REVIEW: The Canon 5D Mark II & The Canon 7D Compared
For as long as I’ve been shooting DSLR cameras there has been a debate as to whether a DSLR with an APS-C sensor (like the Canon 7D) offered the same level of image quality as a 35mm full-frame sensor camera (like the 5D Mark II). Let me take a moment to elaborate on the difference between the two sensor types before I delve into my compare and contrast of the Canon 5D Mark II and the Canon 7D, as the concept is critical when examining these two cameras.
Conceptually, a full-frame sensor camera is the easiest to understand – it is a DSLR camera with a sensor which captures images in the same dimensions as a traditional 35mm film based camera – 36mm x 24mm. Full-frame is the standard sensor size for professional image capturing, so the most high-end, feature-packed (expensive) professional DSLR camera bodies are normally built around a full-frame sensor.
An APS-C sensor can be a bit trickier to understand, but I’ll do my best to explain it in very simple terms. An APS-C sensor is smaller (and therefore in theory cheaper to manufacture) than a full-frame sensor – approximately 22.5mm x 15mm. As compared to the full-frame sensor, an APS-C sensor is smaller by a factor of 1.6. Now here’s where things get a bit tricky when you attempt to compare images produced by these two sensors – APS-C sensor images are not only smaller than those produced by a full-frame sensor, they’re also more magnified. Why? Well, an APS-C sensor is often called a “crop factor” sensor because relative to a full-frame image, an APS-C image is “cropped” by a factor of 1.6. Now, think about what happens if you take a photo image, and crop a small section from the image, creating a second “cropped” image of the first. Relative the first image, your “crop” is a smaller area, but the area is now more magnified as compared to the same area in the original, uncropped image. So a “crop factor” APS-C sensor DSLR has a clear disadvantage relative to the full-frame sensor camera – the full-frame sensor camera can capture more “real estate in frame” than an APS-C sensor camera. But the APS-C sensor DSLR also has a clear advantage – added “zoom.” Stated differently, If I use a telephoto lens which zooms to a focal length of 100mm on a full-frame DSLR, I’ll get a maximum zoom of 100mm. But the same 100mm telephoto lens on an APS-C 1.6 “crop factor” DSLR gives you an effective focal length of 160mm at the long end (100 x the 1.6 crop factor = 160mm) – a big advantage! There are other differences between these two sensors of course, but I don’t want to get too “off topic” by diving too deeply into the differences between camera sensor sizes. You can certainly Google the topic if you’d like to learn more – but here’s an excellent article on the topic.
Canon has been producing full-frame DSLRs longer than any other camera manufacturer, traditionally found in their 1Dx line of professional bodies. Canon has traditional equipped their consumer (Canon Rebel series) and their “prosumer” DSLR bodies (20D, 30D, etc.) with APS-C crop factor sensors – to position them at a lower price point in the market place. So very early on in DSLR history, a sort of “Chevy vs. Ford” debate has taken place between fans of full-frame sensor bodies, and fans of APS-C sensor bodies. Which brings us the comparison of the Canon 5D Mark II (full-frame body) and the Canon 7D (APS-C body).
