Thursday, March 26, 2009

Canon EOS 5D Mark II - Camera Review

This review has been updated. Please link to the Updated Review

An unscientific camera review by Morten Byskov -

(Tech Talk Warning)

In a blog post back in November I had written that I wasn’t all that interested in the 5D II and here I am four months later writing about my first impressions of the the camera. The main thing holding me back from getting the 5D II in November was the hope that Canon would have released a 1D Mark IV. This obviously has not happened and I needed a second camera for the summer assignments coming up. I also did not want to get the 5D II right after the release. I wanted to be sure that any early problems had been ironed out. I have now had the camera for about three weeks.

EF 16-35 2.8L, 1/800, ISO 160, click to view larger image

Before getting the 5D II and I had tested the 1D Mark III on a couple of occasions. The 1D III lost out in part because of the price point. A used 1D III costs about the same as a new 5D II. The ever-ongoing auto focus stigma also had me looking away from the 1D III. The day after I ordered the 5D II there was another recall notice for the 1D III.

EF 85 1.2L II, 1/100, f/1.8, ISO 320, click for a larger view

When coming from the 5D, the 5D II feels familiar but just bit larger and studier than the original. I like the new finishing and the buttons are laid out with just a bit more thought although it is almost the same. I especially like where the ISO button is located. It just seems easier to get to. It feels good in the hands for sure. No creaky CF card door here (update - after two months I do now feel the creaky CF door. It is not that noticeably after I have added the grip). The main dial however has switched on me a few times, more so that I remember it with the original 5D. The LCD: no surprise here but it is really is much better and is a very useful improvement. The pictures look stunning on this display and it is much easier to judge AF, histogram etc. Browsing through menus is improved and it was a breeze to setup “my favorite” menu. I have yet to play with the C1, C2 and C3 custom settings. I shoot almost extensive on the M and AV settings.

EF 16-35 2.8L, 1/100, f/8, ISO 100, click for a larger view

The 5D II seems more proned for getting dust on the focusing screen. It’s easy to get off with a swab from Visible Dust but someone explain to me why the difference can be so significant. No deal breaker but slightly annoying. I have had a few dust spots on the sensor which the built in dust shaker/remover has taken care of but this camera seems to like dust every bit as much as the original. I do change lenses often so this of course does not help the matter.

EF 135 2L, 1/160, f/4.5, ISO 100, click for a larger view

AF seems better to me and is just a tad more consistent. Not a huge improvement and probably not a worthy match for the 1D series. As many before me have wished, having 1D focus in this body would be a fantastic but it is not so. Sport assignments over the summer will really show how it fares.

EF 85 1.2L II, 1/1250, f/1.2, ISO 100, click for a larger view

FPS. The camera seems surprisingly more “alive” than the original although fps. is only up by 1. The 4 frames per second are sufficient for my needs but ideally 6 to 8 frames fps. would have been cool.

And now to the most important part, the photos. At 21.1 mega pixels this camera shows resolution unparalleled to most cameras out there and it’s clear to see as soon as you start editing your first files. As this is an unscientific review I will not get into 100% crops or ISO differences from 5D to 5D II. There are plenty of sites doing a good job at this. I can only tell you that I was going over some wedding portraits I took over the past weekend. I thought I had shot these at a much lower ISO. They were indeed taken at ISO 1000 and I thought they looked stunning.

EF 135 2L, 1/160, f/2.0, ISO 1000, click to view a larger image
2 x Elinchrom 500 BXri used for this shot

I also shot a rail jam at 12800 ISO and was very impressed with the results.

EF 300 2.8L IS, 1/1000, f/2.8, ISO 12800, click to view a larger image

I did a few soccer shots at an indoor arena and again shooting at 6400 ISO yielded very good/usable results in my opinion, certainly an improvement over the 5D.

EF 300 2.8L IS, 1/400, f/2.8, ISO 6400, click to view a larger image

Work flow: I was quite worried about the work flow issues prior to getting the camera. My 17” MacBook Pro, 2.5 Ghz, has 4 gigs of RAM, a 7200 rpm 200 gig hard drive and it has handled the transition much better that I had feared. Conversion of the RAW files may take about another second. I am bit impatient when it comes to this but the difference is only very slight. I import photos to iPhoto and then edit in CS4. I did upgrade my card reader to a Lexar firewire UDMA reader in order to get speedier transfer to the computer and this has proved to be a well worth investment. I went CF card shopping and have added one 4 GB UDMA card 300x, and two 8 GB 233x cards. Shooting a wedding on the weekend the cards were certainly needed. Make no mistake about it, the 5D II files are huge.

