Canon 5D Mark II – One Year On

A year living with the EOS 5D Mark II Camera

It’s just over a year since the arrival of my Canon 5D mark II, which for me was an upgrade from my original mark-I. Since then I’ve taken just over 12,000 frames in locations varying from a very cold minus 13 degrees Celsius in Glencoe, to a very hot and blowy 52 degrees Celsius in Death Valley, California. I don’t intend to present a review of the camera here as there are far better qualified people than I whom have already published their findings online. I will however, tell you how I’ve got on with the Canon 5D mark-II, my thoughts and opinions and the problems and idiosyncrasies I’ve encountered.

Canon 5DMII 24mm

First and foremost, the 5D MII is a very good camera indeed and in the right hands is capable of producing top notch photographs. If you have used a Canon 5D (mark-I) you’ll feel instantly at home with the mark-II. My 5D mark-II has performed well and I have encountered no major problems over the year. It feels much better built than the mark-I and with the improved weather sealing I’ve been perhaps a little more adventurous, taking it out in some inclement weather, where perhaps I wouldn’t have risked the mark-I.

Resolution

When I upgraded I must admit one of the most desirable features was the greatly increased resolution, which at 21mp is a huge step up from 12.8mp of the original 5D. Although it’s almost considered bad form to desire more pixels these days, the additional size lends much more scope to crop your pictures and still be able to generate a good size print. I regularly print A3-plus, and here the 5D MII does not disappoint.I have even had some 24 x 30-inch prints made and they absolutely stunning and tack sharp even at nose distance. The increased resolution has also allowed me to make larger wildlife prints where shots are often heavily cropped. Cropped shots that were only good enough for the computer screen with the 5D mark-I, I can now make reasonable sized prints. Compositions that were only good enough for A4 prints with a 5D, are now good enough for A3 prints if taken with the mark-II. The step up in resolution is a huge benefit to my photography.

There has been one drawback however. I use a Canon EF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L IS lens for my wildlife photography and had always been amazed at how sharp this lens appeared using my 5D mark-I. Shots taken with this lens on the 5D mark-II however, did not appear as sharp at 1:1 (100%) as they did on the mark-I. At first I was a bit miffed and began to think I’d got a bad camera, but my other lenses were tack sharp. I did quite a few test shots and there definitely was, a albeit very slight, an apparent loss in sharpness. I had my focusing re-calibrated but the results were the same. Then I realised why this lens never received great review from owners of 1Ds III’s or any camera with 21mp resolution or above; 21 mp is simply above the resolving power of this lens. Now I hear rumours that this lens is to be withdrawn and perhaps replaced. So if you go for a high resolution sensor, bear in mind your current lenses and their ability to perform.

Live View

I didn’t buy the camera for live-view, nor did I think i would have any use for it. Boy have I changed my mind. What a brilliant tool. Yes it does run your battery down quicker…just buy another battery. For someone like me who wears specs and not in possession of the greatest eyesight, manual focusing was always a bit of a nightmare. In fact it was so hit and miss with me that I generally never bothered and just had to rely getting a focus point on something of contrast no matter what the light or else. But sometimes not even that works. Using live view however, makes focusing so simple. You can zoom up to x10 anywhere in your frame to check for sharpness, and you can open up your aperture or adjust compensation to check even the darkest areas, and simply stop back down to take your shot. It’s great too for checking your hyper-focal focusing.

QUICK CONTROL Screen

Pressing the joy-stick (Multi-Selector) button on the back of the camera brings up the Quick Control Screen. However I found that if you don’t quite press this straight down it doesn’t work and sometimes takes a few presses. This may be my poor (and sloppy) technique but I find it irritating and wish Canon had a dedicated menu button instead. You can change the SET button in the centre of the Quick Control Dial to activate the Quick Control Screen via a Custom Control Function, but this effects other operations and so I have gone down this route.

quickmenu

The Quick Control Screen allows the user to adjust just about any of the cameras settings and is navigated by using the Multi-selector. Now I find I rarely use the buttons on the top of the camera next to the LCD status panel, in fact I rarely ever look at the LCD panel now at all.

Setting bracketed exposure is so much easier now too. You just select the exposure screen from the Quick Control Screen and use the thumbwheels to set the Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) amount and Compensation.

The Quick Control Panel is a huge leap forward in usability but I still find it a tad clumsy to use. It’s good, but I still feel this could be refined. I’m not sure how, but scrolling around the page could be improved I’m sure. I’m also not a fan of digital controls and still would like to see more analogue style controls on the camera. We have thumbwheels to adjust the aperture and shutter speed, so why can’t we have another for ISO? These are so much easier and quicker to use.

No Mirror Lock-up Button

There’s still no dedicated Mirror Lock-up button, despite the zillion and one requests on the internet. None has appeared on any other Canon camera that has appeared since the release of Canon 5D Mark-II, so it seems canon will never pay attention to the general public no matter how vociferous the strength of opinion. You can however, add this function to a user menu, so at least it’s not so hidden as before, but it still makes it a pain to set and unset.

