The Canon 5D Mark III
I love cameras. All shapes and all sizes. New, old, glossy, matte, fit-in-pocket or requiring a truck. They all have their things to love, things to hate, quirks and mysteries. I never pass up the opportunity to play with something new to make comparisons, judgments and just for the fun of it.
Last year I bought a Canon 5D Mark III. This time the camera was purchased to fill a need, or actually a bunch of needs. You see, I’m a wedding photographer in Seattle. Now most people consider wedding photography to be a singular specialty, but I disagree. I think to be an excellent wedding photographer, you have to be good at photographing anything.
On a single day, a wedding photographer produces landscape, architecture, still life, portrait and documentary images. They all have to be done well, in a shortened time period and done right the first time. To this end, I need a camera that does everything well in a package small enough to carry around for 8 hours at a time.
Canon 5D Mark III used for a wedding portrait in the Seattle area.
Having had the 5D Mark III for almost a year, I am ready to share my thoughts, but you should know what cameras I have used in the past that I am using for comparison. The following list is only cameras that served as my primary or main backup camera and roughly in order.
- Pentax ME Super
- Nikon FM2
- Contax 139
- Konica ST-1
- Nikon 8008
- Nikon FE-2
- Nikon F3
- Canon 10s
- Hasselblad 501cm
- Pentax 645
- Bronica 645 ETRSi
- Canon 10D
- Canon 20D
- Canon 30D
- Canon 40D
- Canon 5D
- Canon 6D
Looking at the list above, you may notice one major missing piece - the Canon 5D Mark II, or the second generation Canon 5D2. The reason for that is that I felt the classic was missing one component from being the perfect stills camera. That is the Autofocus system. With the introduction of the 5D2, Canon left photographers with the same AF system that they had been complaining about for three years with the Canon 5D.
There is a lot to like about the 5D3. Coming from the original 5D (or 5D classic as it is sometimes called), the first thing to talk about is the Autofocus system. It is excellent. It is also the primary reason for my purchase of the 5D3.
Canon 5D Mark III with a 24 1.4L for getting ready image in a dark room at ISO 1600.
Honestly, I did not feel the Classic was lacking in image quality in any way. I’ve done billboards, double page spreads in a 14x18 book, and 3 foot by 4 foot wall portraits from the 5D Classic. In my opinion, the original 5D is one of the greatest cameras of our time and you can see how it changed photography when it arrived as the first sub-$5,000 full frame camera. The achilles heel of the classic was the Autofocus system. It worked great as long as you used it a certain way. That is to only use the center AF point in single shot mode. To use the outside focus points or to use servo AF system for tracking a moving object was to invite inconsistent results.
So back to the 5D3 Autofocus system. It is the best I’ve used. Easily. All of the AF points work well, they are widely spaced across the frame, and it is easy to move the AF point. And did I mention they work? In your choice of single or servo mode? My biggest gripe with the 5D classic was fixed. A really good autofocus system in a fairly small body, my dream had been realized!
Canon 5D Mark III using the full 6 frames per second for the bridesmaids' plunge. Looks like daylight. ISO 2500.
The image quality also exceeds the original 5D. It has very similar color rendition, which was one of the great things about the 5D. It is also far more capable in low light with it’s low noise output at high ISO. And very sharp images, if a little larger than necessary.
With just these points, it is my holy grail of a camera. I didn’t care about the rest at all. Until I tried it...
During a worship session at a Ethiopian wedding reception. This is the father of the bride at ISO 3200.
There are a few other features about the 5D3 that I love, but did not know how important it would be for me. The first of these is the silent shutter mode. When you use this, instead of making a loud snap and aggressive whir like it does in the full-speed 6 frames per second mode, in the silent mode it makes a little snick followed by a very quiet urr sound. Snick-urr mode. I love it.
It is so quiet, that I sometimes have people ask if I took the photograph they were waiting for me to take - they can’t hear it. This is a big deal for me. I can take photographs without people noticing more easily and that is a great thing for me especially in a church during a wedding ceremony.
The next is a new button on the camera. Actually it is an old button that has been moved, enlarged and made more useful. The button is the depth-of-field button. It used to be this little tiny button on the left side of the lens mount. What it did was that it made the aperture adjust to the f-stop that your camera was set to so you could see what was going to be in focus and what was going to be out of focus. In the days of film this was a very useful little button. Otherwise you couldn't see what your depth of field was going to be until you processed your film a week or so later. With digital, you could just click the shutter and check it on the back of the camera, so it was rather obsolete. Also, if you accidentally hit it, all your flashes would freak out for a second, which was the most common use of the button for me. But it never occurred to me that they might change it, because I assumed some people like it.
Bride praying during a Catholic mass. Canon 5D3 at ISO 2000.
With the 5D3, Canon made a couple of changes. The enlarged the button, moved it to the opposite side of the camera, and they made it mappable. That means that I could choose the function that the button controlled. Actually, a lot of the functions of the camera can be assigned to other buttons, which makes the camera very customizable.