EF 300 2.8L IS, 1/1250, f/3.5, ISO 400, Click for a larger view

Video: I did not purchase the 5D II because of the HD video but it’s pretty cool. I have read complaints that you have very little control over the video and no AF. Auto focus certainly would have been nice but I actually enjoy the no fuss approach to this part of the camera. I have shot a few videos, mostly with my 16-35 and I have to say, I am quite pleased with the quality. Below is a link to to three HD files. For the first two I am using the 16-35 and for the last video a 50 1.8. The files are edited and compressed for web using iMovie.

Jumps at the Junior Nationals Freestyle Event
Rail Jam competion at Silver Star Mountain Resort
A cross country ski with friends
Hazy Tuesday

EF 85 1.2L II, 1/200, ISO 100, click for a larger view
2 x Elincrhom 500 BXRi used for this shot

Conclusion: So far I am very happy with this tool. Going into the 5D II my expectations were actually low. Before getting it I had spent some time with the 1D III so I thought I would miss the 10 fps., the rugged build, AF and more manageable file sizes. I was very happy with my 5D and was not sure that I would be that impressed with the 5D II files. I still like the fact that the 5D II is much more compact than a 1 series camera. If you shoot sports or need more support when shooting with larger lenses you can still put the grip on your 5D II. You cannot remove the grip from a 1D. Last but not least I am still in awe over the quality of the files coming out of the camera. The dynamic range is better, white balance seems to more spot on and I think my post processing time will be shorter in the future.

One issue which has me slightly worried. I think I may have lost my 5D.

EF 16-35 2.8L, 1/2500, f/5, ISO 200, click to view a larger image

(Update, April 30th 2009)
I have now added the BG-E6 grip to the 5D II. I have had grips for my 20D and 5D in the past so I knew that at some point I would add it to the 5D II also. I especially like to use the grip for shooting soccer with my 300 2.8L. I shoot it mounted on a mono pod and it works great for when shooting in the vertical position. The shot above is actually a good example of what happens without the grip. It is OK for a short period of time but it get ackward when shooting a full game of soccer. I also have a couple of sports assigments this summer where the grip is a must have.

(Update, October 4th 2009)
I have now had the 5D II for about 7 months and can report back that the camera still works very well. I have shot several weddings over the summer and the advantages here have been numerous. Better auto focus and better files which are easier to work with in post would be the first things coming to mind. The larger file sizes are a challenge though and the external hard drives are filling up fast. The extra CF cards have come in handy as I can now shoot a full wedding without having to delete cards. Above you will see I mention a problem with dust on the focusing screen. I was driving me nuts so I can tell you that I have found a good solution to this problem in the form an "Artic Butterfly" from Visible Dust. I have shot several sporting event over the summer and the AF has not been a problem. The summer 2009 will mostly be remembered for a couple of great trips I took with the 5D II. Check out the link to my Travel Galleries at SmugMug and check out many 5D II shots.


  1. Very nice review. I enjoy your videos too..very cool.


  2. Hello John, thankyou for your review, I do a lot of theatre and dance work so the 5D for low ligh situation's seems a very good option. I had read recently of the 5D having slow AF in low light, however it seems your experience has been good so Iam veering towards taking the plungeto upgrade from my 40D and 30D.

  3. Good review Morten, it is great to get info from someone who actually is using the camera. Keep up the good shooting and if stealing the 5D keeps her happy then it is ultimately a small price to pay but I sure would get that lens back quickly!

    Henry from FM

  4. Nice review, thank you for sharing.

    milmoejoe from FM

  5. Hi Morten: I saw your portrait photos with great interest because they match my experience with this camera and a 70-200/2.8L (no IS). I only used the center AF point and pointed it at the subject's nose. The eyes, forehead and part of hair were in sharp focus but the cheeks, lips and chin were not -- it was as if these had been smoothed away in Photoshop. The skin and lip texture was lost. I was mystified as I obtained much higher sharpness over a much larger area with my 10D and the same lens. Do you think that this is a problem with the 5DMarkII or am I not using it the right way? Thanks.

  6. I do believe you get more accurate looking depth of field using a full frame sensor and if you shot your lens wide open you may not get the entire face in focus. I always focus at the eye.

  7. I see. The lower f-stops and focus on the eye in your portraits above would explain the softness in the lower parts of the face. Thanks.

  8. I wonder if anyone has this issue with the 5Dii. I just shot my first wedding with the 5Dii (previous camera was a 40D). With my 70-200mm IS f/2.8 lens I lost about 30% of the reception dance shots. It wasn't all that dark on the dance floor, but when I got a focus beep and pressed the shutter, there was always a 1 to 2 second delay. I had the same experience with the 24mm f/1.4 lens. I used the center point, not the multiple AF points (hit and miss for me). About three times, the camera seemingly fell asleep and it took three presses of the shutter button to wake up. It's great for portraits and good light, but it disappointed me last night.

  9. Stuart, I have not had similar issues. It sound quite erratic to me.


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