Canon 5D Mark II – A moving experience

Chris Oaten
23 March, 2009
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When Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Vincent Laforet shot Reverie, a short video set at night in New York, everyone who visited his website knew that the camera Laforet used, Canon’s 5D MkII, was something special.

Laforet’s short video reached a huge Internet audience. The revelation that the vid’s visual impact was achieved without any post-processing amazed critics. So much so that shooting some night footage has become a common objective of reviewers. And I’m no different. Check the Hot Links.

The MkII has done much to change the notion of what a digital SLR is capable of. Its ability to shoot high quality stills or capture luscious video at 30fps in 1080p off a 36mmx24mm 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor makes for a camera that takes its user into new territory.

For example, a wedding photographer can  switch from shooting stills to capturing video that could be handed off as useful B-roll to the event’s dedicated videographer. Considering its low-light capabilities and talent for capturing stills and video at the same time, the MkII also presents an excellent tool for surveillance work. When put to a task purposefully, it can render images of exceptional clarity, making it a useful tool in the hands of a fine arts photographer.

For these uses and more, the MkII is well-suited. Little wonder it’s made quite a splash, especially as it sits comfortably – both feature and price-wise – between the 50D and the 1D.

Getting to grips. The MkII is nicely balanced in the hand with the EF f4 24-105mm IS USM (paired with the MkII as a $5799 premium kit option) proving a suitable companion to start shooting with. I imagine most photographers buying the MkII would already have a set of Canon lenses. For such buyers, there’s little I could say to convince them to go for the 24-105mm because while it is overall a good performer, and certainly a handy length, it’s a challenge to get very sharp photos with it. However, if you are looking to the MkII as your first Canon full-frame body, this lens would make a handy starter.

The MkII feels very much like handling the prosumer-level 50D with a very similar feel and controls layout. One very agreeable variation in the control layout is with the direct print button, which now doubles as the Live View button, making it much easier to enter this shooting mode. A grab-bag of features includes Live View stills with Live, Quick and Live Face Detection AF modes, a 3in LCD rear display, EOS Integrated Cleaning System, HDMI mini port, automatic image correction, automatic lighting optimiser and automatic correction of lens peripheral illumination, and a 0.1 second start-up time.

Aimed at the pro, or the very confident. The MkII is clearly targeted at the experienced or professional user and its design reflects this. Like Canon’s 1D body, it has a hot-shoe but no pop-up flash; a stainless steel chassis provides rigidity to the body; and a shutter durability rating of 150,000 cycles brings this specification in line with Canon’s top-shelf 1D bodies. Canon describes the MkII’s weather-proofing as improved on the MkI but it’s not up to expectations.

For previewing depth of field, there is an easily located button on the bottom left of the front of the camera, near the lens mount. This is not too surprising for a camera of this calibre but I mention it because such a function is especially useful with the MkII. Part of why this camera delivers such stunning video footage is that, unlike the optical design of video cameras which normally have extensive depth of field, the MkII’s photographic optics have the ability to easily isolate details with shallow depth of field and even pull-focus effects if you have a deft touch. Video shot with the MkII consequently has a gloriously filmic quality. Because of this, that depth of field preview button tends to get a workout when you’re planning a shot.

OK, it does video, how about stills? Stills quality is excellent, aided by Canon’s DiG!C 4 14-bit image processor, which delivers a level of saturation at higher ISO speeds that is the hallmark of this camera. A full-quality RAW file is 24.6MB at 5616x 744 pixels or 7.6MB at best-quality JPEG. These easily stand up to enlargement. We paired the MkII’s enhanced RAW images with a Canon PIXMA Pro A3 printer and revelled in the quality of the results, especially when shooting at the MkII’s “L” setting, which helps capture capture fine detail or provide a slower shutter speed when needed. But it does take some work to get the best results from this camera. A user short on experience might find themselves a bit frustrated that such a camera doesn’t deliver the sharpest pictures with the minimum of fuss.

Macworld will have one of Epson’s A2 printers on test soon and it should be an interesting exercise to print test images at that size.

Fast, yes… very fast, but not quick. Astonishingly, the MkII can be dialled up to an ISO rating of 25,600. But how good are the images at that ultra-fast setting? Noisy, of course. But usable. You’d shoot at that speed only if you really needed to but you’ll be thankful for it should that need arise. Check out the two sample images, one of which was shot at the L setting (ISO 50) and the other at the H2 setting (25,600). The L and H settings have to be manually entered via the camera’s menu system, so don’t go looking for that stonkingly fast H2 setting out of the box.

