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Canon EOS 5D Mark II Gordon Laing, December 2008 / updated June 2009
 
   
 

Canon EOS 5D Mark II verdict


UPDATE: retested with firmware 1.1.0.

Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II is a powerful and feature-packed DSLR that represents a significant upgrade over the original 5D, and a tough rival in the growing ‘affordable’ full-frame market. We’re becoming used to seeing new models released every 18 or even 12 months, with often gradual improvements, but a lot has changed in the three years since the EOS 5D was launched.

The new EOS 5D Mark II may share essentially the same body and AF system as its predecessor, but almost everything else has changed. The sensor’s been boosted to 21.1 Megapixels, matching Canon’s flagship EOS 1Ds Mark III at a fraction of the price, the maximum sensitivity increased by three stops, continuous shooting accelerated from 3 to 3.9fps, the viewfinder coverage slightly broadened to 98%, and the screen greatly improved in size and detail to a 3in VGA model. There’s now also Live View, AF micro-adjustment, support for quick UDMA cards, an HDMI port, a new battery with accurate feedback and numerous processing tricks including Highlight Tone Priority, Auto Lighting Optimizer and Peripheral Illumination Correction. And oh yes, it’s also the first Canon DSLR to offer movie recording, and in nothing less than the 1080p format.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II



Starting with image quality, the EOS 5D Mark II is capable of delivering fantastic-looking images, that are packed with detail. In our studio resolution tests it kept up with Sony’s 24 Megapixel A900, while delivering lower noise than both it and the earlier 5D at high sensitivities - see our High ISO Noise results. We’d concur with Canon’s view that it delivers the best quality from any EOS DSLR to date, especially now the black dot issue with initial models has been fixed, see below.

The screen is a massive improvement over the 5D: bigger, brighter, with greater detail and handy quick access to most settings, although many will prefer to switch off the auto brightness option as it can often give a skewed impression of your exposure. The viewfinder may only offer fractionally broader coverage, but it looks brighter and more neutral in colour, while additionally showing the ISO value and battery life at all times – just like the improved top screen too. The new and effective anti-dust features are also very welcome as dust could be a real issue for the original 5D.

It’s a shame continuous shooting isn’t 5fps (or faster) but the Mark II still feels much quicker than its predecessor. The 3.9fps rate is better-suited for capturing fast action sequences than before, and support for UDMA cards means the buffer is flushed very quickly.

 
Canon EOS 5D Mk II - rear view
 

Then there’s the new movie mode, a first for Canon, and only the second ever DSLR to offer the facility after Nikon’s D90. As discussed in detail in our Movie Mode Features page, there are a number of caveats which make it unsuitable as a replacement for a consumer camcorder, but video enthusiasts and independent film makers will love it. They’ll know how to work around the foibles and get the best from the camera.

The initial absence of manual control over exposures for video has also now been successfully addressed with the June 2009 firmware update (version 1.1.0). New or updated 5D Mark IIs now allow their aperture, shutter speed and ISO to be adjusted before or even during filming.

This firmware update has transformed the EOS 5D Mark II into the highly creative and controllable video camera everyone wanted from the start. While it would be great to also have 24 and 25fps options, the fact is a 1080p video camera with manual control, a 36x24mm sensor and removable lenses for this price is unheard-of in the pro market and many units will be sold without ever shooting stills.

As mentioned above, it’s a real shame the continuous shooting isn’t quicker. A small jump to 5fps would have opened the Mark II to semi-serious sports photography, but as it stands, it’s just a little too slow. Many will also lament the continued absence of a popup flash, although this is par for the course on a pro DSLR and there's always the compact Speedlite 270EX. A 100% viewfinder and broader array of AF points would also have been nice, but it looks like they'll forever be reserved for Canon’s top 1D series.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II 'black dot' issue - now resolved

