Hands-on: Canon EOS 5D Mark III review

Canon has been rather tight-lipped about the EOS 5D Mk III - the company’s follow up to the mightily successful 5D Mk II – before its official launch last week.

Hot on the heels of the Nikon D800 release, Canon’s latest full-frame DSLR hasn’t opted for the ultra-high resolution of its competitor. Instead this 22-megapixel beast pulls many of its features from the top-of-the-line EOS 1D X model.

For a pound shy of three grand, does the 5D Mk III put enough new features on the plate to tempt both existing and new users? We got our hands on the 5D Mk III at this year’s Focus On Imaging show in Birmingham.

5D Mk III: New Sensor

The 5D Mk III introduces a brand new 22.3-megapixel sensor, with its focus on improving image quality instead of adding masses of extra resolution: the 5D Mk II’s sensor offers just 1.2MP less, at 21.1MP.

Canon claims the careful consideration of the 5D Mk III’s resolution in conjunction with the latest DIGIC 5+ processor will produce images with two stops (2EV) less image noise compared to the Mk II. Although we can’t verify this claim, as the camera isn’t final production quality as yet, it does sound like a sensible solution to us.

When the 36-megapixel Nikon D800 was announced this year, the reaction was mixed – the inclusion of so much resolution isn’t always a necessity to quality, though other high-end users welcomed the significant output size.

The 5D Mk III’s native sensitivity ranges from ISO 100-25,600, which can be extended to 102,400. The eagle-eyed of you will see this is one stop less than the 1D X’s 51,200 native and 204,800 extended capacity. We anticipate image quality between these two cameras will be fairly similar, though the lower resolution of the 1D X (18MP) will mean it has larger sensor-level pixels and, therefore, better light gathering potential.

All we do know is that the shots we fired off from the 5D Mk III looked pretty impressive right into its high ISO settings.

High-spec features

It’s elsewhere that the 5D Mk III really amps up the features list. The inclusion of a new 61-point autofocus system – the same as found in the 1D X - introduces lightning fast speed. Although we were only able to put it to the test from the inside of Birmingham’s NEC Arena, we’re still suitably impressed. It’s not just the broad spread of those focus points, but their ability to adapt to moving subjects with ease. However there’s not the face-detection facility that the 1D X offers.

Burst shooting is now possible at up to 6fps, considerably better than the 3.9fps offered by the Mk II. This is the main area of difference between the 5D Mk III and 1D X model – the latter’s 12/14fps burst is a lure for pro sports photographers willing to pay the extra for the best that money can buy. What is extra-cool about the 5D Mk III’s burst mode, however, is that when shooting JPEG-only frames it has a near-endless capacity – it’d be easy to fill a 4GB card with no let up in speed, which means no limits to your shooting potential.

Build Quality

Sit the 5D Mk III side by side to the Mk II model and there’s not a great amount of difference to be seen. If it ain’t broke then why fix it, right? A new textured finish makes the camera easy to hold, and there are subtle differences in body and grip size compared to the previous model.

However, it’s behind the scenes where most work has happened: The Mk III does have a more advanced weather-sealed construction that’s comparable to the 7D’s sealing, and a big improvement compared to the 5D Mk II. Tricky to test without some indoor rain, but we like the sound of further improved durability.

On the back of the camera there are some added buttons: a new “rate” button makes it possible to mark images with a rating that will then appear in the file’s EXIF data - great for editing in camera in order to speed up post-production workflow in Lightroom, Aperture and other editing software. There’s also a one-touch movie activation button, as found on the 7D model, which includes a toggle to jump between live view and movie modes.

Video Features

The 7D-style movie and live view button is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the 5D Mk III’s movie capabilities. Anyone that’s seen the kind of ultra-shallow-depth-of-field shots that the 5D Mk II was capable of will be equally impressed by the Mk III release. With 1080p full HD movie capture, 24/25/30p frame rates, and the inclusion of a microphone input and headphone monitor output make it a serious consideration for aspiring videographers.

Canon has also promised a better read-out from the sensor for less “sloping” or jelly-vision, during panning movement, though within the confines of the Canon stand at the show we weren’t able to test this to full effect.

Needless to say, this range of new options makes it not only an impressive stills camera, but also an impressive movie-making camera.

Our one and only qualm from a movie point of view is that the screen isn’t mounted on a bracket for multi-angle viewing. While we appreciate this wouldn’t be an absolute for all users, it’s about time a full-frame camera introduced such a feature. On the upside, the screen itself is glorious: 3.2-inches and 1,040,000-dots make it the equal most resolute screen available in a consumer camera, and it shows.

First impressions 

The 5D Mk III feels like a melting pot of Canon’s most popular models: it’s rather like a full-frame 7D-style model with many of the 1D X’s high-spec features. We’re impressed with what we’ve seen, though that £3000 price tag means it’s far pricier than the £2400 Nikon D800.

We’ll get hold of a final review model shortly after its end of March launch and will reveal in full what this full-frame beast is really made of.