Canon EOS 5D Mark II: Worth the wait?

The long-awaited successor to the EOS 5D has an intriguing set of capabilities.

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Three years is a long time for any product to hang around, especially when the technology changes as rapidly as it does for digital cameras. So before moving on to Canon's latest marvel, the EOS 5D Mark II, let's take a moment to appreciate how well the EOS 5D filled the needs of burst-indifferent professionals and deep-pocketed prosumers.

Right. Time to move on now. Though it's always had a big fan base, 5D users have nonetheless been itching for more, and the successor Canon delivers, the EOS 5D Mark II, will likely be a must-have upgrade, especially for the wedding photography crowd for whom the 5D is a workhorse. And with many of the imaging components of the 1Ds Mark III (and a later version of the image-processing engine, Digic 4) for a price tag $5,000 lower, it's sure to be an attractive alternative.

One thing to keep in mind is that when the 5D originally shipped, it had no competition. The landscape has changed considerably since then. Here's how the 5D Mark II stacks up against its predecessor and its competitors on the basics:

 Nikon D700Sony Alpha DSLR-A900Canon EOS 5DCanon EOS 5D Mark II
Price (body only)$2,995$2,999.99$2,499.99$2,699.99
Sensor12.1-megapixel CMOS24.6-megapixel CMOS12.8-megapixel CMOS21.1-megapixel CMOS
A/D conversion14 bitn/a12 bit14 bit
Sensitivity range (expanded)ISO 100 - ISO 25,600ISO 100 - ISO 6400ISO 50 - ISO 3200ISO 50 - ISO 25,600
LCD3-inch/920,000 dots 3-inch/920,000 dots2.5-inch/230,000 dots3-inch/920,000 dots
Continuous shooting
frames best quality JPEG/full-size raw
5 fps/8fps with optional battery grip
5 fps
unlimited/14 (with UDMA card)
Viewfinder95% coverage
0.72x magnification
fixed matte focusing screen
100% coverage
0.74x magnification
interchangeable focusing screen
96% coverage
0.71x magnification
interchangeable focusing screen
98% coverage
magnification n/a
interchangeable focusing screen
Autofocus51-pt AF
15 cross-type f5.6 and wider
9-pt AF
center dual-cross type with 10 assist points
9-pt AF
7 center cross-type f2.8 and wider; single center cross-type f4 and wider
15-pt AF
6 center AF assist points; 3 center f2.8 and wider
Live ViewYesYesNoYes
Shutter durability150,000 cycles>100,000 cycles100,000 cycles150,000 cycles

And how it compares with its big brother, the 1Ds Mark III:

 Canon EOS 5D Mark IICanon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Price (body)$2,699$7,999
Sensor21.1 megapixel CMOS21.1 megapixel CMOS
A/D conversion14 bit14 bit
ISO sensitivity (expanded)ISO 25,600ISO 3200
AF system15-pt AF
6 center AF assist points; 3 center f2.8 and wider
45-point AF
19 cross-type points; 26 Assist AF points
Continuous shooting
frames best quality JPEG/full-size raw
unlimited/14 (with UDMA card)
Viewfinder98% coverage
magnification n/a
interchangeable focusing screen
100% coverage
0.76x magnification
interchangeable focusing screen
Shutter durability150,000 cycles300,000 cycles

By all measures, it's priced fairly aggressively, coming out as the least expensive of its cohort by several hundred dollars. As long as Canon can pull off the image quality--which we've seen it do with the same sensor in the 1Ds Mark III--the high-resolution sensor will prove to be an asset. The sacrifice, however, is in burst performance. It's the slowest of all the new models, partly because of Nikon's significantly lower resolution and Sony's doubling up on the processors to maintain burst rates. Based on the specifications, its autofocus system seems to lag Nikon's as well, though specs only tell a fraction of the AF story.

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The most notable difference between the 5D Mark II and its competitors is the movie-capture capability. It's interesting that Nikon chose to introduce video in its consumer-focused D90, while Canon opted for a debut in the higher-end model. Canon supports 1,920x1,080 at 30fps, true 1080p HD, with stereo audio, and longer clips of up to 4GB compared with the D90's monoaural 1,280x720 24fps for 2GB. (And as with that camera, it works in Live View mode.) While there are some obvious applications for it in areas like wedding, law enforcement, insurance and other professional and commercial environments, a lot of its usefulness will rest on the implementation. In a nice touch, the camera has a minijack for an external microphone.

Canon USA

While several of the new capabilities definitely target pros--a pair of low-resolution raw formats (10 and 5.2 megapixels), in-camera peripheral illumination correction to compensate for brightness nonuniformity across the image, and a silent Live View mode--Canon also adds the Creative Auto mode which debuted with the 50D. That latter's more of a newbie feature than I'd expect to see in a camera of this class. The company did upgrade the body for improved weather resistance.

All in all, the EOS 5D Mark II looks quite intriguing, but doesn't provoke the knee-jerk WANT response I expected. Still, I can't wait to get it in and give it a shot (or several hundred). It's slated to ship at the end of November; body only for $2,699 or with the24-105mm f4 L USM lens for $3,499.

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