Canon 5D Mark II Review

The Canon 5D Mark II was one of the most anticipated cameras ever launched. After a three year wait since the release of the original Canon 5D, the 5D Mark II was announced on September 17, 2008. The 5D Mark II brought with it a number of upgraded specifications, including a 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor and the ability to capture 1080p HD video.

Irrespective of the fact that the camera does not carry a 1-series badge, the 5D Mark II is in many ways Canon’s new flagship camera.  The 5D II’s price, while not necessarily cheap, is still within the reach of many amateur photographers.  In fact, at $2,699 retail, the new camera weighs in $600 less than the original 5D’s introductory price tag of $3,299.  What you get for $2699, however, is quite the bargain.  While the 5D Mark II is not without its flaws, no other camera can touch its combination of resolution, sensitivity, noise performance and price.

Canon 5D Mark II Key Features

  • 21.1 Megapixels
  • 36 x 24mm Full Frame CMOS Sensor
  • DIGIC 4 Image Processor
  • Sensitivity of ISO 50-25600 (with extended range)
  • Auto ISO Range of ISO 100-3200
  • 3.9 Frames Per Second Continuous Shooting Speed
  • 9 Point TTL Autofocus
  • Center Point Cross Type AF Sensor at f/5.6 or Faster
  • AF Microadjustments
  • RAW, sRAW 1 (10MP), sRAW (5MP), and Multiple JPEG File Formats
  • 3″ LCD w/ 920,000 Dot Resolution
  • Live View Shooting
  • Video Recording at 1080p
  • UDMA CF Card Support
  • 1800 mAh Battery w/ Detailed Info Logging
  • Improved Weather Sealing

Canon 5D Mark II Handling and Performance

The Canon 5D Mark II just feels good in your hands.  Size and shape wise, it is very similar to the original 5D; however, the rubber grip gives a bit of a more rugged feel.  There are subtle design changes in the overall shape of the camera, but nothing too radical by an means.

The 5D Mark II also gets some improved weather resistance in the form of extra sealing around the battery compartment, memory card door, LCD and the various buttons on the camera.  This adds to the robust look and feel of the camera as the 5D Mark II steps a little closer toward the “pro” lineup in build quality.

On its own, the Canon 5D Mark II is a powerhouse of a camera that delivers the stellar performance that you would expect from the original Canon 5D’s successor.  However, you can’t evaluate the Canon 5D Mark II on its own – particularly in light of the Summer 2008 release of the Nikon D700.  Nikon sort of got the drop on Canon with the D700, releasing it a good 2 months prior to the traditional late summer/fall announcements.  What’s more, Nikon had plenty D700’s available almost from the day of the announcements.  It’s the end of May 2009 as I write this and Canon is still having difficulty filling inventory demands for the 5D Mark II.

But, you say, the Nikon D700 is “only” a 12.1 megapixel camera.  True.  But, I say, this megapixel spec only makes a difference if you know what the difference means to your workflow.  If you need 21.1 megapixels in your images, then you know it and you know how you will make the most of your photography with them.  If you don’t know what it means to your workflow or you never print above 16×20 or 20×30, then the difference in megapixels is very slight.  And, mind you, the D700 will handle those print sizes just fine.

CF Cards and Write Speed

If you have small or again memory cards, you are going to want to make an upgrade when picking up a 5D Mark II.  I have had RAW files weigh in at over 30 megabytes per file!  In order to make any use of the 5D Mark II’s 3.9 fps frame rate, then you are going to need a fast card.  Otherwise, you will spend more time waiting on the camera to write the file to the card than you will actually shooting.

Here is a short list of CF Cards that I know work (and work well) with the Canon 5D Mark II:

Lexar 300x 4GB card

Lexar 233x 4GB card

Kingston 266x 4GB card

SanDisk Extreme IV 4GB card

SanDisk Extreme III 4GB card

I have spent a lot of time with each of these cards in my 5D Mark II and, I have to say that I have not been in a situation where I could tell a speed difference between any of them in real world shooting situations, which is my preferred benchmark.  I also conducted a not-so-scientific test just to see which card cleared the camera’s buffer faster.

The winner was the Sandisk Extreme IV 4GB card, which managed to capture 17 RAW-format images before a noticeable decline in frame rate.  The Lexar 300x 4GB card caught 15 images before slowing down.  The SanDisk Extreme III and Kingston 266x 4GB cards captured 14 images.  The Lexar 233x rang it at 9 images.

Again, in the real world I never ran into a situation where it made a difference.  For those of you who shoot in environments where you are capturing frames in rapid succession, I would say go with the SanDisk Extreme IV as a safe bet.  For all the rest of us, I would heartily recommend any of the cards that I tested above.  I’ve been a long time customer of SanDisk, Lexar and Kingston and have never had a card fail (perhaps, even when they should have failed after abuse).

While I have used a few 133x and slower cards in the 5D Mark II, I don’t recommend doing so.  Given how cheap CF cards are, and how expensive the 5D Mark II is, just get a good card to begin with so that you won’t be disappointed.

Autofocus Issues

The real difference between the 5D Mark II and Nikon D700 (for those of us that don’t “need” huge image files) is autofocus and metering.  In these categories, I have found the Nikon D700 to have a much better success rate.  Let me qualify this to say, however, that the 5D Mark II handles perfectly fine in most situations.  But, in real world low light shooting, the Nikon D700 just has a better autofocus at all of its 51 AF points.  The Canon 5D Mark II generally does just fine at the center AF point. Move to another AF point in low light and you may be fishing around in the frame for a good contrasty point for the 5D Mark II to latch on.

