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Review of the Canon 5D Mark III – Should You Upgrade From The 5D Mark II?

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I was able to pre-order the Canon 5D Mark III and received one of the first models to ship out from Canon in March, so I’ve had three months to use the camera in a variety of photographic settings and purposes.  First and foremost, I do product photography – so most of my experience with the camera has been using with a Canon 100mm macro lens under diffused daylight temperature balanced lighting.  But, as a Photo Journalist, I tend to do many different kinds of photography – you’ll see that in the sample photos I post.

Prior to the Canon 5D Mark III, I shot with both the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 7D.  Each excelled at tasks which the other other did not.  The crop factor sensor and better auto focus system on the 7D made it a natural for action and sports shooting.   The full frame sensor and low-noise output made the 5D Mark II my go-to camera for landscape and portrait type work.  Having worked with the new 5D Mark III, I can confidently say the Canon produced the best of what both the 5D Mark II and the 7D had to offer, and placed it all in a single body.  Here are a main stand-out features of the 5D Mark III:

  • 22MP full frame CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-25600 standard, 50-102,800 expanded
  • 6 fps continuous shooting
  • Shutter rated to 150,000 frames
  • 1080p30 video recording, stereo sound via external mic
  • 61 point AF system
  • 63 zone iFCL metering system
  • 100% viewfinder coverage
  • 1040k dot 3:2 LCD
  • Dual card slots for CF and SD

Let me state right up front that I’m pleased Canon didn’t really up the megapixel count all that much in the 5D Mark III – it’s about one megapixel larger than the 21mp sensor found on the previous 5D Mark II.  For my uses (and those of most other users of this camera), putting a 30 or 40+ megapixel sensor in this camera would only cause the camera to generate larger image files which take longer to download, process, and take up more system resources for storage.  Personally, I was hoping that Canon would focus more on the image quality without significantly adding to the image file size, and Canon has indeed done just that.  With the addition of the 61-point focus system from the Canon 1DX, the 5D Mark III leapfrogs the 7D in auto focus capability (the auto focus system was perhaps the biggest weakness of the 5D Mark II).   Combined with an enhanced frame rate speed over the 5D Mark II, the 6FPS 5D Mark III is now much more well rounded, and much more useable for action and sports photography as compared to the Mark II.  Here’s a few samples of my high-energy dogs playing in our back yard – I used my 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM.  Note that when you use the 5D Mark III with an F2.8 or brighter lens, the five central double-cross-type sensors become available in the auto focus system.  I’ve never had a session of shooting my dogs playing with so many usable, in-focus images:

In terms of macro/product photography, the continued advancements in sensor light sensitivity makes the 5D Mark III more capable across the entire ISO range.  Clearly if needed, I can shoot in lighting situations that were not previously possible, but even better for me is the low noise levels in lighting conditions I’m most likely to have in the work I do:

DSLR technology is starting to mature – with each new model, there seems to be fewer and fewer areas with which true and meaningful improvements can be made.  Where we’ve seen quantum leaps forward in the past, now we see incremental hops forward.  When this happens, you begin to see manufacturers incorporate “enhancements” which at best add no value, and at worst do more harm than good.  Canon has added several features which surprise me – features which would seem to be more useful in a consumer level camera than one which is designed as a professional tool.  I’ll point to the in-camera lens correction, and in-camera HDR processing modes as examples of such questionable features.  I think its reasonable to assume that if you can swing the $3499.00 retail price of admission for the 5D Mark III, you probably can swing the cost of the current iteration of Photoshop.   Photoshop allows you to do these sorts of post-photo processing tasks where they (in my opinion) belong – post photo.  Adding them as in-camera features only makes the camera menu system that much more cluttered with options for functions I can better perform with a keyboard, mouse, and 27″ monitor.  C’mon Canon – the 5D Mark III is a professional camera.

VIDEO

I’ll keep this short and sweet – essentially the only real upgrades the 5D Mark III has over the 5D Mark II are the controls.  The 5D Mark III enjoys the same convenient video button functionality found on the Canon 7D.  All of Canon’s significant video technology improvements have been reserved for Canon’s entry into the cinema and broadcast TV market with the Cinema EOS line.  I’ll confess that I do little video work (mostly product reviews for my YouTube channel).  As such, I had my Canon 7D set up for video duty for most of the last year, simply because it had easier to use controls.  For my needs, it worked fine and now that the 5D Mark III has the same 7D like video control layout, I have even less need of my Canon 7D.

