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Canon EOS 5D review: Canon EOS 5D

Canon EOS 5D

Eamon Hickey
9 min read
Review summary
For some photographers, a sensor the same size as a frame of 35mm film (24mm by 36mm)--often referred to as full frame--is the Holy Grail of digital SLR technology. It promises the familiar shooting experience in viewfinder size, in lens angle of view, and in certain aspects of a picture's look. Until now, this object of lust was available only at great expense ($7,000 or more) or in cameras with significant design and performance quirks. But Canon's EOS 5D changes that, combining a 12.8-megapixel, 23.9mm-by-35.8mm CMOS sensor with a competent midsize SLR body for less than half the price of the only full-frame alternative available at this writing, also a Canon, the EOS-1Ds Mark II.
The Canon EOS 5D's design and performance are only fair, and its feature set is unexceptional for the price. But its high-resolution images offer superb detail, rich tonality, and incredibly low noise. If image quality is your paramount concern, or you're one of those full-frame nuts--er, aficionados--then buy this camera, and you've just saved 4,000 bucks.
Editor's note: The Editors' Choice award that had been given to this camera has since been removed due to subsequent changes in the marketplace. The Canon EOS 5D has a reasonably handsome version of the Canon family look, with fairly clean styling and a curvy top cover reminiscent of its higher-end EOS 1-series stablemates. The body, which is finished in matte black, is a combination of magnesium alloy and polycarbonate with a rubberized grip. It feels solid and durable, but it's a definite step down from the pro-level build quality and weather resistance you'll find in other digital SLR cameras priced at more than $3,000. We found the camera comfortable to hold and use for long periods, and it weighs a moderate 31.5 ounces with battery and media installed--a welcome contrast to the pro-level behemoths we just mentioned.

A dial to the left of the hotshoe lets you select exposure modes, inluding Bulb mode and a user-customizable mode.

This camera's control layout and overall user interface are nearly identical to those of Canon's slightly smaller EOS 20D. Most functions are controlled with one of two command wheels (one at your forefinger, one at your thumb) in conjunction with a push-button on the camera body. For example, if you press the ISO/Drive Mode button, you can then change the ISO setting by spinning the thumbwheel or change the drive mode by spinning the forefinger wheel. All the buttons and wheels are within easy reach, and their operating logic is straightforward.

A status LCD, a command dial, and basic shooting and image-parameter controls are clustered on top of the grip.

The menu system, which is color coded, is reasonably quick to operate. You use the thumbwheel to cycle through the settings and the Set button, which is located inside the wheel, to make your selections. We have no significant complaints about this system, but it's starting to look a bit dated. The newest menu systems on some recent competitors, which are based on four-way controllers, have somewhat more consistent command sequences from feature to feature.

The main command dial controls menu navigation and exposure compensation, while the little joystick above it lets you select autofocus points and fine-tune white balance. You can lock the main command dial to avoid accidental exposure changes with the power switch below it.

You can also program the Set button to allow instant access to image-quality settings, which are otherwise hidden in the menus. Alternately, you can program the button to access the EOS 5D's color and tone controls, called Picture Styles (more about this in the Features section). These are useful capabilities, but we'd like to see Canon add one more button to the camera's body and let us directly access both features.

Buttons for activating autofocus-point selection and locking exposure fall under your right thumb.

Like the EOS 20D, the Canon EOS 5D has a status LCD and a viewfinder display that do not include a constant reading of your current ISO setting, which we consider a must on a camera of this level. Also, the exposure mode dial on the camera's top-left side spins fairly easily and doesn't lock; we inadvertently changed our exposure mode a couple of times and would like to see a lock on that control. Finally, the PC terminal for triggering studio flashes is hidden behind an unusually stubborn rubber cover, which most studio pros we know will tear off in frustration by the third day they own the camera. To a large extent, the Canon EOS 5D is defined by its CMOS sensor. Obviously, the 12.8-megapixel resolution promises superb image detail. But the 35mm frame size may be equally important to many. It gives the camera a larger viewfinder than those found in smaller-sensor digital SLR cameras such as the EOS 20D. And also in contrast to smaller-sensor cameras, it means that lenses will capture virtually the same angle of view on the EOS 5D as they did on 35mm EOS film cameras, a big plus in the minds of many 35mm veterans. The EOS 5D is compatible with all Canon EF lenses except the EF-S models, which are designed specifically for cameras with smaller APS-C-size sensors.

Your images are captured to a CompactFlash card or a Microdrive, and you can save them in JPEG, raw, or raw+JPEG format. JPEGs can be captured at three different resolutions with either of two compression settings at each resolution. Any of the six JPEG resolution/compression combinations can be selected in raw+JPEG mode.