If there is one issue to be keenly aware of is that the MkII is not the most responsive camera. It has a sluggish frame rate of 3.9fps and makes things worse by not sustaining that rate for long. In testing, it slowed to a crawl after about 10 frames when shooting RAW or high-quality JPEGs. You would expect switching to a smaller quality setting (medium JPEG, for instance) would help sustain the frame rate but that’s not the case, with only slightly better performance, even using the latest pro CF card.

A problem, or not? A lot of debate surrounding this camera has centred on the sluggishness of its burst shooting. There are those that say the MkII’s 3.9fps is totally inadequate when it comes to shooting sports. The flip side of the argument comes from the old-school ‘togs who remember what it was like to have to get the shot one frame at a time. Me? I straddle the divide, with a leaning towards the latter. Whether this camera can handle action captures is, as far as I’m concerned, up to the shooter. If you need your 10fps and infinite burst to get your job done, clearly this is not the camera for you.

Not all is good in EOS land. A genuinely concerning issue is the MkII’s poor battery life. Within a couple of hours of shooting a mixture of video and stills, the battery had depleted by half. It took less than that amount of time to deplete the other half. While I can appreciate that shooting video in Live View mode will suck the life out of the battery, this is one area Canon has lagged behind Nikon and which needs to be addressed.

The best course of action for shooters wanting to stay the course over a long day is to opt for the battery grip and second battery pack to exetnd shooting time.

Also, buyers should make sure they update the firmware to v1.0.7 as the shipping firmware (v1.0.6) has known issues with a “black dot syndrome” (in which tiny highlight points render as black dots) and banding of the image in some instances.

RAW in three sizes? Handy! Yet despite the shortcomings, the 5D MkII still charms. One of its features that I found especially appealing was its choice of three RAW file sizes. The standard RAW mode records an image of 5616×3744 pixels and 21MB. The S RAW mode delivers a file of 3861×2574 pixels and 10MB while the S RAW 2 option delivers a file of 2784×1856 pixels and 5.2MB. Excellent!

Being able to shoot these smaller file sizes is a great option for two reasons. The first is having the versatility of digital enhancement and control that comes from working with a RAW image while having the storage efficiency of a smaller file. But why? Because there are times, such as when shooting for editorial where the final image is unlikely to be used larger than half-page in a tabloid, that giant files are simply unnecessary, even a hindrance when you want to maximise workflow speed.

The other reason is a little more practical. Sometimes through lack of planning, or perhaps because you’ve shot too much video, as can so easily happen when using the 5D MkII, you find yourself short on storage but still needing to shoot RAW. With the small RAW options in the 5D MkII you’re helped out of a tight spot.

Notes on shooting video. The 5D MkII shoots beautiful video. It has a gloriously filmic quality, and with a range of lenses, the photographer has a wide palette of photographic techniques at hand. That said, the MkII is a very different beast to shoot with than a camcorder.

To begin with, the only image preview is via Live View mode, in which the mirror locks up and the image is viewed on the rear LCD display.

While the MkII could handle remote Live View capture of stills I couldn’t establish whether the MkII will shoot video tethered to a laptop but this is academic, in any case, as doing so would seriously impede portability and spontaneity and knock the fun out of it. And spontaneity is not to be underestimated. The MkII as a video camera is an excellent candid shooter. Leave it on a table top with the recording on and nobody would suspect you of capturing video because, to the uninitiated, it looks simply like a camera without its user behind the lens.

Getting back to usability, the rear display is not very different to the fold-out displays on pro camcorders, except that on such machines you have an eyepiece through which you can eyeball your subject for when focus is critical, as it so often is when shooting with a long lens and wide aperture. The point here is that the rear display is not the best preview for critical focus because the display’s size makes everything look sharp.

You can use autofocus when shooting video but it’s not much use. You’ll find your subject moving in and out of focus frequently, which is not pleasant. I found the best method for obtaining sharpest focus was to lock onto the subject in stills mode using the eye-level finder, then quickly engage video mode and start shooting. Either that, or exploit a wide-angle lens and f8 or smaller apertures to let depth of field ensure the focus. You will almost certainly spend a lot of time focussing manually, however, as it is just easier to do so.

As a result of the camera’s video capture method, I found myself thinking more like a cinematographer than a videographer, and planning shots around a static frame with the camera/lens locked down on a tripod.

This, of course, takes some careful thinking about exposure, which can also be tricky using the MkII. In the sample video, you’ll see a short clip of a horse and carriage crossing Melbourne’s Swanston St bridge. That shot was attempted about five times before I realised I needed to switch from the aperture priority mode to the full manual mode and set exposure for the subject as it passed in front of the camera, otherwise the camera shifted exposure between the backlit horse and carriage and the brightly-lit Flinders St Railway Station in the background, which appears in the end (agreeably) over-exposed in the selected clip.