No Tactile Buttons

One of my major gripes with the original Canon 5D was that the buttons are all the same. Sure this makes for smart ergonomics and neat looks but when you are fumbling around in the night or low light it would be great if they felt different, making then easily distinguishable from one another and not all identical. I guess the Quick Control Screen goes somewhat to overcoming the problem. but I’d still like to see (or should that be feel?) buttons that are different.

Expanded and Auto ISO

The expanded ISO range is great, but to put it simply, ISO 800 is the same as ISO 400 in the original 5D. You have about one stop extra. Photographs at ISO 800 are perfectly usable, beyond that it depends on the light and the subject matter.

Canon have also implemented an Auto-ISO mode, which allows the camera to adjust the ISO speed if necessary. A great idea you may think, but this a very poor implementation of this function by Canon, and in effect making it practicably unusable. You can select Auto-ISO in Automatic, Program, Aperture priority or Shutter priority mode, but the camera then sets ISO values ranging from 100 up to 3200 ISO. Canon may think 1600 or 3200 ISO are fine but I can guarantee most decent photographers won’t go there. Canon need to take a leaf out of the Pentax book where on their cameras the user can specify the upper and lower ISO range, say 100-800 ISO, which would be usable. I’m sure this could be implement by a simple firmware fix, so this has to go down as a blunder by Canon. A case of lets get the function in, but with little thought of how the user would want it implemented.

Camera User Settings

Listed in the pre-release press for the 5D Mark-II, one the new functions that really appealed to me was the ability to have 3 Camera User Settings. These can be selected by choosing either C1, C2 or C3 on the Mode Dial. Great I thought, I can one have with all the settings for my wildlife photography, one for landscapes and one for portraits. Err..nope, I found out that they are totally useless. I can not understand Canon’s implementation of these buttons and how they work, it’s completely backwards. Canon-5D-Mode-DialThese only work if you take every photograph on exactly the same settings and I don’t think there is a photographer in the world who does that?

Let me explain, say I set C3 to my wildlife settings. I use my 100-400mm, so I’ll have my aperture set to f/5.6, ISO to 200, spot metering, and only the centre focus point selected and the camera in aperture priority mode. When I’m ready to shoot some wildlife, I simply rotate the Mode Selector dial to C3 and I’m ready to shoot. I take several frames but then find some animals in the shade and I need to bump up the ISO to 800, I adjust the ISO take a few frames then move on to another subject. I raise my camera to shoot, thinking it’s still at ISO 800, shoot and my picture is strangely underexposed, but wait, my ISO has been set back to ISO 200! Every time your camera auto-powers off (remember the Canon default is after 1 minute) your settings are re-set back to their starting point. This is absolutely infuriating and can not be avoided unless you disable the auto power off feature and that of course will run your batteries down super quick.

Canon have really got this one backwards. The user settings should be your starting point and should never reset when the camera powers down, but only when you the user chooses to do so. The way Camera User Settings operate should be set using a custom function. Come on Canon this ones a no-brainer surely!

Battery Compartment

Still plastic, still not weather sealed and rather flimsy and cheap compared to the rest of the camera. Again, frequently mentioned on the web and still never altered by Canon.

Eyecup

The eyecup is a little like the battery compartment door, it’s plastic, rather cheap and flimsy and seems out of place on camera of this quality. However they are pretty much the same design and quality on all Canon cameras and are very much in need of a serious redesign. These are probably fine if you never have to remove them and leave the original one on your camera for all it’s life. However if you use the Angle Finder eyepiece and even just occasionally swap between that and the standard Eb eyecup, you soon find the original one becomes loose and won’t stay on very well, and sooner or later you find it’s gone! I’ve gone through 3 or 4 of these. They gradually become so loose that just taking them out of your camera bag can cause them to come off and it’s generally too late when you notice it’s gone.

Minor Improvements and Changes

You can now see the ISO speed in the readout in your view finder; something I really missed in the original 5D. The rear 3-inch screen is a lot better, and displays more detail, but I still find I need to see pictures on a monitor before I can tell whether they are any good or not. It’s still hard to see in bright sun light but they are all like that. The screen zoom still functions oddly and there is still no way of telling when you are at 100%. It would be nice to have a percentage zoom readout on the display at least, but what we really need is a 100% zoom button. I’d also like to have a way of overlaying the histogram (in RGB too) on top of the picture rather than by it’s side, where the picture is so small it’s of no use. An old Minolta bridge camera I once possessed could do this and I found it very useful.

Summary

I don’t want to appear too negative here although reading some of my comments you’d think I don’t like the camera. You’re wrong, I do. It is a very capable camera, it’s just that I think Canon missed the boat a little with some of the features and have failed to address the wishes of a large part of their customer base. It could have been so much better and still be improved with some simple firmware updates.

I’ve not mentioned the movie capability. I didn’t buy it for that and I haven’t really used the movie feature that much. It’s obviously very capable at producing high quality video footage, but I doubt whether 1 in 10,000 have bought the camera for that feature alone. It’s nice to have but hardly a vote winner. At the end of the day the Canon 5D mark-II is a fine full-frame camera but still has the same old Canon quirks that they may never address no matter what is said. That aside I can easily live with it. I probably couldn’t live without it.

