Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Review

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The Canon EOS 5D Mark II does live up to its billing. It takes a great full-frame DSLR, the original 5D , boosts damn near everything, adds high-definition video capture, and turns in an overall performance that makes it a virtual steal (or at least as close as a steal comes in this price bracket). The body-only street price is $2,700; $3,500 with the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM kit lens.

Does the 5D Mark II have drawbacks? Certainly. The autofocus is no faster than that on the original 5D . The burst rate, at just 3.9 frames per second, isn’t pro-sports caliber. And when shooting video, though the image quality rivals any consumer-level camcorder, there’s no autofocus.

Image Quality

Talk about the best of both worlds! Until this 21.1MP Canon debuted, the choice in the under-$3,500 price range was between lots of pixels or high image quality at high ISOs. One route was a camera such as the $3,000, 24.6MP Sony A900, which produces high-resolution images but tops out at only ISO 6400, and even there serves up lots of noise. The other approach was the $3,000 Nikon D700, with just 12.1MP but impressively clean images at ISO 6400, along with the ability to shoot (albeit noisily) at up to ISO 25,600.

But the 5D Mark II matches the Nikon for sensitivity and comes close to the Sony in resolution. At its lowest standard sensitivity, ISO 100, the Canon scored 2820 lines of resolution; the Nikon, 2350 lines; and the Sony 3230.

Reduced to ISO 50 for longer exposures and bright-light work, the Canon’s resolution was 2830 lines, matching the $6,680 (street) 21.1MP Canon EOS 1-Ds Mark III (see, the 5D Mark II is a steal). Neither the Nikon nor Sony offers ISO 50.

And even when the ISO is cranked up to 25,600, the Canon edges out the Nikon with 2400 lines of resolution. Put simply, in our tests, even at its worst, the resolution of the Canon beats the Nikon’s best. That’s the power of 21.1 versus 12.1MP.

Of course, at such a high ISO, both the Canon and Nikon are in Unacceptable territory in our noise tests (4.9 for Canon, 4.6 for Nikon). At 6400, the Sony scored 3.5, while the Canon and Nikon hit 2.0. Any reading above 3.0 is Unacceptable.

These numbers suggest low-light shooting like you’ve never seen before. We took the Canon out at sunset in New York’s Central Park and photographed a rollerblader, capturing the scene with a shutter speed of 1/20 sec and aperture of f/11. At ISO 6400, there was no more than a light dusting of noise. Compared to the grain you’d see with 6400-speed film, this is the stuff of revelation.

Such high resolution and ISOs will change your photography. You’ll use the 5D Mark II in settings where you wouldn’t have opened your camera bag before. And you can leave your auxiliary flash at home (though think twice, because this camera doesn’t have a pop-up).

One benefit of the camera’s 14-bit capture (up from 12-bit), with help from the camera’s processing engine, is Canon’s Highlight Tone Priority setting. When enabled, it limits your ISO range to 200-6400, but also captures a little more detail in highlights. The effect is subtle and, according to Canon, may add a little noise to the shadows. If you’re shooting a wedding dress, though, you’ll likely be glad you have it.

But this low-light performance isn’t glitch-free. As have commenters on the web, we noticed tiny black blotches next to areas of blown-out highlights, such as the streetlights in our image of the skater. We found it hard to predict what images these spots would turn up in — sometimes we’d find them, sometimes we wouldn’t. Canon is aware of the problem, and our bet is that the issue soon will be resolved with a firmware upgrade. In any case, the blotches are easily removed in postproduction.

When working with RAW images, we noticed finer gradations of tone in the final images. Credit the sensor’s 14-bit capture. And that sensor ranked fourth out of all current DSLRs in DxOMark Sensor tests, which analyze and compare unprocessed RAW data.

Color? In our testing protocols, anything below 8.0 is Excellent. The Canon scored 6.3. This beats both the Nikon and Sony. And with 9.0, the Sony fell into our Extremely High category.
The Body

Canon didn’t change much of the ergonomics from the original 5D. Same control layout (two command wheels and a tiny joystick to quickly maneuver the menus), and same magnesium-alloy chassis as the original.

