Canon EOS 5D Mk II Hands-On Impressions

Canon EOS 5D Mk IIOh Canon 5D Mk II, how doest I love thee, let me count the ways. That could pretty much sum up my impressions of the newest camera from the folks at Canon but it probably doesn’t tell you what you really need to know. I certainly don’t have the testing lab that DPReview or Popular Photography has to tell you all the little specs and test results, but as someone who is shooting all the time, I figured I would get my hands on one and see if it really is all that it is hyped up to be.

Getting the Camera

Since I am not sponsored by Canon (any help here would be appreciated – wink wink) and I haven’t been able to justify the cost yet, I decided that another way to get one for a little while was to call up the good folks over at I hooked up with Max to get a weekend rental on the 5D Mk II so I could use it on a wedding shoot I had planned as well as to play around with the other features. If you have never rented equipment, you can’t go wrong by using as their prices are great and you don’t get slapped with a huge deposit (no deposit in fact), but more about in an upcoming article as I review their service.

I got the camera and couldn’t wait to slap in a card and start playing with it.

First Impressions

Canon EOS 5D Mk II Top ViewWhen picking up the body the first thing you notice is the surface has a much better texture on it than previous cameras making it easier to hold. The form factor is much like the 30D/40D/50D/5D. For users of those mentioned cameras, the control layout will be very familiar with the only noticeable exceptions being that the delete button has shifted due to the large screen and the top LCD illumination button has been moved to the right side of the display. For people moving up from a 30D/40D you will notice the lack of a pop-up flash and no preset modes on the mode dial (this is much more of a Pro camera than a consumer camera after all).

The large LCD on the back is just stunning with its much higher resolution display which enables you to better see if an image is sharp and in focus.

The new menu system is super clean and sharp looking on the big display although a little hunting around the first few times to find some of the features will be in order. The only thing that threw me for a loop for a minute was figuring out how to setup exposure bracketing. Not wanting to turn to the manual, I figured it out quickly enough. What I did have to crack the manual for was to figure out how to  use the video mode. Simple enough, go into Live View mode and press the Set button in the middle of the large dial on the back to start/stop recording.

First time setup

Canon EOS 5D Mk II LCD

Before really being able to push the 5d Mk II to it’s limits, you will need to go into the menus and setup a few options first. Here are the things I did to get it ready for my tests.

C. Fn I : Exposure
Custom Function 3 changed to 1 to enable ISO expansion. This is needed to shoot at ISO ranges above 6400.

C. Fn II : Image
Custom Function 3 changed to 1 to enable Highlight Tone Priority. This enables Highlight Tone Priority which can help from overexposing important aspects of your image. Note however that when this is enabled, you will not be able to go over ISO 6400 regardless of the previous setting.

C. Fn III : Autofocus/Drive
Custom Function 3 changed to 1 to enable Multi-controller direct. This option enables you to select the autofocus point by using the multi-controller (mini joystick).

Live View Function Settings
LV Func. Setting set to Stills+movie, Screen Settings set to movie display

Image Quality
Image quality was set to RAW.

Finally, I made sure the date and time was correct, dropped in a compact flash card, formatted it and I was ready to go.

Shooting the 5D Mk II

Canon EOS 5D Mk II Mode DialLike many people getting the 5D Mark II, I have been shooting APS-C sized sensors for the past few years as I use a 30D as a primary and a 20D as a backup. Functionally, the 5D Mk II is virtually identical in how to operate the camera although the shutter sound is different and quieter. The big difference comes into play when using the same lenses you were using on the smaller sensor. If you aren’t familiar with this phenomenon, the smaller sensors in the 20D/30D/40D/50D are smaller APS-C size sensors versus the full frame sensor in the 5d Mk II. The smaller sensor size introduces an effect referred to as a zoom factor (also known as crop factor) which, in essence, magnifies the focal length of your lenses by 1.6.  To put it into simple terms, subjects on an APS-C sized sensor will appear closer (as if zoomed in by 1.6x) and the same lens on the 5D will give you an wider field of view. If we take a 50mm lens and put it on a camera with an APS-C sensor, what we get is basically an 80mm lens. A 70-200mm on the 50D becomes a 112-320mm lens on the APS-C sensor. This is interesting to note that a telephoto lens will get you more reach on a smaller sensor but you lose width at the smaller focal lengths. With my typical lenses, I now have to move closer to the subject to get the same effect as before, but I now have the added bonus of wide angle lenses being wider than before.

