My Thoughts on the new CanonEOS 5D mark 3

In what appears to be a really striking move Canon has finally done what Nikon did 4 years ago when the released the D700; namely release a seriously solid entry-level full frame camera that doesn’t take prisoners. In fact, the 5D mark 3 addresses many of my complaints with the 5D mark 2, and Canon’s mid-level cameras in general, and makes some serious strides in providing a solid full frame camera on an only somewhat bank breaking budget.

The Sensor

Unlike the D800’s 36 mega-pixel sensor, the 5D mark 3 only makes a tiny step forward, going from 21.1 MP to 22.3MP. Though the step is small, this is coming on the heels of at least a generation of improvements in sensor tech. In short, the nearly identically sized pixels in the 5D mark 3 should produce considerably better images than the 5D mark 2; and stand a good chance, noise wise at least, to blow the D800 out of the water.

Those improvements in technology are also seen in the expansion of the camera’s working ISO range to ISO 100-25600 base, with expanded modes of 50, 51,200, and 102,400. In fact, Canon is claiming a 2 stop improvement in noise performance over the 5D mark 2, and that the 5D mark 3 will be only 1 stop behind the EOS-1D X. In practice, that 1 stop difference coupled with the 4 MP higher resolution sensor on the 5D mark 3 should make things very much a dead heat.

When it comes to drive speeds, the 5D mark 2’s anemic 3.9 FPS is gone and a nice respectable 6 FPS is in. And while this isn’t super speed demon 10+ FPS territory this is certainly good enough for action on the lower end of the action scale. In fact, it’s with this drive rate, that I think the 5D mark 3 looks to be a much better general purpose camera than the Nikon D800, as it has the resolution to shoot a landscape and the frame rate to shoot your kids playing sports.

Rounding out the drive system, is the inclusion of a silent shooting mode. A feature on my 1D mark 3 that while I don’t use it frequently, is indispensable when shooting in a quiet environment.

Auto Focus

The AF system in Canon’s non-pro cameras has long been something of a stumbling block. It was only with the EOS 7D that Canon started putting something other than the most basic 9-point AF system. With the EOS 5D mark 3 Canon takes a page from Nikon’s playbook and brings their pro-level 61 point AF system, the same one used in the new EOS-1Dx, to their mid-tier cameras.

From a manufacturing standpoint, this is always been a good idea. The fewer different parts that need to be made, the cheaper they become incrementally. Of course, we the consumer may never see those savings in any appreciable way, but what we do see is a serious AF system that doesn’t leave us lacking.

Metering

What the 5D Mark 3 doesn’t take from the EOS 1Dx, however, is the metering system. Instead of a 100,000 pixel RGB meter, the 5D mark 3 uses a 63 zone dual layer meter color sensitive meter, similar to the meter in the 7D. This isn’t entirely unsurprising, and in practice, it’s not likely to be a very significant difference between the 5D mark 3 and the 1Dx.

Fortunately, Canon has also expanded the exposure compensation range, and meter from ±2 stops to ±3stops in line with the EOS-1D and EOS 7D bodies.

Storage

The 5D mark 3 brings another of the high-end camera features into the mid-tier, and that’s a dual card slot design. Unfortunately, Canon elected to use different card types, one slot is SD, the other is CF, so in practice, unless you’re the kind of photographer that likes buying multiple types of media in bulk, it will be a 1 slot camera.

Fortunately, Canon did choose to avoid the QDX media format. While that may be the future of photography—or maybe not given that actual production is virtually non-existent and many of the big players haven’t decided to start production of it—it’s not what we are using today.

Video

The 5D mark 3 will also share many of the video features of the EOS-1D X, including an SMPTE time coding, inter-frame and intra-frame compression and the ability to continue recording seamlessly across multiple files past the 4GB limit. It will however, retain the 29 minute, 59 second per clip recording limits.

The biggest feature, however, for the 5D mark 3 may very well be the way the sensor and DIGIC 5+ processor will interact to reduce noise and moiré patterns in recorded videos.

Battery Grip

The 5D mark 3 sees the introduction of a new battery grip for the platform, the BG-E11. The BG-E11 is built from the same magnesium alloy as the 5D mark 3, as well as being weather sealed to the same degree as the 5D mark 3.

Additionally the BG-E11 provides the typical vertical grip functions, i.e. a shutter release, main command dial, AF selection button, exposure lock button, m-fn button, and AF-ON button. Additionally Canon has finally seen the light as to include a multi-controller on the battery grip for quick AF point selection.

Unfortunately, what Canon has left out, is the ability to use LP-E6(N) batteries from the EOS-1D series cameras. This is doubly unfortunate since the BG-E11 loads from the side the same way a EOS-1D does, and there’s really no reason, that the LP-E6 batteries shouldn’t be supported in this class of body—much the same as the Nikon D800’s battery grip can use D4 batteries.

