Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The 13-megapixel Canon EOS 5D single-lens reflex digital camera is the
first consumer-priced ($2700) full-frame sensor body. It does just
about everything that an $7000 EOS 1Ds body from 2004 did at about half
the weight (2 lbs).
The primary advantages of having a digital sensor the same size
(24x36mm) as a frame of 35mm film are (1) higher image quality,
especially in terms of noise and especially in lower light situations,
and (2) the ability to use very wide angle lenses. The only
disadvantage to having a full-frame sensor compared to a small-sensor
digital SLR body (Canon Digital Rebel or any Nikon) is that the
small-sensor effectively increases the magnification of telephoto
lenses, which can be useful when you are doing sports or bird
photography. Of course, the resolution of the 5D is so high that you
could pull out the central 8 MP of a Canon EOS 5D image and it would
be almost as though you had taken the photo with a Canon 30D or
If you are a wide-angle junkie and have a bunch of older Canon EOS
lenses designed for film cameras, you'll love having the EOS 5D. The small
sensor Canon bodies turn an exciting 20mm wide angle lens into a boring
30mm perspective. With the 5D, what you got with your 20mm lens on the
film camera is what you get with the 5D.
The Canon EOS 5D is compact and plasticky, but solidly built. Though noisier
than a point-and-shoot digital camera, the Canon EOS 5D is extremely
quiet in operation, quieter than any modern film body and with a
slightly more muted and lower frequency shutter "thunk" than the small
sensor Canon bodies.
The Canon EOS 5D turns on almost instantly and has unmeasureable delays for
taking pictures, displaying previews, and waking up once asleep. The
camera is always ready when you are. The only exception to this rule is
if you try to take pictures continuously at a rate that exceeds three
photos per second. I.e., sports photographers might want to consider
one of the EOS 1D bodies specifically designed for their rapid-fire needs.
Canon's EOS 5D has the standard four exposure modes: Metered Manual,
Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and Program autoexposure. There
are two control wheels so that you can adjust aperture and shutter
The 5D has the standard focus modes of any Canon SLR: Manual,
Single-shot auto, Continuous auto, and "AI focus" where the camera tries
to figure out whether or not your subject is moving. As with all of the
great Canon EOS bodies over the decades, if you drill down into the
custom function menus, you can figure out how to make the autoexposure
lock button on the back of the camera into a "burst of AF" thumb switch
while in Manual Focus mode. Thus you're able to manually adjust focus
but have automatic assistance available when desired. Autofocus
performance is superb, even in dim light, with 15 AF sensors distributed
around the frame.
Sensitivity is adjustable from ISO 50-3200 but there is no good
reminder of what you've got set and the setting is persistent if you
turn the camera off and back on overnight.
Operation is modeless. If you've pressed the playback button and are
reviewing images, a quick touch of the shutter release readies the
camera to take pictures again.
Viewfinder coverage on the Canon EOS 5D is standard for an advanced
amateur single-lens reflex camera, about 96 percent of what is recorded
on the sensor is displayed in the viewfinder. This sounds great and
indeed would be great on a film camera where slide mounts and cropping
during enlargement often result in the sacrifice of some of the image at
the edges. In the digital world, however, what you capture in the
camera is what you'll be delivering in a JPEG file, unless you go into a
photo editing program and take the trouble to crop. This is one area
where the Canon EOS 1Ds justifies its $7000 price with a standard
professional 100 percent viewfinder. Note that, as with most digital
single lens reflex cameras, the 5D cannot provide you with a preview in
the rear LCD because the sensor is occluded by the viewing
mirror until you press the shutter release. So the only way to frame an
image precisely is to take a test picture, look at the edges on the
bright 2.5" rear LCD, and then recompose and click again.
The viewfinder image is substantially larger than on the small-sensor
Canon bodies. Eye relief is just barely adequate for people wearing
eyeglasses. There is a diopter adjustment and you can change the
focusing screen as well.
The 5D takes a single Compact Flash card, either Type I and II.
Microdrives work in the camera, but operate very slowly if you are taking
14 MB RAW images. Microdrives are also more prone to failure than the
solid-state CF cards and I do not recommend them.
The camera has an internal buffer memory for rapid sequence photography
(17 RAWs or 60 JPEGs). The camera can capture 3 frames per second
The Canon EOS 5D does not have a built-in flash. Dedicated Canon
accessory flash units mount in the hot shoe above the viewfinder and the
camera is able to control flash exposure via a through-the-lens sensor.
Maximum flash sync speed is 1/200th. Balancing flash and natural light
Photography in available, i.e., low, light is a pleasure with the Canon
EOS 5D because the typical lenses that you'd use with this camera
include the standard 50/1.4 from the film world. The following images
were taken at ISO 800:
The included Lith-ion battery is adequate for a day of active
photography, somewhere between 300 and 500 photos plus review. The
Canon EOS 5D cannot run on disposable AA batteries. To recharge the
battery you must carry a chunky travel charger that plugs directly into
a wall socket.
If you take 100 pictures in quick succession, don't be alarmed when the
"low battery" symbols flashes. Let the camera rest for a few minutes
and the battery voltage will come back.
If you are a serious photographer, you will want to purchase and carry
a backup BP-511A
battery (the same battery that Canon has used in the
20D and the Gn point-and-shoot models).
