound photographic tool goes for around $8,000. Weighing about the same, the not-quite-full-frame 1D Mark II N sports only 8.2 megapixels (less than half), but was built for speed, with the ability to zip off 60 full frame images at 8.5 frames per second. It is intended for action and news photographers, and is available for around $4,500.

That $4,500 price point represents a $3,000 gap that Canon saw as an opportunity. We at Imaging Resource watched with fascination through most of 2005 as the Canon 20D actually outsold the Rebel XT among our readers. This suggests that digital SLR buyers are willing to pay more for greater quality and control.

But I don't think price point and market readiness was the only encouragement Canon had to build the 5D. It was also the lenses. Canon's existing line of over 50 EF lenses probably saw a decline in consumer sales when the EF-S line emerged and addressed the unique needs of Digital Rebel and 20D customers better than the 35mm-tuned line of lenses, and it was time to bring the semi-pros back into the market for Canon's extensive line of expensive L-glass. The new EOS 5D does that. Its full frame sensor by definition cannot work with EF-S lenses, with their smaller image circle design; and they will not fit on the 5D or 1D bodies. That said, we've found in working with it that the 5D places demands on lenses that even some L-series lenses have a hard time meeting in the corners of the frame.

Look and feel
Regardless why it was built, the Canon 5D's very design cues tell of its place between the 20D and 1D lines. From the front, it looks like a 1D without a big battery pack beneath. From the back it's a 20D with a bigger rear LCD. The big bulge at the top resembles the 1D line as more than a genetic implication; it is bigger to house the bigger 35mm-sized pentaprism beneath and it also lacks a pop-up flash like the pro cameras (this is probably also due to space constraints). The camera draws one feature in particular from a little further down the consumer line that the 20D does not share (but the new 30D has): the Print/Share button found on the Digital Rebel XT and on nearly every Canon camera introduced since Fall 2004 (more on this later). For the lucky few who eventually own both a 20D/30D and 5D, both will be familiar enough to shoot without much thought about controls, but a few key aspects of each will make shooting with either noticeably different.

Where the grip on the 20D/30D is good mechanically, with a textured and rubberized surface that encourages a firm, steady grip, the 5D's grip is better tuned to the human hand. The 5D grip is just more comfortable while still encouraging a firm hold. There's a smooth notch borrowed from the 1D line beneath the shutter bulge where the middle finger rests, but it's wider and more comfortable than that grip as well, more like the similar indent found on the EOS Digital Rebel (but absent from the sickly grip on the Rebel XT). This is Canon's best grip to date.

The 2 pound Canon 5D is about four and a half ounces heavier than the 20D/30D. The grip really does help mitigate the extra weight, but there's no doubt the 5D is a considerable commitment to carry around. It weighs less than the big pro models, but not much, particularly when you add the big BG-E4 battery pack / vertical grip.

Hold the 20D/30D to your eye, and you see most of the frame, though as an eyeglass wearer, I think it could have a slightly higher eyepoint. The same is true of the EOS 5D, but what you see covers a considerably greater area. Though I wish it had the higher eyepoint of the 1Ds Mark II, there's no complaining about having such a big image to frame shots. (A note from Dave: With my eyeglass prescription, I find I have to press my lenses pretty firmly against the eyecup on the 5D to see the full viewfinder frame.)

The same nine-point AF cluster from the 20D occupies the center of the screen, but it appears to have remained the same size as the 20D, covering less of the overall image area. While we're used to having those far left and right sensors out near the edge of the APS-C sensor, on the full-frame 5D they only make it halfway to the edge from the center, significantly changing their utility. Switching between the 20D and 5D is made more difficult to the photographer accustomed to using his outer AF points for emphasizing eyes in head-and-shoulders portraits, for example. According to Canon's White Paper on the 5D, the outermost points are in the same position as the outermost AF points on the full frame EOS 1Ds Mark II, so here's a place where the pros will find the 5D more familiar than 20D owners.

While on the subject of AF points, the 5D has six supplemental sensors in addition to the nine selectable points. Residing in the central circle in the center of the frame, they are designed to enhance subject tracking in AI SERVO AF mode. In this mode, the camera can track a moving object as it approaches or moves away from the camera. Other EOS cameras have this feature, but the 5D's 15 total AF points enhance this ability. Though you cannot select the 6 AF points, they automatically activate in AI SERVO AF mode, and when motion is detected in AI Focus AF mode (which switches between One Shot and AI SERVO mode when motion is detected). Like its professional brethren in the EOS 1D line, the 5D reports which AF points were used at the time of capture in histogram playback mode, and the six supplemental points appear if they are used. This feature is missing altogether in the EOS 20D (but exists in the new 30D, albeit without the additional 6AF points). The screenshot above right shows the AF points as small red dots against the flat grey subject.

