Monday, March 19, 2012

Canon 5D Mark II: First Impressions

That's me, with the 5D Mark II and the 50mm f/1.4 wide open

I finally did it, I went crazy and switched to full frame, it has been going through my mind for a long time now, maybe for more than 9 months now, so how do I feel about my first full frame camera? Hit the jump to find out.


I started my real digital photography with the Canon G11 point and shoot, I had some great time with it until I decided that I needed better auto-focusing and noise performance, so I sold my G11 and bought my first DSLR, the Canon 550D, you can read about it here.

After almost 9 months I had a good opportunity to sell my 550D for the same price I bought it for and buy a brand new 60D from Malaysia. I did a comprehensive comparison as you can see here.


Well, you have to thank our friend Mic here for the persuasion, but that's only one of the factors. In the back of my mind I always knew that someday I will make the switch, but I always fought that thought with the costs related to switching to full frame, but the more the idea circulated in my head, the more I got weaker, until one day I decided what the heck and just went for it, here's why:

  • Ever since I bought my 60D from Malaysia, I had a two hour long talk with the shop owner, where he sort of convinced me with the full frame idea, but as you might guess the costs scared me away, I was sure I could have lots of fun with crop sensors.
  • After that, me and Mic had very long (blog post long, actually) discussions via email regarding fulfilling his full frame dream, and I did my best at the beginning to convince him that he doesn't need to switch, and that he can get all the shallow DoF he wants using crop sensors, but no matter what, after several email exchanges, the idea started appealing to me on the subconscious level, and since I know myself very well, I knew I'd be giving up very soon.
  • During the same time I read a lot of blog posts talking about how forgiving the 5D Mark II files were in regards to color accuracy, highlight and shadow recovery, and more importantly, how it produced beautiful skin tones. I find that usually indoors when using available light only or accompanied with bounce flash, I didn't get the actual skin tones and colors that I saw with my eyes. Check this post for example.
  • Noise performance, I knew that at least I was going to have a one stop advantage over my 60D.
  • Dynamic range, I also read that with the larger sensor, I would get a better dynamic range which would enable me to capture contrasty scenes with more details.
  • Shallow DoF, who doesn't like it? I am often asked "How do you get your subject in focus, while the background is blurry? Does your camera have a setting for that?". With a crop sensor, I could get a shallow DoF by shooting close to my subject with a wide aperture lens, or use a crazy 400mm equivalent focal length. But with full frame, it's much easier than that, I'm not talking about eye-in-focus, eye-brows-out-of-focus DoF (although possible), but rather a shallow DoF at moderate apertures that makes it easy to get your subject in focus and blur the background even at wide to normal angles.
So, this is the why, but what about the actual results? How did the 5D Mark II perform?

Canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.5


Despite the advantages I mentioned above, I knew that switching to full frame would have some disadvantages as well, and notice that I wrote "switching", not "upgrading". I don't really think of the full frame as an upgrade of the crop sensor, maybe it's an upgrade in the cost level and the red ringed lenses, but not an upgrade as in "better".

Disclaimer: Before I delve into the advantages and the disadvantages of the 5D Mark II, you must know that I never had a problem with my 60D, I never had a focusing problem with any of my lenses, and that I love that camera from the depths of my heart and would buy another one immediately if I had some money laying aside.

5D Mark II Advantages:

  • Larger and brighter viewfinder, it was not the same wow as when I switched from the 550D to the 60D, but the difference is noticeable, and I'm not sure how, but the first time I used it outdoors, the image looked as if I was using a CPL, colors looked vibrant and clear. I have not tried manual focus yet, but I feel it will be easier than the 60D.
  • Better dynamic range, shooting a high contrast scene in full sunlight with my 60D usually resulted in a lot of overblown highlights that I wasn't able to fully recover, with the 5D I get a full histogram with a very low amount of blown out highlights, and the ability to recover them easily is amazing. Check the following example, and take a close look at the tops of the trees:

Before recovery, blown out highlights, but not as much as the 60D

After recovery, I was amazed how much detail ad color I was able to recover
  •  Noise performance, that's one of the obvious advantages of the larger pixel size, the 5D Mark II noise at ISO 3200 is similar to or slightly better than ISO 1600 on my 60D, and I find myself shooting indoors at ISO 3200 a lot with the 5D, while getting more details and better skin tones.
  • Shallow DoF, with my new 50mm f/1.4 lens wide open, I can get ridiculously shallow DoF, it makes dropping busy background out of focus much easier, even if the background is close to the subject. The results are more aesthetically pleasing images.
  • Joystick for immediate AF point selection, I usually use the outer focus points for most of my shooting, I never got around to post about that, but I rarely place my subject at the center of the frame, and I usually use the top right or the top left points to focus on my subject's eye, I don't use the focus & recompose technique when shooting at wide apertures and close to my subjects, since the DoF is shallow and the eyes can get out of focus that way. Back to the 5D, it has a joystick at the back that can select any focus point immediately by one push towards that direction, no clicking or fiddling around, it's very quick when you're looking through the viewfinder.
  • Micro Focus Adjust (MFA), that's one of the nice features that was present in the 50D and Canon received a lot of heat for when they didn't introduce it in the 60D,  but never having a single focusing problem with my 60D I didn't know what the fuss was about. But with the 5D and the shallower DoF, I found that I had to adjust my 35mm f/2 and my 50mm f/1.4 (my only non ring USM focusing lenses) to achieve accurate focus, however I didn't need any MFA with my 85mm f/1.8 or 24-105 f/4.
  • Weather sealing, the 5D is weather sealed provided you're using a weather sealed lens, I never had the urge to shoot in the rain, but sometimes you get sudden rain or water splashes.

Bounce flash with the 50mm f1/.4 @ f/2.5

5D Mark II Disadvantages:

 I knew very well I'd lose many benefits when I switched (not upgraded, just to make sure) from my 60D, and I would really like to buy another 60D for the following reasons:

  • Shutter speed, the 60D was quick, due to the smaller sensor and mirror assembly, it has faster frame rates and shorter black out times than the 5D, the first time I clicked the 5D's shutter, I heard a very slow and lazy ka-thunk as opposed to the quick 60D's immediate click. I don't usually shoot at a very fast frame rate, and I find the 5D's 4 FPS adequate, and I got used to the lazy mirror slap of the 5D, however, if you're using both cameras side by side, you will appreciate the 60D's faster shutter.
  • Wireless flash, I lost the wireless flash ability that I sought in the 60D, and I am sure I will miss it, so I am in the process of ordering a 10m TTL cable instead. The majority of my flash usage is on-camera bounce flash.
  • Focusing, the 60D had a newer and better focusing system with 9 cross auto focus points, the 5D only has one cross AF point at the center. I find that the outer points on the 5D are reliable most of the time, but in dim situations, the 60D is superior and can lock focus easier.
  • Weight and size, the 5D is not much larger than the 60D, but you easily feel it, and I would love it if it was smaller.
  • Sync speed, the 5D's sync speed is 1/200 sec vs 1/250 sec for the 60D, but I can use the 5D's ISO 50 to counter that, we'll see.
  • Swivel screen, that's pretty obvious, and I already miss it.
  • Intervaolmeter, I don't understand why does Canon need to have two types of ports for remote shutter releases and intervalometers, this is very stupid, and I had to sell my old one and buy a different one with the different 3-pin connection.
  • Compact flash, maybe CF memory cards are superior to SD in transfer speeds, but other than that, they are ridiculously expensive, large, doesn't have standard readers on laptops/iPad/Android phones, and you face the danger of twisting the pins if you're not careful. And the 5D's battery door doesn't have a spring like the 60D.
  • The longer reach, one of the greatest advantages of the crop sensors is the longer reach that they have, the tiny EF-S 55-250 had an equivalent of a 400mm lens on full frame, I cannot come close to this focal length on the 5D without paying a fortune and carrying a noticeably large lens.
  • The EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro, easily one of my favorite and sharpest lenses ever, my last shoot with the 60D was done with this lens, and the photos are superb, I know there's the 100mm f/2.8 Macro, but it's larger, heavier and slower to focus, one day I will probably get it.

