Canon EOS 5D User Review

The First Affordable Full Frame Canon DSLR But How Is The Image Quality?

Canon EOS 5D User Review Front

Once again, I shall write this Canon EOS 5D user review in the same way that I would "tell a friend" about it and leave the technical side of things to others (I suggest you visit Steve's Digicams or DPreview for this).

The Canon EOS 5D comes with a 12.8 megapixel, full frame CMOS sensor. It is classed, at the time of writing, the smallest full frame Digital SLR on the market, and at approximately $3,000, it is affordable to many who couldn’t stretch to the mighty 1Ds mkII. Having owned both the EOS 20D and the 1-series Canon DSLR's, I found that the 5D fits snugly in between whilst its image quality errs towards that of the latter.

Canon EOS 5D user review: Why buy it?

Ok, to start with, what enticed me to buy this camera when I already had the 20D and 1D mkII; surely they were enough to shoot quality wedding and stock photography (my main sources of revenue)?

I shoot a lot of weddings here in Spain and where the 20D produces lovely clean images with excellent quality at high ISO's, and the rugged 1D mkII served as a great speed freak capable of not missing a trick, I still felt I was missing something.

The images produced by these cameras just weren't big enough for my liking and the 1D mkII in particular couldn’t produce the goods when faced with high ISO's or extreme dynamic range issues.


With weddings in sunny Spain, high contrasting situations crop up all the time what with white dresses and dark suits coupled with very bright sunlight, and the poorly lit church interiors with the sunlight beaming through the windows.

Also, by shooting predominantly "reportage" style weddings, I tend to crop quite a bit when I sometimes don’t have time to change lenses which often leaves me desperate for more megapixels when enlarging the photos.

One other factor with previous DSLR's for me was the amount of post-processing involved. They just seemed to struggle a bit with white balance in certain situations and images could be quite soft, especially when shooting RAW.

So, does the Canon EOS 5D fulfill my wishes when it comes to high end digital photography? Does it satisfy my need for perfection? Read on…

Ergonomics and Handling/Build Quality

My only gripe with the body is that they didn’t build it in the same style as the 1-series, or close to it. This is a personal thing as I have large hands and having to purchase and fit the BG-E4 battery grip grates me a tad. Sure, it didn't need to be as bulky as the 1-series, and many photographers like the fact that it is "discreet" and much lighter, but it grates nonetheless.

I personally need the convenience of extra battery power when shooting (and reviewing) 10 hour days and the vertical grip and shutter release is a must. Many of my shots are taken vertically and I find it almost impossible to control the camera correctly without it…but that is just me.

Once it is upright, I know where everything is and I can shoot with speed and efficiency. Other than that, the camera is great. Some say it should have been made more weather resistant but unless you intend to shoot in the harshest of conditions, the camera is more than capable of seeing off the odd shower, especially when fitted with "L" glass (more of that later).

The magnesium alloy body covering the stainless steel chassis is tough, which I discovered when my wife dropped the thing on the floor from a height of 4 foot behind me just a few weeks after buying it. Four foot doesn't sound a lot but when you hear that sickening crack as it hits a marble floor, it is enough believe me.


The camera bounced off the front filter thread of the 24-70L lens and onto its side. Surprisingly the only damage was to the filter thread, the camera wasn’t even marked (which is more than can be said for the wife once I got hold of her…joke).

It feels good in the hands and the controls are well laid out for ease of use (back to the wife again). I can see that for travelling, it would be nice and light without the battery grip and also less "professional" looking for those stricter places you wish to shoot in.

Canon seem to work on the basis that "if it ain't broke, don't try and fix it" which is just fine by me. From the 10D to the 20D and now with the 30D and 5D, they have kept things simple with a very easy learning curve.

The buttons are laid out in almost exactly the same way as the 20D including the wonderful joystick. The only worthless addition in my opinion is the direct print or PictBridge button. What photographer in their right mind, having spent thousands on this camera, would want to print directly from the camera with no post-processing?

Functions and Features

As I mentioned above, the functions are laid out in pretty much the same way as the 20D but the features begin to differ when you delve a little deeper.

The Sensor and processor

Let's start with the main reason I bought this beauty (as you can tell, this review is by no means impartial…I am biased…hands up).

