Canon EOS 5D Mark II Review

by Reads (8,108)
  • Pros

    • Full feature set
    • Great at high ISO
    • HD video capable
  • Cons

    • Slower burst mode
    • No built-in flash
    • Weak microphone

The Canon EOS 5D Mark II, the successor to the very popular full-frame 5D, was a long time coming, arriving on the scene about three years after its predecessor, the first (relatively) affordable full-frame DSLR, the 5D.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

This second iteration brings the EOS line up to date using the 5D as its base, adding new and enhanced features, a little trickle down from the 1Ds Mark III and a couple of additions borrowed from the 50D. A great mixture of features, technology and performance, the 5D Mark II has already made its mark on the photo community.

In addition to a new 21 megapixel CMOS sensor (similar to the one used in the 1Ds Mark III), the 5D Mark II is equipped with a high resolution 3-inch LCD, a new viewfinder, a DIGIC IV processor, increased ISO to 25,600, and HD video capabilities for recording up to 12 minutes of HD at a clip.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The camera is equipped with an updated version Canon’s integrated cleaning system, featuring a Fluorine coating on the low pass filter to help repel dust. The cleaning system can also be activated manually via the camera’s menu.

Other notable features include Peripheral Illumination correction, which helps correct vignetting (the camera can store the data of up to 40 Canon lenses), Highlight Tone Priority and interchangeable focusing screens.

The list of additions and improvements is long and impressive but to get a better feel for what the camera does and how it performs, read on.

Physically, the 5D Mark II is pretty much a clone of its predecessor in terms of design, weight and size. Control layout is almost exactly the same, both weigh about 1.8 pounds (body only without battery) and the 5D Mark II measures only a fraction of an inch larger. The biggest external difference is the larger, higher resolution LCD-a 3.0 inch monitor (vs. the 5D’s 2.75 inch LCD) with about four times the resolution of its predecessor and a wider viewing angle. A new viewfinder, which offers 98% coverage, is also a welcome addition.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Other changes include two more Custom settings options on the mode dial, bringing the total to three custom modes, and the addition of a Creative Auto mode-a feature borrowed from the 50D. The CA mode is, essentially, designed for novice DSLR users or, according to Canon, experienced photographers who want a quick and easy method of adjusting certain settings. Mostly, though, it’s for people who don’t fully understand manual exposure or the relationship between aperture and depth-of-field. One of the CA options, for example, moving a slider bar to “blur the background” (i.e. limit depth-of-field). It’s one of those take it or leave it features that most experienced photographers will probably ignore.

Upon close inspection you’ll also notice the addition of an IrPort remote sensor so you can use one of Canon’s optional remotes. And, of course, since the 5D Mark II is capable of recording HD video, there are connections for an external microphone and for HDMI output.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

While the 5D Mark II doesn’t have a built-in flash, one of Canon’s Speedlites will fit neatly into the camera’s hotshoe. And if you’re a macro fanatic, be sure to check out Canon’s Macro Ring Lite or Macro Twin Lite flashes. Of course, the full complement of Canon’s EF Lenses is available for the camera as well.

You’ll need a high speed, high capacity CompactFlash card to make the most of this camera and since the 5D Mark II supports UDMA CF cards for higher capacity burst capture (as well as standard CF type 1 and II cards), I tested the camera with a 16GB Lexar UDMA card and a SanDisk 16GB Extreme IV card. Both cards performed well and having the higher capacity was extremely useful since the 5D Mark II’s files are about twice as large as the 5D’s. For video, keep in mind that about 12 minutes of HD video requires about 4GB of space.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

A new battery pack provides between 750-850 shots per charge but that’s not the only benefit of the new battery. You can also track several of the battery’s data points including the remaining number of shots. A new battery grip is also available and the camera is compatible with Canon’s WFT-E4A Wireless File Transmitter so you can transfer images in a number of different ways including wirelessly and directly to USB drives.