Since the 5D captures and moves more pixels than the 20D, it does have a slower frame rate, and presumably because the mirror is so much bigger, the vertical blackout time is longer than every other current SLR except the Digital Rebel XT, at 145 milliseconds. (Vertical blackout time is how long it takes the mirror to return the full view through the viewfinder. Shorter times mean you have more time to observe your subject and frame for follow-up shots.) The 20D with its smaller mirror is 115 milliseconds, and the 1Ds Mark II, with the same full-frame mirror but a more powerful actuator, is 87 milliseconds. The 1D Mark II boasts an impressive 45 millisecond viewfinder blackout time, which really is a noticeable difference. The 5D's 145 ms is not a nuisance by any means, but it is noticeably slower than the 20D, even as the shutter speed goes up to 1/8000. Add that to the three frame per second frame rate, and the 5D emerges as a better portrait and art photography tool than an action camera, with a slight advantage going to the 20D.

AF speed seems as fast as any other EOS camera, varying depending on the lens used.

There's no question that a bigger LCD is better. I don't think 20D owners should fret about their 1.8 inch display, but it is nice to check focus and framing on the Canon EOS 5D's 2.5 inch LCD. The greater viewing angle of the improved LCD is immediately apparent when you first tilt the 20D at different angles, then do the same with the 5D. Especially when viewing from above or below the camera, the 20D quickly washes out, while the 5D's LCD remains crisp, bright, and clear over a 170 degree arc, whether horizontal or vertical.

All of the above adds up to a familiar experience for the 20D owner, but it also requires him to think and shoot very differently. 35mm lenses that you currently rely on for the 20D  or Digital Rebel take on a totally different character.

My 28-135mm IS lens is a pretty good example, serving as an excellent image stabilized 45-216mm (equivalent) lens when mounted on the 20D or Rebel XT. That's a decent telephoto range that, while not quite wide enough, is very good for spanning most normal shooting conditions, from portraits to group shots. When I mount it on the 5D I find I'm disappointed. Though I've always preferred 24mm as the ideal wide angle reach, having the 28mm back is excellent; however, I find myself having to get up and move around a lot more to make up for the loss of that 216mm crop. Until you get to focal lengths as short 24mm and wider, I find the more interesting pictures are made with a tighter crop, so I end up cropping most of my 5D shots on the computer, regardless of the lens I choose.

Optical quality is also challenged with a larger sensor. Using just the central, "sweet spot" of the image circle, the 20D makes a lens like my 28-135 IS seem terrific, especially in terms of chromatic aberration, but the 5D reveals the flaws in the corners of this relatively inexpensive lens.

There's also an intangible quality to images from the 5D that I've not been able to quantify. I can't be sure if its the L glass I've tried with it, like the astonishing 24-70mm f/2.8 L, or if there really is something different about shooting with a full frame sensor. It might just be that larger canvas. Or the bigger viewfinder. It could also be those big 8.4 micron pixels that just seem to love light. I do miss the pop-up flash I've grown accustomed to, even on the Nikon D200, but the best news is that you can shoot indoors at ISO 800 without noticeable noise.

I do find the longer vertical blackout time to be distracting. Any extension of the time that I can't see my subject doesn't help, especially when the subject is a living thing. Anticipation and synchrony with a subject are harder to achieve if they are blocked from view for too long.

The 3 frames per second limit is understandable on the 5D, given the greater number of pixels it has to move and store, as well as the larger mirror, but I'm left wondering why they added the six extra AF sensors to enhance subject tracking when this isn't a camera that is tuned for action photography. Canon has often introduced superior features in cameras as they become possible, even if they don't seem to fit into the pecking order, but the recent release of the 30D does not include these additional sensors, so the anomaly remains.

More improvements
The Canon EOS 5D has a pretty good set of other features that earn it the name "Premium." The new 100,000 cycle shutter mechanism is a nice addition. Canon doesn't specify the shutter life on the 20D/30D, but it's apparently well short of 100,000 cycles. The longer cycle life leaves me less concerned about burning up the shutter with long motor-drive sequences. Two optional focusing screens are also available for the 5D, a feature that has heretofore been confined to the EOS 1D series. One screen adds a grid, and the other allows for finer focus, intended for lenses of f/2.8 or greater. Upon changing a screen, you do need to set a Custom Function to tell the camera which screen you're using, since the metering characteristics change somewhat with each.