Really beautiful colors for the grass and the sky, 24-105 @ 24mm

I haven't used the camera for a long time yet, and once I feel that I'm totally comfortable and familiar with the 5D, I will post a more comprehensive hands on post. In the meantime I'm doing a major reshuffle in my lens collection after finally determining the styles and the focal lengths I like to shoot, so expect a new "Full Frame - Canon Lenses Chat" post.

If you have any questions or you want me to check anything for you, please tell me in the comments.

85mm f/1.8 @ f/4

Canon Lenses Chat - Part 1: Standard Zoom Lenses
Canon Lenses Chat - Part 2: Telephoto Zoom Lenses
Canon Lenses Chat - Part 3: Prime Lenses
Canon EF 35mm f/2 Review
Quick Review: Canon 85mm f/1.8
Canon EF Lenses Chat: Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM Review
Canon EF Lenses Chat: Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Review
Canon 60D vs 550D (and 600D): Real World Usage


  1. "The longer reach, one of the greatest advantages of the crop sensors is the longer reach that they have, the tiny EF-S 55-250 had an equivalent of a 400mm lens on full frame, I cannot come close to this focal length on the 5D without paying a fortune and carrying a noticeably large lens."

    The Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6L is a relatively affordable long range telephoto yielding the same FOV as the EF-S 55-250mm.

  2. Thank you for the suggestion, but I wish so, my idea of a relatively affordable lens is much less than $1600, with that price I could get a 60D and a 55-250 lens and be happy all over again. :-)

    Seriously, one of my main problems with this lens (and photography in general) is that in Egypt, shooting with cameras in the streets is not common at all, and it is much worse when you're using a large DSLR, not to mention a big white lens. That's one of the main reasons I'm not buying any 70-200 lenses. I'll discuss this in more detail in my FF lenses post.

  3. great review, I also have a 550D and planning to switch. I decided 60D instead of 5D as you did earlier.

  4. Great review Mohamed :)

  5. i am a few days from such an upgrade (switch?) myself, so i find your review very useful. Thank you.
    Did you ever consider a sigma 50mm 1.4 instead of a canon?

    1. Re the Sigma 50 1.4 I will be reviewing the Nikon version. I haven't had it long but so far I really like the bokeh. The last test shot in my D3 review is from this lens.

    2. Of course considered the Sigma, and I still am considering it, I tried that lens on my 60D and it'll was one sharp lens with very smooth bokeh.

      The only thing preventing me from getting one is the focusing, several reviews and user experiences mention that sometimes focusing is off, and they had to go through several copies to find one that focused consistently. I don't have this luxury, if I buy one I would get it without warranty and won't get the option to return it.

      Focusing with FF and f/1.4 is very critical, my 50 Canon drove me crazy for days, I will post more about it in my coming post.

      So to sum it up, if I can test several Sigma's and make sure that I have one that focused correctly, I would go with it in a heartbeat, the Canon is not that great wide open, and shows octagonal OOF lights even at f/1.8.

    3. Excuse the typos, I think this is the last straw, I am turning off the iPad's auto correction.

    4. Have you checked out Love that site:)

  6. Wow,
    This have given me alot to think about considering I am considering making the exact same switch up.
    Are you happy with the clarity/sharpness and the full frame feel of your photos now? This is what has attracted me to switching over to full frame.
    Having second thoughts now... haha

  7. I am currently considering making the same switch.
    Are you happy with the sharpness/clarity and full frame feel of your imgaes compared to the 60D?

  8. I am more than happy, the sharpness, low noise and extreme color tolerance (beautiful skin tones) I am getting from the camera makes up for anything, the major thing I am missing from the 60D is the cross point AF points, but other than that I am thrilled, but remember, if you switch, give yourself at least one week before you judge the purchase, get to know the camera well first.

  9. OMG, this cam is absolute great ! !


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