Build quality is excellent and, best of all, the 5D Mark II-like the 5D-opens up the world of full-frame DSLRs to those of with smaller hands, less than Hulk Hogan upper body strength and modest bank accounts, and offers the opportunity to shoot comfortably with a full-frame camera. Of course, you can always outsize your strength by coupling the 5D Mark II with a huge telephoto lens but that’s where a sturdy tripod comes into play. Bottom line: the 5D Mark II is solidly built, has enough heft to counterbalance long lenses and is equipped with a well-designed grip for stable handholds.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Ergonomics and Controls
Since the 5D Mark II’s controls are almost a carbon copy of the 5D, 5D users won’t miss a beat when upgrading, although there is a slight learning curve for using Live View and shooting video on the new model. Other Canon DSLR users will also have an easy time transitioning to the 5D Mark II since controls are very similar.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of the 5D Mark II’s modest physical design is that it’s easy for those of us with smaller hands to use. There is one exception, however. Because the power on/off switch is at the bottom right on the rear panel of the camera, it’s sometimes a little awkward to turn the camera on and off without shifting the right hand off the grip. It’s not a big deal; it’s just something one has to navigate a little differently than other cameras with more easily accessible power on/off switches.

Menus and Modes
Canon has kept the 5D Mark II’s menu system fairly uncluttered, with the full complement of options under each tab visible on a single screen. Granted, there are more tabs to cycle through but at least you don’t have to scroll through more than one virtual “page” of a menu to get to the setting you want.

There are nine tabs but even those unfamiliar with Canon’s menu system can quickly figure out what each tab icon means. The first two-a camera icon on a red background-are capture settings; the two blue icons with white arrows are for playback settings, etc.

Shooting information is available everywhere including the viewfinder, top panel LCD and rear panel monitor. With the rear LCD’s info panel, you can easily change all of the most important options ranging from f/stop (which is also adjustable with the main control dial), ISO, file size/resolution and more.

The exposure mode dial, located on the left top surface of the camera offers a number of different options:

  • Custom settings: C1, C2, C3 allows users to register three different custom modes with most often used or special settings
  • B(ulb): holds the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed in the 5D Mark II
  • Manual: you set both the shutter-speed and aperture
  • AV: you select the aperture and the camera selects the shutter-speed
  • TV: you select the shutter-speed and the camera selects the aperture
  • Program: the camera sets the shutter-speed and aperture but some manual settings are available
  • Creative Auto: provides a simple graphic interface to adjust aperture and exposure compensation
  • Auto: the camera selects all but a few settings

Although it’s unlikely the 5D Mark II will attract photographers who will make use of the Auto and Creative Auto modes, Canon didn’t penalize exposure options by including them. Rather, an extra two Custom modes, bringing the total to three, is a welcome change and will be well-utilized by many photographers.

The new, larger and higher resolution LCD is a very welcome addition to the 5D Mark II. Even though the 3.0 inch LCD is larger than the 5D’s 2.75 inch monitor, there’s only a barely-noticeable shift of control positions and fractions of an inch increase in body size.

At 920,000 dots, the screen offers great resolution and can now be viewed at a wide 170 degrees. The 5D Mark II offers 7 levels of brightness adjustment, as well as auto, and while using the LCD is a pleasure under all lighting conditions, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that your exposure is right on if the LCD brightness isn’t at the right level so be sure to use the histogram and highlight alert features.

The manual LCD brightness option came in handy when shooting in Live View, though. While the LCD delivered fluid movement in Live View, the image on the screen was a little dark but was easily brightened by a quick trip to the internal menu system.

While the optical viewfinder offers about 98% coverage-up from the 5D’s 96%–I’d still like to see 100% coverage. After shooting with the Sony A-900, it’s hard to go back to any other optical viewfinder. Still, the 5D Mark II’s optical viewfinder is quite good. Optional focusing screens are also available.

Thanks to the implementation of Canon’s new DIGIC IV processor, the 5D Mark II has made some gains over the 5D. Burst mode is now at about 3.8 frames per second, versus the 5D’s 3fps, and won’t win the 5D Mark II any awards but given that the new model is pushing almost twice as many pixels, it’s a pretty good improvement. (Sony’s A900 is even more impressive but uses dual processors to push the pixels from its 24 megapixel sensor.).

A larger buffer allows the camera to shoot up to about 13 consecutive RAW files (you can add a few more when using a UDMA card). Use sRAW1 or 2, which are smaller-sized RAW files (10 megapixels and 5.2 megapixels, respectively), new for the 5D Mark II, to pick up some speed and extra shots.