Full Reviews & More Details

If you are in need of a full technical review of the Canon EOS 5D Mark-II or more information then try these links below:

DP Review: In-depth Review of 5D Mark II, February 2009
The Digital Picture: EOS 5D Mark II Review
Luminous Landscape: Canon 5D MKII Field Review
Imaging Resource: Canon 5D Mark II Overview
Northlight Images: The EOS 5D Mark II

7 comments


  • John Birch

    Hi Stuart. I use the Eclipse E2 and sensor swabs from Photographic Solutions which are even more expensive here in the UK. It's not recommended to re-use them just incase you get some hard dust particle on the swab which could (in theory) scratch the sensor. It's probably highly unlikely that would happen, but I'd rather not risk it. I use a Giottos Rocket blower most of the time then swabs for stubborn spots. Don't waste money on the sensor brushes as they just spread the dirt around, and the dust aid sticky pads leave residues.

    September 20, 2010
  • Stewart Dean

    I take it you're using Eclipse E2? What are you using for swabs. $40 for 12 seen one place takes my breath away, but maybe that's what it takes? Do you reuse the swab?

    September 20, 2010
  • John Birch

    Hi Bob,thanks for your comments. I didn't specifically adjust the exposure to increase the colour saturation, but to try and compensate and reduce the burn-out within the light beams. You're always going to get burnout where the beam hits the canyon floor, but I found the best shots were where I could avoid burnout within the beam. Some beams are narrow, but some are quite wide and require creater compensation. Also vary when you take the shot. It's brighter when there's more sand (refected) in the beam, which grows fainter as the sand falls. I shot all on auto-white balance and found that I've adjusted most of them slightly in Lightroom. Some not at all. The walls, if under exposed can come out purple in the shadows, so I warmed them up, but not by much. Reading my review I wished I'd tried some wider apertures as perhaps I didn't need that much depth of field in some of the place. However, it's quite chaotic, time goes pretty fast, and you don't get that many chances to experiemnt. It's great fun however, and I'd love to try it again somneday. Good luck with your trip.

    March 29, 2010
  • Bob

    Dear John,
    I was looking for information on shooting Antelope Canyon with a 5D Mk II and you came up. Love your pictures and appreciate your article. It answered all of the questions I had except white balance. I can adjust this in photoshop but was wondering if you had any comments in this regard. Also I particularly like the darker reds in the pictures I have seen and I am gathering from your aticle that underexposure helps to bring out these colors. Did you under expose to get that effect in-camera or did you work on it in Lightroom? Or have I missed something?

    We are going to Antelope in late September and booked a photographic tour with Chief Tosie. I will call them and ask for the man you recommended. Thanks for the heads up.

    Thank you for your article. It was perfect!
    Bob Hart
    Santa Rosa, CA

    March 29, 2010
  • John Birch

    Hi Kevin, thanks for the comments. The sensor cleaning was another function high up on my list when I upgraded. I'd worked a lot in the Middle East and found sensor dust a terrible problem. So bad in fact I eventually gave up ever changing lenses out doors. However, the sensor cleaning on the mark-II is rather ineffectual, it helps a little I'm sure, but I still find I'm having to use a sensor swab after every few lens changes. The more exposures you take the greater the static charge that builds up on the sensor and the less effective the auto cleaning becomes. Using a swap with Eclipse fluid dissipates the static charge as well as cleaning your sensor. I tried one of the Visible Dust Artic Butterfly brushes too, but found them a bit of a waste of money. They rely on static charge to the brush, but if your sensor is also charged the brush becomes ineffectual. Swabs with fluid remove the static build-up from your sensor and in my opinion are the best method for sensor cleaning. Just watch out for the occasional smear.

    February 11, 2010
  • kevin marston

    Yes I agree. An excellent review John and I share your frustrations with the points you mention, especially the user setting shortcomings. It almost makes you wonder if the people who design cameras at Canon actually take many pictures! If they did, they would surely correct these faults. Having said that, I have been in possession of a Mk. 2 for 2 months now, as an upgrade from the Mk. 1, and I have been so much more comfortable with it and very pleased with the images taken with it. Live View is worth a third of the asking price alone. How effective do you find the sensor cleaning function?
    Many thanks again. Kevin Marston
    lkmsjm4@ntlworld.com

    February 10, 2010
  • Doug Chinnery

    Thanks John for about the best, most unbiased and accurate review of the 5d mk2 from a real world user I have seen. Most users I have spoken to rave about the mk2 (and as you highlight, there is much to rave about) but they remain strangely silent about its faults. I am considering adding the 5d mk2 to my kit and your review has done nothing to dissuade me -in fact I feel happier knowing its shortcomings. I hope you don't mind but I am going to mention your post (and excelelnt blog) on mine as I feel it is a really useful resource.

    February 4, 2010

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