Wedding Photography and the New Canon 5D Mark III

A familiar high ISO torture test with the Canon 5D Mark III

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The Canon 5D Mark III has finally arrived.  Is it a worthy successor to the 5D Mark II, or is this just a re-branding of a beloved camera system offering little payout for the updated pocketbook pricetag?

I finally got my hands on a 5D Mark III for the weekend (a way too short weekend) and tagged along to a wedding to give the new system a try.  I was really looking forward to the upgraded low light sensor sensitivity, as every wedding I have ever been to seems to skimp on the light.

I have to say that first and foremost, I am a photographer.  Not a videographer, not a hybrid, not a multi-media tech dabbler.  I approached this camera as a still camera, not a video system.  That being said, I did shoot a few test videos, and played around with the camera’s video settings; more on that in a future article.  In the meantime, to test this newest Canon in its native territory, I took it along to a wedding, and a nice, dimly lit wedding.  No choice but to pump up the ISO and hope for the best.  Read on for the full experience…

Feature breakdown (in no particular order):

LCD Screen – nice and bright.  I like it.  Easy to read and use.

Auto focus – it worked surprisingly well.  I still use a Canon 1DM2 for lots of things, and that camera still has one of the best autofocus systems I’ve ever used.  The new 61 point scaled down 1DX focus system is easy to use (if you’ve used a Canon camera before).  I had no troubles selecting points in the heat of battle, and, and there are a good range of “center” and “off center” focus points to choose.  The 61 points do cover a nice range of the viewfinder (I’ll always want more).  I am anxious to try the 1DX and see what an extra $3000 buys in auto focus.   The additional focus points over the 5DM2 are a great, and much needed, addition.  If you’ve ever cussed at Canon for it’s 9 point M2 system, you’ll be happy with the upgrade.  For some people this won’t be a big deal, but if you use auto focus on a regular basis, you’ll come to appreciate the added speed and coverage.  Tracking and time-to-lock-on seemed much improved over the M2 (which had one of the worst tracking systems I’ve ever had the displeasure to use).  While I don’t have any F/A-18s flying over today to really give the focus tracking a test, the auto focus system did pretty well with fast walking bridesmaids, and even in extremely low light was able to grab something (often with the help of the auto-assist beam on my 550EX flash unit).

Buttons (overall) – responsive to the touch without having to jab them with excessive force.  The button layout has changed, and some people that shoot movies will be unhappy with the new layout (like the relocated zoom-in control for manual focus check) the important bits were still there for me to use easily (shutter speed, aperture, focus point).  Reviewing images is mostly the same with the play button and the trash can.

What is missing from the buttons is a light up feature.  Trying to use the camera in low light without knowing which button is which is a comedy of errors.  I didn’t have a flashlight with me at all times last night, but I needed one.  This is unacceptable.  Give us some LED buttons so we can use the camera skillfully in the near darkness.

Grids – It’s about time.  While not as customizable as the extensive overlay system of the other camera in our test studio this month, the $50,000 Phase One IQ180, it’s a welcome change to have some grid lines in the viewfinder without swapping out the camera’s focusing screen.  The lines can be turned on and off in the menu, so if you don’t want them, you don’t need to have them.  A welcome upgrade.  (This could be major for product photographers).

Rating system – As long as we’re comparing the IQ and 5D, it’s interesting to note that the medium format Phase One system offers a built in rating system with its IQ camera backs and so does the Canon.  It makes sense on the Phase One.  It was nice to review the image on the screen and tag and sort.  It made life easier in Capture One Pro.  On the Canon, it seems a bit gimmicky.  Sure, during your down time you can sort and rate your images, swapping your full CF cards back into the camera and getting a jump on the game.  But it’s also just as easy to dump the files into Adobe Bridge and rate and delete with a bit more screen real estate.  To each their own, but I would rather have a button that I can use more often.

The ratings do translate to Bridge, so if you do make use of this feature, your time won’t have been wasted.  At the time of this writing, 5D mark III RAW files were not yet Lightroom compatible.

Q – What is this button?  I never used this, I’m not even sure what it is.  It’s time to read the user manual for the first time.  (Which means the camera is intuitive enough to get down to business without having to read the crunchy bits first). (UPDATE) – It’s a Quick selection button, allowing you to get at a few things “quicker”.  It limits the action to your right hand, and in theory will give you access to the “needed” functions with a touch of the button and a flick of the thumb stick.  For my first time out, it was a wasted button, but I can see the potential.  One of the nice things about the Canon 5dM3 is that there is something for everyone.

Info button – changes what information you see during image review.  Press it twice to see histograms.  This is a great feature, and simplifies some of the button mashing necessary on previous Canon cameras.

ISO – I have to admit that, during this test, I purposely shot the ISO to high numbers.  There is noise, but that is to be expected.  I was extremely happy to see that there isn’t a ton of noise, and what is there isn’t unpleasant.  If you ever shot film, you’ll start to appreciate that the noise reminds you of film grain.  Changing ISO is the same.  But the “auto” ISO is an interesting feature.  I used it in bright and low light, and most of the time (but not all of the time), it gave me some pleasing results.  I still thinks it’s best to take charge of the camera and dial in your settings manually, but in a quickly changing lighting environment this might save your butt.  Or it might put you in the fire with wickedly over and underexposed images.

Menu layouts – much the same as the 5DM2, with some additional auto focus menus thrown in.  I didn’t like that I had to wade though each and every menu page to scroll across the tabs.  Most of it you don’t need all the time.  It would be nice to use a menu system that let you jump from tab to tab before calling up each sub-page.  Also, I don’t see the auto focus (AF) menu as being something that I would need very often, so it would be nice if it were moved to the end of the run instead of it’s place at position number two.  I want to format my cards, change my file resolution, check my battery status, and occasionally turn the grids on and of.  That stuff should come first, and the rest should follow.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot of scrolling to get from file size to formatting.  (Maybe this is where that Q button should be appreciated).  The scroll wheels better be extra durable, because they are going to get a lot of usage, and wear and tear.  On the plus side, the Mark III, like its predecessor, allows photographers to set up a custom menu that is relatively easy to access.

Files – At the time of this review, Adobe Photoshop can’t read them.  I converted my first batch of files to DNG, and Adobe Bridge CS5 was able to open these files.  Further research on the Adobe Labs website found a beta Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) update that gave me the ability to read the files, which at the same time seems to have disabled most of my third-party plug ins and filters.  I can’t blame Canon for this (or can I?), but it would be nice if camera manufactures played nice with the software makers so that camera updates could happen before or simultaneously with camera releases.  Are you listening Canon?  Nikon?

Feel and form – when I first picked up the camera, my first impression was “plastic”, but that feeling faded with a little bit of use.  The CF card door was a bit stiff, but this is probably because it’s a brand new camera.  The camera is small.  It’s too small to fit comfortably in my hand, probably since I’m used to the bigger “more pro” cameras.  But, I am going to speculate and say that buying the add-on vertical grip would make it fit my hand better.  I like a bigger camera, but my movie friends tend to appreciate the small size.

Joystick – it took me a bit to get used to using the new joystick for moving around the zoomed image, but after a little practice, it felt natural and provided a quick and easy way to pan your viewfinder.  I didn’t break it off with my meaty hands, so it’s durability is good.

Software – Our demo camera didn’t ship with any Canon branded software, so I can’t answer this question.  In past tests, EOS utility has proven to be useful for camera control and loading of custom picture profiles.

HDR and multiple exposure – I haven’t tried this mode yet.  HDR has never been something that I have been interested in, so I know that this “feature” wasn’t aimed at me, but I can see some potential uses, especially in interior photography.  Multiple exposure mode, count me in, as long as it does what I expect.  Both of these features will get the treatment in the future, so check back for the update.  It’s interesting to note that the camera can process an HDR internally and record the separate bracketed exposures for later processing on a big screen, allowing a convenient in-camera preview without sacrificing an eventual fine-tuned image.  And you can save just your merged file, or the merged file plus the three primary files for later processing on your own choice of HDR software.

Headphone jack – welcome addition for the movie folk.  I did try this out and it was nice to be able to hear what the camera was hearing.  The built in mic was decent, but I’m sure all the movie makers will be adding audio externals of their own.  The camera offers a familiar 3.5mm mic input.

Sensor size – While I would have preferred an upgrade to 25 megapixels, the modest size increase is an improvement over the 5DM2.  I feel that the biggest improvement is to the sensitivity levels, allowing your ISO to climb.  The 5D3 also offers the helpful option of both medium and small RAW files, helpful to limit file size when large resolution is not needed (and a feature conspicuously missing from the super high resolution Nikon D800).

Locking selection knob – The mode selector knob now has a lock button that has to be depressed in order to change to a new mode  (manual, aperture priority, etc).  Users allegedly complained about accidentally bumping the knob and switching out of their chosen mode, so the lock button was added.  I never had a problem with this on the 5DM2, but I don’t dispute that it can happen.  The new knob won’t turn, but I almost twisted the darned thing off because I wasn’t used to having to press the button.  Don’t make that mistake.  There is no way to disengage the lock permanently. 

What’s missing –

GPS unit – there isn’t one.  But Canon will happily sell you one for about $350.  Shame on you, Canon.  Even Sony is making this a standard feature.  It may be a gimmick, but it’s a gimmick I want without paying extra.

Intervalometer -damnit, Canon!  We need this, we want this, and you need to give us this Nikon standard.  Stop making us pay extra for all the stuff that is standard fare for other cameras.

Vertical grip – movie shooters are probably glad it’s not there, but still photographers want and need it.  While I would have liked the vertical grip to be included as part of the camera, I know that this is another down-scaled feature to distinguish it from its big brother, the Canon 1DX.  If the less expensive camera was almost, but not quite, identical to the more expensive model, why would anyone buy the 1DX?  Fortunately, the vertical grip is available to photographers that like such things.  We’ll take a look at the 1DX in a future article.

Summary:

The Canon 5D mark III is not a perfect camera, but it’s a good camera, perhaps a great camera, depending on what you photograph.  Advertising photographers will probably like the megapixel increase, although this can add time to your workflow, but if you need more, there is always the Nikon d800 (or the Phase One IQ180).  For me, I wanted 25 megapixels.  That seems like a great compromise between my advertising and everyday usage needs.  (Does anyone really need 30+ sized vacation photos?).

I like the upgraded features, but I don’t like the upgraded price.  Is it worth the extra money over the 5DM2?  Possibly.  Everyone’s mileage will vary.  Movie makers will probably appreciate the new movie tools, especially the audio monitoring tools.  Still photographers will appreciate a decent auto focus selection system.  I appreciate its overall feature upgrade over the 5DM2.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I feel that most everyone will appreciate the upgrade.  It’s a decent all around improvement to what was once a Canon users first choice.  Given how widely loved and used the 5DM2 was (and still is), it will be interesting to see if the new contender can knock the current king off the throne.  I’m ready to place my 5DM3 order, but only when the vertical grip becomes available.

 

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Test images.  Click to enlarge.  All images have been processed from RAW files in Adobe Camera RAW.

 

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by Chris Bjuland, photography by Chris Bjuland, copyright 2012 5DIII product images provided by Canon.  See more at www.bjuland.com

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