The Other Good Stuff

One way or another I’m just not going to be able to cover things to my complete satisfaction. For example, introduced with the 5D mark 3 is a new flash the 600EX-RT, which not only brings Canon’s pro flashes up to par with Nikon’s SB-910 in terms of zoom range (20mm to 200mm coverage, w/ UWA difuser and catch light card), and power, and features including gelatin filters and a dedictaed filter holder.

However, the big news on the flash front is the addition of RF remote flash and camera triggering and an updated ST-E3-RT remote trigger. What remains to be seen is how the Canon system compares with LPA Design’s ControlTL PocketWizards, with it’s reduced range (30M) and 15 device limit.

Additionally there’s also a new GPS unit for the 5D mark 3, and a new wireless file transmitter. Both of which don’t appear quite as impressive on the outset as they could; though the GPS module appears to mount and communicate though the hotshoe instead of via a wire.

Ergonomics/UX

Ergonomics and the user experience are my favorite points to discuss. Fortunately when it comes to the UX on the 5D mark 3, there’s not much to say. Canon took what I consider to be one of their best UXes, and improved upon it.

The UX on the 5D mark 3 traces it’s lineage back to the venerable EOS 40D—well it could trace it lineage further back than that, but the 40D is the first EOS body to put the 6 most used shooting controls (ISO/FEC, AF/Drive mode, and Metering mode/white balance) on the 3 dual function buttons placed between the top LCD and the main command dial.

In many ways, I’d argue that this layout is in fact superior to the EOS-1D’s control arrangement when it comes to being able to adjust settings while shooting.

The layout of the rear of the camera is very similar to the 7D. Menu and play back controls  are located along the left edge of the body next to the LCD. The power switch has been relocated to the top of the camera below and behind the mode dial, like the 7D. Finally, the quick control button has been moved to a more useful position near the rear dial.

All told, I’m finding it hard to find a lot to complain about when it comes to the UI of the 5D mark 3. The controls are laid out following a design that’s proven to be sound, and minor improvements have been made that address issues found on the predecessors.

The 5D mark 3 also feature the same extensive level of customization that the 7D did, which is even better.

The only real usability issue I have with the 5D mark 3, is the lack of the viewfinder nose relief that’s found on EOS-1D bodies. This isn’t surprising, since virtually nobody puts that kind of nose relief on their mid-tier bodies, but it is a very noticeable comfort benefit, especially for eye-glass wearers, and really just in general.

Now for the Hard Part, Waiting

Fortunately, the 5D mark 3 doesn’t carry quite the kidney-selling price the 1D X does, with an expected street price of $3500 in the US and availability at the end of March. Unfortunately, it will probably be perpetually back ordered for some time, as like the EOS 1Dx, the EOS 5D Mark 3 is poised to be a real serious camera for real serious shooters, and puts Canon right back in the game when it comes to features and image quality that they’ve been lagging behind Nikon for these past couple of years.

Which just leaves one question, I guess. Which is better the EOS 1Dx, EOS 5D Mark 3, or Nikon D800? Well the answer I believe all goes back to what you expect to do with the camera.

Between the D800 and the 5D mark 3, I feel the 5D mark 3 is a better all-around camera right now, but not necessarily better for specific uses. I feel this, mostly because of the D800’s anemic 10 frame RAW buffer and slow 4 FPS frame rate. If you ever have to shoot action, even something as simple as you kids running around the house or playing sports, the D800 is very definitely not the camera for you. However, when it comes to less action packed tasks, the D800 clearly has a resolution lead, and the anti-aliasing filter free E version a step up on top of that.

Between the 5D mark 3 and the EOS 1Dx, things get even more dicer. The larger pixels on the EOS 1Dx have the potential to produce even better images when it comes to noise and dynamic range. However, it’s handicapped by a 4 MP resolution deficiency, which means images just won’t contain as much detail. On the other hand, the 1Dx can hit ISO 200,000 and shoot at up to 14 frames per second; of course doing all that comes at an extremely steep price, twice that of the 5D mark 3.

Obviously, sports photographers are going to go for the 1Dx over the 5D mark 3, at least as their primary camera. However, the price makes things considerably more difficult when it comes to other markets. Photojournalists, for example, may elect to go with the 5D mark 3 as the image quality in normally necessary ISO ranges (up to say 12,500) isn’t likely to be all that different, and the when the output media is taken into consideration, not a factor at all.

If there’s anything I can say, things are turning around for Canon photographers. I was getting nervous there for a while, watching Nikon churn out camera after camera that had the right set of features and image quality to make it real compelling. Unlike the D800, the 5D mark 3 strikes a balance that’s closer to the D700’s great all-around capabilities, while still providing enough resolution to make big prints, and does so without ballooning file sizes and dramatically expanding storage requirements.

Suffice to say, I’m quite confident there will be an EOS 5D Mark 3 sitting on my desk as soon as I can get my hands one.

Images Courtesy of Canon USA

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