Canon EOS 5D MK III review

After Nikon’s D90, it felt like the crown of video would go to that firm. But, surprisingly, it was Canon that swooped in, and hoovered up the newly established video-from-SLR market. The D90 was never able to produce video sufficient for professional use, but with the original 5D, Canon made incredible progress.

Movies and TV shows are frequently shot, at least in part, on Canon SLRs. Their use is common in certain areas - the TV series 24 made use of multiple SLRs mounted to cars. Footage from this is used for special effects shots, and dubbed on later via a green screen setup. The series House famously shot one season finale on a 5D II. The episode featured a lot of footage in cramped locations where a full-size camera just wouldn’t have been practical. So, it’s fair to say that Canon has made SLR-based video its own.

So, with this, most recent addition to the family – the 5D II remains a current model, at least for now – Canon has played it safe. There’s no ground-up redesign here, and that’s fine, because unlike Nikon, Canon already has video licked.

It's worthwhile mentioning that this is not at 5D vs D800 piece. Obviously though, comparisons between the two are inevitable, so you'll find quite a few in this review.

Design

In the timeless, and some might argue, tedious debate between Nikon and Canon, the layout is king. There are, for sure, some things that Canon does very well. We like, for example, the LCD info screen on the top right of the camera. There’s more room here than on Nikon’s D800, and it seems easier to read too.

Surrounding the LCD are buttons for adjusting some of the most common features. Canon, more than Nikon seems to live in this area with most of the camera’s important controls resting here. Canon has opted for only a single rotary dial for adjusting the various settings. Here, a series of clearly marked buttons allows you to select the adjustment you’d like to make. By default the top dial will adjust the shutter speed, while the rear dial, allows you to adjust the aperture. On our camera, the "star" button was mapped to allow the top dial to adjust the iris too, which worked well for us. This system is, in our view, less simple than on the D800. Nikon prefers to have dual dials, one of which adjusts the shutter, the other aperture. While we prefer the Nikon setup, the Canon method works fine, and it’s quite simple to train yourself to switch.

One of Canon's trademarks though, is the large dial wheel on the back of the camera. This is a brilliant way of navigating through photos and to some extent menus. We did find that when selecting things in the Canon's well-designed menu system it's not that logical. You can scroll through items in one menu, but you need to use the little clicker button next to it in order to move around.

One of the areas that Canon’s video emphasis comes through is via the large, widescreen LCD on the rear of the camera. A wide aspect ratio on a full-frame SLR is odd, but it works fine and we never really struggled with it, even for stills. Of course, it is better for video, but honestly, stills are better shot through the 5D’s beautiful, bright viewfinder, which boasts 100 per cent coverage.

Like Nikon, Canon has refused to provide an articulated screen on the 5D. This is frustrating, because for video work – and stills, in some circumstances – it’s useful to be able to move the screen. Pros don’t like articulated screens though, and are prepared to pay extra for HD monitors or electronic viewfinders. If you’re a low budget filmmaker, might find this annoying, but at least there’s HDMI out, which you can connect to a lot of external monitors.

We also lament the lack of built-in flash. A Canon spokesperson tells us that flash units make it harder to weather seal an SLR. We totally understand that, and we also understand that most professionals will never use a built-in flash. Our problem is, these things are incredibly helpful when you're out and about. Take a photo in bright sunlight, and the built-in flash can lift shadows out and make for a nice, balanced image. It can also help you get out of a tough position indoors, especially if you reduce the power and diffuse the light through a bit of paper or masking tape.

Low-light performance

There is no doubt in our mind on this one, the 5D III is the class leader in low light performance.

In high ISO photos at 3200 there is so little noise in images that it hardly needs to be mentioned. In our tests, we shot in a gloomy, underground garage and outside in the darkness of the south of France at midnight. Shots are superb, with plenty of detail, and dark regions are conspicuous for their lack of image noise. At no point were we able to confuse the camera into producing a bad low-light shot. In the Nikon D800, at times, we were able to produce photos that had overwhelming noise. This wasn't standard with that camera, but a couple of our shots were ruined by random noise.

Push the camera above ISO 3200 and you'll start to see some image noise, but the thing is, it's much nicer than the usual digital speckling. Here, there is a very film-esq grain to the photos shot at high ISO. This is very pleasing indeed, and sells us a lot more on this camera, if you're likely to use it a lot in low light.

Of course, this continues to be an emotive and long-running discussion. On the face of it, Canon has managed something remarkable here, but it has done so by not taking many sensor-related risks, but while enjoying the new faster image processor technology it is developing. That said, this is a new sensor, and it is clearly an incredible piece of technology. 

Image quality

First off, we have to say that the 5D is a superb camera, producing some utterly beautiful results.

We took a look at both raw and jpeg images, and compared how both perform. In our view, both have plenty of detail, accurate and powerful colour and pleasing contrast. Out of the camera, there were times when we felt that the processing on jpeg images wasn't perfect. Take, for example, this picture of a baby bird.

In the example above, you'll see that the image looks good, for the most part, but has had a lot of processing done to remove noise - which you can see in the raw version below - but in so doing, the camera has artificially sharpened the image, which has led to quite a bit of artifacting.

This isn't to say you'll see this on every photograph, as this demo shot was taken in quite a dark, shaded area, and so there's probably more noise creeping in than you'd expect for an outdoor shot. Even so, it's worth remembering this when you're choosing how to capture photographs.

Over the course of two weeks, we've shot more than 1000 photographs with the 5D, in a variety of locations and we honestly can't find any problems. Of course, we were supplied with some pretty high-end Canon lenses, so it's worth remembering the importance of good glass when you're setting aside money to buy this camera. 

