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Canon EOS 5D Mark III Review: Going Pro
by Theano Nikitas -  5/23/2012

The Canon 5D Mark III was announced on March 2, on the 25th anniversary of the EOS system and the first EOS SLR camera. Photography and the EOS system has come a long way since then as evidenced by Canon's line of DSLRs and while Canon wasn't the first manufacturer to incorporate video into a DSLR (that honor goes to Nikon with its D90), the 5D Mark II and its 1080p video was the first to be widely adopted by photographers who were (and are) increasingly being tasked with creating video, as well as still images, for their clients and employers. While the 5D Mark III's video enhancements such as a headphone jack aren't as extensive as that of the Nikon D4 (which we are in the process of reviewing), the 5D Mark III and its predecessor remain solid solutions for DSLR videography, as well as still imaging.


Canon currently offers two full-frame cameras: the 22 megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the 18 megapixel 1D X. The earlier-announced 1D X isn t yet available but is the flagship of the EOS line. Second in line, but no less capable, is the 5D Mark III which has benefited trickle down technology from its higher end sibling, most notably a 61-point autofocus system with customizable AF presets.

That improvement alone is very attractive but the 5D Mark III offers other updates as well including a new image sensor (with only a 1 megapixel increase from the 5D Mark II), Digic 5+ processor, enhanced performance including up to 6 frames per second continuous shooting and light sensitivity that can be expanded up to ISO 102,400. Other additions include in-camera HDR, multiple exposure capabilities, a slightly larger LCD and dual card slots. Thanks to some tweaks to controls, menu options and customization, the 5D Mark III offers more efficient operation than its predecessor.

The camera comes bundled with an eye cup, rechargeable battery and charger, neck strap, stereo AV and USB cables and aCanon EOS 5D Mark III printed manual. Two CDs are part of the package: EOS Digital solution Disk ver. 25.0 with Digital Photo Professional 3.11, Image Browser EX 1.0, EOS Utility 2.11, Picture Style Editor 1.10 and PhotoStitch 3.2/3.1 for Mac and Windows. A software instruction manual is included on the second CD.

Canon has updated a number of its lenses, albeit with a jump in price on some that will make you think twice about stepping up to the latest optics. Still, Canon offers a wide range of EF lenses, so you can build a system slowly if you don t already have a stash of Canon glass. Speedlites, wireless file transmitter, GPS receiver and other accessories are readily available as well. Videographers should budget for an external stereo microphone since the camera only records monaural sound and now that the 5D Mark III offers a headphone jack, you may want to add one to your gear bag. A mini HDMI cable for HD output is also available, as is a remote controller.

Build and Design
At first glance, the 5D Mark III looks a lot like its predecessor. In fact, at 6.0 x 4.6 x 3.0 inches and 30.3 ounces, it's about the same size and weight as the Mark II. It is very well constructed and is built around a magnesium-alloy shell. Seals at critical points against dust and water add another level of protection against heavy usage under a variety of conditions. To further enhance its weatherproofing, the WFT-E7A Wireless File Transmitter and the GP-E2 GPS Receiver are also sealed against the elements, even at the connection points with the camera. In addition to weather sealing, the 5D Mark III features an improved dust reduction system.

The shutter has been revamped and utilizes lightweight and carbon fiber blades. In anticipation of heavy usage, the shutter is designed to maintain the top speed of 6 frames per second and is rated for up to 150,000 cycles, so this camera will endure the daily use of busy professionals.

Dual card slots have been added one for CompactFlash, the other for SD/SDHC/SDXC cards. Users can designate how and Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIwhere data will be recorded. For example, the second card can be used for overflow when the first is full or as a back-up, recording the same data as the first. Images can be written to both cards simultaneously but at different compression/image quality for each. The latter will slow down continuous shooting speed, however. For shooting, I used a SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro CF card, along with SanDisk SDHC/SDXC cards.