Image shot with 50mm on 30D (APS-C)

Image shot with 50mm on 30D (APS-C)

Image shot with 50mm on 5D Mk II (Full Frame)

Image shot with 50mm on 5D Mk II (Full Frame)

Ok, so how about this ISO stuff, how good is it really? Yeah, well, its pretty damned good. On my 30D, it pained me to go up to 1600 ISO, on a 40D, 1600 would give you a very usable image but 3200 got to be a bit much, on the 5D Mk II, 3200 is a no-brainer and 6400 will give you very usable images. Moving up into 12,800 gets to be noisy but should be usable with a good noise reduction software while 25,600 ISO is basically unusable unless you convert the image to black and white and then you will get something looking like an older newspaper image.

Comparison of ISO settings from 5D Mk II

Comparison of ISO settings from 5D Mk II

A feature that first appeared on the 40D is Highlight Tone Priority which can be a saving grace in numerous situations. Instead of going into how great this feature is, please refer to David Ziser’s post about Highlight Tone Priority.

What’s missing from the 5d Mk II?

Canon EOS 5D Mk II PortsYes, the 5d Mk II is a huge leap forward for Canon, so much so that some shooters with the higher end 1Ds Mk III are actually “downgrading” to the 5D to get the improved sensor cleaning and higher ISO performance. But surely the 5D Mk II is not the Holy Grail of cameras, something must be missing right? Well, of course, otherwise it would be an $8000 camera. So what is it that we don’t have on the 5D Mk II that it’s big brother has?

  • Dual memory card slots
    Many people think this is a major disappointment that the 5D wasn’t outfitted with dual memory slots to provide real-time redundancy when shooting.
  • Built in battery grip/portrait grip
    The original 5D didn’t have one, and the 5D Mk II is aimed at the high end Pro-sumer market, not the professional market so this is an option. Unfortunately, the 5D Mk II uses a redesigned grip so existing ones will not work.
  • Long life shutter
    The big gun 1Ds Mk III is rated as about double the shutter activations as the 5D Mk II (150,000 (5D) vs 300,000 (1Ds)).
  • Dual Digic processors
    While the 5D Mk II does have the newer Digic IV processor, the 1Ds Mk III has dual processors for faster image processing.1

Granted, the higher ISO performance, larger, higher resolution LCD screen, improved dust reduction, 21 megapixel , full frame sensor, full HD video, and significantly cheaper price does make for a very compelling camera.

Focusing on Video

Yeah, the 5D Mk II is the Grand Poobah of DSLR’s that can shoot video with its full 1080p video capture. Being able to use all of the lenses at your disposal to shoot video is quite awesome indeed to achieve the same shallow depth of field that you can get in stills. So look out Sony, your days of being a video camera manufacturer have come to an end and the 5D Mk II is taking its rightful place of the King of all things video…..well….not exactly.

There is no question you can get stunning HiDef video out of the camera, there are plenty of examples online. But let’s look at the reality of shooting video with the 5D Mk II.

First off, abandon all hope of using autofocus when shooting video. If you are using the on-board microphone, you will hear constant whirrrr whirrrrrrrr whirrrrrrrr as the contrast-based autofocus “attempts” to focus. In some situations it may do alright, but the majority of the time you will end up with lots of times where the camera is trying to focus but tracks back and forth a few times before locking on. You really need to consider the camera as a manual focus camera when shooting video. Use autofocus in still mode to get your focus, then switch to video mode with autofocus off for best results. As for the built-in microphone (located just underneath the 5D logo), its alright for playing around, but anything serious will require an external mic plugged into the microphone jack on the side of the camera.