Say goodbye to the crop factor with this new full frame 35.8 x 23.9mm sensor with its lovely large pixels. Once again (for those of you that remember) your EF lenses become "true" with regards to their focal length, i.e. 16mm is 16mm and 200mm is 200mm.

This may upset a few people who enjoyed the longer reach from their telephoto lenses and 1.6x crop factor of previous Canon DSLR's, but will no doubt please those who enjoy wide angle landscape or architecture photography for example.

In reality, because of the much larger file sizes, you are able to crop the image down to what you would have got with the 20D and end up with pretty much the same shot anyway so you have the best of both worlds! In fact, this reason alone is worth the extra money to me. As I mentioned earlier, by shooting quick, reportage shots at a wedding, I don’t always have time to compose the image or get as close as I would like.


I can pick out a scene in a crowd shot for instance, and the ability to crop about half of the image away and still end up with a large print is phenomenal. I can even take two or three high quality shot combinations at 10" x 8" from the same image.

Keeping the same Digic II processor provides natural and detailed colour reproduction with fast image processing, plus an amazing burst performance of 60 large/fine JPEGs or 17 RAW images at 3 fps.

The fps speed is a "come down" from even the 20D's 5FPS but this camera was never meant to be a sports camera. The Digic II also enhances the start-up time on the Canon EOS 5D DSLR, bringing it down to a lightning quick 0.2 seconds

Rear Screen

I was happy with the screens on the 20D and 1D mkII, but when I first saw images on the EOS 5D's 2.5 inch TFT LCD monitor, I was blown away. What a difference 0.7 inches can make and the new 170 degree viewing angle maintaining the same brightness from any angle is incredible.

The larger, brighter text within the menu is also a bonus.

Picture Styles

Whilst I was pleased to see the removal of the auto functions such as "sports", "landscape" and "close up" I was, at first, a little bewildered and not impressed with the new picture styles (mainly because I am lazy and didn’t want to learn new tricks).

I come from the old school of taking images as "raw" as possible using my own judgement and available resources from the scene itself and have usually been anti auto or program mode…maybe time to move on. I still shoot entirely RAW and don't use any of the picture styles settings in camera, but for me where they really shine is in post processing!

I personally don't think it is wise to shoot all images using one particular style, and to change each style mid shoot depending on the lighting etc, is just too time-consuming for me and may as well be done later. However, when I loaded a bunch of images into Canon bundled software DPP (Digital Photo Professional) I noticed a few had very high contrast or dynamic range issues.

Faithfully neutral

I decided to try the different picture styles here, because you can, and click through each one in turn to see the effect. When I got to "faithful" or "neutral" I was gob smacked. The dynamic range healed itself and made the image much more manageable by levelling out the contrast.

Ok, the saturation suffered a bit but this was very easily rectified in DPP or Photoshop afterwards.

See the attached picture below for an example. It is a crop from a shot taken in the woods on a bright, sunny day. Although being "reduced for web" doesn't do it justice, you can still see in the second example, using faithful mode, that the eyes on both people are better defined and less "sunken" in shadow.

Canon EOS 5D User Review Faithful

Also the detail on the brides dress is more apparent and both faces have a distinctly smoother look to them. These images are taken straight from the camera with no adjustments other than choosing the standard or faithful setting. The landscape mode is also one that I use but it can over-saturate a bit on some images. Again, this is easily rectified with a small alteration on the sliders.

All in all I am quite impressed with this new feature and find myself using it quite a lot but, as I said, during post-processing rather than "in-camera".

ISO range

Expandable to 50 and 3200 ISO, the range matches that of the 1-series whereas the 20D stops at 100 ISO (although will also expand to 3200 in the upper range). The adjustments are improved and adjustable in 1/3rd step increments which allows for a little more flexibility.

Canon EOS 5D User Review Low Light

For anything shot between 50 and 400 ISO, the difference is very hard to spot to the untrained eye and after running through noise reduction software…say no more, stunning!

The last wedding I shot was held in a dark cave with just ambient light coming in from the door as the main source.

I was confident enough in the EOS 5D to shoot hand held at 1000 ISO for all the interiors and was more than pleasantly surprised with the results.

