Canon 5D mkIII: Quicker, Faster, Stronger

Canon 5D mkIII: Quicker, Faster, Stronger

After a few months of shooting under it’s belt now, I feel comfortable speaking a bit about the 5D3. A lot of the reviews found on the web are usually focused on the numbers and specs, which quite honestly don’t mean a whole lot to photographers, especially when it comes to finding information that we consider valuable or translatable-to when we are out seeking an understanding to make new gear purchases. Sure, all of those numbers can look really amazing, but you have to ask yourself that same set of questions every time you go to spend money on new gear. The list of Q’s can get lengthy, but the gist of them all hover around this – what kind of photo situations do you find yourself in, and out of all of the options out there, is ______ the best tool for the job? And I’m sorry, the bulk of those questions can’t be answered by a well organized spec chart of a camera. So, here is my practical, working experience so far with the 5D3, the stuff that doesn’t really focus on numbers but more where it matters… making photographs in a myriad shooting situations.

Taking a step back, the mkIII’s predecessor, the 5D2, was a great camera… IS a great camera. I still use it as a second camera on most shoots. Not to downplay the 5D2, as it still is a gold standard for 35mm digital photograph quality, the images rolling off it get no complaints from me, however, at the end of the day I have to admit it has to tip a hat to the new 5D3. It’s silly that I’m going to be taking the 5D2, a camera I’ve shot with since the first week it was released, and tear it apart to point out the 5D3’s strengths, but I think that it is this direct comparison where most people will find the most valuable information. Especially when it comes to making new gear purchase decisions, the major question in this particular topic is “which camera should I go with – the 5D2 or 5D3? Is the 5D3 really worth the extra 1,300 clams?”  Hopefully my personal experience and… analogy will help give you some more confidence is your decision between the two. And I just want to reiterate the fact that I’m not comparing a crappy camera to a good camera (by referencing the mkII vs. mkIII). Both of these cameras are fantastic, but there is an obvious gap between the two generations, and trying to compare a cheaper, small sensor Canon DSLR to the 5D3 wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

I’ve been thinking of the best way to write this review and how I can best translate this with a real world sense, and here it is. The 5D3 is really just a 5D2 that has hit the gym. It’s best to not think of the 5D2 and 5D3 as completely different cameras, in fact, they are very close in so many aspects. Canon released the 5D2, which undeniably made a huge impact on both the photo and video world. As well as it sold and performed, it wasn’t without faults. The really good news is that Canon listened to all of the 5D2 customers and their issues with the camera. After 3 years of listening, Canon released what I’d called a direct response to all of those issues – the mkIII. I know a big shocker was the unexpected lack of increased megapixels. The sensor resolution is not that much more improved over the mkII’s, which is quite astonishing considering there was over a 3 year gap between the generations. I mean… when is the last time you’ve seen a 3 year gap between camera models where there was only a 1 megapixel bump (aside from the 1D where frame burst and low light quality improves were made, much like it is with the 5D line)? This should be one of many indicators that Canon focused all of their efforts on what I’d call “under the hood” advancements in the 5D camera line. 5D2 users weren’t complaining about image quality, there weren’t really complaining about any of the details on the camera’s spec sheet. The issues lay in the real world usability of the camera – the horrid low light focusing performance, cumbersome video operation controls, etc.

So, Canon locked the 5D2 in the gym with a personal trainer for 3 years (I’m picturing a 5D2 jamming out to ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ while getting yelled at by a trainer), and after those 3 years the 5D2 came out of the gym doors with an improved set of abilities and they slapped the mkIII sticker on it. It’s got the same soul, it’s the same camera… but with biceps, a six-pack, and the confidence to go with it. It does all of the same things, just better. If you were the 5D2 jogging around the track, the 5D3 is that annoyingly fast guy who finished 4 laps for every 3 you complete, but with a smile on his face and making it seemingly effortless. Both are getting around the track and finish the race, but the 5D2 will require more time and effort. Now, to put that in a critical photographer situation. With the current analogy presented, which camera would you go work a chaotic wedding with? If you ask me, weddings are hard enough and a tool to make it go smoother will be worth it’s weight in gold. Every. Time.

Ask a full-time wedding photographer who uses a 5D2 if they’d say they are completely happy with the camera? I can bet the farm that they’ll tell you “no,” following with a rant about how after the shooting environment starts to lose light that their camera fights them tooth and nail for focus with every capture. It’s just not low light environments but just about any kind of challenging lighting will toss the mkII’s AF for a loop. Lenses hop the full focus range (usually a couple times) to find focus yet often fails. If the camera does happen to finally find it’s target, the photographic moment is usually already lost. In the world of candid, in-the-moment photography… you lose. The world won’t pause or rewind to replicate it’s genuine happy moments for another capture because your camera is brain farting. The 5D3 fully addresses this issue with a completely revamped AF system. Not only is the low light focus finding improved, I feel that the actual physical act of focusing is much faster. It took a bit getting used to just how much faster it was. I’d put the mkIII to my face, halfway press the shutter to get focus, and the AF was instant (to the point that I didn’t realize it already happened). If it weren’t for the audible ‘beep’ I wouldn’t believe it. With the 5D2 you could watch the focus snap-to, and the 5D3 usually does it quicker than you can see. You can go read one of those nerdy reviews that tell you exactly how Canon revamped it and I’ll stick to telling you what it will do for ya out there in the trenches. Anyhow, a vast improvement in the AF department. Quiet… if you listen carefully you can hear wedding shooters rejoicing. Of course the new AF capability will gladly spread it’s wings in any shooting situation (a dark studio, an off-lit gymnasium, etc), but one thing is almost a guarantee with wedding shooters – they will typically be working into the evening and without Mr. Sun to help them finish out the day’s work, and the 5D2 will cause hair loss due to AF issues. You’ve been warned.

