Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Photo & Video SLR Camera Review
by: Howard Carson & Cary Levitt, September 2012
Requires: An interest in intermediate, advanced or professional photography or video
MSRP: US$3499.00, CDN$3549.99, £2499.95)
When Canon released the original 5D full-frame digital SLR, most of the photography world was set back on its heels by the advancement of the state of the art. Though lower in resolution than most APS-C (smaller) sensor cameras today, the trusty 5D, with all its foibles, lousy rear LCD, highly limited autofocus system, comparatively limited dynamic range, lack of automatic ISO functionality and so on, is still very successfully used by hundreds of thousands of delighted photographers (amateur and professional alike) who continue to capture great photos with the camera. Canon's follow-up model, the 5D MKII several years later, added more resolution, a remarkable video subsystem, improvements to the autofocus system (albeit still dragging woefully behind Nikon's class leading autofocus systems), a wonderful rear LCD, and significantly improved configuration control including an excellent auto ISO implementation. The 5D MKIII, in that light, did not turn out to be the huge leap forward to compete with Nikon's remarkable D800, but is rather the latest evolutionary entry in the superb Canon 5D series. The 5D MKIII is the logical next step in its lineage. Canon has stayed the course for all the right reasons.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a full size, professional digital photo and video SLR camera. At 22.3 megapixels it may not be basking in the same stratosphere as the 36mp Nikon D800, but you need to disabuse yourself of the notion that 22.3 megapixels at this quality level is somehow inadequate. The new sensor was developed by Canon specifically for the 5D Mark III, several developments designed and implemented for the Canon 7D (the flagship model in the APS-C smaller sensor line) are integrated in the 5D Mark III, and the remarkable new 61-point autofocus sensor system from the flagship pro Canon 1D X is integrated in the 5D Mark III. The weather sealed body, internal magnesium frame, latest DIGIC 5+ processor chip, etc., etc., are all present as to be expected in this top-of-the-line camera body. As with the Nikon D800, think of some sort of picture or video taking hardware and it is likely embedded and integrated somewhere in the camera.
The camera is packed with technical features. What is hard to describe in these feature lists is the degree of improvement the features make in image and video quality, and how much more intuitively usable the camera is when compared to its original 5D and 5D MK II predecessors.
- 22.3 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, 14-bit A/D conversion, wide range ISO setting 100-25600
- DIGIC 5+ Image Processor for enhanced noise reduction and exceptional processing speed
- 61-Point High Density Reticular AF including up to 41 cross-type AF points with f/4.0 lens support and 5 dual diagonal AF points (sensitive to f/2.8)
- iFCL Metering with 63 zone dual-layer metering sensor that utilizes AF and colour information for optimizing exposure and image quality
- EOS HD Video with manual exposure control and multiple frame rates (1080: 30p (29.97) / 24p (23.976) / 25p, 720: 60p (59.94) / 50p, 480: 30p (29.97) / 25p with 4 GB automatic file partitioning (continuous recording time 29 minutes 59 seconds), selectable "All i-frame" or IPB compressions, embedded timecode, manual audio level control while recording, and headphone terminal
- Outstanding shooting performance: up to 6.0 fps continuous shooting using a UDMA CF card
- Magnesium-alloy body with shutter durability tested up to 150,000 cycles, enhanced dust-and-weather resistance, and updated EOS Integrated Cleaning system for improved vibration-based dust removal
- Intelligent Viewfinder with superimposed LCD display with approximately 100% field of view, wide viewing angle of 34.1°, and 0.71x magnification
- 3.2-inch Clear View II LCD monitor, 170° viewing angle, 1,040,000-dot VGA, reflection resistance with multi coating and high-transparency materials for bright and clear viewing.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Multiple Exposure modes expand creative possibilities
- Improved handling with the addition of new customizable controls, enhanced recording options with Dual Card Slots for CF and SD cards, Dual Axis Electronic Level, and compatibility with optional Canon Wireless File Transmitter and GPS Receiver
The EOS 5D Mark III feature list goes on for quite a while longer, but I've listed the high points. The Auto ISO implementation works extremely well, and Nikon (which actually developed and added Auto ISO functionality many years before Canon) should take some notes. I love the dual card slots and mine are always set up with slot 1 as primary and slot 2 automatically doing backups. The new high dynamic range (HDR) mode works well as long as you exercise some discretion, and use it in the Normal setting for scenes which you suspect of visibly exceeding the sensor's range.
