Canon EOS 5D Mark II First Thoughts

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In the run-up to the end of the year – and the year’s biggest shopping season – we’ve been able to keep our review queue topped off with nothing but highly requested point-and-shoot models. Before I proceed, please don’t misunderstand me: I love compact cameras. The convenience of a modern pocket cam is simply unmatched, and many of these models are more than capable of taking “serious” pictures if the need arises, thank you very much.

But for someone who spends all day taking pictures, it’s also nice to get to spend a little time once in awhile with something that offers a bit more horsepower than your average point-and-shoot. And with holiday shopping (mostly) behind us for another year, I was able to take a breather and spend the day getting to know just such a camera: the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Unless you’ve been out of the loop for about three months, you probably know the basics on the 5D Mark II (if not, check out our product announcement for specs and additional info). Built as a more affordable alternative to Canon’s pro cameras, the full-frame 5D is a favorite among serious amateurs and pros alike. And while the new version of this well-regarded camera makes some crucial improvements, it is definitely – as the name implies – more of an update to the original 5D’s basic package than a complete overhaul.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Physically, the Mark II follows closely in the footsteps of the original 5D, with a large, heavy alloy body and a separate optional vertical grip.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The overall profile is familiar for a Canon, making it longer, lower, and (in my hands, at least) slightly less comfortable than the rival Nikon D700.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Other than few nice surface upgrades (a bigger screen being chief among them), though, the new 5D would be easy to mistake for its predecessor from a distance.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

In fact, most the substantive changes to this camera can be found under the hood, and in that vein, the strangest addition to the 5D formula is almost certainly the Mark II’s Creative Auto mode. I’ve commented on this inclusion more than once since this camera was announced, but I still can’t wrap my mind around why Canon would feel compelled to include a shooting mode designed for novice photographers (CA mode provides easy to understand slider-style controls for adjusting aperture or shutter speed) on a $3500 camera kit.

Creative Auto Mode
Creative Auto mode

But while Canon is definitely trying to cast a wider net with the less expensive, more learner-friendly 5D Mark II – no doubt in an attempt to stave off Sony’s advance into full-frame bodies with the high tech but clearly consumer oriented A900 – shooting pros who can’t easily scratch together five big bills for the 1D Mark III, or don’t need the flagship model’s rapid-fire shooting and subject tracking abilities, will find some nice improvements here. At its core, the new 5D gets all of the processor-side improvements that Canon’s latest DIGIC IV engine has to offer: micro focus correction, lens-specific vignetting control, and even face detection if you want it, plus a viewfinder that keeps pace with hardware from its primary rivals (and even provides slightly better coverage than the view through the Nikon D700).

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

By the standards of consumer cameras, the Mark II’s viewfinder is – as expected – amazing. It’s wide and bright, with good magnification and the kind of crisp reproduction that makes manual focusing easy. The 5D’s display has been bumped up to a full pro-spec unit as well, packing roughly 920,000 dots into 3.0 inches. Image review looks great on the updated monitor, as does live view; unfortunately, Canon has yet to develop a faster, more useful contrast detection AF system, meaning you’ll have to put up with a half-second of blackout time between shutter press and capture if you want anything approach fast focus when shooting with the on-screen preview enabled.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

First impressions of the new 5D’s JPEGs are that Canon has delivered another imaging tool capable of great precision and subtlety. With 21 megapixel captures to work from, there’s plenty of poster-ready detail – even shooting the Mark II’s 24-105mm f/4 kit lens wide open. At the pixel level, the default image settings render a shot that is, predictably, a bit soft compared to those from consumer DSLRs, but the trade-off is a smooth, film-like image that’s easy to work with.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon and Nikon have all but made a sport out of piling on ever more clean ISO range to their professional and prosumer DSLRs in the recent years, and the new 5D fires back at the Nikon D700’s very smooth ISO 25600 setting with one of its own. Even limiting the camera to its default 100-6400 sensitivity range, you get a lot of headroom to work with for ambient-light indoor shots.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II
ISO 6400

Canon’s reputation among serious shooters has often hinged on offering what many feel is the smoothest, cleanest high-ISO response available, period. And while Nikon has put up a strong fight in recent years, initial impressions of the 5D are that its images look clear as ever. To provide some context for the Canon’s performance, we’re prepping some side-by-side noise comparisons between the 5D and the D700 for the full review.

The Mark II’s other high-hype technology has unquestionably been its ability to capture video. Video capture of any kind is an unusual function for a DSLR, but this isn’t just any old 640×480 movie mode either: targeting pros, aspiring movie makers, and commercial users of various stripes, the 5D is the first DSLR to record HD video in 1080p – a whopping 1920×1080.

A sub-function of the 5D’s live view mode, the camera’s video mode is easy to access and straightforward to work with, with a considerable number of customization options available to you if you desire. The camera can even use its contrast detection system to focus while recording video – if you’re willing to accept its speed limitations and the additional noise it generates. From an ergonomics perspective, if you’re used to a camcorder, handling the 5D as a video camera feels a little clumsy. But working from a tripod or other support and focusing manually, the 5D seems to be in its element.

I can’t lay claim to any extensive knowledge when it comes to shooting video. Taking the 5D out for a quick spin while the sun peeked out this afternoon, though, I tried to approach the camera like a cinematographer would. I’m not holding out hope for an Academy Award nomination for the results (and since we’re not Canon, we couldn’t convince Vincent Laforet to stop by and shoot a clip for us…), but this soundless 15 second movie does show off the 5D’s amazingly crisp 1920×1080 high-def capture.

Note: We haven’t provided a link for the original file of this video, as the original file is more than 80MB. We’ll post links to original files for the full review.

From all indications so far, the 5D’s video function provides some impressive, film-worthy capabilities and a boatload of versatility at a fraction of the cost of dedicated movie gear. At the same time, this function will also likely see a fair bit of less specialized use: as with the ISO tests, we’ll post the final results of putting the 5D through its paces for shooting everything from home movies to action sequences in the full review.

On the whole and in spite of some strange, consumer-focused inclusions, I’m quite satisfied with the 5D as a total package for serious shooters seeking high-res, full-frame performance. That said, it would be a pretty disappointing camera for this class that didn’t make a good impression right off the bat: the real test will come when we’ve had a little more time to dig beneath the surface and explore some of Canon’s updates. Will the new model’s claimed 3.9 fps shooting speed be fast enough to keep us happy? Will the largely unchanged AF system still make the cut in light of several years of technological improvements since its conception? Only more field time with the 5D will tell, but I’m anxious to find out.

Check back for a full review of the 5D Mark II a little later in the month, once the post-CES dust has settled.

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