Ergonomics and Controls
Compared to the 1D X, the 5D Mark III seems compact, although the camera works its way up the weight and bulk ladder by adding the optional battery grip. In either case, the grip provides a sturdy and comfortable handhold thanks to its contoured, textured design. The grip design and the weight of the camera provide a good counterbalance, so the camera is easy to handle even with longer lenses.

Although 5D Mark II users won t have a real learning curve, the Mark III s control layout has been tweaked. For the most part, the addition and re-positioning of controls is an improvement. A major improvement is the addition of the 7D s Live View/Movie switch. Flip the lever to the red movie icon and Live View is automatically enabled. From there, press the center button to start/stop video recording. Move the switch to the right (camera icon) and press the center button to activate/de-activate Live View for still images.

The on/off switch, for example, sits adjacent to the mode dial on the left top panel. It s a little awkward to power the camera on and off since, most of the time, your left hand is supporting the lens. The mode dial now has a center lock button, which must be depressed to change exposure mode. It, too, is a bit cumbersome but the mode dial (and the on/off switch) won t be accidentally moved out of position. The Creative Auto mode has disappeared from the mode dial (I never understood why it was on the Mark II) but three custom settings remain, along with Bulb, Manual, AV, TV, P and Scene Intelligent Auto.

A few other controls have been repositioned (the menu and info buttons sit to the left of the viewfinder) to make room for Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIthree new additions along the left side of the LCD. The Creative Photo Button provides access to the camera s Picture Styles, the new Multiple Exposure and in-camera HDR features. The latter captures three shots and combines them in-camera for better dynamic range but the 5D Mark III also offers users a choice of HDR styles such as Natural, Art standard, Art vivid, Art bold and Art embossed. You can also elect to save all the images (useful if you want to combine them in post-processing or only save the HDR image). In playback mode, the same button provides side-by-side comparison of two images.

If you d rather do HDR on your own, up to 7-shot AE bracketing is now available with an exposure range of +/- 8, which will give you more than enough range for HDR work. Be sure to disable the in-camera HDR function first and go into the Custom menu settings to change from the default 3-shot AE bracketing and choose from 2, 5 or 7 shots.

The second button, labeled rate, allows users to apply a star rating in playback or it can be set to protect/unprotect individual images. The third is a magnify button that, in combination with the front command dial, quickly and conveniently zooms in and out of an image a welcome change from the 5D Mark II.

There s also a new Q button, positioned to the right of the LCD, to quickly access and change settings on the LCD s control panel. A programmable M-Fn button sits near the shutter release and rounds out the most important new controls.

Menus and Modes
As mentioned earlier, there multiple exposure modes: Auto, Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Full Manual and Bulb, as well as three custom settings. Within the menu, Picture Style can be set to Auto, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome, or one of three user-defined styles. Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation and color tone can be adjusted for each including the presets.

With so many features, it's no surprise that the Canon 5D Mark III's menus are extensive. Yet, navigation is straightforward, albeit a little time-consuming since there's so much depth and breadth to the camera's options.

Rather than endless scrolling down long menu pages, each main tab has secondary tabs. The Q button moves between the main tabs; sub-tabs are selected using the main control dial, while the quick control dial on the rear panel scrolls through individual settings. It may take a while to master the multiple control navigation and figure out where everything is but once you do, moving through the menu system can be mastered.

The main tabs are: Shooting, Autofocus, Playback, Setup, Custom Functions and My Menu. Since there are multiple external controls, a Quick menu and three Custom setting options on the mode dial, it s unlikely you ll spend a lot of time in the main menu system after initial setup prior to each shoot. And even that may not be necessary unless you need to adjust your custom shooting modes.

However, there's a new menu that is particularly useful and simplifies setting up the appropriate autofocus settings. The AF Configuration Tool is discussed under the Performance section of this review.

Display/Viewfinder
Several improvements have been made to the optical viewfinder and the LCD. The bright, clear and relatively large viewfinder now delivers 100% coverage vs. the 5D Mark II's 98%. In addition to image data, there s an optional grid overlay and electronic level to help keep horizons and other visual elements straight. The camera can be set to display a warning icon to alert users that the camera is set to one of several options including white balance correction, ISO expansion, spot metering, monochrome or when one-touch image quality has been utilized.