My advice when shooting high ISO's with this camera is to turn off all sharpening whether in camera or within your editing software. Sharpening will cause the "grain" to show up more but without it the difference is fantastic.

Macro with kit lens

Canon EOS 5D User Review Macro

To push things to the extreme to show what this camera is capable of, I broke many rules when taking this next image (left).

The full size image is pin sharp with incredible detail and colour saturation but it was taken with all the finesse of my 3 year old son.

I used the (poor quality) 18-55mm kit lens that came with the 20D but as it doesn't fit the 5D I simply turned it around and held it up to the camera. Because it wasn’t fitted I had no control over focussing or aperture so just fired using bounced flash for illumination and a swaying motion to obtain focus.

It was shot hand held at 800 ISO using just the standard lights in our house at night for "focussing" and because the lens was reversed you get some incredible macro effects but you need to have a steady hand. I have applied no noise reduction to this and I guess I am showing this to illustrate the incredible diversity and "forgiveness" of this camera.


It is an absolute workhorse. The full size image is pin sharp with incredible detail and colour saturation but it was taken with all the finesse of my 3 year old son. I used the (poor quality) 18-55mm kit lens that came with the 20D but as it doesn't fit the 5D I simply turned it around and held it up to the camera. Because it wasn't fitted I had no control over focussing or aperture so just fired using bounced flash for illumination and a swaying motion to obtain focus.

It was shot hand held at 800 ISO using just the standard lights in our house at night for "focussing" and because the lens was reversed you get some incredible macro effects but you need to have a steady hand. I have applied no noise reduction to this and I guess I am showing this to illustrate the incredible diversity and "forgiveness" of this camera. It is an absolute workhorse.

Low light mall

Without wanting to push this point too much, although I am sure a lot of wedding photographers will be keen to learn, the next image was taken inside a reasonably lit shopping centre (or mall), hand held at 800 ISO.

Camera settings were 100th/sec @ F6.3. Perfect for inside a church with no flash!

This image is straight from RAW with absolutely no processing other than changing to Picture Style "Faithful". All sharpening has been turned off. You can see the quality of dynamic range and lack of noise and I purposely chose this section for its light and dark areas with a few midtones thrown in. Sheer quality.

Canon EOS 5D User Review Low Light
Canon EOS 5D User Review Low Light

White Balance

The Canon EOS 5D has ultra precise white balance with nine types of white balance settings including white balance bracketing (blue/amber and magenta/green, even on RAW and RAW+JPEG shots) and white balance correction.

Because I am a "rapid shooter" normally running around like a madman at weddings, I don’t have time to mess about with differing white balance settings as I go. This usually leads to many shots needing colour correction in Photoshop.

Once again I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy of the AWB (auto white balance) on the EOS 5D. Very little work was needed which freed up my time when processing later on. Time permitting, I would assume that by using the bracketing and manual white balance, the results would be just as good if not better.

Canon EOS 5D user review: Metering

The metering is superb as I would expect coming from the Canon camp. The EOS 5D's predecessors all gave great results and this camera is no different, in fact it is better. I tend to use Av or aperture priority and manual most of the time with the metering set to evaluative. Again, I am lazy and shoot too fast to mess around with too many alterations.

I was however, pleased to see the addition of spot metering as I am sure many other photographers will be. As the Canon EOS 5D is more pro than prosumer, they decided to remove the "amateur" auto settings as I mentioned earlier. The predefined sports, macro, landscape and portrait settings have been replaced by a "camera user" setting.

Of the course the Av, Tv, Manual and Program settings are still there along with the welcome addition of the “B” Bulb setting, although you will need a remote release to use this effectively.

Using evaluative most of the time, this camera performs very well. Again, shooting weddings in Spain the meter is tested to the extreme with high contrast matched with bright sunshine. I have not been disappointed and personally think this is the best wedding photography camera I have ever used.

Flash and the 5D

In the past I am the first to admit that I hated using flash, especially in "quick fire" situations and I don’t think I am alone in this. With so many combinations and settings with so many different situations, it can all become a little confusing. I must admit though, I had become quite adept at using flash although very rarely used "direct" flash unless for fill in outdoors.

