“This video-recording D-SLR is a true breakthrough, with quality that's far better than the Nikon D90.”
- First full-frame 21.1MP D-SLR to also record HD video
- Nice-looking LCD
- Takes good stills and videos
- No flash
- Poor mono mic
Call us excited. The new Canon EOS 5D Mark II is one of the most anticipated D-SLRs of 2008. Not only does it have a 21.1-megapixel full-frame sensor, the camera is the first in its class to record 1080p high-def video. The Nikon D90 was officially the first D-SLR to record HD clips, but it did 720p footage. We liked some aspects of the $999 D90, but as a camcorder it definitely had its flaws. Now archrival Canon has outdone the D90 with a much better imaging processor, and enhanced video capture. Of course all these goodies come with a steep price—namely $2,699 for the body alone—three times the D90–although slightly less than the $2,999 full-frame 24.6MP Sony DSLR-A900 which doesn’t record video at all. At first chance we charged the battery and were off to the races…
Features and Design
The Canon EOS 5D Mark II is a hefty D-SLR and it’s easy to tell—and feel—this camera uses a lot of metal alloy in its frame. Similar in size to the older 5D, the camera is in a different league in terms of weight and build when compared to Canon’s more affordable Rebel XS and XSi. This one measures 6 x 4.5 x 3, tipping the scales at 32.2 ounces with the battery and card; add a lens like the 24-105mm IS available in a kit and it hits 55.4, close to 3.5 pounds. Serious stuff.
The 5D is dressed in black like almost every D-SLR (other than Pentax’s new white K2000). A textured finish touches most of the surface, giving it an attractive, subtle look. The front is dominated by the lens mount, and this one uses EF glass, so there are loads to choose from. Since this is a full-frame D-SLR, meaning the sensor is close to the size of a 35mm film frame, there’s no digital factor (or crop) so the focal length of the lens you attach is what you’ll actually get. This is very important for anyone who uses wide-angle lenses. The $999 24-105mm edition Canon supplied delivers the numbers stated—not 36-157.5mm. As devotees of wide-angle shooting, this is a true blessing.
On the front, you’ll also find the lens release and depth-of-field preview buttons, self-timer lamp and remote control sensor. There’s a DC coupler cord hole in the grip, in case you buy that accessory. The most unusual item is the microphone, neatly tucked under the 5D logo for recording video soundtracks. It’s mono, not stereo, immediately pointing out the difference between the memory capturing capability of this device as compared to any high-def camcorder which has a stereo or 5.1-channel surround mic. We didn’t expect perfection on the first round, but definitely make note. If you want to go through the hassle, there’s a mic input so you use an optional stereo mic, but expect your rig to look like something carried by a SWAT team sniper. There are a few judicious logos with nothing blaring “this is a 21.1MP camera”. The pistol grip is a good one, and it has the shutter button and jog wheel to make menu adjustments. As always, you should definitely do your own hands-on test—especially if you’re thinking of dropping $3K for a camera.
The top is nicely laid out with a large LCD status display, key image controls, the viewfinder assembly and limited function mode dial. Like other uber D-SLRs such as the recently reviewed Sony A900, there is no pop-up flash, just a hot shoe atop the viewfinder. This is an accessory you’ll have to buy, unless you only shoot in available light. Since this is highly unlikely, figure on spending around $250 for a decent Canon Speedlite 430EX II. The status display is a good one, and you can quickly see your settings; a nearby button lights it up when you’re shooting in the dark. Three buttons give access to metering/white balance, AF/drive and ISO/flash compensation. By either turning the jog wheel on the grip or the larger control dial on the back, you can easily make adjustments. The options here are pretty standard, other than ISO which hits an amazing 25,600 with a basic range of 100-6400. The mode dial is fairly limited—no scene modes such as portrait, landscape and so on. There is creative auto (CA) also found on the EOS 50D, which tells you how to blur the background (change the aperture) or darken or lighten a shot (exposure compensation). One would think the buyer of this camera would know such things but who knows? Beyond this are full auto, aperture- and shutter-priority, full manual, bulb and three custom settings.
The rear real estate is huge, and the 3-inch LCD screen doesn’t overwhelm it in any way. The screen is rated 920K pixels, about the best in D-SLR land these days. The viewfinder is surrounded by a rubber eyecup and diopter control. The viewfinder has 98% coverage, which is good but not nearly as fine or as bright as the 100% of the A900. Surrounding the LCD are the usual buttons you’ll find on any D-SLR—menu, playback, delete and so on. There’s also one for picture styles to adjust the feel and tone of the image. To the left of the viewfinder is the Live View key (more on this in the Performance section). To the right is a 4-pinhole speaker, a multi controller joystick, and the large control dial with center set button. There are also AF-ON, AE Lock, AF point selection and power on/off keys. There’s a lot to absorb but the owner’s manual does a good job walking you through them. And if you’re really into the technology of the 5D, Canon has a white paper to check out.
Two rather flimsy rubber doors on the left side cover the various ports and connections, including HDMI, PC and remote control terminals. On the right side is the CompactFlash card slot. Since this camera is UDMA compliant, you should definitely purchase a 4GB or greater card of this type. On the bottom is the tripod mount, and battery compartment.