At 3.2 inches the LCD is a little bigger than the Mark II's and offers outstanding resolution at 10.4 million dots, as well as 100% coverage. Brightness can be adjusted but, under almost all conditions, the LCD is highly usable. The LCD works well for Live View shooting but the camera can also be tethered to a computer using EOS Utility, one of the software applications that s bundled with the camera; an optional remote controller can also be used.


 

Performance

As expected, the 5D Mark III is responsive from start-up through read and write times. Thanks in part to the new Digic 5+ processor, the 5D Mark III is generally faster than its predecessor. While it won't come close to outperforming the 1D X, of course, and isn't designed for pro sports shooters, it can handle action shots very well.

Shooting Performance
Continuous shooting speed has been increased from 3.9 fps to about 6.1 fps on high speed, which is a noticeable boost and applies across the board to large/fine JPEGs, RAW and RAW + JPEG fine. Shooting speed and maximum burst capture will vary according to a number of different parameters including card type, speed and size, as well as file sizes (the 5D Mark III offers several RAW size options as well). A high speed, high capacity CompactFlash card will deliver the best continuous shooting experience (speed and maximum number of frames). But if capturing more frames per burst is more important than speed, you can switch to Low, which drops the frame rate to 3 fps.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon 5D Mark III 0.10
Olympus E-5 0.14
Nikon D7000 0.15
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.16

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 17 10.8
Nikon D7000 19 6.4
Canon 5D Mark III 6.1
Olympus E-5 120 5.0

Perhaps one of the most important and useful updates to the camera is the auto focus system. Like the 1D X, the 5D Mark III now offers a 61-point AF system, with 41 cross-type points a major improvement over the 5D Mark II's 9 focus points. While the use of a high number of cross-type points is often restricted to fast lenses, the 5D Mark III utilizes 21 cross-type points with f/5.6 or brighter lenses. An f/4 or faster lens will utilize all 41 cross-type points. Fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster) further take advantage of this AF system and its diagonal cross-type configuration. (Canon's digital learning center has some great articles explaining the AF system in detail)

Auto focus is responsive under almost all shooting situations, even under low light although there s no AF-assist illuminator. (Live View AF still lags behind a bit but is perfectly fine since it's unlikely to be used for moving subjects.)

In conjunction with the new AF system, Canon has implemented an AF Configuration Tool. This simplifies the process of customizing auto focus for different scenarios and offers a half-dozen customizable presets, including the ability to set Canon EOS 5D Mark IIItracking sensitivity and acceleration/deceleration. It's really a handy tool that is easy to understand and use. And with the ability to configure auto focus to different shooting situations, you're more likely to get consistently focused shots.

Metering has been updated to Canon's multi-layer 63-zone iFCL (Intelligent Focus Color Luminance) metering system. This works in conjunction with the AF system and incorporates the color and luminosity surrounding the AF points to ensure exposure accuracy. As long as you select the appropriate metering setting for shooting conditions, the 5D Mark III does an excellent job of exposure.

Canon issued product advisory about the possibility of the light from the LCD panel changing the displayed exposure value (some people have been referring to this as a light leak) and are offering a fix. The problem seems to only affect cameras with 1 or a 2 in the sixth place of the serial number. Our review unit is one of those cameras but, even when we tried illuminating the top LCD panel in a dark room, we noticed no change in the exposure value. And Canon states that under almost all shooting conditions this phenomenon will not affect your captured images. Again, we noticed no changes but, as of the posting of this review, Canon will inspect and, if needed, fix the camera at no charge.

Battery life is estimated at 950 shots per charge when using the optical viewfinder. For extended shoots or heavy use of Live View, an optional battery grip (BG-E11) is available and doubles the battery life from 950 shots to about 1900 and is highly recommended since Live View drops single battery life to about 200 shots.