When the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was first released, certain images could suffer from undesirable ‘black dot’ artefacts. These affected images with very high contrast subjects, typically a saturated white area next to one that’s very dark. Examples include lights on city views at night, bright stars on astro-photos and ironically considering the launch date of the camera, Christmas Tree lamps. The artefact appeared as a very dark mark alongside the bright, saturated area, and was present on our night shots taken with a 5D Mark II running its initial 1.0.6 firmware. Despite launching a camera with this fault, Canon responded quickly with a new version of the firmware, numbered 1.0.7. As promised in our original review of the 5D Mark II, we have retested the camera with its latest (1.1.0) firmware and are pleased to report the black dots now appear to be absent. To put the firmware to the test we shot several astro-photos which previously resulted in obvious black dots appearing alongside bright stars. The image opposite may show coloured halo effects on saturated star images (a common astro-photography artefact on unprocessed images), but the black dot effect has become essentially invisible at 100%. While some (possibly unrelated) black marks may be visible at high magnification, we're satisfied by the result.

 
No black dots in sight
100% crop from default JPEG: Standard NR, ALO disabled, 6400 ISO, EF 50mm f1.2 at f2.8, 4 seconds


All things considered, the EOS 5D Mark II adds up to a feature-rich package, and given the wealth of improvements over its predecessor, it seems almost churlish to complain the continuous shooting speed isn’t quicker, the viewfinder doesn’t offer 100% coverage and the AF system remains essentially unchanged. But we should mention them because unlike the original EOS 5D which arrived unchallenged, its successor now faces two key full-frame rivals at round the same price point from Sony and Nikon. One boasts 100% viewfinder coverage, the other sports a built-in flash and both shoot quicker at 5fps, So before wrapping-up, let’s see how each model compares.


Compared to Canon EOS 5D

 
Canon EOS 5D
 
 
 
Canon’s original EOS 5D is one month shy of being three years older than its successor, which in the current DSLR market is a lifetime. As such, while the EOS 5D’s image quality remains excellent, it’s noticeably fallen behind current models in terms of features. The new EOS 5D Mark II boasts 21.1 Megapixels to its predecessor’s 12.8, a maximum sensitivity that’s three stops higher at 25,600 ISO, quicker 3.9fps continuous shooting, slightly greater 98% viewfinder coverage, a larger and more detailed 3in VGA screen, Live View, video recording in the Full HD 1080p format, the DIGIC 4 processor with Peripheral Illumination Correction, AF micro-adjustment, an HDMI port, a new battery with accurate feedback on charge, and support for UDMA Compact Flash memory.

It’s certainly a very worthy successor, but in its favour, the EOS 5D is cheaper, and once the 5D Mark II becomes broadly available, we may see further price reductions. In terms of image quality, the Mark II will out-resolve it given a good lens, and noise levels are also lower from in-camera JPEGs at high sensitivities, but the original EOS 5D still delivers excellent quality and remains worth considering. So if you’re after the most affordable full-framer around, the EOS 5D could remain a viable option. See our Canon EOS 5D review for more details.



Compared to Nikon D700

 
Nikon D700
 
 
Nikon’s D700 is the company’s first ‘affordable’ full-frame DSLR, and following the Mark II's launch has fallen in price to become the cheapest of the three big rivals here. At first glance the EOS 5D Mark II appears to take many of the D700’s features and trump its resolution. So like the D700, Canon’s new model features a full-frame sensor with 25,600 ISO sensitivity, 14-bit files, a 3in VGA monitor with Live View, HDMI output, in-camera correction of lens vignetting, fine-tuning of the AF on lenses and a shutter block that’s rated to 150k cycles.

In its favour though, the EOS 5D Mark II boasts considerably higher resolution: 21.1 Megapixels to the D700’s 12.1 Megapixels. It features video recording and trumps Nikon’s own D90 to offer Full HD rather than ‘just’ 720p, along with a microphone jack. The optical viewfinder has slightly greater coverage of 98% to 95% on the Nikon. The Mark II's noise levels were also very respectable given the considerably higher resolution.

