Canon EOS 5D Mk II DSLR camera review

The EOS 5D Mk II arrives with some significant feature reinforcements over the original 5D and the top one is predictably the full (35mm) frame 21.1-megapixel CMOS sensor that provides a serious resolution bump from the 5D of over 8MP.

The new sensor also arrives with a reduced micro lens gap while the sensitivity range has been improved with a big boost. Here, the top or “normal” calibrated range is ISO 100 to 6400, then there’s a lower ISO tweak allowing ISO 50 shooting and then two higher settings of ISO 12800 and ISO 25600.

The new sensor also features an integrated cleaning system (a standard feature now, across all EOS models) that gives the sensor a shake down when you turn the camera off. A welcome addition indeed - the original 5D became notorious for collecting dirt on the sensor.

A new Live View system features a Contrast AF setup that means there’s no mirror flip up when you shoot in that mode, vastly reducing the lag between pressing the shutter button and the image being recorded. You also get a 3.9fps continuous shooting mode and this can shoot bursts of 78 JPEGs on a "normal" CF Type I/II memory card. This is bumped to around 310 shots using a high speed UDMA card and you can shoot up to 13 RAWs.

Using my SanDisk Extreme IV, 8GB UDMA CF card, these figures look about right, although when shooting RAW and JPEG simultaneously, things slow significantly after around 10-shots as the large 26MB RAW and (up to) 6MB JPEG images generated, start to clog the buffer memory.

The Live View also offers a Face AF system to support the passive and contrast detect AF systems in non-Live View shooting; in the latter, you also get access to the HD movie-shooting mode. You activate the Live View via a button next to the rather excellent 98% frame coverage viewfinder, a finder that’s a somewhat shrinking violet compared with Sony’s remarkable A900 100% viewfinder, but is still bright and clear and great to use.

The movie pixel dimensions (so you can shoot VGA if required, for example) are variable but the 30fps frame rate and compression level are fixed. You can shoot HD movies in 12-minute clips or up to 24-minutes at VGA.

Movies are shot in Quicktime’s .MOV format (using the H.264 codec) and the quality is simply remarkable; the viewfinder is cropped in movie mode (giving a 16:9 ratio) and you start and stop movie shooting via the large "set" button sat in the middle of the camera’s control wheel.

Movie focus control is via a separate button (but not the shutter release) on the camera's back but I found it to be rather sluggish, particularly in lower lighting. And this also makes for a slightly awkward AF/shooting control ethos, given the camera’s otherwise excellent ergonomics.

The latest firmware update from Canon has also delivered full manual exposure control in movie shooting, giving vastly superior creative control, a major firmware improvement indeed.

The large 3-inch screen is brilliant (literally and to use) and features 920,000-dot resolution and no less than three special anti-reflective layers and improved viewing angles, so it makes the most of not having a multi-angle screen, something appearing more and more on competitor cameras such as the Olympus E-series, for example.

The screen also has an automatic brightness adjustment system, that works very well indeed and you get manual control too, if preferred, which also hints at the battery performance tweaks, which have been included in MkII. The battery has been revamped and it’s a new 1800mAh cell providing full logging information, you can get up to a claimed 850 shots, but this seems optimistic as on my tests, where a full charge just about got me across the 400-shot line, with a modicum of Live View use and movie capture.

Other tweaks include a microphone input socket, an HDMI out socket - for direct connection to your HD TV, for example - and you get water resistance as well, enough for what Canon claims is 10mms of rain in 3 minutes.

In terms of the shooting and handling, the camera features a large mode dial that sports three custom user positions each of which allows you to adjust the camera in three different ways, thus saving a lot of time in the otherwise excellent menu system.

In short, the camera can be set to behave three different ways over and above the way it comes out of the box; image processing features include highlight tone priority, which helps pull out and preserve highlight detail rather well as long as the exposure is not too overblown and there are four levels of auto lighting optimiser. Ditto the noise reduction to four levels, and add in the neat vignetting correction to add to the armoury and you have bags of control.