Above all else, image quality is the most important feature of all. In a word, it's amazingly good. In the end, all of the foregoing features would be useless if they didn't provide the foundation they do to help photographers create astonishingly good digital photos.
Canon has stolen a march on Nikon, at least where autofocus is concerned. Nikon has kicked Canon's butt for years over autofocus, and the CAM3500FX AF system in the Nikon D800 is very good indeed. But as good as the Nikon D800 AF is, the Canon 5D Mark III AF system is incrementally better on full auto, but notably better when shooting in single point mode. The difference is the 42 cross-type AF sensors in the 5D Mark III (as opposed to the D800's 15 cross-type AF points). A cross-type sensor can use subject contrast detail information in both horizontal and vertical axes in order to help lock focus. Tech specs are one thing, actual performance is another, and the 5D Mark III excelled in the field at locking focus on subjects that left the old Canon 5D, Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 7D, Nikon D700 and (occasionally) the Nikon D800 hunting for an accurate focus lock. In marginal lighting, shooting low contrast subjects, the old 5D would often hunt for focus and never lock onto to anything accurately. For the exact same subject and lighting, the 5D Mark III made an accurate focus lock instantly. If you're a street shooter like me - someone who manually selects a focus point, then half-presses the shutter to lock - having the luxury of all those cross-type sensors covering so much of the viewfinder is absolute joy. I started to like the 5D Mark III very quickly.
I soaked (albeit, admittedly, only momentarily) my 5D Mark III using my back garden hose. The camera was sitting on a small patio table, I was watering the gardens, used my right hand at one point to unkink some hose while directing the nozzle spray (with my left hand) in the other direction - right at the 5D Mark III for several seconds. No harm done at all. I dried it off with a terrycloth towel, and just kept using it. No water penetration, no problems, and good thing I had a sealed lens mounted at the time.
The 5D Mark III travels well. Canon has traditionally made cameras which weigh in slightly lighter, model for model, than the Nikon counterparts, but the 5D Mark III is right up there with the Nikon D800 at about 950 grams (33.5 ounces) including battery. The camera feels extremely solid and durable.
Let me state clearly, first, that I treat my cameras and lenses very well. That is, they're kept clean while in storage, wiped down every night after a day of urban exploring at home in Toronto or on the road somewhere in Europe. I am careful about rapid changes in temperature and humidity when moving from indoor to outdoor and vice versa. But I use my gear heavily. Walking the streets of Toronto, London, Glasgow, Paris, Rome, Marseille, Copenhagen or wherever, my camera is slung from an UpStrap and is generally on my right shoulder from morning until night. Bumps, bangs, abrasions, rubs, thumps, jostles, grabs and a lot more just happen naturally as a result of wandering and exploring the streets and byways and nooks & crannies of crowded, busy cities. The 5D Mark III takes it all without the slightest problem. It is precisely for this reason that the Canon 5D Mark III becomes just a natural extension of your hand, eye and brain. No matter what situation you're in, the camera is there, ready and waiting to be used.
