Canon EOS 5D Mk II Review


Worth the wait?

In digital age terms, I was a long term user and a big fan of the Canon EOS 5D Mk II’s predecessor, the 5D. I spent far too much time scouring Canon rumour websites looking at the speculative guesswork and supposed leaks from official sources about the Mk II before it had even been announced (maybe I should get a life!). I don’t think anyone really expected this camera to weigh in at a whopping 21 megapixels, on a par in this respect, with its big brother, Canon’s flagship, the 1Ds Mk III (which is also at least double the money of this one…)

What you’re getting: 5D Mk II v 5D Mk I

  •  21.1 megapixels CMOS Sensor v 12.8 megapixels
  • ISO Range 50-25600 v 50-3200 Extended
  • Full 1080p HD Video Recording v No video capability
  • Live View v No Live View
  • 3” LCD Screen v 2.5” LCD
  • DIGIC IV Processor v DIGIC II
  • Inbuilt Sensor Dust Removal v No dust removal
  • 3.9 Frames Per Sec. v 3.0 FPS

First Crush

The first signs of my crush came about when I rented a body for the weekend, which is never a bad idea when parting with serious dollars, but really it was an unnecessary exercise, and more a manner in which to convince myself that I needed the camera, and feel a little less guilty pleasure if (when) I bought it. As lovely as the 5D (the original) was, and still is, there was something about the Mk II that felt like it had arrived.

The Movie Bit

It’s inevitably the first place anyone with a new Canon EOS 5D Mk II will go; the HD Video mode. Gimmick? Handy Feature? It’s a tough one. I was stunned at the quality of the HD from the off. I’ve always had a camcorder lying around the house, and always wished I could have a camcorder with an 85mm f1.2 attached, to get that whole shallow depth of field control going just like in the movies, without spending ten thousand quid.

The wishing was over.

I even took my new Canon 5D Mark II up town to where a mate works at Soho Video Edit Suite. I filmed him in a cafe, he took the card from the camera back to work, and called me straight away - to him it was stunning, couldn’t quite believe it was from a DSLR. Why him? Well he works with and looks at HD video all the time, and usually from cameras and lenses costing 10 times the price of the Canon. My gut reaction is that it’s a feature that will be used more by reportage photographers – it’s no gimmick for sure, but for me its primarily going to be a camera, however with an ace video bit on the side.


The Screen

Bits that were grabbing me were the new screen, half an inch here really does make a difference in comparison to the original 5D. You’ll get as accurate a rendition of your shots as you’re gonna get on a camera back, and zooming in to maximum gives a darn good idea of your sharpness - essential too if your not in the habit of lugging a laptop around when you shoot. There is a marked difference in the quality of the screen here compared to the older camera, and when you think that the original hung around for so long as it was so hard to beat, that should give you an idea of the improvement. And whilst we’re on the topic of screens - this one also offers a Live View facility - probably most handy when shooting still life at awkward angles where you cant get your eye in place, and of course in the video mode.

How does it feel?

You’d expect it to feel good, you’d feel let down if it didn’t. For a company that has as much experience in designing these things as Canon do, they have to get this bit right. They do. If you’ve ever held an SLR of any sort this will feel as it should, well balanced and everything under ones thumb (or finger).

Personally I added the BG-E6 battery grip, which doubles your battery power; but it’s got to be said in the six months that I’ve had the camera I’ve struggled to run them down on a shoot. There’s even a new addition to the menu called “battery info”, which tells you how many frames each battery has shot on its current charge, a % remaining charge indicator, and on top of that it’ll tell you when you batteries have suffered enough and need replacing. I’m no longer popping them on charge at every opportunity; I just do it as required. So simple an idea, it feels a little more trustworthy than the traditional indicators…

If you want to be a bit more discreet on the street - just remove the grip and blend in.

Proof that by having a great camera to hand, you can capture some great scenesProof that by having a great camera to hand, you can capture some great scenes

It’s not just about how many megapixels...

Even though we’ve got 21.1 megapixels, it’s about the sensor too. Whilst digital photography in its brief history very quickly began to excel at low ISOs, there was always the get much beyond 400 and start heading for noise. Certainly in the 35mm arena this is where great strides have been made across the board. The first pictures I took were with the ISO set to 1600, to say I wasn’t disappointed would be the understatement of the year - the files produced were beautifully sharp and detailed. I won’t pretend we’re in a no-more-noise situation, but in a comparison with 1600 films and up-rated Tri-X we’ve just surpassed the benchmark - the ISO range is 50 - 25600 in its expanded mode, 3200 does get noisy and even more so after that, but if you’re rating above 3200 then you’re looking to get something rather than nothing… and you can call it art or atmospheric.


White Balance...

It is so good it’s almost taken out of the consideration pile. I’d still use a grey card as an act of sanity / paranoia in set up situations, but for off the cuff, reportage and general shooting, you won’t need to make too many adjustments to the raw files colour-wise afterwards. Importing the files into Adobe’s Camera Raw I’m usually leaving the setting to ‘as shot’ I guess 90% of the time, as an accurate rendition of the scene I was shooting. If you like to colour correct tungsten lights etc you’re going to need a grey card or get good at colour correction work on whatever camera you’re using. The Canon 5D Mark II will let you shoot with confidence.

