Canon 5D Mark II: great mind, shame about the body

I haven’t been without a Canon SLR camera for well over 30 years. Sure, there were times when I wondered whether I’d backed the right horse. And, in the days before digital, it had essentially become a two-horse race: Pentax had lost their way; Yashica/Contax were simply lost; and Minolta were going their own way, which proved to be up a dead end. On the other hand, Nikon had superb lenses and the Nikon F4 was a camera that grown men drooled over. In fact, given the choice of a night with Claudia Schiffer or an F4, most photography nuts I knew at the time would have opted for the F4 on the basis that it was as close to Heaven as one could get while still surviving the night.

But Canon, bless their socks, just seemed to have the innovative edge: autofocus, in particular, was where they shone. Then image stabilization in lenses. Both significant attributes for a wildlife photographer. And, finally, when it came to digital, there they were leading the pack again. The Canon D30 was, and remains, a masterful camera. Forget that it was made of plastic, had a minuscule 3 megapixels and cost me $9000 New Zealand dollars: per pixel, I don’t think there has ever been a better camera.

Fast forward to 2009: the Canon 5D Mark II finally arrives in New Zealand. I had been hankering for a full-frame digital camera ever since leaving the days of film behind. I’d seriously considered its predecessor, the 12 megapixel 5D, but for perverse reasons, known only to my therapist, I had opted to spend a similar amount of money on a 7.4 megapixel Leica Digilux 3 that, in contrast to the 5D, had a viewfinder that was more “viewtunnel” than an instrument that was likely to aid finding anything.

First Impressions – the body

It was with some excitement, then, that I opened the box of my brand spanking new 21 megapixel 5D Mark II. And immediately I was struck by something that, if not disappointment, was pretty close to it. While the Leica has real character, a personality that you either like or hate (and in truth I love my Digilux 3 despite its many failings), the 5D Mark II exudes little by way of personality. It’s not that it is similar to earlier Canon offerings like the 20D, really it is a 20D, albeit one with a bigger brain. If the Leica were Madonna, and the 20D were Bette Midler, then the 5D Mark II is simply Bette Midler with an IQ of 150.

It’s quite a big, hefty beast, but the DNA from the Canon xxD line is apparent in every curve. That’s not an especially bad thing given that such a design has served not only the 20D through 50D well, but also the original 5D. And, one of the best things about the 5D remains one of the best things about the 5D Mark II: the huge bright viewfinder. This is one attribute that should not be underestimated. It makes the whole process of photography so much more seamless, so much more enjoyable. An area that has received some obvious attention in the Mark II is the LCD screen. It’s a full three inches and the resolution has been boosted to 920,000 dots.

Theoretically all that should be good – and it is – but it could be better.

When using the camera in bright light, it is sometimes hard to read the information displayed when looking through the viewfinder. This is especially problematical when trying to dial in exposure compensation and being unable to see the scale very easily. I’m not sure whether this is something that affects only me, but it is not something I’ve experienced with any other camera: presumably there is something not quite in sympathy with the eyepiece and the way I put my face to the camera. At any rate, it happens sufficiently often that I find it unnerving and annoying.

As for the LCD screen: as good as it is, I find it really frustrating that Canon still insists on presenting a histogram scrunched up in one corner with a micro version of the image scrunched up in the opposite corner and a whole lot of unnecessary information cluttering the bottom of the screen. Additionally, the black background makes it very hard at times to discern the margins of the histogram, making it difficult to know whether you’ve nailed the exposure or not. It’s a method of presenting information that Canon has clung to for years, since at least the 20D. Quite honestly Canon, I don’t need to be reminded every time what the size of the image is, the date or the time, the parameters used with picture styles, or the type of metering used – but I do need to know precisely what the histogram looks like. Why not superimpose a large histogram across the whole image and take advantage of all that screen real estate?

Other significant attributes of the camera have not really been improved. The autofocus, once an area owned by Canon, is average rather than outstanding. Essentially it remains more-or-less the same 9-point autofocus system that first appeared in the 20D. And while it served the 5D well enough for three years, it is a shame that Mark II users will get no real improvements in this critical area of photography for a further three years or so. In good light the autofocus is actually quite fine. But in low light, it starts to fall over and I find that it will not always lock onto a subject. Quite an irony given that the 5D Mark II, which like its predecessor is marketed as a “low light camera” that performs brilliantly at high ISOs, should be paired with an autofocus system that cannot live with the performance of the rest of the camera at such light levels. What is the point of having noise-free photos at ISO 3200 if you cannot focus the camera to take the shot?

While we’re on the body: it is firm with a lovely tactile feel, but it is tight rather than tough. It’s a great shame that Canon refused to put real weather sealing in a camera that is otherwise perfect for landscape photography and should ideally be able to live outdoors with impunity. There have been reports elsewhere of unnaturally high failure rates when these cameras are exposed to rain or snow, and, while I have no evidence to offer either way, it is galling enough that I should feel this is a camera I need to pamper, a camera that I feel reticent about asking out whenever the weather is less than benign.

First Impressions – the mind

Digital cameras are essentially sensors for receiving light that are coupled to small computers. Various bits of a camera’s body and its associated lenses may affect the ease with which you can capture a particular image (e.g. whether it is in focus, whether it is correctly exposed, and whether it is sharp across the frame), but once the shutter has closed, what you get out the other end is over to its mind: the way the sensor responds to the incoming light and the way its computational brain treats those responses. I am ready to forgive a lot in a camera’s body if the image quality is up to the mark.

Since getting the 5D Mark II, I’ve used it pretty much exclusively with the 28-70 f2.8 lens. The first images I took were a revelation. Using my usual unpaid model – Inca, my labrador – I was struck by the detail, colour rendition and sharpness of the images out of the camera. I had quickly fallen “in admiration,” if not yet “in love.”

Continued use has left me a little more ambivalent. The metering is not as accurate as I would like, with there being a tendency for the camera to overexpose under certain conditions. As with some other professional cameras, images straight out of the camera tend to be detailed but on the dull side and in need of some basic post-processing. Canon does include what it calls “picture styles,” whereby the user may predetermine the output of images by adjusting sharpness, saturation, contrast and color tone. My brief foray into shooting with highish ISOs produced pleasing results with virtually no noise apparent at ISO 800 or below. I am not generally a high ISO shooter, but given the lack of image stabilization on the 28-70, it was useful to be able to confidently bump ISO up when photographing in early morning light – so as to avoid issues of camera shake – while still being able to keep the aperture stopped down for a large depth of field.

In another part of my life, I am a filmmaker. But, I have to confess that the video abilities of the 5D Mark II do not especially excite me. In my experience, one cannot do either video or stills photography justice if one attempts to do them at the same time. Putting video in a professional stills camera is like putting a decent trunk in a Porsche Boxster: you could, and you might even argue that there’d be some advantages, but should you really bother?

Anyway, I will check out the video and high ISO performance in more detail at a later time. For the moment I am left with a camera that I respect. In some areas, it has abilities that go beyond anything else I have used. But I don’t love it – at least not yet. My initial impression is that it is a very good camera, but it falls short of being the great one that it could have been.