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5D Mk II LowRez Video from Kerry Garrison on Vimeo.

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Sample HiDef Video from 5D Mk II from Kerry Garrison on Vimeo.

Megapixels = Mega Storage

Oh sure, we all SAY we want more megapixels, but you really have to think of the ramifications of that. Here is a comparison of the same image taken with several of the different available image quality settings:

RAW 34,002KB
sRAW1 20,272KB
sRAW2 20,170KB
JPEG Fine 9,720KB
JPEG Medium 5,479KB

This means that a RAW file from the 5D Mk II is 4 times larger than a RAW from a 30D and even the 5D Mk II’s Fine JPEG is 2mb larger than the RAW file on the 30D. That’s 1/4 of the number of images I can fit on the same memory card and a typical wedding shoot for me will balloon from 10gb to 40gb. Add to that the additional disk space required to hold the images, and the addition computer horsepower (CPU and RAM) needed to process these huge files and you need some seriously beefy hardware to use this camera to its full potential.

For best results, UDMA Compact Flash cards are recommended, using these will speed up write times to the disc. Keep all of these things in mind if considering moving up to the 5D Mk II as it could turn out to be a bigger investment than just the camera itself.

Using the 5D Mk II

The first project I had was a small wedding reception, shooting out on a golf course at 11am presented some really harsh lighting conditions, the highlight tone priority system did a great job at keeping the subjects from getting blown out. One thing that I noticed was that the autofocus was really fast and super accurate. This is compared to the 30D that I normally shoot with. Normally I will get a handful of out of focus shots for no apparent reason, of almost 500 shots, there were only two that were out of focus, a significant improvement in the autofocus system over my camera.

The shutter noise is fairly quiet and doesn’t draw attention which is nice for quiet ceremonies and for catching candids without disturbing anyone.

For all your Shamu fans out there, here are some shots from Sea World.

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/640 f/9 ISO 200 Mode: Program

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/640 f/9 ISO 200 Mode: Program sRAW1

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/5000 f/8 ISO 200 Mode: Program

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/5000 f/8 ISO 200 Mode: Program sRAW1

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/500 f/8 ISO 200 Mode: Program

5D Mark II - 70mm 1/500 f/8 ISO 200 Mode: Program sRAW1

5D Mark II - 24mm 1/25 f/6.3 ISO 400 Mode: Manual

5D Mark II - 24mm 1/25 f/6.3 ISO 400 Mode: Manual sRAW1

5D Mark II - 42mm 1/60 f/2.8 ISO 400 Mode: Manual

5D Mark II - 42mm 1/60 f/2.8 ISO 400 Mode: Manual sRAW1

Is the 5D Mk II Right For You?

I only had the 5D Mk II available to me for a few days but I am completely impressed with it from a technology point of view. One of it’s biggest selling points is also one of its biggest problems, and that is the size of the images. A typical wedding will take up 30gb of space and just a simple day at an amusement park could easily eat up 6gb.  The ability to use the smaller sRAW sizes is a plus, but its painful to have to limit the camera, something I think I could get over easily enough but it remains to be seen if it is too limiting for doing paid wedding shoots in the reduced file format sizes.

Unless you already have a beefy uber-computer and have more compact flash cards than pairs of underwear, then there are going to be some hidden costs of getting into the 5D Mk II. I am probably fairly typical (or at least not abnormal) in that I am currently shooting with a 30D and put together some numbers as what it would take for me to purchase and use the 5D Mk II, and this is not upgrading the CPU or RAM in my machine as it isn’t that terrible to work on images with what I have.

5D Mk II Body $2,995.00
Vertical Grip $365.00
Extra Battery $95.00
(4) 16gb CF Cards $219.80
(2) 1tb Hard Drives $250.00
Total $3,924.80

That’s well over $4,000 with tax and shipping and isn’t counting having another as a backup. I would certainly recommend the 5D Mk II to anyone who can afford one, but, for myself, I need to take a look at the 50D before deciding to save up for the 5D.

Author: Kerry Garrison

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Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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