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Canon EOS 5D review - long term test Gordon Laing, May 2006
Canon EOS 5D verdict

In our introduction we asked if the Canon EOS-5D was the holy grail of digital SLRs or the solution to a problem which no longer existed. After all, in the time it's taken for a full-frame body to become relatively affordable, the cropped digital SLR market has matured considerably. A number of very short focal length lenses designed for cropped sensors are now available, effectively addressing any concerns over extreme wide angle coverage.

So with this in mind, what advantages does the full-frame 5D with, say, a 17-40mm have over a cropped-frame 20D / 30D with a 10-22mm EF-S? The field of view is essentially the same, and the latter is a cheaper combination. Have extremely short focal length lenses effectively rendered full-frame bodies redundant before they could become affordable?

Canon EOS 5D with 24-105mm lens

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The answer is of course yes and no. If you're new to SLRs or don't have an existing investment in lenses from 35mm days, then you'll probably wonder what all the full-frame fuss is about. Simply buy a cheaper body with a cropped sensor, and if you're into wide angle photography, get yourself an extremely short focal length zoom. Job done.

If however you do have an existing collection of Canon lenses designed for a full-frame body, then the 5D will be a very tempting prospect. Seeing these lenses deliver the exact same field of view as they did on a film camera is a familiar and surprisingly reassuring experience for anyone who knows that, say, their 24mm would be perfect for a particular composition. It's also undeniably nice to look through a large viewfinder which makes cropped bodies feel almost claustrophobic in comparison.

At this point it's also worth addressing the use of longer focal lengths. Owners of cropped DSLR bodies often comment that what they lose at the wide angle they gain on longer focal lengths - and indeed a 300mm lens would effectively deliver a 35mm field of view equivalent to 480mm on a cropped body like the 30D. In contrast, a 300mm lens on the 5D delivers the same field as a 300mm on a 35mm body. So the cropped body has an advantage here, right?

In reality, no. It's important to remember the actual lens focal length is unchanged, and it's just the field that's been cropped. You could achieve exactly the same field by simply cropping the same shot taken with the 5D, and its higher resolution would leave you with roughly the same number of pixels as the 30D. Of course had the 30D sported a higher resolution, it would have recorded more detail than the 5D within this field, but with the same 8.2 Megapixels as its predecessor, it has little advantage in this respect.

Coverage aside, it's additionally worth mentioning the choice of lenses available. Just considering Canon optics alone, if you want extreme wide angle coverage with a cropped body, you're really restricted to the 10-22mm EF-S. If you had the 5D though, you'd have the choice of the 20-35mm f3.5~4.5, 17-40mm f4.0L or 16-35mm f2.8L. Not only is the 5D's choice greater, but you also have the option of higher quality L models.

Admittedly the 5D is unforgiving on cheaper optics and really demands L models for the best results, but many are more affordable than you'd think while offering multiple benefits. For example, when weighing-up, say, the 30D and 10-22mm EF-S against the 5D with 17-40mm L, it's important to note the latter lens is superior to the EF-S in build, mechanical and optical performance while only costing a little more: £580 versus £494 from Jessops in the UK. We certainly know which we'd prefer to be use.

For many applications, the combination of a larger sensor and longer focal length also have preferable perspective and depth of field characteristics, in the same way a medium format system has over 35mm.

Canon EOS 5D image quality

Of course since Canon released the 30D, there's another obvious reason for going for the 5D: higher resolution. Now we know the 30D has the same resolution as its predecessor, we can speculate the 350D / Rebel XT's future successor will also remain unchanged.

Consequently any 10D, 20D, 300D / Rebel or 350D / Rebel XT owners looking for a serious upgrade from 6 or 8 Megapixels will have to consider the 5D, although any EF-S lenses they've bought won't be compatible.

It's additionally worth mentioning the 5D's 12.8 Megapixel resolution delivers the same level of potential detail as a 3000 dpi 35mm film scan. So while it may be second place to the massive 16.7 Megapixels of the 1Ds Mark II, it is a viable proposition for die-hard film users who've so far boycotted digital because the resolution's not good enough.

