Canon EOS 5D Mark II Hands-On Review
By Allan Weitz
Please Note: Due to very high demand for the Canon 5D Mark II, both bodies and kits are currently being allocated by the manufacturer in small quantities. Please check back soon for availability as B&H anticipates the delivery of a larger number of cameras and kits shortly.
Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IIRoad-testing a new DSLR is always a blast, especially when the improvements go beyond a new paint job and racing stripes. Canon’s new EOS 5D Mark II, a 2nd generation 5D-series digicam, delivers a host of improvements along with the ability to shoot Hi-Def video with sound, which made the road-test experience a total blast-and-a-half.
Having logged many hours with the original EOS 5D, I was especially eager to shoot with its replacement. What surprised me most was the extent to which I became enamored with the newbie’s video feature, but more on that later.
21.1Mp 24x36mm CMOS Sensor
At the top of the Mark II’s list of innovations is a 21.1Mp CMOS sensor that bangs out image files that open up to 60-plus megapixels, which is almost twice up from the original 5D. At 3.9 frames-per-second, the EOS 5D Mark II is also about 33% faster than the original EOS 5D (3 frames-per-second).
Higher pixel-count aside, the folks at Canon also narrowed the gaps between the individual pixels and improved the light-gathering efficiency of the sensor’s microlens system. And though the 5D Mark II contains narrower pixels (6.4µm) than the original 5D (8.2µm), the 5D Mark II’s improved microlens system, in tandem with the camera’s DIGIC 4 Image Processor delivers higher levels of detail and dynamic range. At the end of the day it’s pretty nifty to be able to perform major-league cropping on a picture and still end up with robust image files 20-30-plus Mb in size.
DIGIC 4 Image Processor
The driving force behind the 5D Mark II’s image quality is Canon’s DIGIC 4 Image Processor, which drives other 5D Mark II technologies including faster read/write times, Face Detection Live mode, peripheral lens optimization, Hi-Def video capture, and for better image detail and tonal gradations, a new, full 14-bit A/D conversion process that replaces the 12-bit process used in previous Canon DSLRs. The DIGIC 4 also does an impressive job minimizing noise when shooting at higher ISO ratings.
HD Video Capture
Having the ability to capture 1080p 16:9 ratio HD MOV-format video (1920 x 1080 pixels per frame at 30 fps) in Live View mode with sound is a rather seductive feature, and even if video isn’t your forte, a box of donuts says you’re going to find yourself shooting ‘moving pictures’ more than you thought you would. (I know I did!)
Though the camera is somewhat awkward compared to a conventional camcorder, with a bit of patience and practice, you can capture detailed video footage with the 5D Mark II. The full-frame (24x36mm) sensor enables you to take full creative advantage of Canon’s 60-plus lens options that include ultra-wide, ultra-telephoto, and ultra-fast optics. And yes, Canon image stabilized (IS) lenses remain so in both still and video mode.
Video playback controls includes Play, Pause, Stop, Single-Frame Advance, Slow Motion playback in forward and reverse, jump to beginning or end of clip, and audio output level.
While selective focus can be challenging when using camcorders containing smaller imaging sensors, the 5D Mark II with its larger CMOS sensor enables you to easily produce some pretty amazing optical effects using Canon’s wider-aperture lenses in both still and video mode.
Live Video with Sound
The EOS 5D Mark II captures monaural sound to go along with the video, but it’s a ‘take what you get’ proposition. A small, built-in speaker allows you to check the sound when playing back the clips. Serious video shooters will want to look into purchasing a higher quality hot-shoe mounted external microphone to capture cleaner sound, which patches easily into the camera’s 3.5mm stereo mini-jack. There’s also an HDMI output jack for viewing stills and video on an HDTV monitor.
Sound captured using the 5D Mark II’s built-in mic is recorded as linear PCM (monaural) without compression, or in stereo when recorded using an (optional) external mic. Regardless of whether you record sound using the built-in mic or an external mic, the audio levels are adjusted automatically.
The 5D Mark II features Quick and Live AF modes that enable you to compose and focus your picture live using the camera’s Hi-Def LCD screen. And while the camera’s AF-response times are slower in Live Mode, you still retain use of the 5D Mark II’s Face Detection feature that maintains focus and proper exposure for up to 35 selected faces within the scene.
Still Imaging During Video Capture
Canon’s engineers thoughtfully enabled the 5D Mark II to capture single or multiple still images without having to switch out of video mode by simply pressing the shutter button.
Depending on the ambient light levels, the ISO defaults automatically between ISO 100 to 6400 – or up to ISO 12,800 when ISO expansion is activated – to best ensure blur-free pictures. What does remain constant when switching from stills to video is your choice of Scene mode and Picture Style.
It should be noted every time you grab a still image during a video session there is a 1-second gap per image (without sound) in the video sequence during which a ‘freeze-frame’ of the captured still is displayed.
Multi-Aspect Focusing Controls
The EOS 5D Mark II has 9 AF points arranged in a diamond-shaped array within the viewfinder for improved horizontal and vertical focus coverage and tracking.
Of these 9 AF points, 8 are horizontal line sensitive with lenses f/5.6 or brighter, while the center point is a cross type with vertical line sensitivity with optics f/2.8 or wider.
In the course of tracking faster moving subjects, all 9 AF points are supported by 6 non-visible supplemental AF assist points, which combine with the center AF point to increase the overall tracking area.