However, when I plonked the Canon 580EX II on to the 5D, my prayers were pretty much answered. The compatibility is astounding and I could pretty much trust this set up to do the job without checking the screen at all after each shot.

When bouncing the flash from a ceiling I always use my own set of rules, these may differ slightly depending on the height of the ceiling;

  • If the subject is close, I bounce straight up and increase the FEC (flash exposure compensation) by +1 to allow for the extra distance travelled by the light
  • If the subject is between 8-12 feet away, I tilt the flash either straight up or about 45° and up the FEC by +1 or +2
  • Anything further and I fire at 45° with full FEC or +2 and I open up the cameras exposure compensation a couple of stops

Any minor adjustments can be made during RAW and post processing, but in general this combo is spot on for my work...I love it. If you absolutely have to use direct flash, I would advise that you get a diffuser for the speedlight, harsh shadows are so 1980's!

Ease of Use

Not much to say on this subject, how easy do you want it to be?

Another reason I bought this camera is the virtually non-existent learning curve from the 20D and the simplicity of all its functions and layout. I feel it really brings the photographer back to basics with just the right amount of features.

I find that less is most definitely more in photography. With less to think about and less features to "experiment" with, your time is much better spent actually doing your job and improving your photography skills.

Image Quality

Wow, wow and wow! I have been waiting for this kind of quality from digital SLR's for a while and whilst I always thought the EOS 20D produced beautiful images, sometimes better than the 1D MKII, this tops the lot.

The first discussion I had with another professional photographer about the EOS 5D was the quality of images straight out of the camera with very little post processing required. The RAW images are beautifully sharp, clean and clear and I am left feeling that I am missing something...that I really should tweak some more when I really don't need to!

As with most digital SLR's the only set back is the white balance in certain conditions such as indoors with tungsten lighting. However, as always, a little play in Photoshop and the images come good once again. There isn't really an example image I can show you online that would do this camera justice, you really need to try it yourself to see what I mean.

Quality glass

If you shoot weddings for a living, the Canon EOS 5D is all you need. It is quiet enough in the church shots, the dynamic range is excellent, it is quick with a large buffer and as I mentioned, the image quality is up there with medium format, no doubt about it.

One thing I feel I must mention here is that to get the most from this full frame sensor on the Canon EOS 5D, you really will need quality glass to compliment it. Canon's own "L" series of lenses should be, if they aren't already, on your list of "must have" accessories.

A few others such as the higher end Sigma or Tamron lenses may do a good job, as will the Canon EF 50mm 1.4 for example, and I highly recommend buying decent glass with this camera otherwise your image quality will suffer.


I won't go on too much here as most people have their preferences when it comes to post-processing. Indeed, I myself am very choosy and dislike too much change once I get into the flow of things especially with bundled software.

However, Canon have produced a remarkable piece of software with DPP (Digital Photo Professional) and I now use it as my main RAW editing suite with the EOS 5D. Because the images need very little tweaking and the fact that the software and camera are so compatible, I find it is all I need.

I only load to Photoshop after for very minor tweaking such as levels, curves, colour adjustments (remember some picture styles reduce the saturation a tad) and special effects. If my memory is correct, I have not sharpened a single image from the EOS 5D in Photoshop yet.

Canon EOS 5D user review: Conclusion

As you may have gathered, I like this camera and it goes everywhere with me.

It is my main camera for weddings, stock photography and most other jobs, with the EOS 1D MKII as back up. Sadly, the EOS 20D has been reserved as a back-up but I may well introduce it to the world of underwater photography when I get round to buying a housing.

The EOS 5D is robust, fast (as in start up, write speeds etc), easy to use and throws out beautiful images. As long as you don't need a super fast sports camera that can withstand extreme weather situations, this camera will do for just about any job whether landscape, weddings, portraits, architecture, and product or stock photography.

After my comments about the need to buy a battery grip, I actually think this gives everyone both options. It is either a lightweight, full frame camera great for travelling or a powerhouse and more aesthetic camera for those of us with bigger hands.

My only grudge is that although this camera will do just fine for a good 5 years or so, and I can’t see the need for bigger images than this produces, I just know that those boffins at Canon will eventually up the ante with something even better...

Best place to buy? Second hand at eBay. Great starter DSLR if you can find one in good condition!

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