THE CANON EOS 7D
If you’ve read my article on How I Became A Pro Photographer, you’ll know that most of my professional career has been spent shooting with Canon “prosumer” level bodies like the 20D, the 40D, and now the 7D – all of which have an APS-C crop factor sensor. Why? Because macro product photography of wrist watches is my “bread and butter” in the professional photography work I do. And the added magnification provided by the 1.6 crop factor of the APS-C sensor was in many cases very handy. Cost was also a huge factor – I simply didn’t need to pay four or five thousand dollars for Canon’s top-of-the-line full-frame sensor cameras. The prosumer level bodies I was using generally cost around $1,400.00 to $1,600.00 brand new, and were certainly getting the job done. It wasn’t until Canon introduced their prosumer level full-frame camera body (the original Canon 5D) that I seriously began thinking about going full-frame. At the time, I was shooting with the Canon 20D, and as soon as Canon Professional Services (CPS) had a 5D body available for loan out, I ordered one. And I liked it. A lot. I could clearly see a difference in the sharpness of the images the 5D produced. Still, the Canon 5D was quite expensive when it was introduced – about $3200.00. Canon soon introduced the 40D, which produced images very comparable in quality to the 5D, so I stayed with the APS-C prosumer line. About a year after the 40D came out, Canon launched the 5D Mark II. Full-frame, incredible low noise, high ISO performance, and Canon’s first DSLR to offer HD video. I actually bought one not long after they launched, but returned it – I decided to buy a couple of much needed lenses instead. A few months later the Canon 7D came out, and I sold my 40D and upgraded to the 7D. And I love it – it’s great. And if my professional work was still mostly relegated to macro product of wrist watches for magazines, it would likely meet my needs just fine. Since the 7D has been well-reviewed by folks more qualified than I to evaluate it, I’m not going reinvent the wheel. I think the folks at DPReview do a fine job at camera reviews, so here’s a link to their Canon 7D review. Instead, I’ll focus on what I like about the new features on the Canon 7D. Firstly, for the macro work I do, 18mp is great. It allows me to crop a relatively small portion of an overall image, and still maintain enough pixel integrity for a publishable image. The 100% viewfinder is also fantastic for macro work. In a wide-angle landscape shot, you might not miss much from a 98% viewfinder. But it’s far more important on a macro scale to have a “what you see is what you get” viewfinder experience. I do some action shooting now and again (car racing, boat racing, plane racing…a lot of racing) so the 8 FPS provided by the dual Digic 4 processors has proven very handy. And if you do high-speed action shooting, you’ll really appreciate the 19 point autofocus system on the 7D. But the real icing on the cake here is the truly phenomenal low-light sensitivity and noiseless high-ISO performance the 7D provides. With my Canon 40D, I generally didn’t push the ISO above 800 – the digital “noise” beyond that level in the 40D just wasn’t acceptable. On the 7D, 1600 ISO is very usable. Even 3200 ISO can produce very acceptable images, albeit with some noise reducing post processing. In most situations, I keep the camera on the Auto ISO setting and simply don’t even worry about ISO – that’s pretty impressive.
So what doesn’t the 7D do very well? Wide angle can be a bit of a challenge. For years, the widest lens I shot landscape shots with was the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4.0 L USM Lens. And I often found myself either backing up a lot to get my desired shot in frame, or simply not getting the shot I wanted. Why? Keep in mind on an APS-C sensor camera, the wide end of the Canon 17-40L is an effective 27.2mm, which is not incredibly wide. So I purchased the Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Lens. The problem with this solution is that it is A)another lens to buy and carry, and B)The 10-22 can be a bit “fish eyed” at the wide end. Which eventually drove me to purchase the Canon 5D Mark II.
THE CANON EOS 7D COMPARED TO THE CANON EOS 5D MARK II
When I think about the 5DMII, I tend to think about it relative to the 7D because I first owned the 7D. This thinking is somewhat backwards in that the 5D Mark II (or 5DM2 as many call it) came out well before the 7D. Regardless, the two cameras are in many respects mirror images of one another and have much the same capabilities and functionality. Once again, I’ll point you over to DPReview for an excellent in-depth technical assessment of the 5D Mark II. In terms of what I like about the 5D Mark II, much of what I like about 7D applies here. The 5DM2 has a single Digic 4 processor and a 21 megapixel CMOS sensor so notwithstanding the difference in sensor size, the theoretical image quality output is quite similar. Both camera bodies also have very similar (lovely) 3″ display screens on the rear of the camera. The 5DM2 does have a higher ceiling when it comes to low-light/high-ISO capabilities – up to ISO 6400, which can be menu expanded to an amazing ISO 25600. Where the 5DM2 really tends to outshine the 7D is in the portrait