Canon had dilly-dallied around the resolution conundrum for what seemed like an eternity. "Push beyond 22-megapixels? Golly, no way" was pretty much the message for years. And then it goes and releases a 50.6-megapixel full-frame DSLR, the EOS 5DS.
And, frankly, it's bloomin' brilliant. The kind of shock and awe DSLR to missile its way into the camera world and prove once again that proper cameras are relevant and that Canon wasn't going to sit idly by while the (now apparently paltry 36.3-megapixel) Nikon D810 ate away at its lineup from the outside in.
As long-time Nikon D800 and D810 users (many of the lead review images on this very site were taken using said cameras), the Canon EOS 5DS comes as an enticing alternative - if it's treated with respect. Can it pull off this ultra-high resolution with success and are we looking at the DSLR to murder medium format?
Canon 5DS review: Why choose 50-megapixels?
Anyone thinking of buying a 50-megapixel camera needs to consider some of the implications in doing so. Extra resolution means smaller pixels across a given sensor size. Even the top-top spec EOS 1D X is just 18-megapixels, showing that more doesn't always mean better, it's all about use case scenarios.
Now this isn't necessarily an issue, if treated with respect, but it means low-light results won't be as noise-free as a lower-resolution equivalent; fast-moving subjects are more likely to exhibit motion blur so you'll want to up the minimum shutter speed (even for static subjects the shutter speed needs to be faster or the camera ultra-steady); and lens choice is crucial.
Ever since Canon introduced its first 22-megapixel sensor for a DSLR it seemed adamant that was its cap due to potential resolution resolve from its lenses. But its customers disagree and have been calling for such a high-resolution DSLR for some years. If you buy a 5DS and slap a bog-standard lens on the front of it then you've entirely missed the point though; anything less than an L-series lens on the front of this camera doesn't really warrant worth - which adds to its potential cost base.
In essence, all this means the Canon EOS 5DS isn't going to be for everyone. But as a studio pro workhorse where light can be controlled it's outstanding and, for many, will be a cheaper and faster option than opting for medium format (Canon has tilt-shift lenses too, so some of that medium format benefit is negated). But beyond this it's a camera versatile enough to be used in the field successfully too - which is a rare thing indeed.
Canon 5DS review: Design
To look at the 5DS is relatively indistinguishable from the 5D Mark III released back in 2012. Both have the same 152.0 x 116.4 x 76.4mm footprint, with weather-sealing to protect from the elements, but the 5DS comes with a more pronounced grip to the left-hand side for better two-handed holding - and you'll need the best possible steady-handedness at this heightened resolution. Oh, and if you look really hard you'll spot that the Canon logo is larger (big whoop). But that's it from an external point of view.
It's what can't be seen that's more interesting. A new base plate and mirror-box construction with added mirror vibration control system have been added, again essential to dampen any physical mirror slap given the significant resolution and how sharpness can be affected by the slightest of movements. It's possible to lock-up the mirror box, although why this feature is hidden deep within the menus rather than the drive mode button we don't know.
In short the 5DS is a big and bulky DSLR, but as any diehard 5D user will tell you there's very little to complain about indeed. Some of the finish feels oddly plasticky, perhaps, but it's all the same make-up as other high-end Canon cameras and we're confident it's good enough to withstand years of use.
Canon 5DS review: Performance
All that resolution does mean things are a touch slower than you'll find elsewhere in the 5D series though. But hardly slow. With a five frames per second (5fps) burst mode it's possible to shoot multiple raw & JPEG frames with a write time of around one second per frame (using a UHS Speed Class 3 SD card; UHS-II top speeds aren't supported according to the official specification; while a second CF slot is also available).
We could shoot 13 raw & JPEG frames before a slight delay, followed by 13-seconds with the buffer light illuminated as the files wrote to card. Put that in perspective: these are 50.6-megapixel files, so each raw file will be somewhere between 60-70MB, while each JPEG is roughly 14MB (file sizes vary depending on colour information, of course). A gigabyte of data buffered within 13-seconds is nothing to shake a stick at.
The 61-point autofocus system used in the 5DS is the same as you'll find in the top-spec 1D X, making for one advanced system. We tend to use it in a single-point arrangement, but of those 61-points it's possible to access the full arrangement, the 41 cross-type only points for better portrait orientation focus, a wide arrangement of 15 points, or nine point selection. Whether just one, multiples or groups of these points are used is up to you.
