posted by Nicholas Blachford on Thu 30th Apr 2009 17:05 UTC
IconI moved into the realm of digital SLR photography back in 2003 when when I got myself a Canon 10D. The 10D served me very well for 7 years and 14 000 pictures. Then I decided it was time for an upgrade so, I got myself a full frame 21 Megapixel monster, the EOS 5D MkII. It's quite an upgrade, it even does video. These are my impressions after having it for a few weeks.


I got a Canon EOS 10D back in 2003, I had been considering getting a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) for some time and the 10D was the first that came into a price range I could stretch to. The 10D can do very good pictures but there were always some aspects of the camera I was always unhappy with. For a start the start-up time was slow, it took about 4 seconds before I could take any pictures. The screen was also small and it wasn’t very fast at displaying images.

I don’t specialise in my type of photography, I take pretty much everything that I think looks good. I sometimes like taking candid images of people and often these are indoors. I also prefer not to use flash as it tends to be unnatural. ISO 800 is normally OK for this but there are times you really need more. The 10D could do ISO 1600 and 3200 but this was far too noisy to be any use.

The 10D has been replaced with a number of models over the years (they’re currently up to the 50D). Each of these has added features and made various improvements over the previous models. Most of my gripes with the 10D have long since been addressed. The 5D mkII (I’ll just call it the 5D2) has all of these improvements as well as its own new features.

The biggest difference between the 5D2 and the 10D’s line is the full frame sensor and the addition of video recording. The majority of DSLRs use an "APS-C" sized sensor which is somewhere around 1/3 of the size of a 35mm film frame. The 5D2 has a full frame sensor, a whopping 838 sq mm, absolutely massive for a silicon chip. The huge sensor enables you to not only have more pixels but also allows them to be bigger and thus collect more light. The more light a sensor can collect the less noise there is and you get a better image. Such technology comes at a price however, the 5D2 is over twice the price of the 50D.

On the monster chip, Canon have put in sensors for 21 million pixels worth of data - to put that into perspective, that’s over ten times higher resolution than a 1080p video display. The sensor and image processing technology has improved over the years so despite a slightly higher pixel density the 5D2 can comfortably take images right up to 6400 ISO without too much noise. You can extend this to ISO 50, ISO 12800 and ISO 25600.

The sensor size also means lenses are now the focal length that they actually say they are. On the 10D my 28-105mm EF lens acted like a 45-168mm lens. This does not happen on the 5D2 as there is no multiplier factor on a 5D2, the lens has in effect shortened itself. Canon also has EF-S lenses which are specifically designed for the smaller sensor size but these do not work on the 5D2.

The 5D2 has the sensor cleaning system that shakes the sensor to remove dust, there’s also anti-static layers in front of the sensor to help stop dust getting to it in the first place. I haven’t noticed had any dust problems yet but a quick test reveals (shoot something plain at a very high F number) there is some small bits of dust there present. There’s also a system that allows the camera to automatically remove dust. This works by having you take a picture of a white card, the camera then analyses the image and either it or your software can remove the dust.

Look and Feel

The 5D2 looks and feels just like a 10D, it’s a similar weight and pretty much the same size, I don’t know about others in that range but the 20D was a bit smaller than the 10D. Some of the controls have been altered over the generations of cameras and this takes a little getting used to. For example, the wheel you change the ISO setting with has been changed, that’s very confusing when you first use it.

The ISO control may have moved but it’s also been improved. You are no longer limited to relatively fixed ISO ratings such as 100,200,400, 800 etc. The 5D2 has many intermediate ISO ratings so if you want just a little extra sensitivity you can get it without going up a full level. If you are using program mode (pretty much what I do 90% of the time) the camera selects the shutter speed and aperture depending on the light reading. You can now alter the settings with the front control wheel, the exposure is the same but you can alter the shutter speed and aperture relative to one another. This is useful if you want to use say, a different shutter speed or alter the aperture for different depth of field.

The menu system is completely different but it’s very easy to navigate and use. There’s a whole bunch of new options for users of old DSLR so you’ll need to read the manual, or if you’re lazy, see the (long) review DP Review did of the camera [DPR]. Canon provide the manual as a small book which is a good size, small enough to carry about with while you’re learning about your new toy. There’s also a small quick start guide that explains the basics.

The 5D2 has a new battery and charger. It’s only 50% higher capacity then the 10D but the 5D2 obviously uses much less power than the 10D, the number of pictures you can take on a single charge is several times higher - very impressive considering these are much higher resolution images and there’s a bigger, higher resolution screen to power. The display is big and high definition, and the processing is fast, you can scroll though images very quickly, something the 10D certainly couldn’t do.

Find your view

DSLRs are a bit of an oddity in the digital camera world in that you still use a viewfinder to compose your image while most digital cameras use an LCD screen for this purpose. A viewfinder may appear antiquated but I don’t see them going away anytime soon, a viewfinder is much higher resolution so enables you to focus much more accurately. That said recent DSLRs have been adding the ability to use the screen as a viewfinder and the 5D2 is no different with the addition of "Live View".

While a real viewfinder is better for focusing there are times when this holds you back. I once photographed the Tour de France, I was in a crowd so holding the camera to my eye didn’t allow me to get anything. My only option was to hold the camera up, go wide angle and hope the camera was pointing in the right direction. I ended up with quite a few beautifully focused pictures of the back of peoples heads with blurry cyclists in the background, the auto focus had found the wrong area...grrr

The addition of Live View fixes this in that it allows you to see what you’re composing even when you hold the camera away from you. You can also use the zoom button to zoom in and check your focus. There is a contrast based focusing system you can use that is reportedly very slow, and facial recognition based focusing. The other option is to press and hold the AF-ON button, this briefly lowers the mirror and allows the normal focusing system to work. Remember to press and hold until the mirror comes back up, otherwise it wont have time to focus properly (this has caught me out a few times).

The Live View mode has a number of settings you can use though it has its oddities. I noticed it appears to use different settings in Live View than using the normal viewfinder, I must admit I haven’t fully read all the manual yet so I’ve yet to figure out what was going on there (I think I had it in video mode rather than still mode). As I said before you really need to read the manual with this camera as there are a lot of things to understand to get the best out of it.

Table of contents
  1. Canon 5D mkII review, 1/2
  2. Canon 5D mkII review, 2/2
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