Superb LCD screen

The 5D boasts one of the best LCD screen on any camera. It has well over 1 million pixels, and produces a good, bright image which is visible both indoors and out. It's interesting that, for video - where you are forced to use the screen - these extra pixels don't make a huge difference to focusing the camera manually. Auto focus, of course, works for both video and stills with the screen on, but in video mode it's too slow and hunts around too much. 

Continuous shooting, battery life and autofocus 

One of the striking things about the 5D is how responsive it feels. More so than almost any other SLR we've used, the combination of the six frames per second shooting speed, nippy auto focus and decent image buffer all make for a plesant shooting experience. 

As much as we loved using the D800, the write buffer was a bit of a bad joke. Those massive 36.6-megapixel images soon caused the camera to choke - when writing high-quality jpeg plus a raw file - and we spent a decent amount of time waiting for the camera to empty its buffer before we could do anything. The Canon needs to write less data, so it's faster. We never had a problem with it being so backed up that we couldn't carry on shooting. Something that happened a few times on the Nikon.

As you can imagine, focus speed is critical in a professional camera. Happily, the Canon is brilliant in this regard too. In fact, we'll stick our neck out and say in actual day-to-day use it beats pretty much every other SLR we've used. Getting the focus system to lock on happens incredibly quickly, and the 61-point system is more than enough for us

Battery life is also good, there's no real reason to worry about getting through a day's worth of photos, and some video. We used the camera loads over three weeks, but charged it quite infrequently. Video will use more power, but it's still a pretty decent power supply. Intensive users will want to have a couple of spare batteries about, but these are hardly expensive in comparison with the camera. 

Video

Recording modes for video are fairly standard. If you need slow motion later, or want to record fast action, then you can put the camera in 720/50p (or 60p, if you’re shooting for a 60Hz country) and gain the ability to slow footage down by 50 per cent, to 25fps in post-production.

If you need full-on HD, then there are 1080p video modes of 24 and 25fps (or 30fps for 60Hz countries). While this will cover use for anything up to, and including, broadcast use, we do think it’s a shame that Canon hasn’t got some full HD at higher frame rates. A 1080/50p mode would really but the 5D over the D800.

Canon has radically changed its downscaling method too. Previously, this was accused of being a little rough around the edges, but in our tests we found video looked fantastic. Colour is perhaps the most impressive, because it's blessed with realistic tones. Detail is good too, although at times we felt that the image looked like it had been artificially sharped, this was noticeable on hard edges. Curiously, the overall image doesn't seem to be especially sharp.

It's also fair to say that based on purely subjective testing, we much preferred the quality of video out of the D800. That's not to say that that camera has problems, because it does, but in purely emotional terms, the video is slightly warmer from the D800, and has an overall sharpness that feels very natural.

And it is here, once again, that we accept that professional movie-makers may have very different feelings. And Canon has to be commended on consistency. As with low-light performance, there are times when the Nikon gets confused with colour balance in video. The Canon is far more consistent, and there for - presumably - far less work in post production to get a uniform colour grading.

We also need to take time to mention rolling shutter. This is the oft-mentioned problem, where vertical lines will appear to have a jelly-like constitution when you move the camera quickly from left to right. 

There are very few times when this will be a problem for most people. The biggest issue we've seen, is when shooting in strobe lighting, or with camera flashes en masse. If you shoot things that have flashing lights of this nature, then switch to a different camera - you'll get no joy from a CMOS-based SLR. For normal pans, rolling shutter is now a non-issue. In order to see it, you need to pan so rapidly, and generally back and forth, that you would never use that effect in any video. Here, it's really never noticeable unless you test the camera to see if it has rolling shutter. In those circumstances, you'll see it, of course. But with the limitations of 24 and 25fps progressive video, shooting things like that will give you unmanageable blur anyway, so rolling shutter is likely to be the least of your worries.

So, if you were worried about rolling shutter, stop. It's not a big deal.

What is a big deal, especially for TV and film production, is the lack of clean HDMI output from the 5D. This is used by professionals to bypass the camera's built in codec, and bitrate limitations, and feed video in to an external SSD or memory card. The D800 allows this - although you need to remove all the memory cards to get it to do 1080p - and it's therefore likely to be more suitable for TV production. This is because broadcasters like the BBC and Sky ask for 50MB/s data rates, and neither the 5D or D800 can capture at those rates internally. Mostly, they max-out at less than 30MB/s This is not a reflection on the Canon's codec though, which is very good, but rather a comment on using these cameras for as many and as diverse uses as possible.

Also helpful, is the inclusion of a microphone input and headphone jack. The headphone socket is perfect, and will help users ensure they are capturing the best sound. The microphone jack is fine, although for high-end use it would be preferable to have an XLR socket. Of course, on an SLR this is impossible because of size. Either way, these are two sockets you really want on a video-capable SLR, and here they both are.

Verdict

As with the Nikon D800, there’s little bad to say about the latest 5D. This does feel like a camera aimed at the film-maker, but at no point does it ever feel that Canon has compromised on the quality of stills it produces. Indeed, our first instinct is to say that, for jpeg images, out of the camera, we prefer the Canon. There is, of course, more to the quality than just a first glance at the jpeg file though.

We think that the D800 produces nicer video out of the camera. Again though, professionals like the 5D. It has a quality that is very easy to work with in post production, and grade to the level of the rest of your material. Having said that, the 5D lacks a clean feed out of its HDMI socket. This is a bit of a problem, and Canon should really have addressed it by now. Of course, the firm now sells a video-only rig, the C300, which is more capable of producing video for pro markets.

We like the way the 5D handles, it's a well-built camera, and it's great to use. It's fast to shoot lots of frames in sequence, which puts it over the D800 with its more massive images. In terms of layout, and design, the only bit we really want to change is the lack of dedicated control for aperture control, two wheels would really have made our day here.