Beyond that the level of complexity allows for six different pre-sets to be adjusted (by +/-2) in how rapidly the AF system responds in tracking sensitivity, AF point auto-switching, and tracking acceleration based on subject movement. It's the kind of system that's perfect for moving subjects - which is perhaps odd, given that a 50-megapixel sensor really isn't necessarily the best match. Keep those shutter speeds extra high, but otherwise we can't fault the AF system for whatever you choose to shoot.
A potentially important feature for shooting out in the field, however, is the ability to utilise 1.3x (30MP) or 1.6x (19MP) crop modes. These show marked-out crop lines within the viewfinder, which actually gives a Leica-esque wider-than-field view to anticipate what's coming into the frame, or what you're missing beyond the frame edges. It also means the spread of autofocus points almost entirely fills the frame when at 1.6x.
Canon 5DS review: Viewfinder, screen & battery
The typical caveat to autofocus performance in a DSLR is the live view mode, the real-time screen-based rather than viewfinder experience (which with 100 per cent field-of-view and 0.71x magnification, the latter is large and clear to the eye - no complaints here). Canon has done a good job of improving the speed of autofocus over the last few years in its cameras, but the sensor-based contrast-detection focus system in the 5DS isn't nearly as quick as when using the viewfinder.
We've also really missed having a tilt- or vari-angle LCD screen available for waist-level work and the like. Having used the Panasonic Lumix GH4 for a number of months, this is a feature we've been moving towards increasingly. It would also be useful for videographers, especially with 1080p capture available (no 4K option in the 5DS, despite more than enough pixels to manage it), but ho hum, it's not to be found here.
To give all this context there's some argument that the Sony A7R II is an obvious and cheaper competitor to the Canon. With its 42-megapixel full-frame sensor, on-board 5-axis stabilisation, tilt-angle LCD screen, Wi-Fi and 4K video capture it's got a lot going for it. And it's certainly better suited to video capture - even if its battery can't last nearly as long.
That's one of the Canon 5DS's mainstays: its battery life is quite exceptional. We've been using it to shoot images for the site - including the Bloodhound 1,000mph-capable land-speed car - and it's lasted for days and many hundreds of shots. Actually we've been filling cards before the battery has died, given how massive the file sizes are (assume around 15 raw & JPEG Large shots per gigabyte), with in the region of 600-shots-per-charge achieved. Not as impressive as some lower-resolution cameras, but that's not a total surprise.
Canon 5DS review: Image quality
We've been using the 5DS with the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II USM lens for all shots to ensure a best match to the camera. Some prime lenses may result in greater yet sharpness resolve, but even so the residing sense we get is just how impressive the 5DS's resulting images are.
On the one hand it's partly down to the full-frame sensor. Even shooting at f/4.0 gives exceptional shallow depth of field, matched with subject sharpness, while the 24-70mm has great-looking bokeh. It's the kind of look cameras with smaller sensors just can't accomplish.
But the sheer quality even at this resolution is exceptional, assuming you don't fall foul of the low shutter speed softness issue (we've been caught out plenty, meaning 50MP images aren't as usable at their full potential as a result). It's as good as the Nikon D810, albeit even higher resolution, showing off just how much can be squeezed out of this sensor with some care.
One point to make is the additional processing power you'll want to handle such images size increases, with our MacBook Air proving somewhat slow. Certainly one for heavyweight desktops or high-end machines, hence our nod to the 5DS being a studio workhorse.
Perhaps most interesting of all is how well the 5DS holds up even in lower-light conditions. With the ISO pushed to ISO 1600 images exhibit little problematic image noise, more a grain-like quality, ensuring that even with those higher shutter speeds (and therefore the increased likelihood of higher ISO use) the EOS 5DS really holds its ground. Saying that, the JPEG shots do seem a little over-enthusiastic on the processing front, softening things down compared to their raw counterparts.
The Canon EOS 5DS is a specialist DSLR, that's for sure, but treated with knowledge and it's a tool to truly challenge medium format. In short, it'll be the studio workhorse that Canon users have been waiting for - perhaps waiting too long, which is one of few and far between criticisms.
However, some of the 5DS's high-flying features - such as the 61-point autofocus system - almost seem mis-matched if you're the kind of user who expects to pick this camera up and snap away as if it's the same as the 5D Mark III. The latter, older, camera is more versatile when it comes to shooting in the field, or for fast-moving action, while something like the Sony A7R II adds a variety of extra mod cons such as sensor-based stabilisation, Wi-Fi and a tilt-angle screen which the 5DS lacks.
Even so, when paired with the right lenses and selecting sufficient shutter speeds we've seen no ultra-high-resolution DSLR more capable than the Canon EOD 5DS. It's that simple point that makes it a true five-star product for those pining for a medium-format-matching DSLR camera with added versatility.