I’ve only ever used one range of digital camera - the Canon 5D series. Before this, I shot exclusively on medium format film, and it was only with the release of the 5D mark II when I finally decided to jump on the digital band wagon and hold on tight for the journey ahead. It’s accurate to say that I have never looked back, and since then I have kept in the 5D family - probably the most successful series of digital cameras ever made.
I thought it may be useful to take a look at each one to find out its merits and shortcomings, as each of them still have a place in any serious photographer’s arsenal.
5D Mk II
A groundbreaking camera when it was released, as it was the first DSLR to feature HD video recording. While this may not have appealed to stills photographers, putting the video aside, it was still a hugely upgraded camera from its predecessor - the original 5D. The resolution was almost double, the screen was bigger and brighter, the burst rate higher, and it had Live View. Put simply, there was no rival to the Mk II, and this was the camera which finally seduced me in the digital era.
Although now almost 10 years old, the Mk II was still my main camera until relatively recently. All the images I currently sell through my gallery were shot on this camera, so there’s no reason to dismiss it as a serious piece of kit just because it has been superseded 3 times now. For Landscapes, it is still a very capable camera, but for anything which requires autofocus you could argue it is starting to show its age. For anyone wanting to get their first full frame camera body, you could do a lot worse than find a decent Mk II on eBay. Good examples are listed all the time, and you can expect to pay around £650. The main thing to look for is the shutter actuation count. Never buy one unless you know what this figure is, and don’t buy one over 100,000 as this would imply it has had reasonably heavy use during its lifetime and may not last too much longer. Canon manufacture the shutters to take around 150,000 shots, so anything over this, and you are theoretically running on borrowed time before a potentially expensive repair is needed. Having said this, I know many photographers who have taken their cameras (various models) well over 250,000 without any problems. I have only ever heard of one camera which had a shutter failure, and this was a 5D III from a photographer who had an unhealthy (and totally unnecessary) habit of bracketing every shot he took, so that the camera was taking 5, 7 or even 9 shots every time he pressed the button.
If I was told that I could never have another camera and had to use the 5D II for the rest of my days, I wouldn’t be too upset at all. Although now dated, it was so groundbreaking at the time, that it still packs a punch when it comes to taking great quality images.
5D Mk III
After the unrivalled reputation of the Mk II, the long awaited Mk III was a bit of a let down in my opinion. Not because it was a bad camera (it’s one of the best ever made), but because the improvements over the Mk II were minimal. The main advancements were in the number of focus points and the burst rate - both great if you shoot sports or wildlife, but I don’t, so I didn’t think it was worth spending another £1000 to get what would essentially be the same camera. As the Mk II was now being discontinued, the last remaining new stock was being sold off cheap, so I snapped up one of the last models to come off the production line. The reason for this was because I knew that my original MK II was unlikely to last me until the release of the MK IV, so by buying a new one I set the milage counter back to zero.
The Mk III isn’t a great camera. It’s a fantastic camera. You could say it was the best all round camera ever made, endorsed by the fact that it has been the workhorse of most pro photographers over the past 4 years. New ones are still available, and as they are now being discontinued, you can pick them up for around £1,700, or good condition used ones for around £1,300. However, if you are buying a used camera, seeing there is little difference between the Mk II and MK III (unless you shoot sports or wildlife), then I would always lean towards the Mk II as it represents much better value for money at present.
When this camera was announced, I wondered why I would ever want 50 mega pixels of resolution in an image, and decided to wait for the MK IV to be announced instead. However, time dragged on, and I got to the point where I really needed a new camera and the only options were the MK III or the SR. At least the SR would give me something different from my existing camera, so I decided to go for it. I have to say, that when used correctly, this camera is mind-blowingly impressive. The difference in detail between this and the Mk II or III is enormous, and once I had seen the results I was convinced I had made the right choice.
Note how I said “used properly”, because if you don’t know exactly what you are doing with the SR, you won’t notice much difference between this and the other 5D’s. For example if you use the popular 17-40mm f/4 L, or the 24-105 f/4 L lenses, then they are simply not sharp enough to make any noticeable difference on the SR. Put the 16-35mm f/4 L IS on it however, and be prepared to have your breath sucked from your lungs.
When I was in the Dolomites earlier this year, I used the 5Dsr to take a landscape shot of a mountain scene with the full moon rising above the summits. I was using a 70-200mm f/4 L IS lens and the moon was very small in the frame. When I zoomed in to the final image on the back of the camera, the detail in the moon was stunning. All the craters and mountains were as clearly defined as if I had shot the moon full frame on a 600mm lens. I then used the same 70-200mm lens on my MK II to see a comparison, and to put it frankly, there was no comparison. No craters, no mountains, no detail - just vague shadowing. This is what the extra 30 mega pixels of resolution give you.
Using Live View for manual focusing is a joy with this camera too, as the magnification goes to x16 (as opposed to x10 on all other models) which allows the finest of adjustments to be made. This is the stuff of dreams for any user of Nikon, which are notoriously awful for manual focusing - to the point where it is not even practical on many models.
Each file on the SR is around 60 mega bytes (depending on how bright the image is), so you can eat up a 64GB card with ease. This is the only real downside to this camera - the file sizes are mahoosive! You will probably need to upgrade your computer if you want to edit images from this camera without feeling like you’ve gone back to the 90’s in terms of processing speed.
Another point worth making about this camera is that it forces the user to be exact with their technique. This is a good thing for me, but it’s not for everyone. Use any lens at f/16 on this camera and there is no point in having it. I try to use most of my lenses around f/5.6 when using the SR as diffraction becomes an issue when used at anything less (as opposed to around f/11 on the Mk II and Mk III). This camera also demands excellent tripod technique - again a good thing as far as I am concerned, as it encourages all the i’s to be dotted and the t’s to be crossed when working in the field.
New ones can be bought for around £2,500. There are few used ones on the market as no one in their right mind would ever want to sell theirs. If you have the lenses to support this camera, and want the very best image quality possible, then this is your only choice.
5D MK IV
This is everything I had hoped the MK III would be but never was. A noticeable 8MP increase in resolution, better high ISO performance (usable up to 6400 with the right subject before things start to look ropey), and of course 4K video. Although video won’t excite everyone, for those who are interested, the difference in detail is as marked as comparing the MK II with the SR in stills resolution. Put simply, it’s leagues better. 1080p HD works okay for subjects close to the lens or when rendered reasonably large in frame, but as soon as you start asking smaller details to be represented by only 1920 pixels from side to side isn’t enough to render everything in as much detail as is often needed. I was commissioned by a hotel to shoot a ten second video clip of their property from a distant viewpoint. The purpose was to showcase the location of the property on their website, but due to the property being so small in the frame (in the composition they wanted) they were never satisfied with the results. Even I questioned whether the camera was working properly when I saw the results for myself, but the MK III and SR gave exactly the same fuzzy product.The first thing I did when I got my MK IV was to reshoot the video for this hotel, and all of a sudden it looked amazing, with the client as happy as someone who was very happy. When a camera makes the difference between a happy and unhappy client, it is worth its weight in gold.
The video only uses the central 4000 pixels of the sensor, which for wide angle work isn’t ideal, but for wildlife it is perfect. Using a 500mm lens on this camera for video gives the equivalent focal length of around 750mm, which can only be a good thing.
The menu on the MK IV has become a little overwhelming, with 90% of it unnecessary. The instruction manual for this camera is just shy of 700 pages, and that’s just the English manual! I would go as far as saying that if you need the manual for this camera, then this is the wrong camera for you. It’s a bit of a waste of trees to be honest. This however is the only downside to the Mk IV. Some would also say the price is also a negative, but this camera represents the best value you can ask for. New ones are available for just under £3,000 and they are worth every penny. Without doubt, this is currently the best all round camera on the market.
Looking back at the 5D family as whole, they are excellently weather sealed, built like tanks, deal with sensor dust better than any other camera I have ever used (cue Nikon envy!), and will go on and on delivering results time after time. Excluding the original 5D (which is too old to be relevant today) there is now a 5D model to suit almost any budget. If you’re looking to enter the full frame market, or are just looking to get your first DSLR, then you would be making a mistake not to consider welcoming one of this family into your life.