Editor's note, October 9, 2012: In light of changes to the competitive landscape, we've decided to adjust the rating of this camera by dropping the features subrating from 9 to 7. Though it's still an excellent camera, its 3-year-old feature set can't match that of more modern units; the video capabilities which were unique at the time no longer are.
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. Though it's always had a big fan base, Canon EOS 5D users have nonetheless been itching for more. The successor Canon delivers: the EOS 5D Mark II is in many ways 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 (including a later version of the image-processing engine, Digic 4) for a price tag $5,000 lower, it's certainly an attractive alternative. It's also priced fairly aggressively compared with the competition despite its new 21-megapixel CMOS sensor and groundbreaking movie capture capability.
The camera comes in two official configurations: the body-only or a kit version with the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Usually I'm not a fan of the lenses that ship as part of kits like this, but I ended up liking the 24-105mm a lot more than I expected and think it's a good match for anyone looking for a first lens to pair with the camera. As with all of the high-resolution models, however, it really makes a difference to go for the sharpest lenses in the arsenal.
Slightly heavier than its predecessor, the Mark II weighs just over 2 pounds. Canon says it beefed up the dust and weather sealing a bit around the card cover and buttons and improved rated shutter durability for up to 150,000 cycles. The body itself is a steel chassis covered with magnesium alloy. But while it's clearly solidly made, it nevertheless doesn't feel quite as tanklike as the D700. Like all of Canon's pro dSLRs, it's very comfortable to grip and shoot. The downside of the updated design is that it takes new accessories, including a new battery and new vertical grip.
Canon reorganized the controls a bit from the rest of its models. On the top sits the main dial plus four dual-purpose buttons that access adjustments for the metering (huge 3.5 percent spot, 8 percent partial, center-weighted, and evaluative) and white balance; AF (single, AI Servo and AI Focus) and drive modes; and ISO sensitivity and flash compensation. Unlike the Sony Alpha DLSR-A900, the top status LCD displays complete information; you can pull the current settings up on the rear LCD as well, but can't navigate them the way you can on that camera. I miss that, as well as the direct-control metering switch on the A900 and Nikon D700. The mode dial on the top left offers just the basics--as it should: Bulb, PASM, Auto, three custom settings slots, and the Creative Auto mode that debuted in the EOS 50D.
The top rear right has buttons for initiating AF, exposure lock, and focus-point selection; down the left rear are the Live View/PictBridge, Menu, Picture Styles, Info, Playback, and delete buttons. Unfortunately, most of the buttons on the body feel identical to their neighbors. The 5D Mark II uses the same joystick multicontroller and Quick Control dial with Set button as its other recent models. I still like them. (Click through the slide show for more on the camera's design and features.)
The viewfinder is slightly larger and a bit brighter than the 5D's. While it offers broader coverage than the D700's--98 percent versus 95 percent--it falls short of the 100 percent provided by the A900 and by midrange models like the Olympus E-3. C'mon Canon, eke out that last 2 percent, please.
The most notable feature advantage the 5D Mark II has over its competitors is the movie-capture capability. Canon supports 1,920x1,080 at 30fps, true 1080p HD, with a mono mic built in and stereo mic input, with clips of up to 12 minutes (on a 4GB card). All things considered, it's a pretty nice implementation. Though you can't autofocus, you can adjust exposure while shooting; the optical stabilization works; and you can apply Picture Styles.
Many of the new capabilities definitely target pros: a pair of low-resolution raw formats (10 and 5.2 megapixels), more interchangeable focusing-screen options, in-camera peripheral-illumination correction to compensate for brightness nonuniformity across the image, and a silent Live View mode. There's also Face Detection AF, but it only works in Live View mode. If you do HDR work, you'll probably find the 5D Mark II's bracketing implementation a mixed bag. It's incredibly flexible compared with most--in some respects. For instance, you can bracket in any increments of 1/3, 2/3, 1, 1 1/3, 1 2/3, or 2 full stops, centered around any EV up to +/- 4 stops. Unfortunately, it limits you to three exposures where other cameras let you do five or seven. Argh.
The Mark II uses a new battery pack, the LP-E6, which seems to last a reasonably long time: it's CIPA rated at between 750 and 850 shots, depending upon temperature. It also supports some fairly advanced reporting features. For instance, you can register the packs and then the camera will track the date last used, number of shots you've taken on it since last recharge, and its ability to hold a charge, in addition to the remaining capacity on a charge status.
However, the camera's still missing some features offered by the competition. Though one doesn't use the on-camera flash as a rule in this class, it really is nice to have in an emergency. Canon also continues its tradition of not including an in-camera wireless flash controller; some traditions deserve to die. And if you want onboard image stabilization, the A900's your only option.
The 5D always felt a bit sluggish to me, despite actual performance numbers to the contrary. This camera delivers the same measured performance, but feels much zippier. And overall, it fares quite well compared with the D700. It wakes up and shoots in 0.3 second and takes between 0.3 and 0.6 second to shoot, depending upon lighting conditions. It typically runs about 0.4 second from shot to shot.
For burst shooting, however, 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. Neither its 3.8fps burst-shooting speed (unlimited JPEG/14 Raw) nor its center-intensive 9-point AF system really lends itself to seriously fast, continuous shooting of moving subjects. And if your shooting style requires lots of AF points beyond the middle quarter of the frame, this probably isn't the camera for you. But for center focusers like me, it works quite well.
I'm extremely pleased with the quality of the photos the 5D Mark II delivers. As you'd expect from a model in its price class, it renders accurate and consistent exposures and colors. Given its resolution, its noise profile is surprisingly good: no noise or noise suppression artifacts until about ISO 1600, at which point all you see is a slight bit of softening. Depending upon subject matter, photos can remain usable as high as ISO 12,800. My only quibble is with the overly warm tungsten white balance. Even the video looks and sounds good, though the mic could use a wind filter. (Click through the slide show for image samples and more discussion of photo quality.)
When I first blogged about the camera in September 2008, I commented that it "doesn't provoke the knee-jerk WANT response I expected." After shooting with it for about a month, I have to admit, I'm sold. I want this camera. I love the Nikon D700 as well, but the 5D Mark II's higher resolution and surprisingly good video capture put it over the top for me.
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim light)||Shutter lag (typical)|