When using the 5D Mark II’s Live View Function your AF options include Quick AF, which uses the camera’s 9 plus 6 AF points with a momentary interruption of live viewing. Live AF mode uses contrast detection AF with an AF box that can be moved around the image area, and Face Detection AF, which locks in on the closest face (out of up to up to 35 faces) and can be set to follow desired face.
During video capture, focusing is performed prior to pressing the record button. And as with stills, you can focus the lens manually while in Video mode, or use one of the 3 aforementioned AF modes.
The EOS 5D Mark II has an ISO range of 100-6400, which is expandable to ISO 50, as well as ISOs 12800 and 25600 for all you low-light shooters out there. It should be noted ISO 50 doesn’t produce finer image quality than ISO 100. But just as it’s handy to be able to ‘up the ISO’ when shooting under low-light conditions, it’s equally handy to be able to ‘power-down’ a stop further than your flash pack’s minimum power output when shooting at wider apertures in the studio. As for the higher ISO ratings, the EOS 5D Mark II delivers eminently usable image files even at the highest ratings. (See comparison images at the end of this review)
ISO 100 ISO 200 ISO 400
ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200
3” Clear View LCD
For reviewing and editing your images, as well as shooting in Live View mode, the EOS 5D Mark II sports an incredibly able 3”, 920,000-dot Clear View LCD screen, which makes composing (in Live View mode) and reviewing stills and video imagery an easy, positive experience. And though the screen does not tilt or swivel, it’s 170° viewing angle makes it easy to critically check focus from angles other than dead-on.
Baklava lovers rejoice! Aside from improved anti-reflective coatings, Canon claims the new Fluorine-coated screen is also more smudge-resistant than earlier LCD screens, though we still advise against poking around in or around the mirror box, and that’s before and after snacktime.
The EOS 5D Mark II’s optical viewfinder has also been improved. It now displays 98% of the total image area (the camera’s LCD displays 100% of the image), has a 0.76x magnification ratio (approx. 35° angle-of-view), and an eye-point of about 20 mm.
Make sure you pack along plenty of fast, UDMA-compliant CompactFlash cards as the 5D Mark II chows down memory like there’s no tomorrow, especially if you plan on shooting RAW/sRAW+ JPEGs. As for shooting in HD video mode, you can fill a 4-gig card in 12-minutes flat, 24-minutes in Standard mode. Come to think about it, maybe now’s a good time to get that larger-capacity pocket drive you were hoping someone would get you for the holidays. (See chart below. Data based on a 2-Gig UDMA CF memory card).
Self-Cleaning Imaging Sensor
The EOS 5D Mark II features an improved EOS Integrated Cleaning System with Fluorine coated low-pass filter, that can be triggered automatically each time you power up or off, or manually as needed to rid the sensor of any alien life forms that might find their way onto the surface of the camera’s low-pass filter.
Intelligent Battery Check
I made up that name, but it pretty much sums up one of the neater tricks performed by the EOS 5D Mark II. Unlike battery check icons that merely indicate the percentage of juice left in your battery, the 5D Mark II’s serial-numbered LPE-6 lithium-ion batteries enable the camera to retrieve a full status report on of each Canon battery you own.
Aside from indicating the percentage of remaining power, the 5d Mark II’s battery check also indicates the number of times the battery fired a shutter, as well as a recharge performance report.
Construction and Performance
You might say the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is very much like the camera it replaces… only more so. When Canon initially developed the EOS 5D, they underestimated how many pros would adopt the camera as a two-cameras-for-the-price-of-an-EOS 1Ds Mark II solution.
From an imaging standpoint, the camera delivered the goods, but on other levels it proved less-than-ideal based on pro expectations. Canon describes the EOS 5D Mark II as being 80% EOS 5D and 20% EOS 1Ds Mark II, with most of that 20% going into higher standards of construction, weatherproofing, and overall capture performance.
As a result, the new camera is built to a tougher standard. And while it will not stand up to the same levels of abuse as Canon’s flagship DSLR, the EOS 1Ds Mark II, it is notably beefier, better sealed and more impervious to the outside world than the 1st-generation EOS 5D.
Along with higher resolving power and faster burst-rates, the metering and AF systems in the 5D Mark II have also been improved beyond the EOS 5D in terms of speed, usability, and accuracy. Start-up time is as short as 1/10th-second, and the newly designed shutter should get you through 150,000-plus exposures.
Other improvements include a viewfinder that displays 98% image coverage, improved Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO) and Highlight Tone Priority settings, 25 Custom Functions (with 71 possible settings), along with Peripheral Illumination Correction with over 40 Canon EF-series lenses.
And like Canon’s pro-quality 1D-series DSLRs, the 5D Mark II corrects focus-point shifts caused by different light sources, and features AF micro-adjustment settings to fine-tune specific Canon EF lenses. And yes, most of these improvements will be noticeable to anyone who has shot with the original 5D.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II Quick Control Screen
Priced under $2700, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is an impressive camera that enables the user to capture monstrous, pro-quality still and video image files for far less than half the price of Canon’s flagship EOS 1Ds Mark II. Is the EOS 1Ds Mark II better built, faster, and more dependable when shooting under enemy fire? It sure is (And it shoots video no less!). But for many serious amateurs and pros alike, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is an awful lot of bang for the buck.