This new depth of field button has one possible function that I would recommend to anyone that owns the camera. That is it allows you to toggle between single shot and servo AF. To understand what that is, imagine that someone is standing still. You are shooting in single shot AF because it is the best mode for still subjects. Then he starts walking or running towards you. To get sharp images, you need to be in servo AF where it will track his movement. Instead of taking the camera down off your eye and pressing a button while rotating a dial to the appropriate setting, now you can just reach down with your ring finger of your right hand and hold down a button. As long as you hold it, you are in servo AF. Awesome. I use this all the time. Very cool feature that would never have occurred to me to ask for.
Canon 5D Mark III at ISO 12,800. This is a torture test for camera gear. One spot of bright light, with everything else underexposed darkness and incredibly low color temperature.
The next feature comes with an admission. I have trouble getting perfectly straight horizon lines. The most common reason I crop my images is that the horizon is just slightly off of being straight across. It has been annoying me for years. Canon has a very cool solution for that. They have made it possible to have grid lines when you look through the camera. They are lined up along the rule of thirds if you have heard of that. It makes it so much easier to get the horizon straight. I have found it helps even when I am not thinking about it.
Micro-adjustments is also an incredible feature. This is something that was introduced a few years ago on some of Canon’s bodies. They tweak the AF system to work best with each lens you own. Every lens seems to be just off of being perfectly adjusted which can result in either expenses to have it perfectly adjusted, or slightly off-focus images. the 5D3 is my first camera with this feature. While the results tend to be subtle, it is noticeably better focus accuracy.
Canon 5D Mark III during the dancing at a Seattle wedding. ISO 8000.
Finally, my final feature that I am going to talk about is weatherproofing. I live in Seattle. If you haven’t heard, it rains here sometimes. Well, a lot of times. It usually doesn’t rain that hard or that long (light showers for 15 minutes out of every hour for several days at a time is quite common). I have used my cameras in a light drizzle many times. I also have raincoats for my gear. However, it is still stressful to take it out in the rain. Now, not as much. I know that it can handle it.
Everyone always wants to know about image quality. Quite simply, it rocks. Always. In any lighting conditions. Even if you have to shoot at ISO 12,800. At high ISO the 5D3 has very low noise characteristics. The noise is also grainy like sandpaper (which is what you want) rather than patterned, blotchy or tadpole shaped. I shoot RAW and use Lightroom and that will make a difference in what you see. In the daylight, it still rocks. Looks great.
So what don’t I like about the 5D3. Hmmm...much harder to make a list.
I wish the camera was a bit lighter. I love the way it is built like a tank, but every ounce counts when you are going to hold it (or have it hanging off of you) for 8-12 hours at a time.
I wish the files were more compact. I love the amount of detail and the quality of the file, but I dislike the way it eats my hard drives for lunch. The big file size compelled me to buy a faster computer. That was expensive. And more hard drives. And a blu-ray burner for backups. So, basically, it cost me a couple grand in accessories.
It is slightly slow to focus when using an AF assist beam from an attached flash or in my case a ST-E2. Strange.
Comparisons to other cameras.
I have used and examined files from the Nikon D600, D700, and D800. They are all great cameras. The D700 is obviously a camera generation earlier, but it still a great camera. I personally prefer the user interface of Canon, but that is completely personal preference and my comfort with the Canon system.
They all have good AF systems, but the 5D3 equals them in that area.
They all have excellent image quality. However, I find that for me, the 5D3 meets or exceeds the quality that they provide. Which is interesting that DxOMark, an online tester of gear, rates Canon sensors well below their Sony and Nikon counterparts. I find the opposite to be true. I find that I am able to get better, more consistent results with my Canon. It may be that I am doing something that is sub-optimal in the processing of the Nikon images. My advice, though, is don’t judge a camera by DxOMark alone.
Specifically, the D800 has huge files that I am glad I don’t have to deal with. While it provides excellent in-studio or outdoor image files, I have found the files at higher ISO to be superior from the 5D3, but maybe not as much as I expected given the resolution. So depending upon your needs and uses, the D800 is a valid competitor, but not as much for me.
The D600 is an interesting camera. It has great image quality and a very small form-factor for a full-frame camera. Like the D800, it performs quite admirably in good light. Even in dim light it performs well. However, I found the image files to be less sharp in general. Also at high ISO it was at least one stop behind the performance of the 5D3 while also having a slightly squiggly grain structure that looked less like sandpaper (my preference) and more like tadpoles. This could be me not being as familiar with the processing settings that I needed to use. I know that I do have up the contrast quite a bit on the D600 files to get them to my taste.
Compared to the Canon 6D...I just bought one of those. You’ll have to wait until I review it sometime in the future.... :)
My conclusion with the 5D3. It is the best camera for me that I have ever used. It does everything well. It has no real flaws in it’s game except AF assist light focusing. There is no situation that I feel like another camera is needed. I can do sports photography, in-studio, portraits, low light journalism, discrete image making, or anything else that I can think of. Sometimes a specialized camera might be better for some things, but no other camera that I would choose for shooting a wide-ranging and every-moving event like a wedding. The ultimate jack-of-all-trades while being excellent at all of them. Kind of like what I try to do with my photography. I can’t think of anything else that I would want in a camera at anytime in the future. However, I’m sure the camera companies will do something to make me want something new soon!