While Canon did not have to put a 1-series caliber autofocus system in the 5D Mark II, I think that Canon’s failure to match the AF performance of the 40D and 50D was a mistake.  Both the Canon 40D and 50D offer 9 AF points, all of which are cross-type sensors.  These cross-type sensors at all AF points make a noticeable difference in AF speed and accuracy in everyday shooting situations. In the February 2009 edition of Tech Tips from Chuck Westfall, who is the Technical Advisor for the Canon’s Consumer Imaging Group, this AF performance issue is conceded:

AF performance with the off-center AF points is also going to be better with the 1Ds Mark III, partially because there are 18 such points versus 8, and partially because all 18 of the 1Ds Mark III’s off-center AF points are high-precision cross-types versus standard precision single-axis for the 5D Mark II.

While Mr. Westfall is comparing the 5D Mark II to the 1Ds Mark III, the same points are valid with respect to the cross-type points on the 40D and 50D.  Having recently reviewed the 50D, the AF performance of the 5D Mark II was almost an immediate criticism for me.  Again, it’s not “bad” – it’s just not up to par with the junior-grade 50D camera from Canon.

As noted above, the Nikon D700 is also in recent memory, which makes the 5D Mark II’s inadequacies a little more pronounced.  If Nikon was not kicking tail with the Nikon D700’s AF system (borrowed from the Nikon D3 mind you), I expect that my commentary would be much less critical of the 5D Mark II.  Nowadays, however, the quality of the latest camera gear is all relative.  Prior to the D700’s review, the 5D Mark II would have blown our socks off and we would have likely had very little criticism of its autofocusing system.  So, consider my derogatory remarks on the AF system in light of these relative comparisons.

ISO Performance

The Canon 5D Mark II, along with the Nikon D700, has brought low light performance like never seen before at an impressive price.  We’ve already seen what the 5D Mark II can do in our comparisons to the Nikon D700.  See Photography Bay’s Canon 5D Mark II vs. Nikon D700 In-Depth ISO Comparison, which has been the subject of great debate amongst shooters in both the Nikon and Canon camps.

Here’s a sample image shot at ISO 3200:

And here’s a 100% crop of the same ISO 3200 image:

So far, I have felt pretty comfortable using the 5D Mark II up to ISO 3200 in just about any shooting situation when the available light has called for it.  Additionally, I think that ISO 6400 is still very usable in many circumstances – depending on the subject and output format, of course.  I think wedding shooters will be comfortable with shooting candids at dimly lit receptions at these higher ISOs in some cases when not using off-camera flash.  Additionally, ISO 6400 and below should print just fine in black and white on newspaper.  I also see no problem with online-only images that will be viewed below, say, 800 pixels.

Along with the 35mm format and voluminous pixel count, the ISO performance is one of the biggest attractions to the Canon 5D Mark II.  Now, if Canon will continue to build on this performance in its crop-sensor lineup…

Sample Images

Here’s a handful of sample images that I have taken with the 5D Mark II over the past few months. I’ve processed these in my normal work flow rather than for a camera or lens test, so I consider these to be real world results. Click on any of the below images to download the original files for your personal inspection (i.e., no commercial use or republication on the web).


EF 50mm f/1.4 lens @ ISO 800, f/5.6, 1.3s


EF 17-40mm f/4 lens @ ISO 400, f/9, 1s


Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens @ ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/160s

HD Video

Yes, the Canon 5D Mark II can capture HD video at full 1080p resolution and 30fps.  Mere mortals, however, will never take full advantage of this capability.  The 5D Mark II will be a solid tool for aspiring filmmakers who want to get great image quality on the cheap.

Don’t think you can order a 5D Mark II, pull it out of the box and go shoot your first feature-length film though.  You’re going to need a lot of accessories to get the camera up to snuff first – like some kind of supporting audio.  The on-board mic, um, sucks.  Additionally, in order to avoid the shaky-cam syndrome, you will have to keep it affixed to a tripod or spring for a pro-level video rig from the likes of Zacuto or other specialist manufacturer.

If you think that the video feature is another great convenience for this DSLR, then I encourage you to take that thought out of your buying equation.  While the camera has proven itself as a powerful force capable of producing stunning results, those great videos have come from the likes of Vincent Laforet with his Reverie short film (see clip below).  Hours upon hours production and post- are required to get the most out of this camera’s video capabilities.  But it sure looks pretty when done right.

If you have the nerves, patience and skill to turn this into a solid video camera, then by all means, it will wow you.  However, if you think you are going to use it to capture short clips of little Billy at his baseball games, or even add some video content to your wedding photography service repertoire, then you are in for a rude awakening.

Conclusion

While the camera is not without its flaws, the 5D Mark II is by far the best bang-for-buck DSLR that Canon has ever produced.  Unfortunately, the achilles heel of the flagship camera is its dated autofocus system.  It’s great to have low noise at high ISOs; however, that low noise is of little benefit if you can’t autofocus in low light.  Studio shooters will adore this camera, as will many other photographers who shoot in environments where light abounds.  Those who venture into dimmer locations may be left with a bit of frustration when the 5D Mark II’s autofocus begins to hunt.  If it was a $1000 camera, I could understand.  But for a camera that approaches the $3000 mark, I expected just a little bit more.

While this is not a glowing recommendation, I would recommend the 5D Mark II to anyone – keeping in mind the above-noted reservations, of course.  Additionally, aspiring filmmakers will appreciate the beautiful HD video that this camera is capable of capturing.

In the end, I’m a Canon shooter and the Canon 5D Mark II will stay in the top of my bag.  I’m not going to switch to Nikon just because the D700 has a better AF system.  The camera is just a tool, and the 5D Mark II is quite a good one at that.  I am sure that I am my biggest limitation in using the 5D Mark II rather than the other way around.  It is truly a great camera, albeit with a small asterisk.

To pick one up, check out one of the reputable online photography retailers like B&H Photo, Amazon or Adorama.

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