The megapixels may not have jumped much, leaving a lot of people scratching there heads and feeling like the 5D3 is a failed successor in the 5D line. Again, think “under the hood.” A measly one megapixel separates the two generations and I say, “big deal.” A 20×30 print off of the 21MP 5D2 still looks amazing, and how many of your pictures even see that size regularly? The answer is probably rarely to never. People have done studies, polling random people to look at a set of 3 photos shot all the same way by 3 different resolution cameras (5,10, and 15 MP). All printed at 12×18 and displayed side by side, and no one could guess which photos were made from which camera. So adding resolution to the already great 21MP sensor, making it now 22, is just icing on the cake. Under the hood Canon gave you some nice goodies. The 5D3 does have a superior sensor, providing up to 2 stops of added quality in higher ISO ranges, and I can attest to that. While working night and indoor events I regularly shoot at ISO 1600, it’s practically toggled to that by default when I walk into these situations. With the 5D2, I have no qualms with ISO 1600 file quality, but I definitely saw a quality drop when pushed to 3200, so I really did my best to stay below that. With the 5D3, not only is the 1600 file cleaner, I’d start to argue that even the ISO 3200 file is cleaner than the mkII’s 1600 file. If you ask me, that’s huge. I’d take this improved ISO quality over a couple more MPs to the sensor any day of the week, because I’ve never been working with a 21MP photo and thought, “gee, I need more resolution.” There is also something to be said about the photos rolling off the 5D3 in the low ISO’s (ex. 100). The photos in comparison to the 5D2’s look… less digital. If I had to put a word on it, I’d say the 5D3 files have a creamier look to them. I know that’s an odd way to describe them but they do, they seem to have a slightly more refined look.

In ideal conditions, ex. a well-lit studio and static subjects, you probably wouldn’t even notice a real different between the mkII and mkIII, but the second you task these two machines with some challenging environments the 5D3 will shine. Much like our gym analogy, right? Take a carbon copy of an average person, one copy sits and home and watches weekly LOTR movie marathons (no offense LOTR fans, but lets face it, it’s a serious time commitment!), the other copy hits the gym 5 times a week. They can both sit, stand, climb a flight of stairs, and other common/ideal situations just fine. The second you ask the two to run a mile at a fast pace or do pull-ups is where you’ll see their abilities strongly differ.

The mkIII does add a new feature that has already come in handy for me, silent shooting mode. It’s not completely “silent” but does significantly reduces shutter noise. I’ve found myself on the set of a few film recording sets, taking behind the scenes shots. Prior to the 5D3 this meant that my camera stopped when the video cameras were rolling, obviously because the sound of my shutter popping off would be picked up. Just last week I was on such a video set and was able to capture photos throughout the entire recording without ever having to worry that my camera was getting picked-up on the mics. The silent shutter is surely a must have in these types of situations, but can also simply be an added convenience in other situations. I know I’ve always felt a bit guilty while shooting a wedding and my shutter is firing away during intimate times (like the vows). I have no choice, I have to take those photos, and now I can do it without being heard.

Those are the big areas of improvement on the photo side of the camera that I’ve capitalized on, things that make the mkIII upgrade totally worth it. From the outside they might seem like minor or picky issues, however, when you are depending on your camera to pay the rent and make those critical shots in tough shooting situations, the 5D2 short comings really start to wear on you over time. There are a lot of other improvements and additions to the photo side of the camera, like HDR, etc, but they are not what I’d call really critical features I’d consider when contemplating a purchase between the two cameras (at least in my line of work).

With the migration of video to DSLRs, it seems more and more photographers are shooting a bit of video on the side, so I thought I’d hit on a couple improvements on the video side of things. The 5D3 comes with dedicated video buttons to make switching and operating between photo and video modes much easier. Me taking the time to point out that it is “easier” may sound totally trivial, however, no one can deny the fact that like with all things in life, the more complicated a task is the less likely you are to repeat doing it, or even doing it at all. Other thoughtful features added are visible sound metering and a touch sensitive thumb dial (in the event you need to make exposure changes mid-shot without clicking sounds or vibration being injected into your video). They’ve also fixed most of the rolling shutter issue apparent on the mkII. The improved high ISO performance will no doubt also be appreciated by videographers. I don’t have a ton of input on the video side, as I spent 95% of my time shooting photos, but what I can say is that video features have been equally beefed up.

All of the under-the-hood improvements become incredibly apparent by simply entering the menu system on the mkIII. The 5D3’s menu makes the 5D2’s look like a Fischer-Price toy camera menu. It’s actually overwhelming by comparison, option after option ready to be configured and tweaked, showing you just how much more customizable the new generation camera is over it’s older brother.

I know this isn’t a function by function review of the camera, again, just the features that I have really appreciated with the updated camera (I have a feeling these are the same major ones most others have leveraged as well). If you have questions about either camera and their differences which were not addressed here, please feel free to leave me a comment/question on this post. Happy shooting!