and landscape areas of photography, so it’s no surprise that far more “pro” photographers shoot with a 5DM2 (or other Canon full-frame body) than with the 7D. Apparently there’s more paid work shooting fashion models and weddings than say, shooting sports and…watches. The full-frame sensor in the 5DM2 just really shines in these applications. But for sports and action, the extra reach provided by the APS-C sensor, combined with the added focus accuracy of the 19 point autofocus system found on the 7D make it a clear winner for this application. To be clear, you can use the 5DM2 for sports and action – it can shoot at a respectable 3.9 frames per second (compared to the 7D’s 8 FPS). It’s just not the ideal tool. Likewise, you can certainly use the 7D to do portrait and landscape work. But again, due to the limitations of the APS-C sensor, it’s not the best available choice. Given the nearly $1000.00 difference in retail price ( Canon EOS 7D: $1599.00, Canon EOS 5DM2: $2499.00) the 7D does have a few features I’m rather surprised the 5DM2 doesn’t. For instance, the 7D has a 100% view finder, while the 5DM2 has a 98% viewfinder. And the 7D has a dedicated button for switching to video mode, making going back and forth between photo taking and shooting video much easier. It’s also probably worth noting that the 5DM2 doesn’t have an integrated pop up flash like the 7D, though given that the 5DM2 is geared more toward being a pro studio camera, this is no big surprise. The 7D also has a couple of other features, like being able to wireless control up to three flash guns, and an it has an electronic “level.” One thing that both camera bodies do very well is video – never before has such high-quality HD video been available for such a relative low cost. Again, the 5DM2 came out before the 7D – and before the 5DM2, Canon didn’t really know just how positively the market would react to HD video on a DSLR. So not a lot of thought went into the control scheme. The HD movie recording control scheme on the 7D however was revised and better executed. When both cameras were first released, the 7D had some advantages with manual control while shooting video, and with frame rates, but subsequent firmware releases have greatly leveled the playing field. I have to admit that I haven’t done as much as I’d like to with the HD video capability in both cameras – that’s an entirely new skill set for me to master. But I’ve shot some video footage here and there and am always amazed. From what I’ve seen, most “film makers” looking for the most cinematic experience choose the 5DM2 over the 7D for video due to the lower noise, full-frame sensor.
So which would I ultimately recommend? The 7D or the 5D Mark II? The Law of Diminishing Returns is in full-effect here – you pay a lot more to get incremental increases in capability during certain applications with the 5D Mark II. That’s not to say I’m recommending one body over the other – I think each is a tool that can deliver optimal results in depending on the application. For me, once I wrapped my head around this point, it became clear that for the ultimate in flexibility and maximum image quality, having both bodies available is a huge benefit. Think about it: If I carry both bodies with me on a shoot, I can keep a wide lens like my 17-40 on my 5D Mark II for landscape shots, and put my 24-105 on my 7D for an effective focal length of 38.4 – 168 for when I need zoom. So I’m walking around with an effective focal length range of 17-168 without having to change a lens! Sure, there are single lenses out there which give you that kind of focal length and more – but you compromise image quality to get that kind of focal range in a single lens. The other nice thing about having both is, I can set one camera (the 5DM2 usually) to video mode, and shot stills with the 7D. Or potentially I could have cross-cut coverage using both camera for video. And because the 7D and the 5DM2 are virtual clones of one another operationally, it’s very easy to shoot with both cameras. You’re never disoriented when you switch from one body to the other – which is important because a moment of hesitation “in the field” means lost shots. So if you can cost justify it, get both the Canon 7D and the 5D Mark II.
In terms of image quality, I referenced above that “on paper” the 5D Mark II has certain image quality advantages over the 7D, by virtue of its full-frame sensor. But realizing the real-world advantage will greatly depend on the output of your photos. For the longest time, I really didn’t see much of a difference between the images the two bodies produced in terms of image quality. But then I realized that most of my image outputs are fairly small – images set into articles in magazines or online. Which is why the 7D makes such a great “photojournalist” camera. Now, once you start printing photos to about 8×10 or larger, then I think the richness and detail which the 5D Mark II is capable becomes more apparent to the trained eye. So again, a fashion photographer, gallery shooter, or wedding photographer is really going to benefit from what the 5D Mark II has to offer.
So there you have it – my take on the 5D Mark II vs. the 7D. In the final analysis, why get just one or the other?
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.