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5D Test: Verdict

I went to B&H yesterday to pick up a monopod for work and a few filters for myself. As will not surprise those who know me, I couldn't resist playing with the new toys when I was there, which in this case meant the new Canon 5D. For those who don't follow camera news, the 5D is revolutionary because it offers a full 35mm sensor in a body that, unlike the Canon 1ds MarkII, both costs and weighs less than a minivan. In other words, it has no field-of-view crop on your lenses.


"But Ryan," you say, "you shoot Nikon!" Well, yes (though more accurately I shoot F-mount, since I also pack a Fuji S2), but the excess tribalism of the photography camps depresses me. This isn't Mac vs. PC -- while digital photography has a strong element of geekiness, geekiness isn't the point. Creating an aesthetic is, and to that end we are all limited far more by our imaginations than the tools we use. It's no coincidence that those who are truly, rabidly devoted to one, those who say "The D2X is crap!" or "I don't see why anyone would want full-frame!" are almost always deeply mediocre photographers. If I had the money, I'd shoot Nikon AND Canon (and Hasselblad, and large format…) A good camera is a good camera, and for certain markets, it appears the 5D is a great camera.


But only certain markets. From what I see around the Net, a lot more people think they need this camera more than they actually do. If you've been shooting Canon film cameras for many years and have a lot of money, this is a dream camera for you. If you're a top-level pro shooting with a 1ds and need a lighter backup, this is your lucky day. But this a pro-level imager, and even though it *sounds* like that's something everyone should want, it's not. First of all, if you don't have a collection of fantastic lenses and don't want to buy them, don't even consider this camera. Its 13 megapixels will point out every flaw in your lens, and its 35mm format will have severe quality loss at the edges and corners unless the light is coming through the best glass. And I don't just mean L lenses: I'm not going to name any names, but there are a few L lenses that perform quite poorly with this camera, at least among the zooms. A 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 IS would be a fantastic set-up, but the total cost of that kit is more than $7,500. That's for people who need this to go out and make money; if you have that much to take pictures of your kids, I want your job.


Primes fare much better; in fact, I took these pictures with the dirt-cheap 50mm f/1.8, which is plenty sharp enough for it, even if it did re-introduce me to the world of hideous bokeh. This set-up was amazingly light for such an imager, which again reinforces the idea that those this camera best serves are pros who want a lighter full-frame camera or want to move from film.


Some points:


•The image resolution is phenomenal. Even viewing images 1:1 on a monitor, they look great, which is like looking at film through a 40x loupe and seeing razor-sharp results. This is a great camera for high-level stock photography -- you could blow these pictures up VERY large and have them still look good.


•You definitely get best results on this camera from RAW mode. The highlight recovery is impressive, vastly increasing the camera's dynamic range. Frankly, most of the JPEG modes look a bit weird, which many some owners have aready noted. This adds another cost -- lots of memory. Shooting RAW JPEG gave me 18 shots on a 512MB card.


•The ergonomics are similar to the 20D, although it's slightly more comfortable to hold. I personally greatly prefer Nikon ergonomics, but 10D and 20D shooters who have been holding out for a model like this should be happy.


•The LCD is great, but even in B&H it looked dim. I can see how people are having trouble with it in the sun.


• In the end, it was a nice feeling to have a 50mm act like a 50mm. And that is quite a viewfinder.


Would I buy one of these? I'd be seriously tempted as someone who wants to shoot weddings, given its high ISO qualities. But for what I need I think the 1DMarkII would be a far more versatile camera, and for most types of shooting 12MP really is overkill. There's a reason people still shoot landscapes in large and medium formats but you rarely see someone pull out an 4x5 camera at a rock concert. For reasons not worth enumerating, a 35mm-sized sensor is only a marginal improvement to me, but there are many, many shooters for whom it is not. Have fun.


See where this picture was taken.

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Taken on October 6, 2005