posted by Nicholas Blachford on Thu 30th Apr 2009 17:05 UTC

Canon 5D mkII review, 2/2

Big Files

I always shot jpeg on the 10D as RAW files were almost unusably slow and it didn’t help that the camera kept crashing when I used them. The 5D2 is a lot faster so I can shoot full resolution RAW and a 5 megapixel jpeg a lot faster than the 10D could shoot just jpegs.

However... The amount of data the 5D2 produces is completely insane, incredibly high resolution images are also incredibly big. Full resolution RAW files from the 5D2 are typically 25-30MB but can be anything up to 40MB, each. I used to take about 250MB in an afternoon, that’s now ballooned to multiple gigabytes, I’ve even managed to fill an 8GB card one day! Video is just as bad, At 1080p you can use up to 8MB per second, a 3 minute clip is in the region of 1GB.

Apart from images I deleted on the camera I used to keep all my photographs once they were transferred to the computer. The files are so large now that this is no longer an option, I have to delete images that don’t cut it. I fell this shall be a good thing for the quality of my photography, my pictures should improve as I’ll only be keeping the good ones.

After upgrading your to a 5D2, you’ll have to upgrade everything else. For a backup drive forget GigaBytes, go for a TeraByte. Apart from the backup drive, you’ll probably need a BluRay drive for backup. If you use a portable HD for copying files to while you are on a shoot you may need a bigger drive. It might be worth considering a HD equipped netbook for this purpose, this will not only let you store the pictures but also look at them. I bought an Acer aspire one pretty much for this purpose, I have it running Haiku which wont understand the RAW files of course but displaying jpegs is no problem.

Processing the 5D2’s monster files is also every bit as intensive as they are large, you’ll need to have a fairly potent computer to deal with them. I got a new MacBook at the end of last year (unibody, 2.4GHz Core2 Duo, 1.06GHz DDR3), very little seems to stress this machine, it is cool and quiet pretty much all the time. However that changed when I started playing with 5D2 files, now it can get hot and noisy!

When the 5D2 first appeared the MacBook couldn’t even play the video files properly, Apple have subsequently updated quicktime (and recently iMovie*) so the files are usable for both viewing and editing. Adobe Lightroom handles the 5D2 files but the machine gets pretty hot in the process and memory usage goes completely bananas. Currently I find it best to shut everything else down while processing 5D2 files, I’m now thinking a memory upgrade is probably quite a good idea as well as new drives.

Card wise the 5D2 takes standard CF cards. You’ll probably want fairly big cards though, I wouldn’t recommend anything less than 4GB, preferably more. You don’t need anything especially fast, x133 is easily fast enough for video. On the other hand if you plan on taking a lot of high res RAW pictures in quick succession (the 5D2 does just under 4 per second), you’ll need a high end UDMA card.


Connections

The 5D2 has a number of connections on the side. For the most part I don’t use them as I just eject the the CF card and put it in a reader. The USB seems perfectly usable though, unlike the 10D which had the slowest USB interface on the planet - it did a whopping 17MB - a minute! Canon supply software with the camera that I don’t really use, however it can get files from the Camera and you can also use it to remotely control the camera and do effects such as time lapse photography or time long exposures. Useful if you want to try things like star trails.

The 5D2 also has video and mini HDMI connectors for connecting to an external screen. The HDMI output is 1080i, this is perfectly fine for viewing photos or video on an HDTV. Canon supply a video cable (like I don’t have 10 of those already) but they don’t supply an HDMI cable. On a camera at this price they should supply an HDMI cable, or at least an mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor. If you can afford a camera like this you can certainly afford an HDMI TV so if anything I think supplying an HDMI cable / or adaptor would be better than supplying the video cable.


Video

Apart from just being a very high specced DSLR, the 5D2 is also a video camera, a very high specced video camera at that. The 5D2 includes a video encoder chip that allows it to record up to 1080p at 30 FPS. The video is encoded using H.264 and is stored as .mov files.

As numerous examples around the web show, the video quality from this camera is really quite spectacular, it can record at BluRay resolution with a similar bit rate. The image quality is perhaps not Planet Earth [PE] but it is damn good. The big lenses and huge image sensor make quite a difference over normal video cameras, the ability to use a large aperture means you can get very shallow depth of field, this gives the 5D2 videos a very "movie" like feel.

Thankfully there is no ‘jelly effect” you see with some cameras, the only nasty effect I’ve seen so far is caused by camera flashes being caught over 2 frames, this can look rather odd, however it’s a side effect of the way the image data is read from the sensor so other than post editing there’s nothing you can do about it.