Shutter lag and autofocus times are good, although I found that the 5D Mark II occasionally had to hunt for focus in very low light. I have used the 5D Mark II to shoot fashion shows but probably wouldn’t take it to an air show, sporting event or car race since the autofocus and burst rate may not be up to the challenge. But wedding photographers and photojournalists will be more than happy with its performance.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30 0.02
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 0.02
Nikon D90 0.03
Pentax K20D 0.04
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 0.08

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30 0.14
Nikon D90 0.17
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 0.18
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 0.21
Pentax K20D 0.28

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Olympus E-30 9 5.0 fps
Nikon D90 4.0 fps
Canon EOS 5D Mark II 3.8 fps
Pentax K20D 38 3.0 fps
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350 2.1 fps

Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera’s fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.), as tested in our studio. “Frames” notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

Unlike most DSLRs equipped with Live View, Canon has equipped the 5D Mark II’s Live View with three autofocus modes: Quick, Live and Face Detection Live. In the Quick mode, the mirror drops down so that phase detection autofocus can be used. Live and Face Detection Live use contrast detection autofocus because the mirror is kept up and out of the way. Contrast detection is a slower mode of autofocus than phase detection but is certainly usable. Be sure to test the Live AF mode in video before shooting footage; depending on the subject matter and the lens used, you may want to manually focus instead since it’s more accurate (and quieter).

As expected, the 5D Mark II produces great images-even on its default settings. If you don’t like the image, simple adjustments to one or more of the camera’s many options will do the trick.

Canon 5D Mark II

It was no surprise that auto white balance produced a very warm image under incandescent lighting. Expect this from all Canon cameras and don’t depend on auto white balance indoors (AWB does work well outdoors in sunlight, however).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

Colors are accurately and naturally rendered and, for the most part, exposures are spot on. Dynamic range is quite good as well but when faced with high contrast situations, try turning on the Auto Lighting Optimizer to maintain details in highlights. It doesn’t work miracles and, in some cases, you may not be able to detect a huge difference, but it’s worth using.

With an expanded light sensitivity range from 50-25,600, the 5D Mark II does an excellent job of keeping noise levels (and noise reduction softening) to a minimum.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
L (ISO 50)
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
L (ISO 50), 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 100
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 200
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 400
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 800
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 1600
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 3200
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 6400
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
H1 (ISO 12800)
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
H1 (ISO 12800), 100% crop
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
H2 (ISO 25600)
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
H2 (ISO 25600), 100% crop

Although you can see a slight softening of the image above ISO 1600 (be sure to dial down the noise reduction), details are well maintained and, even at 25,600, the 5D Mark II produces cleaner images than you can get out of most any other DSLR on the market today.

HD video quality (1920×1080 at 30 fps in 16:9 aspect ratio) is excellent.

Whether you’re shooting stills or video, you need the highest quality lens you can afford. Of course, good glass is ideal for any camera but because the 5D Mark II offers such high resolution and is a full-frame camera, optics are even more important with this camera.

Additional Sample Images

Canon 5D Mark II Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 5D Mark II Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 5D Mark II Canon 5D Mark II

When the original 5D was introduced, Canon made it possible for photographers with relatively modest budgets to purchase a full-frame DSLR. Now, for about the same price, photographers can easily put their hands on a full-frame, high resolution camera with HD video.

As appealing as the camera’s HD video feature is (especially for wedding photographers, photojournalists, and underwater shooters), the 5D Mark II is, first and foremost, a digital still camera. Excellent image quality and a full feature set are the camera’s two biggest selling points; HD video is the icing on the cake. Whether you’re stepping up from another Canon DSLR or want a back-up for a higher Canon model, the 5D Mark II is certain to appeal to the most discerning photographer-even those who will never (or almost never) utilize the video feature.


  • “Affordable” full-frame, high resolution camera
  • Full feature set
  • Excellent high ISO performance
  • Live View with 3 AF modes
  • HD video capabilities


  • Relatively slow burst mode
  • Autofocus a little slow in low light
  • No built-in flash, which is not a big deal but an on-board flash could be useful
  • On board microphone is fairly weak and monaural (an accessory mic is required for stereo recording)
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