Camera Review: Canon EOS 5D Mark III

June 5, 2012

By Dan Havlik

As far as follow-ups go, the 22.3-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark III would seem more like an evolutionary “next step” than the revolutionary “leap forward” in camera technology its predecessor was.

You remember its predecessor, the HD-shooting, 21.1-megapixel 5D Mark II, right? It’s the camera first made famous by photographer Vincent Laforet, who used it to shoot his pioneering HD short, “Reverie,” back in 2008. And, oh yeah, the 5D Mark II was also used to capture an entire episode of the TV show House, which was the first time that had ever been done with an HD-DSLR.

So what does Canon do for an encore with the 5D Mark III? It gives the camera a new image sensor with a slight uptick in resolution, a better autofocus system, and a few other photo and video features along with a price tag ($3,499 body only) that’s nearly $1,000 higher than the Mark II originally sold for.

Don’t sound too impressed? Well, we didn’t either at first. That was until we got to try the camera out in a range of shooting situations and realized how much more versatile and polished its photo- and video-shooting chops were over its famous predecessor.

Is it enough of an improvement to justify ditching your old Mark II for the Mark III? We were on the fence, initially, but after lending the camera to photographer Jason Groupp to try out and then comparing notes, we started to change our tune.

“There isn’t any doubt in my mind that I’ll have to upgrade to this camera within the year,” says Groupp, who is currently a 5D II user. “The image and video files are amazing.”

Here’s more of what we both thought.

Clean Machine
The 5D Mark III itself doesn’t look a lot different from the previous model. Aside from some new buttons, its dimensions are within a fraction of an inch of the 5D Mark II and the weight is nearly the same at just over 33 ounces.

The 5D Mark III is more fully weather-sealed than its predecessor with enhanced dust and water resistance. Small upgrades abound including the metal alloy reinforcement in the slot door over the new dual CF and SD cards bays; a new 3.2-inch Clear View II 1.04 million-dot LCD; a dedicated start/stop button for the 1080p HD video mode at 24p (23.976), 25p and 30p (29.97) frames per second (fps); and a headphone jack to monitor audio. A lot of this stuff is now standard on most HD-DSLRs, which reminds you how ahead of its time the 5D Mark II was.

As with the Nikon D800, the Canon 5D Mark III is hardly a durable, all-sport beast like Nikon and Canon’s two respective “flagship” DSLRs: the D4 and 1D X. While the 5D Mark III’s 6 fps bursts are only half as fast as the 1D X, they are a significant upgrade from the 5D Mark II, which could only shoot 3.9 fps.

The 5D Mark III also just feels better in the hand than the previous model, with a more comfortable grip and improved balance.“When I’m shooting a wedding over a long day, I get cramps in my hand and I refuse to buy a battery grip for my 5D II. But this camera just felt a lot more comfortable, making an extra grip unnecessary,” Groupp says.

The 5D Mark III’s shutter was more responsive than the 5D Mark II while its new Digic 5+ image processor and 61-point High Density Reticular Autofocus System (with up to 41 cross-type points and five dual cross-type points) massively improved how this camera performed, whether recording 1080p video or just locking in on a subject in low-contrast shooting situations.

Along with being superior to the 5D Mark II’s AF system, which would often “lens hunt” while struggling to find focus in low light, the 5D Mark III consistently outperformed the Nikon D800 when focusing in dim conditions with the subject moving toward the camera. It’s clear Canon sweated the small stuff with the 5D Mark III, making it a more usable product for pros.

Image Quality
Most importantly, image quality has improved. While the 5D III only sports a bit more resolution than its predecessor (and trails the class-leading 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800), the new full-frame (36 x 24 mm) CMOS sensor produced excellent results in a range of lighting conditions. Pixel size is slightly smaller than the 5D Mark II (6.2 microns per pixel compared to 6.4 on the previous camera) but the 5D Mark III’s imaging chip now uses gapless micro-lenses designed to capture more light. We saw great results both at low and high ISOs (the sensor can shoot between ISO 50 and 102400 and has on-chip noise reduction).

