Sunday, February 9, 2014

Test of Time Review: Canon EOS 5D Classic

In today's somewhat crowded prosumer full-frame DSLR market, it's easy to forgot that only nine years ago such a category didn't even exist. Full-Frame bodies were reserved for studio professionals and even those offerings were sparse. Choice was limited to the Canon 1DS and and Kodak's DCS Pro series for Canonand Nikon mounts, and even then the bodies were heavy and had integrated vertical grips. Not until 2005's introduction of the Canon EOS 5D - the first (semi) affordable standard-sized full-frame DSLR.

Now more commonly known by the retronym of '5D Classic' to differentiate from later generations of 5D, it's become a popular choice for enthusiasts in 2014 who are looking for a low-priced full-frame body. And for around $500 it represents an excellent value, especially for those with a large selection of EF lenses. But is it still worth that much when you get a much better performing DSLR with more features for around the same price? Let's find out.

As the more well-fed sibling of the EOS 20D, the 5D classic shares its form factor and button layout. Think of it as a chunkier version of Canon's older XXD cameras and you'll have a fairly good idea of what holding a 5D is like. Along with the beefier body comes a heavier weight - even without a BG-E4 grip attached the 5D feels substantial in your hand. The weight is actually reassuring and makes the camera feel closer to the 1D series than it does the XXD line. Minor changes were made compared to its APS-C contemporaries, notably the simplification of the mode dial, which only contains auto, P, Av, Tv, M, and custom modes. The lack of scene modes on the dial should be a hint that the 5D classic was targeted for a more serious photographer.

Being from 2005, the EOS 5D classic lacks some features that are common today. Foremost among this is live view, which didn't enter the Canon line until 2007. You won't find any kind of anti-dust system nor any kind of HDR mode, customizable self-timer, or in-camera lens corrections. Using a 5D means letting go of a lot of modern camera luxuries, but the essentials are all there.

Also missing from the 5D is a built-in flash. This has been a point of contention among users of the 5D series over its 3 iterations. Personally, I use a camera's built-in flash so infrequently that I didn't find myself missing one on the 5D. Worst case, you can always carry a 90EX with you if you have one.

Speedlite 90EX makes a good companion as an emergency flash.
Along with the bigger sensor comes the welcome addition of a much larger viewfinder than on APS-C cameras. While still not as big as the viewfinders of old (Minolta X-700 comes to mind) it still fills your field of view quite nicely. After using a 5D (or any full frame body) it'll be hard to go back to the smaller viewfinders of APS-C cameras. Noticeable when looking through the viewfinder if that the AF points are all clustered around the centre of the frame, since the 5D uses the same AF array as the 20D, despite its larger sensor. In use I never found this to be an issue, mainly because my biggest issue with AF on the 20D was that the AF points were too far apart. Problem solved, I suppose.

It's a good thing the optical finder is so good, since the EOS 5D's LCD screen falls on the other end of the quality spectrum. Due to some manufacturing defects during the camera's lifespan, a good number of EOS 5D bodies shipped with off-colour LCD units. Some were tinted green while others showed a yellow tint. Mine fell into the former category, so everything appears greenish when viewing it on the camera. If you end up with a body afflicted with the tinted LCD, you pretty much have to make sure you're shooting raw under any kind of artificial light as fine-tuning white balance in-body will be futile. At 2.5" on the diagonal, the LCD is at least large enough to make it useful. The screen has a resolution of 230,000 pixels, which would remain par for the course until 2007. While not great looking like the high-res LCD units of today, the screen on the 5D is at least functional, and still be seen clearly enough in all but direct sunlight.

