Points in Focus Photography

Image: CanonUSA

Mixed Feelings on the Announced 5DS and 5DS R


I’m a Canon shooter, and new Canon cameras are always an interesting time for me. On one hand, I’m always somewhat excited about the prospect of cool new hardware. On the other hand, there’s always the grudging feeling that whatever they release, it isn’t going to release something that is as good as it could or should be.

I should note, I don’t have a advanced/prerelese copy of the 5DS or 5DS R, these ramblings are my impressions about the UI and design based on the material that Canon has made publicly available to the press, as well as through interviews with sites like DPReview. My speculation and analysis here may prove to be completely incorrect in many ways.

Canon has now announced their new generation of high resolution cameras, the 5DS and 5DS R. The aim, so far as I can tell, is to plug the hole in Canon’s lineup for a high resolution body left by the discontinuation of the 1Ds mark III and the 5D mark III being only 23MP.

At 50.6 MP the 5DS series pose to provide medium format levels of pixels. Lots of pixels are nice, but what really remains to be seen is whether they can deliver quality, let alone medium format quality, in any of the other areas.

Let me get right to the while elephant in the room, dynamic range.

Dynamic Range

Anybody who’s paid any attention to the digital camera market space for the last couple of years has probably seen that Canon’s cameras lack in terms of peak dynamic range. As things currently stand they sit about 2 stops behind Nikon and Sony’s systems.

This is an issue that has frustrated me immensely for the last few years, not so much because of the lacking dynamic range but because of the culture and issues that surround it. On one hand, I’d certainly love to have the same performance out of Canon’s sensors as I could get out of Nikon’s. It’s easy to subtract dynamic range should I want to, but I can’t readily add more after the fact.

On the other hand, for the kinds of images I shoot, or more specifically at the ISOs I have to shoot at to get motion freezing images, which aren’t extreme in the slightest by today’s standards (400-1600), the differences in dynamic range aren’t really worth talking about anymore.

So what does this have to do with the 5DS system?

As things stand I’m still skeptical that there will be any improvement in dynamic range on the 5DS system over it’s predecessors. It appears that Canon is using the same style of readout with off chip amplifiers and ADCs as they’ve used in the past. I find this to be troubling given that the off chip ADCs and limited readout’s are, in my best estimation, the biggest contributing factor to the limited dynamic range at low ISOs.

At the same time, there may be some slim chance of hope for a slight improvement over say the 7D mark II or 70D.

One of the biggest contributors to noise in ADCs are the speed at which they have to operate. Slower ADCs should be able to support lower noise levels. At the same time, this is where the 5DS system differs from the any of the current Canon cameras.

While Canon has increased the resolution by 2.5 times over the 7D mark II, they’ve also doubled the number of read channels and halved the frame rate. As a result each of the read channels has between 30-40% less pixels per second to deal with.

Of course that also might not make a difference.

What I think I find so frustrating is that Canon should, in theory at least, be able to extract a better performance in so many ways. The best solution would be a lot more on-sensor ADCs, which should put Canon back right there with Sony et al. Another option, might be add a slow readout mode that doesn’t try to read the sensor as fast as possible.

In any event, given the conservative statements that Chuck Westfall has made to DPReview, I wouldn’t expect a dynamic range monster, though I would be pleasantly surprised if the 5DSR could claw it’s way into the upper 12-stop range if not the low 13-stop range.

Resolution, Cropping, and Storage

The biggest “news” of the 5DS series is the resolution, nearly a full 40% higher than the D810. At the same time I’m not really sure that resolution alone is all that interesting. Well the second big news is the addition of the R model that doesn’t have a traditional anti-aliasing or optical low pass filter.

The positive size of all those pixels is that it supports much bigger prints. At 50.6MP, the 5DS series will be able to deliver a 12×18 at over 480 PPI, and a 20×30 at 290PPI, that’s simply a staggering amount of data. Moreover, the resolution allows cropping to 7D mark II size images without compromising on the resolution of those images.

Speaking of cropping, one feature that Canon touted in their marketing literature is a 1.3x and 1.6x crop mode. Unfortunately, Canon appears to have implemented these the same way as they’ve implemented the aspect ratio “crops” in their previous bodies. That is they are soft crops saved as metadata, at least that’s the most logical conclusion that can be inferred from the published image size and burst data.

On the positive side, if you need to recopose the crop in post, you can. On the other hand, there’s little advantage to turning on the crop mode other than to get a bounding box in the viewfinder for the image. You don’t get either an increase in buffer capacity, frame rate, or images per card on account of using the crop modes.

Having mentioned images per card, that brings me to storage.

The 5DS series follows Canon’s current trend of having a Compact Flash and SDXC card slot. This certainly provides flexibility but also makes it hard to maximize performanc with two UDMA7 CF cards (est 140MB/s writes) for redundancy. Unfortunately, with the raw files being in the neighborhood of 60MB, at UDMA 7 card at 140MB/s writes, will only 2.3 frames per second from the buffer. A full 15 frame buffer would be cleared in about 35 seconds.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that both UHS-1 SDXC and compact flash are a bit long in the tooth given the application in question.

CFast 2.0 is built on the same form factor as compact flash, but uses the serial-ATA protocol instead of the old parallel one. Going with CFast would provide the ability to support cards that can write as fast as 440MB/s. In fact, being able to sustain 440MB/s writes would allow the 5DS series to shoot in raw mode at 5 FPS indefinitely.

CFast is also quickly being adopted in the professional video market segment both as an internal storage media (Arri Amira, Black Magic Ursa, etc.) and in external recorders. As it stands, there’s already much more uptake of CFast 2.0 than there was of XQD that Nikon uses in the D4 bodies.

Likewise, the UHS-2 standard for SD cards has been out for some time, with cards already being available from various manufacturers. Current UHS-2 SDXC cards support upto 250MB/s writes, which too would make for much quicker buffer clear and longer continuous shooting.

While the 5DS series probably isn’t going to be hurting for storage performance now, it certainly would have been nice to see it support the newer faster card formats give the file sizes.

Viewfinder Display

Canon has “improved” on the Intelligent viewfinder in the 5D mark III with the Intelligent Viewfinder II similar in many ways to the one in the 7D mark II. Unfortunately, I don’t think Canon has quite figured it all out yet either, as they’ve made a number of changes to the viewfinder in the 5DS series from the 7D mark II that I don’t think improve the situation any.

There seems to be a curious thought process inside Canon as to what information is useful to put in the viewfinder and how best to represent it.

From a usability perspective the viewfinder needs to be carefully curated to show what the photographer needs to know to get a shot without being cluttered or overloading them. In many ways I consider the 1DX to have had a exemplary example what needs to be presented and what doesn’t. The 1DX provides indications of metering mode, shooting mode, AE lock, flash read/flash exp. lock/HSS, shutter speed, aperture, white balance adjustment, exposure compensation, remaining shots on card, ISO, focus confirmation, and metering for ambient and flash, image type (raw/jpeg), buffer and battery remining. AF points and the VF grid could also be superimposed over the image as desired.

Outside of the AF point and VF grid, none of these are superimposed on the image area itself, which means they’re always readable regardless of lighting and subject matter. Nor do they distract or cover up part of the composition that you’re looking at.

The 7D mark II added many of these indications to the Intelligent Viewfinders, though some of them are less than ideally displayed as overlays instead of LED indications. Specifically metering mode, shooting mode, white balance mode, drive mode, AF mode, and iamge type (jpg/raw) are all drawnover the bottom of the image where they can interfere with the view through the viewfinder

The 5Ds series carries most of the design notes from the 7D mark II, but simplifies and rearranges things some. Canon has removed the overlaid shooting mode indication, replacing it with a battery status. They also have removed the overlaid AF indicator, going back to only a led light in the status panel. Additionally the 5DS series also includes the independent viewfinder level graphic from the 7D mark II.

Obviously new to the 5DS series are the 1.3x and 1.6x crop overlay frame indicators.

Body, Ergonomics, and Controls

Physically the 5DS series are 5D mark III bodies with upgraded internals. Canon skipped bringing the programmable AF selection lever up from the 7D mark II, and are reusing the same BG-E11 grip form the 5D mark III for the 5DS.

One interesting improvement to the 5DS series is the ability to customize the quick control screen to include only the functions that you deem necessary or desirable. Unfortunately, until there’s documentation available for the cameras, it’s unclear what those settings will be.

Presumably the 5DS series will continue to include the high level of customizability that’s seen in the 5D mark III, 7D mark II, and 1DX. Though again, documentation is limited. One area where I’d like to see customization improved is in what functions can be assigned to various physical controls.

One area I find to be slightly deficient in the 5D mark III is the limited number of assignable buttons that are accessible from the vertical grip, and the even more restricted functions that can be assigned to them.

One of the strengths of Canon’s UI has always been the ability to quickly and easily access the ISO with the control right behind the main dial. Unfortunately shooting vertically this is no longer easily accessible, and under the current assignment system ISO can only be added to the set button or AF area selection lever (7D mark II only, which the 5Ds series lacks). Ideally I’d like to be able to put the ISO on the M-Fn button when shooting vertically.

Wrapping up my now quite long first thoughts, the 5DS series is something of a mixed bag. There are certainly a number of areas where it appears that Canon could have made nice sized improvements in the user interface and functionality. Where they have improved things, the improvements generally appear to be more positive than negative.

Then again, as a whole the camera is very much a specialist tool to deliver maximum resolving power at potentially the cost of high ISO performance and even more dynamic range. Of course the actual performance of the sensor will have to remain in the land of speculation until there are units available to objectively test.

Images courtesy of Canon USA.

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