File size

There are three types of RAW file that you can utilise, RAW, SRAW1 (10MP), and SRAW2 (5MP). Likewise with the three sizes of JPEG. I’ve only used the main RAW file size and personally don’t have a need to shoot any smaller - half the excitement here for me was the big fat file sizes. The RAWs process out to be in the region of 60MB or so. The detail captured from the “full on” RAW is in my mind exceptional. I’m not totally sure of the necessity of smaller RAWs, but if you’re shooting quickly, or are in danger of filling your last flash card, then I guess you can downsize to accommodate. I’ll always be after the max possible, otherwise to me it defeats the object. I usually shoot RAW + small Jpeg (at the same time), and use the jpegs for editing (speed) and then go for the RAW file when I’ve made my choice. A2 prints are not a problem... there’s just that little bit more freedom from medium format and still a bucketful of quality.

Metering / Focus

The Canon 5D Mark 2 takes the same focus and metering systems form the original 5D – I’m assuming Canon’s thinking is “if it ain’t broke don’t...” and why not. Whilst focusing can always get smoother and faster (and is somewhat lens dependent), I think metering steps up its game in smaller increments. But Canon have being doing justice to both areas for some time…

Who wants to miss opportunities like this?Who wants to miss opportunities like this?

There are nine AF points in the viewfinder, (incidentally a 98% viewfinder) and three focus modes: One Shot - self explanatory; AI Servo - for moving subjects; and AI Focus which is One Shot switching to AI Servo if the subject starts moving. Be sure to switch the lens to AF first though!
We could possibly do with a few more focus points (we could also buy the 1Ds Mk III if that was a major concern), but I’ve never found that to be a major problem, locking the focus (half depress the shutter) and recomposing when necessary.

The metering modes offered are Evaluative - described as an all round metering mode suite of portraits; Partial - good when the background is much brighter than the subject; Spot, and good old fashioned Centre Weighted. I mostly prefer the Evaluative, with the luxury of the camera screen if things get tricky. If I’m in a studio, I’d be set to manual with a handheld flash meter.

5D Mark II Layout / Controls

At the risk of sounding patronising, there are only so many places these can go. SLR layout generally doesn’t get too many radical changes, more little refinements - possibly the biggest in recent times would be the addition of the viewing screen to the back of a DSLR, oh and the lack of a film chamber.
In comparison to the original 5D there’s an extra button on the left hand side called the Picture Style Selection Button, where you can quickly change the picture style you are using from Landscape to Portrait to Monochrome and so on, and then go in further if you wish to change sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone. These are relevant if you’re shooting jpegs as the camera will apply the instructions you set to the image in-camera. When processing a RAW file with Canon’s DPP software, the picture style will be applied. However you can return to the standard picture style should you wish.


In addition to the shutter release button on top you’ll find Metering, White Balance, AF, Drive, ISO, and a Flash Exposure Compensation button, neatly located next to the LCD panel showing your current settings. These are all controlled by the two wheels atop and on the back of the camera; the ‘main dial’ and the ‘quick control dial’ respectively. I use them both just as much, and would have to ask Canon why one is the main dial and the other the quick?

Just above the Quick Control dial you’ll also find a ‘multi-controller button’ - more of a neat little joystick - one press of this and you’re taken to the “Quick Control Screen”, where jogging back and forth around the screen you can change pretty much any of the settings you’re currently set to, just by using the either of the camera’s dials. Neat stuff, but being a little traditional, I always forget it’s there. A lot of the settings are customisable, and can be saved and then recalled via the mode dial (top left top plate) - same place you find your shooting modes - Aperture and Shutter Priority, Manual, Program, Bulb and two Full-Automatic modes.

Cleaning System

Had to mention this eventually - at its default setting, each time you switch the camera on and off, the camera cleans the sensor (shakes a little dust off all by itself, no more probing fingers and swabs!) Sensor cleaning like this wasn’t an option on the original Canon EOS 5D, so for me it is a little touch of genius, so that’s one less corner of my mind burning in the background. You will occasionally need to get it cleaned properly - and if you don’t know what you’re doing here, it’s best to get it done by a professional and preferably authorised service centre – it’s the one place you don’t want to leave a finger print on!

Everlasting Love

When talking about the layouts and controls earlier, there was a word I was searching for that I couldn’t quite get a hold of, until I started thinking about the menus. Pick it up switch it on, press the menu button and the rest just flows. There’s a logical simplicity here, I think the word I was looking for was intuitive. I think Canon have got this spot on.

The rental weekend turned out to be too long, and I couldn’t wait to get my own. I sold my 5D (regret that slightly, but if you look at the prices they go for, it speaks volumes for the original). In terms of a long term investment it’s a darn good bet, and going by the length of time the 5D hung around for, I think this will be around for a little while longer. No more looking over your shoulder every month to see how far you’re falling behind. It’s not about keeping up with the megapixels, it’s about cracking pictures. The Canon 5D Mark II is half the price of the flagship models by the major brands, yet delivers a quality that can only be separated from the tops guns by something other than the naked eye.

I just don’t recommend that if you make this camera your purchase, that you start perusing the L series list of lenses, that’s just dangerous.

Out of Ten?

It re-invigorated my passion for carrying a camera with me as often as possible, out of ten.