The 5D's LCD is functional, but not fantastic by any means.
One of the most common complaints about the first two generations of 5D camera dealt with the camera's autofocus system. Utilizing a nine-point system with only one cross-type point, you'll find floating across the internet the usual rhetoric about how the peripheral points are rubbish. As usual with internet chatter, that's a bit of an exaggeration. In actual usage the outer points perform just like those in the EOS 20D. If light is good, using an outer point in AI Servo or one-shot won't result in any problems with focus speed or accuracy. And to be fair, AF won't be any different even with a 5D Mark II. Overall the system isn't bad, but today even the main Rebel series has a newer and faster AF system.
AF is much better than its reputation suggests.
Though the AF does its job, you'd be hard-pressed to categorize this as a sports body due to its slow framerate and generally sluggish feel. At 3 frames per second the EOS 5D only shoots as quickly as the 350D, and if you've been using a more modern body like a 50D or 7D, the 5D is just downright slow. Thankfully the problem isn't exacerbated by a shallow image buffer. The large mirror also takes much longer to travel up and down than more modern APS-C bodies take. For example, shooting 1/30 sec on a 50D still sounds snappy, whereas on a 5D a full actuation takes a lot longer. Check back in the next week or so for a video illustrating this.

Of course the biggest draw of the 5D classic is its full-frame sensor; without it the 5D is just a 30D on Valium. Though 12.8 megapixels may seem a bit low in an age dominated by 20+ MP cameras, remember that I was happy with 8MP. The most significant plus of having a full-frame sensor is that EF lenses once again make use of their native field of view. Without a FOV crop factor, EF standard zooms and primes are much more useful than they are on APS-C bodies. For example, the EF 17-40 f/4L is an unremarkable lens when used on something like a 20D, but pop it on a 5D and it's now back to being an ultrawide zoom. Likewise, with a 5D you aren't limited to EF-S and third party glass when it comes to finding a decent standard zoom. A minor setback of the 5D's larger sensor is that it acts as a magnet for dust, a small problem compounded by the lack of an anti-dust system found on bodies introduced the year after its release.
The end result of a few lens changes and a narrow aperture. Click for larger image.
Image quality is excellent as expected, though modern APS-C sensors have more or less caught up when it comes to noise - technology has come a long was in 9 years. Low noise performance holds up better than any other camera of this age I've used, with ISO 1600 showing very clean results. Unfortunately that's as far as the ISO range goes without pushing. Native ISO sensitivity beyond 1600 didn't appear in Canon bodies until the 1D Mark III came out in 2007. Thankfully the 5D was the first non-1D Canon body to allow you to adjust ISO in 1/3 stop intervals, something that the 20D couldn't do.

All SOOC JPEGs underexposed by 1 stop and brought back up in post. Shooting raw will yield better results.
It's a shame the ISO sensitivity doesn't go higher, because even at its boosted ISO setting of 3200 the 5D shows less noise than the 50D does, and still compares favourably with modern 18mp sensors. However, when it comes to JPEG images, modern APS-C bodies have the edge as seen below, thanks mostly to their more powerful and efficient image processors. But if you're shooting raw images, you'll find the 5D files give you plenty of leeway, essentially closing the noise gap to the point where I can't call a clear winner between it and EOS M. For a nine year old camera, it's an impressive feat to keep up after all that time.
Modern processing technology makes a difference.
The Final Word:

What's still good
  • Image quality and high ISO performance
  • EF lenses have their native range back
  • Large and bright viewfinder
  • Robust build quality
  • Excellent value for money (still)

What isn't
  • Sluggish performance
  • No anti-dust system
  • LCD is tinted on some units
  • Limited ISO range
  • Low framerate and long viewfinder blackout
  • Single page menu system (scrollfest)
  • Autofocus outdated (same as 20D)
Chances are that if you're thinking of picking up a used 5D you're doing for one reason: the format. And if that's the case, most of the drawbacks are probably irrelevant to you. And rightfully so - this is the cheapest way to get into the realm of full-frame photography, and it's cheaper by a large margin; less than half the price of a used 5D Mark II or Nikon D700.

Personally I find the 5D to be a great component of a two body, dual format kit to get the best of both worlds. An APS-C body to use when performance matters, and a 5D as a general purpose body. Dual-wielding pretty much nullifies most of the drawbacks of the 5D. If this were to be your only camera, there'd be compromises involved and it would be a harder recommendation. However, with DSLRs being so cheap these days, adding a second camera won't break the bank. The 5D is also easy to recommend for anyone with a fairly extensive EF lens collection - using your lenses as originally intended will be refreshing for some.

1 comment:

  1. You took the words out of my mouth and thoughts out of my head. I already own a 7D mk 2 but wanted to try a full frame camera especially as I have 2 L series lenses.
    Thank you for a very interesting review
    Paul Timms