Right after I hit the ground in San Francisco to shoot the Web 2.0 Conference, I went over to a camera store to get a new camera strap and a few other accessories. As it happens, I didn't find what I wanted, but there on the shelf was something I didn't expect to see on October 4th: Canon's new EOS 5D full-frame digital SLR.

Since the announcement of the 5D in August, I've been reading the online forums and the excellent previews of the camera, including Michael Richmann's field report. But I had held off on actually placing an order. I knew that if I placed an order, odds were not high that I'd have it in time to shoot Web 2.0 as well as the European Open Source Convention two weeks later. So, I was going to let other people have the fun with the first batches and maybe join in later.

But there it was on the shelf. A rare item indeed, as mass shipments had reportedly only been happening for a week or so. The camera store had received five earlier that day. This was the last one. And I could have it. Right then. Right there. And I could shoot the Web 2.0 conference with it. Of course, I wasn't totally lost yet. I could have said no. But then I uttered those words that every photographer knows are deadly: "Sure, pull it down. I want to take a look at it."

It left the store with me, along with a $3,300 smoking hole in my pocket. Did you expect any other outcome? My wallet wasn't terribly thrilled with me, but it was consoled by the fact that the purchase was a tax-deductible business expense.

I then embarked on shooting the three days of the Web 2.0 conference with it, replacing my trusty Canon 20D. I was hesitant at first—it's always risky to go into an assignment without practicing with new gear first—but confidence in the new camera built quickly and then deepened into respect. Here are some of my impressions after shooting several-thousand frames.

Full-Frame Goodness

The first thing that's noticeable about the EOS 5D is that it is a full-frame camera. For those of you who haven't been keeping track of Digital SLRs over the last few years, most Digital SLRs come with a sensor that is considerably smaller than a full 35mm frame. Most, such as the popular Canon Digital Rebel and 20D, have a sensor about the size of an APS frame. The result is that a 50mm lens behaves like a 85mm lens. This is good if you want the telephoto-like effect that the cropping creates. It's bad, however, if you want to enjoy the full effect of your glass.

One of the first shots I took with my 5D was out of my hotel window with an EF 24-70 L zoom lens at 24mm. My reaction was, "So that's where my wide-angle has been hiding all these years."

figure 1

As soon as I took the image, I pulled the card and loaded it onto the laptop to take a closer look at it, all 12 megapixels of it. When you hear that number in the abstract, it sounds big, but when you load it into Photoshop and start working with a 35MB file, you find out quickly just how big it is.

To give you an idea of how many pixels are there, here's a 100 percent detail of the shot above.

figure 2

Now, and this is the part that will really rock your world, if you made a print of the entire image at the resolution of the crop above, it would be 5 feet wide and 3 1/2 feet tall. When you consider I took the above shot handheld through a dirty window and at f/4.5, that's just amazing. I have no doubt that a proper tripod setup without a window would produce even better results.

Of course, there's a dark side to this full-framed goodness. When you are shooting RAW format, each picture consumes around 12MB of space on your Compact Flash card and, later, on your hard drive. And the files are noticeably slower to work on in Photoshop than the files from a Canon 20D.

Another thing about using a full-frame sensor that you'll notice in the shot above is that our old friend vignetting is back. Luckily, if you are using better glass, this usually only affects zooms at their widest angle. It's also easy enough to correct in post-processing.

Ultra-High ISO Performance

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take the 5D out into the field and spend all day shooting at ISO 100 and with prime lenses. Instead, I headed indoors into dark conference rooms. Rooms that I've been shooting at ISO 1600 with my 20D and have been barely getting by with 1/120 of a second exposures at f/2.8. There's always the "H" setting on the 20D, ISO 3200 in other words, but the images it makes are so grainy that they require a lot of work and are still only barely usable.

However, I had seen impressive comments about the high-speed sensitivity of the 5D, so in a dark room I cranked it up to ISO 3200 and fired away. Here's an example that was shot at 1/200 of a second at f/2.5 with a 135mm lens:

figure 3

Of course, that's a smooth 500-pixel-wide reduction from the full image. Obviously, this is more than acceptable for web use, but let's look deeper. Here's a 100 percent pixel crop across the eyes:

figure 4

While very noticeable, the noise is still acceptable. It's also, to my eyes, very reminiscent of film grain. At 100 percent, you can see a bit of blockiness—but keep in mind that we're looking at a 5' image. Let's back out a bit to the equivalent of a 2 1/2' print:

figure 5

This is simply amazing performance. It's been a while since I've worked with ISO 1000 negatives or ISO 400 chrome, and I haven't had time to do a direct comparison, but to my eye this performance is at least in the same ballpark. And yet, this is shooting two to three stops faster.

There is something else that I should note: while I never saw an extreme case of banding in the noise of the 20D at ISO 1600 that some people saw, there were many shots where I noticed it to some degree. The 5D has, for the most part, eliminated this issue, even at ISO 3200. I was able to find some noise banding in my captures, but only when really tweaking out the images to the point where the image was unusable with the Levels or Curves tools in Photoshop.

High ISO Performance

After shooting in the dark workshop rooms, I moved on to shooting in the main hall. In previous O'Reilly conferences this year, I've shot at ISO 1600 in the main hall. However, because of better lighting at Web 2.0, I was able to turn down to ISO 1000 and get higher shutter speeds to boot. Here's an exposure taken at 1/250 of a second at f/3.5 with a 70-200mm lens at 165mm.

figure 6

Now, here's the 100 percent actual pixel detail:

figure 7

Once again, this is the equivalent of looking at a 5' print made from this image. The noise qualities for ISO 1000 are excellent. In the crop above, there's enough detail to where you don't notice the noise at all. To take a look at the noise, here's a 100 percent crop from the edge of the couch on the left side of the frame:

figure 8

At this level of performance, ISO 1000 is an eminently reasonable option for indoor shooting. Here's another example from later in the conference as I continued to get used to what the camera allowed me to do in low light conditions:

figure 9

And, here's a 100 percent detail view right to show the sharpness, detail, and noise qualities of the capture:

figure 10

When I saw the above detail in this shot, I just stopped in my tracks and admired it for a while.

Focus

The focusing system in the 5D is obviously an upgrade from the 20D. The new "hidden" focus points around the center point are supposed to help the camera better track action. I couldn't really test this functionality, but I did notice that focusing performance of the center sensor seems better than on my 20D. Focusing was a tad more decisive and snappy.

The other eight focus points seem to be of about the same sensitivity as on the 20D—not as sensitive as the center by far, but still useful in many situations. My chief complaint with these points is that they are the same physical distance from the center point as on the 20D. This means that the cluster of focusing points occupies a much smaller percentage of the full-frame image.

The place where this raised itself as an issue is when I wanted to use the far right or left focus points and focus without recomposing. Since the points are that much closer to the center, I found myself still playing the focus-and-recompose dance—and therefore just leaning on the center point. Focus and recompose is a technique that I'm comfortable with in normal circumstances, but one that is problematic for me when working at f/2.8 with long lenses. The plane of focus is so thin in these conditions that recomposing can often move the camera about enough to move the plane of sharpest focus off the desired area.

I still pine for the 45-point focus system on my trusty EOS-3 film camera that covered a large portion of the viewable area. An improved version of this system is, of course, available on the 1D and 1Ds series of cameras, but the full-frame 1Ds Mark II is more than twice as expensive as the 5D. Hopefully, in future Canon Digital SLRs, a much better autofocus system will move into the 5D level price-point for full-frame Digital SLRs.

Other Impressions

Obviously, in the low light conditions of the conference, the noise characteristics of the 5D and the full-frame sensor size were the two features of the camera I most appreciated. Along the way, however, I made several other observations:

  • The larger review screen is a definite upgrade over the 20D. A nice side effect is that the text of the menus is also larger now and easier to read at a glance. At first, I wasn't happy that the text size was bigger, but after using it a while, I came to like it.
  • The slightly larger size of the 5D means that the BG-E2 battery grip that the 20D used doesn't work on the 5D. I've become very reliant on having the battery grip for ease of portrait shooting, so having to buy a new battery grip is a drag. Still, I can't wait for the BG-E4 to become available.
  • The large viewfinder is a joy to use—especially in contrast to the chopped-down view in the 20D. However, I still pine for the great bright viewfinder in my film-based EOS-3.
  • Some may bemoan the lack of an onboard flash. I'm fine with it. If I want to use a flash, I'll use my external flash. It provides much better performance than any built-in flash could deliver.
  • I have no idea what the Direct Print button is all about. I mean, I know what it does, but I don't consider the ability to print from my camera a feature. As far as I'm concerned, images from a Digital SLR aren't done until they are properly processed in Photoshop or a similar application.
  • Battery life is shorter than on the 20D. Most likely, this is because of the larger sensor. However, two batteries got me through most days. And those were days where I filled up 2GB CF cards several times over.

Above all else, however, is the impression that this camera marks a watershed moment in the evolution of the Digital SLR. I've been working with Digital SLRs since I bought one of the first Canon EOS D30s in 2000. And each generation has brought multiple improvements. Having a full-frame sensor, however, at this price point—roughly the same as the original D30—means that the last compromise in moving from film to digital is now no more.

Final Thoughts

In just the short amount of time I've used this camera, I've just barely started to come to terms with what it can do. In the rest of the photos I took at the Web 2.0 conference (you can check out the Flickr photostream to see more images taken with the 5D), I found that even after taking a few-thousand frames, I was still learning the best way to dial it in to get the images I wanted. But every day brings more awareness of what is possible with this camera—as well as a continuing re-education of how my lens collection behaves when using a full frame of view.

There is really only one major glaring issue with the camera: the focusing system. It really deserves the 45-point autofocus sensor capabilities of the EOS-3 camera. The other nits I have, such as the questionable inclusion of a direct-to-print button, really do become nits when you look at the final resulting images. And, after all, it's about what the final images look like, isn't it?

The other point that should be made is that, at $3,299, this isn't a cheap camera. Not by a long shot. But, if you are really serious about photography, you shouldn't let the price stop you. Just think about the amount that you used to spend in a year processing film and/or slides and factor that into your purchase calculation. As well, Moore's Law is in effect here. Five years ago, the 3 megapixel D30 came out at a price not much less than the current 5D. Now, you can buy a Digital Rebel XT, which bests the capabilities of the D30 by a long shot for less than a $1,000. The price-to-performance ratio over the next five years should be interesting indeed to watch. Even if you don't move to a full-frame 5D now because of cost considerations, the next few years should bring the functionality down to a price point that will tempt you.

One thing is for sure. This camera is, without a doubt, the most fun-to-use and capable image-creation device I have ever had the joy of owning. I can't wait to get back out in the field and use it some more.


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