Ever since Nikon began ditching low-pass filters and pushing the resolution of its high-end full-frame bodies to 36-megapixels, photographers have been waiting for Canon’s response. It came this summer, in the form of the 50-megapixel EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R, two full-frame cameras offering resolutions heretofore unobtainable outside of medium-format systems with price tags in the tens of thousands.
The two models are virtually identical except for one important facet: the 5DS has a low-pass filter, while the 5DS R features a low-pass filter cancellation effect to coax even more sharpness from your images at the risk of introducing moiré. Both are strong indications that the megapixel war is far from over.
While the 5DS represents an exponential leap in resolution for Canon DSLRs, it’s not a wholesale reinvention of the EOS system. As such, while there are some new features in the camera, they’re largely in the service of squeezing the most detail from the 50-megapixel sensor. For instance, there’s now a time-release delay for the shutter, adjustable in fraction-of-a-second intervals so your hand can be completely free of the camera before the image is captured to avoid even the slightest pixel-blurring vibration. We think our frequent collaborator, New Jersey-based photographer David Patiño, has it right when he tells us that it’s more helpful to think of the 5DS as a specialized member of the 5D family, not the successor to the EOS 5D Mark III.
To cope with the huge amounts of data generated from all those pixels, Canon packed the 5DS with a pair of DIGIC 6 processors and pared back its ISO capabilities. Where the 5D Mark III offers a native sensitivity range of ISO 100–25,600, the 5DS delivers just ISO 100–6400. It incorporates the 150,000-pixel RGB+IR exposure metering sensor that was introduced on the EOS 7D Mark II. An upgrade that Patiño tells us was definitely appreciated was USB 3.0 for faster tethered shooting. The SD card slot on the 5DS supports faster UHS-1 cards, and like the 5D Mark III, there’s a slot for CF media, too. Finally, you can now make time lapse movies in the camera—a neat, if niche, feature.
Canon essentially copied the exterior design of the 5D Mark III wholesale. That’s mostly good news, as Canon shooters can keep their grips, batteries, etc. while enjoying a huge megapixel upgrade. The bad news: Any design gripes you may have with the 5D Mark III won’t be addressed in this model.
The changes Canon did make are all under the hood. The tripod baseplate is reinforced and the mirror mechanism is now activated using a small motor and cam system—not a spring—to further reduce vibration. We did notice that the shutter of the 5DS is noticeably quieter than the 5D Mark III, which is certainly welcome. Another nice touch Patiño highlighted: Canon put tiny screws on either side of the USB port and included an accessory to screw in the USB cable to keep it secure during tethered shooting.
Unsurprisingly, the 5DS is capable of resolving a tremendous amount of detail, and affords plenty of latitude for cropping. We enjoyed sharp results using Canon’s 24–70mm f/4L IS USM lens, as well as Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.
Patiño used the 5DS for several product shoots and a headshot session, and when reviewing the final images at 100 percent on his 60-inch TV, they retained an immense amount of detail. Canon included a new “Fine Detail” picture control profile that functions like Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask. When selected, you can further adjust sharpness, contrast, threshold and other parameters to coax a few more details from your image. Comparing JPEGs shot with the Standard picture control profile and Fine Detail selected at its maximum strength did reveal a small degree of additional detail, and the colors produced when Fine Detail was selected appeared richer and a touch more saturated.
Even though the 5DS isn’t promising high ISO performance, we were pleased with the results we saw at ISO 3200 and 6400. In fact, we compared some higher-ISO images between the 5DS and 7D Mark II and found comparable results.
Where the 5DS couldn’t compare with, say, a medium-format system was in the dynamic range, Patiño tells us. In a headshot he took with the 5DS, he highlighted how some hairs would melt into the shadows where they might otherwise have been recoverable (so yes, we’re literally splitting hairs here). Flash sync speed was also an area where Patiño says he’s really reluctant to compare the 5DS with a medium-format camera. That said, for the kind of studio work he does, Patiño tells us the 5DS is ideal.
When Canon briefed us on the 5DS, company executives were forthright in stating that the 5DS isn’t aimed at videographers. Yes, it offers the same 1920x1080p30 capture found on the 5D Mark III and yes, that looks great, but it lacks a headphone jack and clean HDMI output. Suffice it to say, if you need a DSLR to do as much video work as still photography, the 5DS shouldn’t be your first choice.
At 5 fps, the 5DS is just a frame per second slower than the 5D Mark III, which is very impressive considering the resolution increase. You can store up to 31 JPEGs or 12 RAW frames before buffering kicks in. Switch to a 1.3x crop and burst mode jumps to 8.5 fps for 110 shots. While its pokey continuous shooting keeps the 5DS from being the ideal sports camera, the 61-point AF system acquires focus swiftly and tracks moving subjects well. We didn’t feel let down using the 5DS at the sidelines of a Little League game. Similar to the 7D Mark II, the 5DS’s AF menu divides AF settings into use cases to helpfully guide you to the appropriate choice.
Battery life measures in at a disappointing 700 shots, per CIPA standards. That’s far below the 1,200 shots promised by the Nikon D810 and also trails the 5D Mark III.
As we noted at the start, the 5DS isn’t the successor to the 5D Mark III. It’s too slow to tackle sports, and the low ISO and stripped-down video features make it a less versatile shooter than the Mark III. Cameras like Sony’s A7R II can offer both very high resolution still photos and 4K recording in one package. Nikon’s D810 is cheaper and offers a higher ISO range and clean HDMI output for video recording. None of those competitors, however, can touch the 5DS when it comes to sheer pixel count.
When our time was up with the 5DS, we asked Patiño the same question we put to him after using any pro-level camera: Would you buy it? As a Canon shooter, his answer was an unequivocal “yes.” For the kind of studio work that comprises about 90 percent of his still shooting, Patiño said the 5DS was the Canon he’s been waiting for.
PROS: High-resolution image sensor; familiar build and menu; USB 3.0; enhanced stability.
CONS: Poor battery life; limited video features; low ISO performance.