What I’m trying to emphasise here is the notion that this camera’s user really needs a good handle on technique and be very comfortable with the camera’s controls in order to get the best from it.

Should you want to capture action footage, the MkII is up to the task but wouldn’t be your first choice for shooting video if this is what you do a lot of. There’s a link (Hot Links, bottom of page) to a video I compiled of skate legend Tony Hawk dropping in at the huge vert ramp at Melbourne’s Prahran Skate Park.

It demonstrates that you can track moving subjects (and with practise, probably a lot better than my efforts) but the MkII’s technical suitability isn’t really in question. It’s the method. While camcorder shooters can get away with holding their rig at arm’s length, shooting in Live View mode using the MkII’s rear LCD display looks and feels very much like the way so many amateur shooters capture their stills. I got the distinct feeling that those around me were wondering just what it was I was trying to do. Or perhaps I’m just paranoid.

Shooting action also reveals a disappointment with the MkII – there’s no option for slow-motion capture, which actually speeds the frame-rate up so that at normal playback speed the action appears slowed down. Consequently, any slow-mo effects you want to include in an edit must be applied with software, which delivers inferior results. There are two slow-mo segments in the sample video that demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Notes on the sample images and video. If you would like to see the sample video, a two-minute collage of Melbourne scenes, I’ve posted a small (13MB), medium (54.1MB) and large (also 54.1MB) version. Just follow the Hot Links. These files were compressed from a 3GB full-resolution 1080p video. As an example of using the MkII to track action on video, there’s a four-minute video featuring Tony Hawk at Melbourne’s Prahran skate park as part of his recent Australian tour. All video was edited using Final Cut Pro and uploaded to my MobileMe gallery via iMovie, which does a surprisingly good job of the compression. Please note, no post-processing was applied to the footage, other than compression for posting to the web.

As for the sample images, Macworld can’t hope to host the original RAW files for your perusal. Browsers don’t support the file format. Consequently, the JPEG files on offer were optimised to offer the best compromise between image quality and JPEG compression. The images were not enhanced in any way, other than the sample image shot at ISO 25,600, which was colour balanced with the L setting image after mistakenly shooting with white balance in auto mode, which delivered a strong orange cast. Not too surprisingly, I’d recommend not using the auto WB at fast speeds. Bear in mind that conversion to JPEG has dulled the image sharpness a little. Imagine the test files even crisper than they look in your browser.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. This is a camera best suited to a shooter with a deliberate working style, especially one who can make use of the MkII’s exceptional video capture capability. It is a joy to use and if you’re looking for a way to renew your enthusiasm for photography, this camera may well show you the way. There’s room for improvement but it’s a solid unit with capabilities quite unlike any other on the market.

Canon 5D Mark II

Weight (excluding battery) 810gm
Dimensions (mm) 152x113.5mmx75
Battery Lithium ion, LP-E6
Chassis Stainless steel
Flash control E-TTL auto
Shooting speed 3.9fps
White balance 9 settings, WB bracketing
General features 3in LCD monitor; 25 custom settings; 0.1sec start-up time; integrated cleaning system; Live View (Quick, Live and Live face detection AF modes); USB/HDMI mini/AV out/PC Terminal/remote control/external microphone
Shutter 1/8000 - 30, bulb, X-sync 1/200
RAW&JPEG simultaneous Yes
Autofocus 9 cross type AF points and 6 assist
Exposure control 7 standard shooting modes 35 metering segments Evaluative, Partial, Spot and Centre-weighted average metering ISO range: ISO 100-6400, plus L (ISO 50) and H1 and H2 (12,800 and 25,600 respectively) Exposure compensation: Manual, auto expsoure-bracketi
Media CompactFlash types I&II (2GB or higher)
Image size (approximate file sizes) Large/Fine: 5616x3744 pixels, 21MB; Medium/Fine: 4080x2720 pixels, 11.1MB; Medium/Normal: 4080x2720 pixels, 11.1MB; Small/Fine: 2784x1856 pixels, 5.2MB; RAW: 5616x3644 pixels, 21MB; SRAW1: 3861x2574 pixels, 10MB; SRAW2: 2784x1856 pixels, 5.2MB.
Colour filter Primary Colours
A/D resolution 14-bit
Effective sensor size 36mmx24mm


Reviewer Chris Oaten
Distributor Canon Australia
Manufacturer Canon
Pros Excellent image quality, outstanding video capabilities
Cons Poor battery life, limited burst shooting
Price $4299 (body only)
Rating 4.5
Type Digital SLR

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