Video Quality
Video capture has been improved, with much less rolling shutter and very little moire. Footage is generally clear and noise levels aren't bad even at higher ISOs. Manual exposure is available during video capture, with options for full HD (1920 x 1080 at 30/25/24 fps), 1280 x 720 (at 60 or 50 fps) and 640 x 480 (at 30/25 fps). Other options include the ALL-i or IPB codecs (the latter produces smaller file sizes, while the other is supposed to produce better image quality we couldn't really notice a difference, though). Overall, however, color rendition was accurate and with the decrease in rolling shutter and moir as mentioned above, there is an improvement over footage from the 5D Mark II.

A headphone jack is available but you'll need an external microphone to record stereo since the Mark III only captures monaural sound. Audio levels can be adjusted in-camera and a wind filter is available. Although Canon added a headphone jack, it doesn't offer some of the extras available on the Nikon D4 like uncompressed HDMI output. Granted, the D4 is a different class of camera (and costs several thousand dollars more) but we expected Canon to be ahead of the DSLR video game with the 5D Mark III.

However, a surprising discovery was Canon's excellent Silent Control option for video capture. While recording, and when Silent Control is enabled from the menu system, the inner ring of Quick Control dial on the rear of the camera allows you to (really and truly) silently change settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, EV and sound recording levels. That means the audio track won't record the clicks of setting adjustments. It's a great feature and shows that Canon is paying attention to detail.

Image Quality
The Canon 5D Mark III is capable of producing excellent still images and, of course, with so many parameter adjustments, you can tweak image capture to the finest levels. Colors are natural but nicely saturated and exposures were, thanks to the advanced metering system, generally spot on.

Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image

At default settings, dynamic range was good under all but the most extreme conditions (such as a NYC street, with buildings casting shadows on one side and bright, high-noon sunlight clipping details in the rest of the scene).

Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

It's hard to give an upper limit of ISO since it depends on the image, the intent/output, among other factors. You can see from our lab tests how noise affects image quality.

Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 6400
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 12800
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 16000
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 16000, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 20000
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 20000, 100% crop
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 25600
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
ISO 25600, 100% crop

With a native ISO range of 100-25,600 and expandable to 102,400 (the 5D Mark II was expandable to 25,600), there are plenty of options. We feel fairly comfortable shooting at up to about 6400 in JPEG (although details definitely suffer from noise reduction, even when it s set on low). But RAW files processed in Adobe Camera Raw 7.1 delivered the best results. And it's really up to you whether you'd rather see a little grain and maintain details or if you would rather eliminate more noise and sacrifice some fine details. All in all, however, the Canon 5D Mark III produces some very fine images.

Additional Sample Images

Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image
Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image Canon 5D Mark III Sample Image

Conclusion

On paper, the Canon 5D Mark III may not seem like a huge step up from the 5D Mark II especially given all the rumors (and long-time anticipation) surrounding its release. In some ways, the Mark III on the surface doesn't dazzle with additional bells and whistles or even any huge leap forward in technology. And, given the fact that the Mark III currently costs about $1300 more than the 5D Mark II ($3,499 and $2,199, respectively), the 5D Mark III may be a hard sell to newcomers to the 5D family and questionable for some 5D Mark II owners.

We don't have final test results for the Nikon D800, so we can't compare the two for those of you who may not have a vested interest (e.g., lenses) in one system or the other. But 5D Mark II users have an even more difficult task deciding whether or not to update to the Mark III. Perhaps the best reasons to upgrade are the highly capable AF system, the improved performance from the Digic 5 + processor and higher ISO capabilities. But if you're happy with the 5D Mark II and you don't think your photography will benefit from those three main improvements, then you might want to see what the next generation may bring.


However, as Aristotle once said: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, (and, no, I can t believe I just quoted Aristotle in a camera review). Sure, the new 61-point AF system is excellent, faster performance is always a good thing as is high ISO capabilities. While this camera's updates and enhancements on their own may not be particularly motivating to everyone, when integrated into a single camera, it s easy to see why the 5D Mark III is currently backordered at most retailers.

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