So why am I so excited about the Canon 5D Mark III? On the surface, it seems like an incremental upgrade. It has essentially the same resolution as the 5D Mark II, and nothing truly revolutionary like the original 5D’s full-frame sensor in a prosumer body, or the Mark II’s professional video features.
I’m excited because for the first time at semi-affordable rates, Canon users can combine the most comprehensive DSLR lens line-up with a full-frame camera that has no major drawbacks. The 5D Mark II was a beautiful camera that has produced millions of stunning images for photographers around the globe … but at its price point it also had some major flaws, in particular an amateur-level autofocus system. I’ve used the 5DII in conjunction with the Nikon D3s at dark wedding receptions, and the Canon’s autofocus was a cruel joke in comparison. One of the great things about Canon primes like the 35mm f/1.4L and the 135mm f/2L is that they focus faster than their Nikon equivalents — but only if they are paired with a camera that can keep up.
A lot of my friends who have been turning out gorgeous work with the 5D line rely heavily or entirely on manual focus for precision with shallow depth-of-field. If you want to buy a manual focus camera in 2012, go for a Leica M9. A workhorse DSLR needs to be able to keep up, especially at a wedding.
In short, with the 5DIII what looks like incremental upgrades amounts to an incredible increase in usability, closing major gaps in a comprehensive camera system. But it’s not quite perfect…
Build Quality and Usability
The design idea of the original 5D was to but as incredible a sensor as you could get at the time into as cheap a body as possible. There was an elegance to that idea — in the end cameras are just boxes with holes in them — but it certainly lagged behind truly professional bodies. The 5D Mark II made some improvements, but the Mark III is the first 5D that truly feels right in my hands, taking ergonomic notes from the 7D. It feels rugged and balances well with mid-weight lenses like an 85mm f/1.2L. The buttons are well-placed and the rear-screen is a pleasure to use, either in review or Live-View mode. Whoever the Canon exec was that said “Wait, the pictures this camera takes are in a 3:2 ratio, maybe our rear screens should be too!” deserves a raise.
There are some niggling little details that trip me up as a Nikon user. No matter how you change the settings, most of the time the AF point is either invisible or black. That’s OK unless you’re trying to track people in a pitch-black wedding reception. Most of my AF errors weren’t because of the autofocus system, but because I had no way of remembering exactly where I put the AF point unless I kept moving it around. UPDATE: The more I use this, the more of a problem this is. I had to set the 5DIII aside at a recent dark reception because I could never see what I was supposed to focus on. Canon needs to address this in a firmware update. You should be able to make the point red all the time in dark scenes.
On the good side, moving the AF point is much easier (and more natural to a Nikon user) with the addition of a joystick. I recommend immediately changing the custom function menu so that you don’t have to press an extra button to change the AF point. The joystick is well-placed, allows you to follow the action quickly, and it’s not something you’re going to move by accident.
And although I rarely use burst mode, 6 frames per second, makes it easier to catch that perfect moment than the previous 5D cameras:
Has Canon finally fixed the autofocus in the 5D line? In a word? Abso-freaking-lutely. The autofocus is accurate, fast, and a pleasure to use — in some ways moreso than the Nikon D3s. I immediately turned off all sensors except the extra-sensitive cross-type sensors — and still had 41 left! Combined with the joystick, I never have to play the focus and recompose game very much unless I want my point of focus to be at the very edge of the frame. And even then I can get it close enough to not compromise the accuracy of my focal plane, which can matter when you’re shooting with a lens like the 50mm f/1.2L
I shot parts of two wedding receptions with the 5D, using my Nikon SB-900 as a flash. I almost always shoot manual mode, which works fine with that combination, but the Canon can’t trigger any sort of AF assist beam on the Nikon flash. A dark reception with people dancing around is a nightmare scenario, and one that often frustrated 5D and 5DII users, but even without an AF assist beam the 5DIII worked really, really well, capturing lots of great moments even at f/1.2:
It’s tough to drill down too far into image quality right now, and I will update this post as RAW processors update themselves to support this camera. You can use Adobe’s DNG converter at the moment to process 5DIII profiles in most RAW converters, but I suspect there will be some differences once they have official support. For example, even with noise reduction turned off, Adobe’s processing has much less noise at high ISO than Capture One’s for the same files.
But here’s a generalization I feel safe with: The 5D Mark III has excellent results at high ISOs as long as you more or less nail the exposure.
The ISO quality and autofocus tracking saved my bacon at an extremely dark processional, where I had to use ISO 12,800, 1/125th, and f/2 to accurately and sharply capture photos with the 135L:
Unfortunately, like most Canon cameras before it including the other 5Ds, the 5D Mark III files are significantly worse at dealing with pushed exposures than the Nikon D3s, and seemingly also the D4 and D800. The Nikons keep a lot of dynamic range in their shadows, and you can raise exposures quite a bit without significantly degrading image quality. Even if you try to nail exposures, this gives you more dynamic range headway and better ability to creatively dodge and burn an image.
This quick test shot put me about 2.5 stops under where I wanted to be even for a silhouette, and even at ISO 100 raising it back up in post introduces noise and banding:
(UPDATE: The light in these images is coming entirely from flash as it was shot in a dark room — the same flash at the same power setting — so the different shutter speeds shouldn’t make a difference in the exposure. I do appreciate the Nikon’s higher x-sync speed over the Canon, especially that, at least with the Nikon flash, the Canon sometimes has dark edges of the frame at 1/200th of a second)
I am not a videographer and have not extensively played with the video yet. I am having an accomplished cinematographer shoot with me tomorrow, and will relay some of his impressions if we get a chance.
Quiet mode is really quiet. With live view it’s really quiet. This comes in handy for ceremonies.
The rate button is a great addition. Like Nikon’s voice memos, it won’t come in handy for most users most of the time, but that small percentage of the time it’s REALLY handy.
Right now, Canon is primarily competing with the Nikon D800. At $500 cheaper and with a high-resolution, high dynamic range sensor, the D800 will be a tempting option for most users. For someone like me who takes more than a quarter million photos a year, the idea of a sensor that only shoots 36MP is a non-starter.
More importantly, Canon has built a near-perfect wedding camera. Great at high ISOs, accurate and customizable autofocus, speedy and quiet operation and with versatile RAW resolution, this camera is finally a worthy companion to Canon’s huge array of lenses. On either the Nikon or Canon side, you can’t use the camera as an excuse anymore.