You're going to have to spend some money to replace your old CF and SD cards because those old, slow things simply won't let the 5D Mark III operate at top speed. The DIGIC 5+ processor is very good indeed, and makes the 22mp sensor sing and dance. But 22mp means big JPG files and big RAW files, so 60MB/s, brand name cards are the minimum you should consider. The fast cards from SanDisk, Lexar and Integral delivered great results for me. It's money well spent, and you can console yourself with the fact that Nikon D800 owners have to deal with even larger 36 megapixel files and have to purchase even faster cards.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III, in the hands of any competent photographer, is capable of capturing remarkable photos and video - professional quality, superb, gorgeous. I mean, what do you like to shoot? Weddings, events, landscapes, wildlife, street scenes, people, portraits and ten thousand other definable subjects and categories? The 5D Mark III is up to the task. At US$3499.00 it's steeper in the price than the higher resolution Nikon D800, and that is definitely a battle that Canon knows it has to fight and a battle for which Canon seems to have prepared itself. Existing Canon enthusiasts and pros are buying the 5D Mark III without hesitation and plenty of new Canon customers are also choosing the 5D Mark III without hesitation. I know that seems like a bit of the logical fallacy known as an argument from antiquity - because people have done something repeatedly in the past, it must be okay for you to do it now too. But that's not really my point - the photography and video results speak for themselves. The quality of photography and video possible with the 5D Mark III are limited only by the person using the camera. I rate the Canon EOS 5D Mark III an excellent value.
Cons: Early production units of the EOS 5D Mark III gave some early adopters with minor aggravations. On some units, there seemed to be noisier image stabilizer operation with certain IS lenses mounted. On some 5D Mark III units, when the LCD top light was switched on in very dark situations, the displayed exposure value changed, leading to the suspicion that the light from the LCD was leaking into the camera. Canon has addressed everything, changes have been made in manufacturing and calibration at the factory. Anyone with an early model who hasn't updated the camera firmware should do so immediately. If you purchase a used Canon EOS 5D Mark III, make sure the seller is offering a camera with all factory fixes and the latest firmware.
There's no pop-up flash. The 5D, and 5D Mark II didn't have one either. A pop-up flash is ideal for dialed-back front fill when unavoidable backlight is hammering your exposures of close and medium people shots. Work through the camera settings for noise reduction (shut it off) and JPG sharpening (dial it down) because to my eye the factory defaults don't provide the best technical image quality.
Pros: There is nothing in photography and serious video that the Canon 5D Mark III can't handle. I have personally never liked the physical form factor of the full-size Canon camera bodies, but the 5D Mark III has slight shutter button angle, control button and control surface improvements, and a couple of reposition buttons which now make it feel as natural as the Nikon bodies I prefer. The 5D mark III remains distinctly Canon however. After using the 5D Mark III for a couple of months, having to give it up to a research associate (who is buying it outright for professional and personal use) is not particularly pleasing. There is little competition from any major camera maker for Canon's lineup of L-series lenses; a long and deep selection that is second to none except for some very slightly better offerings by Nikon in some focal ranges. Canon still has a broader and more versatile selection though, and that means a 5D Mark III owner can tackle literally any photo or video project under any normally conceivable conditions. Image quality is wonderful, with resolution to spare. Video quality is second to none.
If you're considering a trade-up from the old EOS 5D, the brilliant rear LCD on the 5D Mark III will make you cry with joy. It's big and gorgeous. The autofocus system is the best Canon has ever produced - remarkably fast, extremely accurate, highly customizable, and identical to the one in the flagship Canon EOS 1D X monster. The new-for-the-5D Mark III high dynamic range (HDR) mode is wonderful to work with, although it's best to avoid using it just because it's there, the point being that the new 22.3 megapixel sensor already has very wide dynamic range without augmentation. Digital Photo Pro (DPP), the software Canon bundles with its cameras, is a considerable improvement over the unintuitive and creaky earlier versions supplied with the 5D and 5D Mark II. The new version of DPP is the best RAW converter to use and the software has been beefed up with what I consider to be a lot of useful functionality. The option for manual exposure in video mode makes the 5D Mark III a delight for serious videographers.
Photographers and videographers have never had it so good. The Canon 5D Mark III is clearly the pinnacle of Canon's design and engineering achievements. As a matter of fact, all the top of the line cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony are so good that the technical specifications and perceived technical difference between the cameras are no longer qualifying factors in any buying decision. The simple truth is that all of these cameras exceed the capabilities of the vast majority of photographers. So the decision to buy the Canon EOS 5D Mark III doesn't have to be a comparative one. If you're an amateur, intermediate, enthusiast, semi-pro or pro photographer or videographer and you feel that your older model Canon camera is now limiting you in some way, the 5D Mark III will take you wherever you need to go. Great camera. Highly recommended.