On the 25th anniversary of its EOS system, Canon finally announced the long-awaited update to its full-frame 5D Mark II dSLR. The 5D Mark III is packed with capabilities for both still and video shooters, but at a much steeper price. As you'd expect, the 5DM3 consists of a combination of technologies, features, and design updates rolled out in the EOS 7D and the more recent 1D X. The result is a camera that looks similar to its predecessor with a lot more capabilities and better performance, but isn't as different when it comes to the basics -- photo and video quality -- as you'd expect. Of course, the 5D Mark II is pretty great in those respects, so no drastic change isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Though a different sensor than that of the 1D X, it uses a lot of the same technology that Canon rolled out for that model, including gapless microlenses and improved quantum efficiency (to improve the amount of light capturable on the photodiodes); better on-chip noise reduction; and faster data readout (dual four-channel readouts). Though it has 6.25-micron sites compared with 6.4 microns on the older sensor, Canon claims that all the other advances, including the better processing in the Digic 5+ engine, delivers overall better noise performance -- two stops better for JPEG and video. Canon does say the 1D X remains about one stop cleaner, however.
There's no doubt that the 5DM3 delivers excellent photo quality. The unprocessed images do seem to have less pronounced color noise than the 5DM2, and at midrange-to-high ISO sensitivities the JPEGs do look a little cleaner. But at low-to-middle ISO sensitivities I actually think the JPEG photos from the 5DM2 look a little better, with more naturally defined detail and fewer processing artifacts. That said, the 5DM3's JPEGs do look fine up through ISO 1600, and depending upon the scene and your needs they can be quite good through ISO 6400. Raw images look great and unambiguously better through ISO 1600, though.
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Another reason to shoot raw with the 5DM3 is tonal range. I found the JPEGs tended to clip highlights and lose color and detail on very light colors in as little as a 2/3-stop brighter, even when both exposures are well within acceptable parameters. You can fiddle some with the Highlight Tone Priority setting (disabled by default) and Auto Lighting Optimizer to help this, but I still think you don't get enough of a correction with it. There's a substantial amount of recoverable color and highlight detail in the raw files, however. Enhancing detail in deep shadows does bring out a lot of noise, though that's pretty typical. Overall, it retains the dynamic range in the shadows through the higher ISO sensitivities as well, with no contouring and little clipping.
Likewise, the camera is capable of excellent color reproduction. As with most Canons, the default Standard Picture Style boosts saturation and contrast just enough to shift some hues slightly and clip some shadow detail, but that's easily fixed with a switch to Neutral (I boost the sharpness in Neutral by two units, though).
As for video, it's excellent in both bright and low light, and I think better overall than the 5DM2 -- if only because of the All-intraframe codec, which compresses the video less. As far as I can tell there's no moiré, rolling shutter, aliasing, jitter, or any other noticeable artifacting. The tonal range looks good, and there's far less color noise in low-light video than in the 5DM2 or D800.
Overall, the 5DM3 performs roughly as well as the D800 on nonburst shooting -- they're both pretty fast -- and outpaces it significantly at continuous shooting. It's not a lot faster than the 5DM2, though it has zippier autofocus in low light and better burst performance. In good light, time to focus and shoot is about 0.2 second, and rises to 0.4 second under poorer lighting conditions. JPEG shot-to-shot runs 0.3 second with raw just a hair slower.
For continuous shooting it delivers 5.6fps, which is a new best for this class. While it's not up to an action sports or bird-tracking level of performance, it may be fast enough to serve a chunk of people who don't want the bulk or the expense of a 1D-class camera. One of the nice things about the 5DM3's burst shooting is that you can maintain a solid clip while shooting raw+JPEG. (I used a SanDisk Extreme Pro 90MB/sec CF card.)
The AF system is still easily fooled by fast, erratically-moving low-differentiation subjects (e.g., a light-colored dog against light-colored ground) -- one of the hardest things to track -- but the new 61-point autofocus system is a vast improvement over the 5DM2's. You can select from six preset configurations of the AF system: general, obstacle-insensitive, objects moving into a specific range of AF areas, acceleration sensitive, erratic speed, and erratic speed and direction. They're all basically combinations of three settings -- tracking sensitivity, acceleration tracking, and AF point autoswitching -- that you can adjust manually. The Live View contrast autofocus remains almost unusably slow, though, despite some updates.
Canon also reduced the spot meter size to 1.5 percent of the viewfinder. Overall I consider that a plus, but it does require some changes to your old metering habits if you're a big spot-meter user, especially if you shoot a lot of wide angle. But it's great to have 100 percent coverage now. The viewfinder also has an optional grid overlay and can supply alerts for a handful of settings that affect picture quality, such as ISO expansions.
And the larger, higher-resolution LCD is much better for gauging sharpness, though you still really need a third-party viewfinder for shooting video; I'd love to see a peaking feature, which would help a bit.
Design and features
With the exception of a slightly tackier grip (as in sticky, not cheap), the body of the camera feels much like the 5DM2, and some of the control layout has changed, mostly for the better. The mode dial and power switch sit on the left shoulder; now the mode dial locks, albeit with the center pushbutton that debuted in the 60D and which I find a bit awkward. While I have no issue with the location of the power switch, it does routinely flip from off to on when moving in and out of my camera bag. That doesn't seem to have affected battery life, but it's annoying.
On the right shoulder are the button controls for metering, white balance, autofocus mode, drive mode, ISO sensitivity, flash compensation, and a backlight for the status LCD. There's been some discussion online about light leakage from the LCD backlight, which results in changed exposure settings, but I didn't have any problems (despite having a serial number within the affected group). Canon added a small programmable button to the top of the camera, and the depth-of-field preview button, also programmable, now sits near the grip for operation with your right ring finger. You can also set a button to display an electronic level using the AF-point grid.
All of these settings can be saved to one of the three Custom slots on the mode dial. And as much as I love the easily accessible custom settings on the Canon, it's time to up the number of slots from three to at least five. I need three for stills (general daylight, general low light, and continuous shooting) and another two for video (day and night). There's certainly spare room on the dial for them.
On the back right are a set of well-placed and easily operated controls. The Live View/Movie record switch and button sit right next to your thumb; just below is the navigation multicontroller, quick menu button, and a large lockable dial that doubles as a silent touch pad for adjusting settings during movie capture. (The controller may be silent, but you might still hear operational sounds such as the aperture changing.) In addition to a comparison playback view, there's a dedicated button for rating photos, which gets written into the EXIF data.
Incorporating Digic 5+ adds a lot of important features. These include support for UDMA 7 CF; the camera now has dual CF/SDXC card slots, which is a really useful feature. And Canon implements it with the novel ability to configure it to record different sizes/quality of raw or JPEG files saved to each card. There's also three-shot in-camera HDR, but you can save the source images as well as add some effects. (For manual HDR, you get a bump to seven-frame bracketing at +/-5 EV.) Additionally, it offers the same powerful multiple-exposure mode as the 1D X.