Groupp compared his 5D Mark III photos, favorably, with E-6 slide transparency film from back in the day. “The images have lots of contrast and the dynamic range is incredible,” he notes. “I didn’t see any blowing out of the whites or losing detail in the blacks, which is one of the things you worried about with transparency film.”

He adds that where 5D Mark II RAW images sometimes needed work to recover detail, the new camera’s shots make that less necessary, thus saving time.

I was impressed with how the 5D Mark III significantly outperformed both the 5D Mark II and the D800 at high ISOs in low light. The 5D Mark III’s images at up to 12800 were some of the cleanest I’ve seen. With ISO 3200 to 6400 on the 5D Mark III, you really can’t go wrong, making this a great camera for everything from photographing wedding receptions in natural light to some photojournalism where you don’t want to use flash.

On the downside, when I zoomed in on my ISO 6400 RAW files, I saw less detail than in my D800 photos, and not just because that camera has more resolution. Zoomed in at 200 percent, the 5D Mark III’s high-ISO photos showed slightly smoothed out edges, which could be a result of the camera’s aggressive Digic 5+ processing engine. That is really nitpicking though since very few—if any—clients are going to pixel peep in this way.

Video Skills
Though the 5D Mark III didn’t make the jump to shooting 4K video as some had predicted—for that, you’ll have to save your pennies for the $15,000 Canon EOS-1D C—the improved quality of its 1080p HD video and more robust video capture feature set is significant.

Along with capturing 1080p HD, the camera can shoot 720p at 50/60 fps mode and VGA video at 25/30 fps. You can also now save movies at up to 29 minutes, 59 seconds (the previous camera had a 4 gb limit). There’s a H.264 video compression format available to speed up post-production work; Intraframe (ALL-I) compression for easy editing; and inter frame (IPB) compression for better data storage.

There are two methods of SMPTE-compliant timecode embedding on the 5D Mark III: Rec Run and Free Run. For audio, it’s the same internal monoaural mic. So if you’re a video shooter, you’re going to want to upgrade to a good stereo mic to attach to the stereo mic input. The 5D Mark III also adds manual audio level control with 64 levels.

All of which is to say that video options abound for the 5D Mark III, making it a far more sophisticated video tool than the previous model.

Where photographers who are transitioning to shooting video are really going to see the advantage with the 5D Mark III is in its low-light HD capture. As with its improved high-ISO shooting of still photos in low light, the 5D Mark III is a better video performer at high ISOs, allowing you to record crisper high-def clips in available light.

“It’s really going to help videographers since you’re able to shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200 without any concern about noise,” Groupp says. “With the 5D Mark II, at 1600 at 3200, you were looking at golf ball-size grain.”

The Bottom Line
Canon fans looking for “the next big thing” with the 22.3-megapixel 5D Mark III might have been disappointed after seeing its feature set which, on face value, seems only a modest improvement over the groundbreaking 5D Mark II from 2008. Meanwhile, photographers on a budget might have been irked with the 5D Mark III’s $3,499 price tag, which makes it more expensive than not only its predecessor but also its direct competitor, the higher resolution Nikon D800. If you’re on the fence about upgrading to the 5D Mark III, we suggest you rent one and try it out. This HD-DSLR may look like the previous model in design and features but it’s a very significant upgrade, offering improved still image and video quality and a laundry list of features and improved tweaks “under the hood.” No, the 5D Mark III is not a revolutionary camera like its predecessor was but it is a much more refined and useful imaging tool.

Pros: Improved overall image quality; better HD video quality and more robust feature set; more comfortable and durable, weather-resistant camera build; faster 6 fps burst speed; vastly improved autofocus system

Cons: Only slightly more resolution than four-year-old previous model; starting price nearly $1,000 higher than predecessor; built-in mic only offers mono sound

Price: $3,499;

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