5D MARK III COMPARED TO THE 5D MARK II

A lot of folks are probably wondering if the Canon 5D Mark III produces images which are substantially better than those of the 5D Mark II.  To that I would say that at relatively low ISO, the difference between the image quality produced by these two cameras is negligible.  The 5D Mark II is a fantastic camera.  If you’re a landscape, fashion, or wedding photographer already shooting with the 5D Mark II then quite honestly there’s little reason to upgrade.  It’s not until you start shooting moving objects, or you start pushing the ISO up that you begin to see a lot of benefit to the cost of upgrading.  For me, the upgrade paid for itself.  In the past few years, to do the type of shooting I do professionally, I really needed the capabilities provided by two different cameras – the Canon 7D and the Canon 5D Mark II.  With the Canon 5D Mark III, those needed capabilities were largely consolidated into a single camera.  As such,  I sold my 5D Mark II, my 7D, and a lens I only used on the 7D which netted me more than the $3499.00 price of the 5D Mark III.  But here again, DSLR technology maturation is really starting to show in the camera industry.  In the case of both the 7D and the 5D Mark II each provided “killer features” and capabilities which were an order of magnitude greater than what had come before, and with the capability came much excitement.  As much as I like the 5D Mark III and am pleased to not have two have two separate camera bodies to lug around, I have to admit the sense of excitement just isn’t there with this particular product launch.  Any way you look at, not much has really changed – here’s the 5D Mark III (left) compared to the 5D Mark II:

Ergonomically speaking, there’s not a noticeable difference in the ergonomics, weight, and form factor between these two camera bodies.

Turning to the backs of the camera, you’ll see the 5D Mark III (again, left) has a very different control layout, with hard button video functions very similar to the Canon 7D.  You also see that the 5D Mark 2 had an old school anti-reflective coating which gave the screen a very blue hue.  Whatever the 5D Mark III is coated with, it doesn’t exhibit the same phenomenon:

Both cameras have a mode selection dial at the top left of the camera body – on the 5D Mark III, this dial is locked and can only be moved if you press the button at the center of the dial.  If you’ve ever picked up your camera expecting it to be in the same mode when you last handled it, only to find later the mode selection wheel got bumped effectively ruining your shots, you’ll find this feature a welcome edition.  Here again though, a pro will check their settings before shooting…and a pro is more often going to change between settings.  An amateur leaves the camera in “A” or “P” mode and is upset when the mode wheel is in any other setting.  A pro will often change (for example) between aperture and shutter priority, and may initially find this feature maddening.  Initially, I hated this “feature”, but I’m retraining myself to press the little “safety” button before I switch the dial.  But I still feel as though this “feature” is a concession to the amateur/consumer market who have different needs than professionals.  This is a feature that, at best, belongs on a Rebel, not an xD camera in my honest opinion.

I’m very pleased that the Canon 5D Mark III has a 100% viewfinder – I couldn’t understand why the 7D had one, but the much more expensive 5D Mark II didn’t.  Here again, if the borders of my composition were critical, then in some cases I’d reach for my 7D because with a 100% view finder “what you see is what you get.”

Unquestionably, the new Canon 5D Mark III is a fantastic camera, and the best Canon DSLR I’ve owned to date.  If it suffers from anything it’s that DSLR technology is maturing and real innovation is getting harder to come by.  This means that the value proposition to upgrade isn’t what it once was with a new Canon DSLR product launch.  But it also means that in the quest to sell more cameras, if the engineers can’t come up with true innovation, they’ll add “features” which may in fact diminish from the camera’s usability for some (the menu system seems bloated and unwieldy compared to the relatively simple men structure from the 5D Mark II).  I like the 5D Mark III, but Canon will have up the ante more that what we’re seeing here or I may start skipping product cycles.

Here’s some links to both the 5D Mark III and the 5D Mark II on Amazon.com so you can compare features and price:

Canon EOS 5D Mark III 22.3 MP Full Frame CMOS with 1080p Full-HD Video Mode Digital SLR Camera (Body)

Canon EOS 5D Mark II 21.1MP Full Frame CMOS Digital SLR Camera (Body Only)

About John B. Holbrook, II
John B. Holbrook, II is a freelance writer, photographer, and author of ThruMyLens.org, as well as LuxuryTyme.com and TheSeamasterReferencePage.com. *All text and images contained in this web site are the original work of the author, John B. Holbrook, II and are copyright protected. Use of any of the information or images without the permission of the author is prohibited.

  1. Chris Rodgers says:

    Great review. One question, do you find any noticeable difference in image quality between the MK II and MK III? I’ve seen a few comments from people who have upgraded from the MK II to the MK III complaining about a lack of sharpness from the MK III.

  2. I’m not seeing any noticeable loss of sharpness – I think if you took two pictures of identical subjects in identical settings (one with each of the two cameras) you’d have a hard time telling which camera took the picture. In my evaluation, the 5D M3 picture quality only substantially shines over the 5D M2 in the areas where it’s clearly better equipped – shots where the lower noise/higher ISO sensor come in to play, or action shots where the better auto focus come into play. So depending on how you use it, you may see very little difference, or you may see a lot.

  3. Thanks for the great review! Do you notice a difference in AF speed between the 5D2 & 5D3 with center-point on moderately paced moving subjects, i.e. kids? Or just with faster paced action, like sports… or maybe dogs running around the backyard at 100 miles an hour. 🙂

  4. Chris – from what I’ve seen, the 5DM3 is faster across the board in AF speed.

  5. I shoot mostly sports/action pictures. I am trying to decide between the 7D and 5D Mark III in terms of auto focusing capabilities. This may not be the best place to ask this question however the participants here certainly have the expertise.

    I am an amateur photographer but try to take professional grade pictures. Thanks for the help.

  6. The 7D is the superior sports/action photo taker. If that’s your primary consideration, the 7D is a great choice.

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