What’s new? The 3-inch 920,000-dot LCD (up from 2.5 inches and 230,000 dots). This larger screen meant moving the delete button to the left.

Look through the viewfinder, and you’ll instantly be reminded of what a full-frame DSLR is all about — an awesome, wide view. If you’re accustomed to using Canon’s popular 24-105mm f/4 L-series lens on an APS-format camera, be prepared for a bright, wide-angle experience. Although viewfinder accuracy isn’t the Sony’s 100 percent, the Canon’s 98 percent is still impressive and beats the Nikon D700’s 95 percent.

The standard viewfinder screen (EG-A) can be swapped out for a grid (EG-D) or, for photographers who focus manually, a Super Precision (EG-S) screen. Each of these optional focusing screens streets for about $45.

While there’s no pop-up flash (we can’t get over it), the hot-shoe is more rugged, with the addition of a rim that seals Canon’s EX II-series Speedlites in place.

Despite the fact that many pros will use this camera, the 5D Mark II (like the Nikon D700) has only one CompactFlash slot. Canon’s 1D and 1Ds cameras, however, have twin slots, which we find more useful for heavy shooters. The Sony? Both CF and Memory Stick PRO Duo slots.

Canon upgraded the shutter to boost its life expectancy to 150,000 cycles, up from 100,000 cycles. That makes it the same as the D700, leaving the Sony’s 100,000-cycle shutter behind.

If dust keeps finding its way onto your imaging sensor, you’ll appreciate the 5D Mark II’s Integrated Cleaning System. It shakes the sensor each time you start up the camera so that any loose dust falls down to be trapped by a sticky surface below the sensor. Also, the low pass filter on the front of the sensor assembly has a fluorine coating to repel dust in the first place.

If all of that weren’t enough (and sometimes it isn’t), a menu option lets you create a dust map by capturing an image of a plain white surface large enough to completely fill the frame. That dust map data then becomes embedded in your future image files — you can use Canon’s Digital Photo Professional software (version 3.3 or later) to remove the dust spots from your images in postprocessing. Most people think of that Photo Pro software just for RAW conversion, but the latest version also works on JPEGs and TIFFs, so you don’t have to shoot RAW to take advantage of dust mapping.

For all the similarities with its predecessor, the 5D Mark II uses a different battery. Not a small issue for photographers who have spares for their old 5D, as well as those stepping up to this model who have extra cells for their EOS 20D, 30D, 40D, or 50D. The new battery packs 1800mAh, up from 1390mAh in the BP-511A, and is rated for up to 850 shots per charge.

More bad news for those moving up from Canon’s APS-sensor DSLRs with a bag of digital-only lenses: As with other Canon full-framers, this new one doesn’t take that glass. In contrast, the Nikon D3, D3X, and D700 can go both ways.

5D Mark II Firmware

All Better
Everyone is saying the firmware has fixed the issues. I’ve only had one person comment that the banding issue has also been fixed. The sRaws have to be processed in DPP, so that was the reason for the update to that.

I still have one source saying added features could still be on the table in the next 30-60 days. Don’t hold us to that.

5D Mark II Firmware 1.0.7

Firmware Changes
Firmware Update Version 1.0.7 improves and mitigates the following two types of image quality phenomena that occur under certain shooting conditions.

1. “Black dot” phenomenon (the right side of point light sources become black)
2. Vertical banding noise

Firmware Version 1.0.7 is for EOS 5D Mark II cameras with firmware up to version 1.0.6. If the camera’s firmware is already version 1.0.7, it is not necessary to update the firmware.

Notes:
When updating to Firmware Version 1.0.7, please also update the Digital Photo Professional and Picture Style Editor software. Firmware Version 1.0.7 can be downloaded from the bottom of this page. Updates for Digital Photo Professional and Picture Style Editor can be downloaded from the following Web site.

http://web.canon.jp/imaging/eosd/firm-e/eos5dmk2/firmware.html