The aforementioned mode dial gets into all the shooting manual, custom and auto shooting modes (such as aperture and shutter priority, full manual and bulb shooting) but sits very proud of the camera’s left shoulder (from the back), so much so that, frustratingly, while it’s very good to use, with the camera slung over my shoulder it kept getting knocked to a different setting.

Admittedly this is not a major issue, but it is very frustrating none the less, particularly if you’ve grabbed the camera for a shot in, say, aperture priority, only to find it’s been moved to manual and you either get an over/under exposed image or miss the moment completely while resetting it.

Incidentally, although (arguably) this camera is of the ilk where a flash would be of the accessory variety, with almost all the similar competition sporting built-in flash units, the 5D Mk II mysteriously lacks such a feature.

RAW shooting is a must for any camera of this ilk and impressively, the new model allows RAW snapping within the auto shooting modes, a boon for those wanting RAW image power alongside the auto JPEG processing offered by the auto modes.

All this imaging prowess is abetted by the DIGIC IV image processor, which provides 14-bit image processing, enables the fast frame capture of all those 21MP images; this was the second EOS featuring DIGIC IV, the first being the EOS 50D and more recently the 500D.

Enhancing the control of the 5D Mk II is the quick control screen. Here the large screen provides a fast route into main settings via a press of the fiddly-to-use joystick. Settings can be scrolled and adjusted without having to delve into the menu system, saving a lot of time, and although it takes a little getting used to, it’s a fast way to get at critical settings, all direct from the main screen.

The sculpted bodywork is built around a magnesium alloy chassis with a deep handgrip, although the battery and memory card hatches lack much in the way of gaskets and are both very flimsy compared to the tough bodywork surrounding them. However, even with the image stabilised 24-105mm F4 kit lens used for this test, which is an excellent (if a little bulky) optic, the camera sits snuggly and safely in the hand. Another bonus (at least for me) is even with quick control screen system, a large top plate data LCD remains, placed on the top plate behind the camera’s single control wheel and doubles up all the settings a control indications from the rear screen.

But enough of the features and kit (I’ll be here for another ten pages otherwise) suffice to say there’s plenty on offer and the improvements really are exactly that. What of the image quality?

For a start the Canon Picture Styles system remains (so you can create and share image “looks” over Canon’s website) and while noise processing is a tad aggressive, particularly over ISO 800, it can be turned down in settings.

Also, I found the default JPEG sharpness rather soft (again, it is of course fully adjustable) and there are elements of the exposure control, which mean images can be rendered slightly overexposed in evaluative metering mode. I had to dial in around half a stop of exposure compensation for almost all shots when using evaluative metering.

Metering control is otherwise superb, with four settings including evaluative, partial, centre-weighted average and spot providing plenty of options for even the most challenging of subjects.

The focusing is surprisingly uninspired; it lacks zip and prompt bite even when shooting in bright conditions on non-moving subjects (with the aforementioned F4 kit lens), a surprise and a little disappointing given the camera’s other credentials.

White balance is excellent - in all pre-sets, such as sunlight, shadow, etc. - but the auto mode leaves a little to be desired and can give some odd casts in mixed lighting situations.

Colour and detail is superb though, and while noise reduction can be overly aggressive, the high sensitivity performance of the camera is very good, almost as good, dare I say, as Nikon’s D3.

Overall then, despite some iffy weatherproofing, sluggish focus performance and an oversized mode dial, the Canon EOS 5D Mk II is a very worthy upgrade and one able to create stunning, high resolution images.

Verdict

The EOS 5D Mk II had tough act to follow in the 5D and it has some tough competition with Nikon’s D700 and Sony’s Alpha 900 being its primary targets. However, it almost pulls it off, offering Alpha 900-alike resolution and D700-alike high ISO performance. But it has that 1080p video trick to no doubt help smooth the new Canon into your kit bag.

It’s not cheap though, despite being an "affordable" semi-pro model and so in final analysis, is Live View or that HD movie capability really worth the £2300 (body only) it’ll cost? Well, only you’ll be able to give that answer, however, if you do feel the need to speak to your bank manager, you’ll not be disappointed, this is a seriously serious camera capable of stunning results.