The 5D2 isn’t the best shape for holding a video camera and thus handheld footage has a tendency to be shaky. There are ways to deal with this however, one is to use an IS (Image stabilizer) lens and another to use software image stabilization. Using an IS lens is better as software zooms in losing a bit of quality in the process, that said the best option may actually be to do both. On the other hand you could always make yourself a Steadycam [Steady] if none of these options are available.

Unfortunately while the image quality is awesome Canon have effectively crippled the video mode by giving you effectively no manual control over the aperture or audio levels. Just like in still photography, automatic systems do a good job but they’re not perfect, you sometimes need to go to manual control to get the right exposure or effect you want. There are hacks to get around the lack of manual video control but these involve things like half disconnecting the lens or (perversely) using a Nikon lens with an adaptor.

There are rumors that the 5D2 was released early and the full video software wasn’t ready. This makes a lot of sense as it’s not like Canon to screw up like this, especially not on such an expensive camera. There have been rumors that Canon was going to fix this in a firmware update and I really hope they do, Canon could seriously shoot themselves in the foot by not doing it. They must already be horrified at people using Nikon lenses but if a Nikon appears with full manual control video eBay might get a sudden influx of 5D2s. On the other hand if Canon add full manual control and (if possible) 24FPS recording, I can see the 5D2 becoming very popular with amateur, independent and possibly even professional filmmakers. Personally, I have a great idea for a horror I’d like to try...


Image Quality

You buy a camera to capture images so the real test of a camera is the quality of the images it produces, the 5D2 does not disappoint. The images the 5D2 produces contain an absolutely vast amount of detail, sufficiently so that I can capture images of ariels and power cables over a mile away using a 105mm lens. The 10D captured a lot of detail but images tended to be a bit soft when zoomed in (displaying 1 sensor pixel per screen pixel), the 5D2 captures 3x more pixels and the images are pin sharp, even at full zoom.

The images are also better quality than those from the 10D, this was immediately obvious when I first loaded an image into Lightroom. Without zooming I would not expect to see any difference, however the 5D images appear to have a bit more punch.

The images from the 5D2 are captured with a 14 bit ADC (Analogue to Digital Converter) that gives much more depth than the 8 bit jpegs I’m used to working with. The extra information means that I can now really use the controls in Lightroom. If the highlights are too bright you can use "recovery" to turn down their level and extract hidden detail, the same goes for darker parts of the image. This is possible with jpegs but doesn’t work nearly as well. You can also do the opposite, images that have dark areas can be selectively brightened.

The noise level is a great deal lower than the 10D where I was limited to shooting at ISO 800. On the 5D2 I can go to ISO 6400 without problems, going any higher gets noisy though this is most noticeable in dark areas. This opens up a lot more possibilities for indoor photography and it also means I can get fast action shots even in relatively badly lit areas.

The low light performance has to be seen to be believed. I have been able to take detailed images in pretty much pitch blackness - handheld! You can even get pictures of stars with relative ease but the exposures are a bit too long for hand holding. The low light abilities really come into their own if you are shooting with limited light and you don’t want to use flash. I experimented by taking some pictures at a local Salsa club and the images have come out surprisingly well, without vast amounts of noise, quite an achievement considering how dark it is there and I was shooting at ISO 6400. It would be virtually impossible to get these images on any other camera, the results from most cameras would be to blurred, noisy or both.


Conclusion

The 5D2 is an awesome camera, the pictures it produces are quite simply superb, the level of detail is really quite incredible. The quality of the video is also superb.

The Camera is a good size and well made, it’s also easy to operate, but read the manual as there things that will catch you out. If you are upgrading from an older DSLR you’ll find a lot of new features and improvements on the old ones. It’ll also be faster, the battery lasts longer and it takes better pictures ...but you might need a new computer! You might also need a new lens, EF-S lenses will not fit the 5D2.

The 5D2 is probably very good for video but this really depends on if you can handle the lack of manual control and put up with the hacks to get around this limitation if you need it. For most people it probably isn’t an issue, for more serious film makers this is a very big deal.

The 5D2 is a very expensive camera but you certainly get what you pay for. I’d recommend it to anyone who is serious about their photography.


Images

There’s plenty of images direct from the 5D2 out there in web land so I’ve not bothered doing them. These images have been cropped and in some cases manipulated with Lightroom. This is more representative of images I’ll actually use.

Note: These pages are huge so may take some time to load.

Pics 1
Pics 2
Pics 3
Pics 4

References

[DPR] DP Review went to town with their review.

[PE] What BluRay was made for: Planet Earth, just remember to pick up your jaw afterwards.

[Steady] Home made steadycams. US version and UK version

[*] You might want to read this comment about iMovie's quality


About the author

Nicholas Blachford has been taking pictures since he was a child. He works for ARM in Cambridge, England. This article was written in a personal capacity.

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