Another advantage of the full frame sensor is its physically larger area, allowing a larger pixel pitch, which in turn means low noise, especially at higher sensitivities. And while our results show the 1Ds Mark II enjoying lower noise, despite a smaller pixel pitch, both full-frame Canons are measurably superior in this respect than the Nikon D200 and D2X, along with the cheaper cropped Canon bodies.

The higher price of the 5D however appears to have been spent almost entirely on the sensor, and while its quality delivers measurably superior images to the 20D and 30D, its design, build quality and handling remains essentially the same as these cheaper models - albeit without a popup flash.

That's not to say it's bad - on the contrary, anyone who's used a 20D or 30D will know they're very solid cameras which feel great to use - but the 5D's not in the same league as Nikon's D200 or truly Pro bodies like the Nikon D2X or Canon's own 1Ds Mark II. These three bodies ultimately feel tougher and will be preferred by anyone who works in very challenging conditions.


Canon EOS 5D with base

When the 5D was first announced it was met with mixed feelings. On the one hand were former 35mm users who rejoiced at the first 'affordable' full-frame body, while on the other were photographers who'd got used to coupling cropped bodies with ultra wide optics and wondered if there was any point.

At first this seemed to significantly reduce the 5D's potential market, especially with a successor to the 20D expected a few short months later. Then the Nikon D200 arrived and proved you could enjoy fractionally lower resolution with tougher build quality and faster continuous shooting, not to mention a popup flash at a considerably lower price. For a short while, the 5D looked like a luxury which only former 35mm owners would covet.

But now the 30D's been released, the 5D's position has become much clearer. By not increasing the resolution of the 30D, the 5D has become desirable both to photographers who've always wanted full-frame and those who simply want a higher resolution Canon body. There'll certainly be plenty of 10D and 20D owners who, disappointed by the modest benefits of the 30D, will instead turn to the 5D for an upgrade.

Build-wise the EOS-5D may be little more than a 20D or 30D with a higher resolution, full-frame sensor, but the resolving power is a big step-up from 6 and 8 Megapixel cameras, and while you may need technical charts to notice any detail advantage over Nikon's D200, the benefits of the low noise full-frame sensor are clear and rivalled only by Canon's high-end 1Ds Mark II.

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Sure, you may need to match the 5D with high quality optics, but Canon's range of f4.0 L models are relatively affordable - and while the 24-105mm f4.0L is an ideal all-rounder, it's the 17-40mm f4.0L which really shows off the sensor's potential coverage - see our Gallery page.

The downsides? Well the screen, while large, doesn't perform particularly well under bright conditions and is also susceptible to residues, requiring regular wipes. There's also no GPS connectivity nor voice recording options, while anyone upgrading from a lower model in Canon's range will miss the popup flash. Despite the higher price, the build quality is also no better than the 20D / 30D line, and the 3fps continuous shooting speed is modest.

The Nikon D200 beats the 5D in all these respects while virtually matching its resolving power and crucially coming in around £700 cheaper for the body alone. Certainly, if you have no allegiance to either company and are happy using cropped sensors with very short focal length lenses, then the D200 is a better bet.

But if you're an existing Canon SLR owner looking to upgrade, whether from digital or film, or simply someone who wants to match 35mm quality and coverage, then the 5D is a compelling proposition. Certainly if you were already considering a 30D and a decent EF-S lens, the 5D body is tantalisingly within reach. Ultimately you're buying the 5D for the sensor, which along with Canon's image processing, delivers superb pictures, beaten only by the high-end 1Ds Mark II.

By matching 35mm for both coverage and (to all intents) quality, the EOS 5D is the digital camera many photographers have been waiting for and comes very highly recommended.

Update: If you're thinking of upgrading from an existing Canon DSLR to the EOS 5D, check out our new Canon EOS 5D Upgrade Feature, and also visit our Semi-pro DSLR Buyer's Guide for an update of the best buys in this category.

NEW: Check out our Canon EOS 5D Mark II review

Good points

Most affordable full-frame body yet
Very high resolution
Very low noise levels
Good build quality (similar to 20D)

Bad points
High price premium for full-frame sensor
Full-frame coverage is unforgiving on optics
No voice memo or GPS option
No popup flash


(relative to mid-range DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:


17 / 20
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17 / 20

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