Canon includes some image library management software with the EOS 5D,
including the Zoom Browser Ex. I don't recommend using it. The best
professional solution is
Photoshop CS2, which comes with an image editing tool called "Adobe
Bridge". When working with RAW images, this is rather sluggish on all but the very newest and most
powerful PCs. (See my photoshop directory for some useful
scripts, including those that were used to generate the JPEGs you
see on this page.) If you download
RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer for Windows XP, you can sort photos
to some extent just using the standard Windows file browser. The Picasa
program from Google also can understand the EOS 5D's .CR2 RAW files.
Whatever software you choose to use, you won't have to spend too much
time post-processing due to the EOS 5D's inclusion of a mercury switch
to orient photos. In other words an image captured with the camera held
vertically will appear on a computer screen in a vertical orientation.
Reliability and Durability
I've had this EOS 5D for nearly a year and it has survived a trip through
Mexico and being vibrated for two cross-country helicopter trips.
The EOS 5D is not designed for use in a continuous downpour or very
dusty environment like the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, though it is a
basically rugged and well-sealed design.
I have not experienced any camera software problems or freezes.
Wishlist for the Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Here are some things that would be nice for the next version of the 5D:
reminder of what ISO speed is set
automatic ISO mode smart enough to look at the shutter speed and
whether or not the camera is sufficiently stable (i.e., tripod or not)
and set the ISO accordingly to avoid camera shake
Compared to the Cheaper Canon Bodies
Can you get a dramatically better photo with the EOS 5D and a
Canon 50/1.4 compared to what you'd get with
Canon Digital Rebel XTi (Black)
Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC for Canon?
Not really. Not unless you want to blow up the image to poster size
and then the 13 megapixels of the 5D will be dramatically sharper than
the 8 megapixels of the Rebel.
The EOS 30D and Digital Rebel are better values. It is much cheaper for
Canon to make a small sensor than a big sensor. The 5D, on the other
hand, is better in the following situations:
you have a lot of older Canon EOS lenses that cast a full-frame image
you love wide angle photography and want to have a good choice of
wide angle lenses
you want to take pictures in low light without a flash
you think it is ridiculous to haul around a huge heavy lens designed
to cover the 24x36mm frame of film and then only capture the central
15x22mm portion with a small sensor SLR.
The Canon EOS 5D has an almost identical and equally simple user
interface to the cheaper Canon 20D and 30D bodies.
Compared to the More Expensive Canon Bodies
If you have $7000 to spend, a strong back to carry the weight, and a
quick mind to take in the many displays and complex user interface, the
EOS 1Ds Mark II might be better than the 5D.
The Canon EOS 5D, however, will do most professional jobs. There is a
PC connector on the side for studio strobes. Without reading the
manual, you can go into the custom function menu and the camera to lock
up the mirror before taking a picture (then set self-timer mode on the
Drive button and the camera automatically configures itself for a
2-second self-timer delay; press the button and the mirror locks up,
then the shutter opens two seconds later). This is very useful for
tripod and macro work.
Compared to Nikon
The full-frame Canon EOS 5D is cheaper than Nikon's top-of-the-line
small-sensor body. That's pretty sad, considering what a tour de force
of technology the 5D's sensor is. Nikon is a small company with clever
optical engineers. Canon is a massive company with the $billions to
invest in building semiconductor fabrication lines. That difference
really shows now that the making of cameras has come down to "How much
can you invest in silicon chips?"
The Canon EOS 5D is the essential camera for everything that
photographers used to do with 35mm film. It is more than good enough
for most professional photojournalism applications, but still simple
enough that a yuppie can get one to throw in the glovebox of his BMW SUV
and take pictures at the school soccer game.
Mercifully, Canon does not include a cheap zoom lens as part of a
"kit" with the EOS 5D. If you insist on having a wide-to-tele zoom,
the standard choice is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, (compare prices) (review), which is
useful for event photography such as wedding receptions. An
alternative is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM, (compare prices) (review), which has the
advantages of light weight and image-stabilization at the cost of one
f-stop in maximum aperture, which means that the viewfinder will be
only half as bright.
For taking pictures of sporting events without breaking your arm, you'll
want a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, (compare prices) (review). (The guys you see on television might
have the 600/4, but that comes in its own suitcase and costs more than a
small Kia sedan.)
If you're going to take a lot of portraits, e.g., of a baby, and don't
want to endure the weight of the 70-200/2.8, consider a prime
Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM, (compare prices) (review). Because this is not a zoom lens, it
has many fewer individual pieces of glass inside and therefore you'll
get the highest possible contrast and image quality. You lose image
stabilization, but gain one f-stop in aperture so you can use higher
shutter speeds and the viewfinder will be brighter.
Footnote: What Happens When You Hand the Camera to Someone Else?
One perceived problem with professional-grade cameras is that they can't
be used by novices. The 5D has a green "idiot mode" on the left control
dial. The best test really is to hand the camera to a novice and
see what happens.
(I flew the Jet Ranger helicopter on the left for three hours while Commander Chuck
Street reported the traffic and talked me through the occasional
confined or pinnacle approach; I did not fly the helicopter on the right,
which is a static display at the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson,