Review: Canon 5D Mark III

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The Canon 5D Mark III is currently the second highest DSLR in Canon’s lineup, topped only by the 1D-X. Sitting at the business end of their Enthusiast range that probably doesn’t do the Canon 5D Mark III justice as it really is a camera for the professionals. After the camera launched in March this year, it’s been a long road to finally get it in for review, so expectations are extremely high.

If you’ve been to a birthday party, sporting event or public event of any kind in the last few years, you’ll have noticed a dramatic increase of DSLRs in the hands of consumers. This has been driven by the reduced price tag of the entry-level cameras and as a 650D owner, one of the biggest questions I had for the 5D was what do you get for the extra money required for a Pro-level camera.

There’s also another burning topic amongst the industry right now and that is the introduction of super smartphone cameras. With the likes of the Nokia 1020 and it’s 41MP Pureview camera, people are starting to ask if carrying a big heavy DSLR is still necessary or is it possible to get away with a high-end smartphone that fits in your pocket. We’ll take a look at that question, but you’ll need to read through the end to hear the result.

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Hardware

From the moment you pickup the 5D Mark III, you know the jokes are over, your business hat is firmly on. The 22.3 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor passes photos through the DiG!C 5+ processor and produces some simple stunning photographs. You do have to work to get the perfect result, but this camera isn’t pitched at entry-level users and demands you know your stuff when it comes to the art of photography.

A 61-point autofocus system is mildly helpful, but often goes unused as you kick into manual mode to achieve the best depth of field effects. When shooting difficult outdoor scenes, you’ll often come up against harsh shadows that hide the detail you need for the perfect shot and for that, the Inbuilt HDR mode is perfect. Of course you get ultimate control over the +/- exposure compensation along with the bracketing amounts. Once enabled through the menu, just fire that shutter and the camera does the rest. I love that Canon give you the option to retain each iterative exposure, or just the collated image.

While the positioning of controls on the 5D differed slightly from 650D I was used to, it still feels very much like a Canon. After spending just a couple of hours with the camera I was comfortable with the new locations for commonly used functions. While the location of most controls are positioned well, I think there is an opportunity to combine a number of dials and buttons and simplify things. Just because a camera is in the pro line, shouldn’t mean the camera is more complicated to use than it needs to be. The best example of this potential to simplify is the wheel and joystick nub accessed by your right thumb. These two controls should be combined into one, multi-function control that is plays dual-duty.

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The display on the top right provides information like ISO, white balance, focus point, exposure compensation and more. I found I never used this, the critical information like shutter speed and aperture is provided in the viewfinder which is exactly where you need it. I did find at times the viewfinder wasn’t accurate to nail the exact focus point of the lens. What appeared to be in focus was later revealed as being slightly out of focus when examined in post. On a positive note, the viewfinder is that it does give you a 100% view of what your taking, unlike some models that only give you half the picture.

No live view – In many ways it feels like the 5D Mark III could benefit from some of the more consumer based features like live preview available in cameras like the EOS-M. This skips the guessing game of the settings vs outcome and shows you live how the resulting photo will turn out if you were to hit the shutter now.

In the smart phone world we tend to think of the top of the line models as having every feature under the sun, but unfortunately things don’t work the same when it comes to the photography world. While some Canon cameras do include a GPS chip for geotagging photos and video, that’s not the case for the 5D Mark III. That means you’ll need to pickup an external unit like the GP-E2 GPS Receiver.

When it comes to flash photography professionals will customize their flash configuration to the event. With no flash built-in, your only option is to go external using the universal Canon mount on top, or remote wireless flashes. If you want to add an external microphone at the same time, you’ll have to get creative with a bracket stemming from the tripod mount, it’s possible, just feels clunky.

When it comes to shooting video, the 5D really excels, with it’s amazing low-light capabilities and high ISO settings, some of the best (non-4K) video you’ve seen has been shot with a 5D. It’s capable of 1920×1080 at 30p/25p/24p or kick it down a notch to 1280×720 and you can shoot 60p/50p. Clearly as we look to the future the expectation would be that the 5D Mark IV would be capable of shooting in 4K, but for now 1080p is great for most things, particularly if it’s ending up on the web. Something I’ll never agree with is that shooting video is done using the (non-touchscreen) 3.2” LCD display at the back, while the viewfinder is fine for stills. I’m not sure what the thinking is here, but I wish Canon would give users the option to choose. While most video may well be shot on a tripod, it’s not always the case.

In terms of storage, the 5D continues it’s multi-storage options with slots for both SD and Compact flash cards. Of course if you have the opportunity for tethered capture directly into Lightroom, this doesn’t concern you, but if you have to transfer via USB, the port is only USB2.0. As someone with a Macbook Air and a SD card slot, this is by far the fastest method of sneaker-netting your media to your laptop. The other great thing about SD cards, it that they’re also supported by lower end cameras as well, where as Compact Flash is typically only supported by the pro gear these days.

The size of the camera is significant at 152mm x 116.4mm x 76.4 mm and weighs 860 grams without a battery or lens. With the Lithium Ion LP-E6 battery on board and the EF 24-105mm lens, the weight is up to more than 1.6kg. While this may not sound like much, I did find my arms getting tired after carrying it around and shooting for a few hours. Most modern phones tip the scale at less than 200grams so by comparison, the weight is substantial.

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Lenses

Canon Australia provided two red ring lenses to show off the camera’s capabilities. The versatile EF 24-105mm zoom lens and the EF 100mm Macro lens for close ups. Both lenses have their strengths and weaknesses and should be used in different situations. This is the strength of any DSLR, to customise the configuration based on the environment, distance, lighting and speed of action.

Those looking to step up from a entry level or enthusiast level Canon camera will be happy to know that any of your prime EF lenses will snap on just fine to the professional 5D body. Unfortunately your entry-level lenses marked with a white dash, won’t fit. Given you’re the budget required to buy a pro-level body, you should be pairing it with pro-lenses anyway. That said it is strange you can take pro lenses (red rings) and use them with lower-end cameras like the 650D.

This begs the question of how much is the camera body the determining factor in great photos and how much is down to the lenses used? The answer is that great glass will always result in better photos, but with a larger image sensor capable of capturing ore detail and at higher fps, the camera does play a big role in the results. The ability to process light, in particular low-light at high ISO is also determined not by the lens, but buy the body.

Personally I find the macro pretty limiting but that could be said for an fixed lens. I often find myself at events or in situations that mean I can physically locate myself in a perfect position and that’s where a zoom lens like the 24-100mm works great and would definitely be my pick of the two.

Software

Since it’s release earlier in the year, the engineers at Canon have released a number of firmware updates and I highly recommend you check for the latest as it adds some nice features like clean HDMI output for video and boosted AF performance for low-light and telephoto shooting.

If you’re a photographer, one of the best pieces of software you can own is Adobe’s Lightroom. It allows you to import, manage and publish that growing catalogue of photos. With the 5D Mark III you can fire of photos at a speedy rate of 6 frames per second. Combine this speed with the ability to capture RAW + JPG photos and you’ll notice that hard drive space disappearing very quickly.

In preparation for this review I needed to filter my collection to display only photos taken with the Mark III and with smart collections, that was a breeze. Included in my catalogue is photos taken by more than 6 different cameras, to get to a list of just the 5D photos, I created a smart collection that filtered by camera where the name field contained the string 5D and got straight to the photos I needed.

The reason I’m spending so much time on software in a camera review is that these two go hand in hand. The camera and the photos you shoot are just the first step in a production pipeline. That pipeline will feature an output to the web, or print and knowing that destination will help you setup the camera from start to optimise for that result.

Gallery

Check out a gallery of photos that demonstrate the capability of the camera and lenses in different environments. Check out the gallery on Flickr – http://flic.kr/s/aHsjNF7nsZ

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Price and availability

The Canon 5D Mark III has been available since March this year. After around 6 months on the market, there are some decent opportunities to find the camera at a decent price. One of the best places I’ve spotted is DWIDigitalCameras which have a 5D Mark III body only for $2,939 or with the 24-105mm lens for $3,615. A quick search of GetPrice has the prices ranging up to more than 4 thousand, so you’ll definitely want to look around.

Overall

So what about that DSLR vs smartphone camera question? Can you ditch the big camera for the phone in your pocket? Sometimes. While reviewing the Lumia 1020 I did go to a couple of events and decided to test this theory. It turns out for most of what I need, a high-end smartphone camera could get me by, but this was one specific smartphone. Only with the 41MP camera of the 1020 can you zoom after the photo is taken and still end up with a decent photo, most smartphone images will be a pixelated mess.

DSLR’s are far from dead as their flexibility and ability to adapt to different environments and still capture that perfect image in stunning detail is something you can’t ignore. Sure there are tradeoffs like carting around a heavier camera, probably a bag with additional lenses, maybe a spare battery and even a tripod. Before an event that sounds like an absolute pain, especially if you’re taking a flight to get to the event. On the way home when you’re memory card is full of amazing photos of high enough quality to be on a building sized advertising banner, you’ll be grinning ear to ear and happy you took the serious camera.

Overall the 5D Mark III is rightly at the top of the Canon offering, the image quality and speed available make it a fantastic camera for professionals. The downsides are not to be ignored, lack of live view, gps, touchscreen or fold out display, aspects of this expensive camera feel like your getting short changed rather than the best of the best in photography. When it comes to video, this camera excels, forget about dedicate video cameras, DSLRs have surpassed their quality and performance with short films and even some scenes of movies now shot with the 5D.

  • Shteeeve

    Did you write this in September 2012? The 5D mkiii came out in March 2012.

  • http://techAU.tv techau

    You’re right, the release date was March 2012, not 2013.