Folders are no longer limited to 100 per, meaning you can now have up to 9,999 images per folder name. In general, that will mean that you can have one big folder for each shoot if you like, without having to manually copy images out of multiple folders for one shoot.

A three color histogram display is another useful option not on the 20D (but now included on the 30D), allowing you to see whether a particular scene might not be properly color balanced.

Gone are the Scene modes normally found on every Canon camera from the 20D down the line, leaving the mode dial rather empty of icons. This is a pro camera. Surprisingly, though, the Green Zone mode remains for those who just want to point and shoot.

Turning on the Expanded ISO custom function gives you access to ISO 50 and ISO 3200, which opens up extremely fine resolution shots and longer exposure times when you want them, or else very low light photography.

A new PictBridge interface allows photographers to print an important tool I think many have been missing from the film days: a contact sheet. Appearing with a simulated film background, the sheets can be printed directly from the camera without a computer if you're using a late model Pixma printer (Fall 2005 or later).

Steps forward
I'm having a hard time pinpointing the obvious customer for the EOS 5D. For most serious photographers, the 20D and 30D will continue to serve very well. Those with an extensive collection of Canon L glass will dive for the 5D like a runner to home plate. Many 20D owners buying a 5D will probably keep the 20D for action shots, since the tighter crop and faster frame rate lends itself to many types of action photography, upgrading any one of their L-glass lenses to a high quality telephoto when necessary.

Canon was wise to make this camera more like the 20D than a 1D camera in function, making it a logical upgrade for a wide range of photographers who would have sought full frame L glass lenses in the first place.

Full frame sensors are the next step, so getting there sooner might make sense. But if you need a little higher speed and don't care to deal with larger file sizes (the 5D's JPEG's are about 4MB each), you might not want to step up to the 5D. It changes how you shoot, it changes the measurement of all your lenses back to true 35mm focal lengths, and frankly shooting both just might be a bit too confusing. At the same time, the optical demands of the full-frame sensor aren't to be ignored either: Lenses that look just fine on the 20D/30D can end up looking horrible with the 5D's expanded image circle.

At around or above $3,000, the 5D is still quite a chunk of cash, but it's less than half the price of the only other full frame (35mm-sized) sensor on the market, the 1Ds Mark II, and it's easier to bring along.

The 5D is the ultimate "doctor/lawyer" camera, something these folks will buy just because they want the best. When I see rich guys toting an arm-stretching 1Ds Mark II and the latest L-glass, my heart goes out to them. Seriously, I'm not a class-warfare kind of guy; so my advice is: unless you're cranking off between 200 and 1,000 shots a day as a reporter or pro photographer, or making serious cash on a lower volume, you're doing more for your biceps and back muscles than your photography when toting one of these professional 1D behemoths.

Those seeking the best will do better with the 5D, which delivers the prestige and status without all the extra weight and complexity. Portrait photographers not already invested in 1D bodies will also appreciate the lighter weight and easier controls as well.

Bottom line, like anything else Premium: You probably don't need it, but you sure as heck want it if you can get it. The Canon 5D's like that.

Another perspective
The bulk of the Imaging Resource audience for SLR reviews is composed of folks like us: Very serious amateurs who nonetheless shoot mainly for our own personal pleasure, not having to earn a living with our photography. The bulk of our readers also aren't fine-art photographers, so matters of cost and convenience easily trump subtle nuances of tonality when it comes time to pull out the checkbook. Our own background and the majority of reader interest dictates that we adopt the viewpoint of that sort of user in most of our writing.

But we're very aware that there are other viewpoints out there that deserve to be voiced and served. To help address the viewpoints of fine art and commercial/documentary photography, we've teamed with Sean Reid, a documentary photographer with 20 years in the trenches, who also served a stint as a black & white exhibition printer. As we've shared above, a 5D doesn't seem to make a lot of sense for photographers like ourselves, since we can match most of its capabilities at lower cost and in a more compact package with a 30D and an appropriate kit of lenses. For photographers like Sean though, the EOS-5D makes a world of sense, as the full-frame format and the 5D's unique "drawing" characteristics make it a bargain at it's current selling price.

You can read Sean's own very in-depth analysis in his guest review of the EOS-5D, linked here as page 13 of this review. We feel that Sean's professional/fine-art perspective on the 5D provides a valuable balance to our own advanced-amateur one, letting us serve both ends of the photographic spectrum fully, without compromising our advice to either.


Reader Comments! --> Visit our discussion forum for the Canon EOS-5D!

<<Intro and Highlights | Design>>

Follow Imaging Resource:

Purchase memory card for zndE60d digital camera
Enter this month to win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate