Christmas came a couple of days early when I took delivery of two new 5D mark II bodies on 22nd December. Since then I've had the chance to play around and get familiar with them in advance of my first assignments of 2009, and I thought I would share my initial impressions of this highly anticipated camera.
Size - first and foremost, compared the the 1DsII bodies that I have been lugging around the world for the last 4 years, the 5DII is wonderfully small and light. It makes taking the camera out and about fun again, without feeling like I have a brick over my shoulder. With a 50 f/1.4 or 28 f/1.8 on the front it's a wonderfully compact package. Being even smaller than my old film-based EOS 3, this is now the smallest SLR I've owned since 2001. Nice.
Screen - The 3-inch 900,000 pixel screen is large, bright and crisp; none of which apply to the 1DsII. It's large and clear enough to be able to accurately test lighting, and not miss stray reflections and the like. It's also possible to set the camera not to rotate vertical format images so they use the whole screen, which is nice.
Auto ISO - setting the ISO to "A" gives the camera free reign to set the ISO anywhere between 100 and 3200 to give you a handholdable shutter speed. This is great, as I can select the aperture or shutter speed I want and have the camera choose the lowest possible ISO to get a correct exposure. I only wish I could chose the range it selected from, as ideally I would have it max out at 1600, which is the highest really usable ISO on this camera.
Live View - for shooting manual focus on a tripod, live view is great. You can zoom the image on the screen to 5x or 10x magnification to ensure you have focus exactly where you want it. Great when using the MF-only tilt/shift lenses or using a macro for food closeups. There are probably additional applications of this mode - I'll need to do some experimenting.
Sensor cleaning - Yes! Does exactly what is says on the tin. It doesn't totally remove the need for the odd clean, but does make the need for them much less frequent.
The good, but not quite great:
Autofocus - the AF seems to do a decent enough job, even in quite low light when using a fast lens. But compared to the 1DsII the focus points feel a little cramped together in the middle, especially on the diagonals. It is very quick and easy to scroll between them though, more so than on the 1Ds. I haven't used AI Servo mode yet for focusing on moving objects, so will reserve my judgment on that yet.
Build quality - the camera certainly feels solid and is nicely made. And the manual says the weather sealing is almost equivalent to the EOS 1n film cameras from the late '90s. However, in the hand, while perfectly acceptable, it doesn't have the same rock-solid, bullet-proof feel of the 1Ds. It looks like I may need to reign in the rather cavalier attitude I took to the 1Ds when shooting in rain, snow and the like.
The slightly irritating:
Handhold-ability - Maybe it's because of the lighter body, but I'm finding I can't handhold the camera at the same shutter speeds as I can the 1Ds. With a 50mm lens I find too many of my shots at 1/50th show some camera shake, when this speed is no problem on the 1Ds. I may have just been getting sloppy with the heavy 1Ds, where mirror slap is less of an issue because of the weight and larger grip. Time to refine my hand holding technique again (and wish for the in-body image stabilisation of the Sony A900!).
Playback - It's not possible to have the post-shot image review display a different format when you hit the playback button. This might sound picky, but on my 1Ds I'm used to having the initial post-shot review show the image and the histogram, but when I playback the images to show the image only. On the 5DII I have to hit the info button to switch between them all the time.
Despite these niggles, I have to say that so far I'm very happy with the new cameras, and have no reason to hesitate in putting my old 1DsII bodies on the market. A quick look at 2nd hand prices suggest the swap from a 1DsII to 5DII setup should only leave me less than £1000 out of pocket, making it well worth it in my opinion.
Finally - a quick thought on IQ
You might be surprised I've not mentioned image quality at all. The truth is I wasn't really buying the new cameras for improvements in IQ. The images I could get out of the 1DsII were already large enough to print double-page without enlargement (approx A3 - the largest my pictures typically get used), and noise was excellent up to ISO 400 and very good even at ISO 800 if you nailed the exposure correctly. See my post "Just how much is enough?" for my thougts on the megapixel wars.
The new cameras improve on this slightly, but not by a huge margin. Image size is up by 4.5MP, but this only translates to an image 500 pixels wider. This gives a little extra room for cropping, but is not a vast improvement. On A3 prints you can't see the diffrerence in resolving power. As for noise, I'm not sure the 5DII is really much better than the 1DsII, which is a little surprising given the 4 year gap in sensor technology between the two. I'll be doing a few more tests over the next week or so to be sure I'm seeing this accurately, but that is how I read it at the moment.
The truth is that image quality from the better digital SLRs surpassed 35mm film at least 5 years ago, and any modern high-end DLSR can produce images worthy of the most demanding magazine. It's reached the point where handling and other design factors are more important to me now.
That's all for 2008 - happy new year and see you all in '09!