But it’s not all one-sided. The Nikon D700 features quicker 5fps continuous shooting (or up to 8 with the optional battery grip), a considerably more sophisticated 51-point AF system, a popup flash, on-demand grid lines in its optical viewfinder, a virtual horizon facility and in-camera correction of chromatic aberrations. Crucially, its initial high price has now dropped to become the most affordable of the three current full-framers. Its two high resolution rivals may be grabbing more headlines, especially the 5D Mark II with its movie mode, but the D700 remains superb semi-pro DSLR with many compelling reaons to go for it. Find out more in our Nikon D700 review.



Compared to Sony Alpha DSLR A900

 
Sony Alpha DSLR A900
 
 

The Alpha A900 is Sony’s flagship DSLR, and at the time of writing was priced only slightly higher than Canon’s latest model. Again both cameras have a number of features in common including full-frame sensors, 3in VGA monitors and HDMI output. In its favour, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II additionally features Live View, video recording in Full HD, a maximum sensitivity of 25,600 ISO to the Sony’s 6400 ISO, and a slightly lower price tag at the time of writing.

While the EOS 5D Mark II equals Canon’s highest resolution DSLR to date though, the Sony A900 goes one better with 24.6 Megapixels (albeit not resolving any greater detail in our tests, and suffering from more visible noise on in-camera JPEGs at higher sensitivities). It also has quicker continuous shooting at 5fps, a larger optical viewfinder with 100% coverage, and the not inconsiderable advantage of built-in anti-shake facilities which work with any lens you attach.

While the A900 is lacking gadgetry like Live View and video recording, its core features of very high resolution, quick continuous shooting, a big 100% viewfinder and built-in anti-shake all add up to a compelling feature-set. See our Sony Alpha DSLR A900 review for more details.


Canon EOS 5D Mark II final verdict

The EOS 5D Mark II is one of Canon’s most powerful DSLRs to date, capable of delivering superb image quality with decent handling and all the latest bells and whistles. The movie mode is also an excellent addition, and while it’s not a practical replacement for a camcorder for most amateurs, the results can be spectacular and independent film makers will love it.

As mentioned above, the biggest issue is a relatively modest continuous shooting speed of 3.9fps which, while better than its predecessor, just isn’t quick enough for serious action photography. Many will also be disappointed not to find a popup flash, 100% viewfinder, or a more sophisticated AF system, but it's not altogether surprising given the former is rare on a high-end body and in Canon's world, the last two are normally reserved for its top 1D series only.

It should however be noted the 5D Mark II’s major rivals address many of these points, albeit missing out on features like the HD movie mode. If you’re not bothered about having video capabilities though, the Sony A900 and Nikon D700 certainly become even more compelling competition.

Updating this review six months on also allows us to include anecdotal evidence from a number of 5D Mark II owners. We’ve heard several reports of the upper screen failing, along with some cameras needing to be returned following ‘mild’ contact with water. While we can only take these comments at face value and haven’t personally experienced any physical problems with the two 5D Mark II’s we’ve tested, it suggests the camera isn’t as tough or environmentally-sealed as its price tag may imply. As always, please tell us your own experiences in the Cameralabs forum so we can build a bigger picture of how the camera performs over time.

Ultimately though, the Canon EOS 5D Mark II is a very impressive DSLR which even with the caveats and competition is one we can confidently award our highest recommendation. The image quality is superb and the camera packed to the brim with features. Indeed its testament to how good the 5D Mark II is that it can be recommended as a still-camera alone, or a movie camera alone. We’re also pleased to see Canon release firmware not just to correct early problems, but additionally equip the camera with greater functionality. It’s a truly worthy successor to the original ‘budget’ full-framer.





Good points

High resolution, low noise images.
1080p movies with mic input and HDMI output.
VGA screen with accurate Live View.
Good build, viewfinder and ergonomics.

Bad points
Continuous shooting at ‘only’ 3.9fps.
No popup flash.
Viewfinder doesn't offer 100% coverage.
Not fully environmentally sealed.





Scores

(relative to 2009 semi-pro DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

18 / 20
19 / 20
18 / 20
19 / 20
17 / 20

91%
 

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