The Canon EOS 5D comes with the usual complement of exposure controls, including all four main exposure modes, autoexposure bracketing, and exposure compensation to plus or minus 2EV. For metering, you can choose from evaluative, partial, and center-weighted averaging. And there is also a spot meter, which Canon has previously omitted from several non-EOS-1-series cameras, to the dismay of many. White-balance choices include Auto, six presets, custom, and direct Kelvin temperature settings. The camera uses Canon's traditional three-step custom white-balance procedure: shoot a white subject, delve into the menus to set that image as the custom white-balance reference, then set the white-balance control to custom. We'd like to see this function streamlined.
Canon has moved to a new concept, called Picture Styles, for controlling color and tone with the EOS 5D. These comprise six different basic color and tone renderings, or looks. They are called Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, and Monochrome. You could think of them as six different types of film. Within each Picture Style, you can adjust any of four parameters--sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone--in up to nine increments (sharpness has only eight increments). You can also program three custom Picture Styles by starting with one of the built-in styles, customizing its parameters, and saving your tweaked version. In short, it adds up to a ton of color and tone choices.
Canon includes a pro-quality raw-file conversion program, Digital Photo Professional 2, with the camera. It becomes clear how much of the Canon EOS 5D's design concept--and price--is tied up in its big sensor when you look at the camera's performance, which is generally no better than that of many cameras that cost half or even a third as much. Though not sluggish, this camera is not unusually responsive, nor is it optimized for action shooting.

A lithium-ion battery powers the Canon EOS 5D.

The Canon EOS 5D starts up relatively quickly, in less than half a second, and there is essentially no shot-to-shot delay. Using a fairly fast-focusing Canon USM lens (the EF 24mm-to-70mm f/2.8L), we measured shutter delay, including autofocus time, at about 0.4 second with a bright target and about 0.8 second with a dim, low-contrast subject.
The camera will shoot at 3fps in drive mode, a spec matched by several sub-$1,000 cameras. Its buffer depth, however, is one of the few performance measures where the EOS 5D edges toward its professional EOS 1-series cousins, rather than lower-end models. Using a very fast CompactFlash card, we could capture more than 60 JPEGs or about 20 raw images before the camera paused to clear space in the buffer.
For shots where you must avoid even the slightest vibration, there is a well-conceived mirror-up mode, which you operate by pressing the shutter once to swing the mirror up and a second time to trip the shutter. It can be combined with the self-timer to fire a few seconds after the mirror swings up without the photographer touching the camera.
A new autofocus system, with nine visible focus zones and six invisible "assist" zones, graces the Canon EOS 5D. You can designate any one of the nine sensors to be the only active one, or you can use all nine at once, which can be handy for sports action. Overall, we found the EOS 5D's AF performance to be midlevel: generally quick and quite capable for the vast majority of tasks but still no match for the top-line pro photojournalism cameras when shooting fast action.
The camera's viewfinder covers approximately 96 percent of the actual image area. It certainly provides a bigger image than the viewfinders on cameras with smaller APS-C sensors, and it's fairly bright and sharp, though, again, not quite up to the standard of a high-end pro 35mm-format body. The focusing screen is interchangeable; a grid screen (Ee-D) and a screen optimized for manual focusing (Ee-S) are available.
The 2.5-inch LCD is big, sharp, and easy to view from just about any angle. It's as good as any we've seen. Canon does not provide a protective plastic cover for it, nor could we see any way to mount one, and we'd be somewhat concerned about scratching it if we owned one.
The Canon EOS 5D's synchronization speed with shoe-mount flashes is 1/200 second, although the FP-sync mode allows certain Canon flashes to sync up to 1/8,000 second with some significant limitations. For studio flash units, Canon specifies a sync speed of 1/125 second. The camera incorporates Canon's E-TTL II flash exposure control system, which works with any EX-series Canon Speedlite. Our test images from the Canon EOS 5D are superb overall. Its 12.8-megapixel sensor delivers loads of detail and smooth, rich tonality. The dynamic range in our photos equaled--or bested--the results from every other dSLR we've tested, with the exception of the Fujifilm S3 Pro. Noise in our ISO 1,600 and 3,200 test images is astonishingly low, yet detail is retained. It was easy for us to get natural, smooth skin tones with many complexions. All in all, this camera is a top choice for shooting portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, architecture, and some kinds of commercial studio subjects, especially if you need or want to make 16x20 or larger prints.
We found the Canon EOS 5D's default Picture Style, Standard, to be overly contrasty and saturated, and in fact, we didn't love the default color from any of the built-in Picture Styles. But they are so customizable that we're sure nearly all EOS 5D owners, with some testing, will be able to work out settings that please them. We ended up preferring, at least preliminarily, the Neutral style with a small contrast and saturation boost.
There are some flies in the Canon EOS 5D image-quality ointment. We found the automatic white balance to be somewhat hit-or-miss both indoors and out. We also noted some moderately serious red fringing around highlight transitions in several of our shots, although, overall, digital artifacts were low.
Finally, it's worth noting that mediocre lenses will take a big bite out of the Canon EOS 5D's image-quality advantages. These lenses--and there are quite a few, including many from Canon itself--don't deliver enough detail, especially near the edges of the frame, to fully exploit the sensor's resolution. You may also notice problems such as light falloff and chromatic aberration more easily than you did with film. In short, to get your money's worth out of the EOS 5D, you'll need top-notch optics.

Canon EOS 5D

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 7Image quality 9