What’s in the Box
Nothing unusual here. You’ll get the camera body, battery and charger with various caps, a strap, USB and A/V cables along with a pocket guide and 228-page owner’s manual. The EOS Digital Camera Solutions Disk (ver. 19.1) has ZoomBrowser EX 6.2, Digital Photo Professional 3.5, Picture Style Editor 1.4, PhotoStitch 3.1, EOS Utility 2.5 and WFT Utility 3.3 for the PC and similar software for the Mac. These help you manage and edit your images and “develop” RAW files, handle wireless transmissions, and control the camera remotely. A software instruction manual is on another CD-ROM.
Once the battery and card were loaded, it was time to shoot some stills and HD video.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Performance and Use
Not to sound jaded, but we had a pretty good idea how good the stills would be, so our first test was connecting the camera via HDMI to a 50-inch 1080p plasma. The 5D Mark II records 1080p clips rated 1920 x 1080 pixels, at 30 frames per second. Your standard high-def camcorder does 1080i clips at 60 fps. DT readers know camcorders are among our favorite CE devices, since you just turn the power on, set them to auto, zoom in on your subject and just press record. Voila! the camcorder handles the focusing while you concentrate on your work of art. Things are quite different for the 5D—some for the good others for the bad.
You can’t simply move the mode dial to movie and press the shutter button as is the case with point-and-shoot digicams. Here you have to set a special Live View mode via the menu system. Once done, you hit the Live View button, which flips the mirror up so the image hits the sensor. Now your subject appears on the 3-inch LCD, and you have to zero in the focus. At that point you hit the set button and recording begins (up to 29 minutes 59 seconds at a time, compared to 5 minutes per scene for the D90). If your subject moves or the zoom ratio changes, you have to keep focusing. Is this difficult to do? Somewhat, but it’s not like trying to understand the definition of a credit default swap. It’s just very different, compared to a camcorder’s ease of use. And we’d definitely like the ability to magnify the center of the screen to make sure things were as sharp as could be.
We shot a number of clips indoors and out during foggy and sunny days. For the most part, the video quality was very good, but not to the level of high-end ($1,000+) HD Canons and Sonys, or the 1080p output of the JVC HD40. However it was far better than the 3MOS Panasonic SD100, which was a true disappointment. One real bummer was the microphone. The quality was really poor, and it picked up the internal mechanical sounds of the camera. An external mic is really the way to go here, unless you just record raucous parties with lots of ambient noise to cover the camera’s sound! This is truly version 1.0 on the audio side, so be prepared. Also, the amount of storage is limited by your card, and is a mere fraction of any hard-drive camcorder (40 gigs and up). That said, the camera recorded accurate colors without too much noise. It’s also cool that you can snap a still while recording motion. Also on the plus side is the truly amazing variety of creative options available with a D-SLR body. Naturally, you can use any kind of lens you like, so if you want to record wide-angle clips, go right ahead. Super telephoto? No problem. This is one instance where you really can be your own cinematographer. Bottom line? We were impressed—far more than the Nikon D90.
As for the stills, what would you expect from a $2,700 21.1-megapixel full-frame D-SLR that shoots at 3.9 frames per second? Exactly. The EOS 5D Mark II captures 5616 x 3744 pixel images in JPEG, RAW as well as two lower-res versions of RAW (sRAW). We took a wide variety of images in fog and sunshine, indoors and out with the 24-105mm IS lens. We also pushed the ISO up to the ridiculous level of 25,600. Once done we proceeded to crank out full-bleed prints to check the results.
Shooting indoors in a dimly lit room at 25,600 ISO is a bad move—especially if you want an 8.5×11 print; it’s a pixilated mess. Dropping down to 12,800, the results were much better, and we’ve gotten worse prints from 10MP point-and-shoots shooting at 800, not 12,800! 6400 was surprisingly good, as was 3200, which is about the limit we’d go for a fairly noise-free image for a large print. As far as lower ISO photos were concerned, we were quite happy with the results, just as we were with the 24.6MP Sony A900. Colors were right on the money with amazing amounts of detail. The amount of cropping you can do with a 20+MP image is startling. It’s pretty evident we liked this camera.
Here’s a shocker: DigitalTrends.com gives this Canon EOS 5D Mark II an Editor’s Choice award, even with the drawbacks enumerated. Going to the top line: This video-recording D-SLR is a true breakthrough with quality that’s far better than the Nikon D90. We only wish Canon engineers spent some time noise dampening the mic; the poor sound detracts from an otherwise top-notch video experience. And this is ostensibly a digital camera, not a camcorder. As for its still photographic abilities, they’re winners too. We only wish the price of full-frame sensor D-SLRs would come down from their rarified levels. Since this is consumer electronics, it’s just a matter of time. Exactly when, we can’t predict, but if you’re in this price neighborhood, give the 5D a very long look.
Buyer beware: Canon and early owners of the 5D have reported issues including a “Black dot” phenomenon (the right side of point light sources becomes black) and vertical banding noise when shooting in sRAW1. We didn’t encounter them. The company states it’s working on a firmware upgrade to resolve these issues.
- 21.1MP full-frame sensor
- Fine still and videos
- Solid 3.9 fps shooting
- Nose-bleed 25,600 ISO
- Excellent 3-inch LCD
- Extensive noise at highest ISOs
- Terrible audio recording
- Flimsy doors covering jacks