Yesterday, I attended Focus on Imaging. My main aim was to have a look at the 5D MkIII and 1D X (although I never did get the chance to see the 1D X in the end). A few days before the exhibition, I received an invite from Canon Professional Services (as did all members) to attend a presentation/demonstration on a first come first served basis, so I rushed to the CPS area on arrival to book my session. I have written this article as a first impression, as well as some insight, opinions and impressions of the CPS representative.
The session lasted one hour, during which time, the rep gave an overview of some of the salient features and compared it to the 1D X, to which it arguably most resembles. However, we didn’t have a chance to compare it to the 1D X at that time, although there was both the MkIII and the 5D MkII side by side and both with the appropriate grips attached. Also available were the new flash and radio transmitter, along with the new GPS/Ethernet/Bluetooth unit (which has some useful features of its own). Although to be honest, none of the six people in our session gave much more than a second glance to those. The group seemed to consist of a wildlife photographer, a landscape photographer and a wedding/events photographer, so it was a bit of a range, besides my main interests of wildlife and landscape. We were able to ask questions and play with the camera, but there wasn’t a card in any of the slots. The rep also gave some insights on some of the design decisions that were made and some of the shortcomings and the reasons for them. He came across as very honest, but he also admitted that he’d only received the camera the night before, so his testing was limited.
Ergonomics and Aesthetics
When I first picked the camera up, apart from the extra heft with the attached battery grip, it felt very familiar. It’s much more curvaceous than the MkII and looks and feels very much like the 7D as you’d expect. The buttons are pretty much as have been seen in all the pictures that have been flying around since its first “unveiling” in Kenya. All in all, no surprises. One of the others in the group didn’t like the feel, as he said it felt too much like a Nikon, although I would disagree with that assessment, as I find Nikon cameras to be quite blocky in comparison, although I haven’t held too many of them.
Menus and Buttons
These have changed considerably. The menu headings themselves are brightly coloured and more modern looking, although in some ways, this makes them look a bit like something you would see on a child’s toy, with the fluorescent pinks and greens (although I could be remembering the actual colours wrong). They actually look very much like the images of the 1D X menus that have been seen. In use though, they are a definite improvement, although they will take a bit of getting used to. Each of the different areas are divided into sections, in some ways like the old menus, but instead of drilling down in the same way, there are a number of top level pages within each section, which can be scrolled through using the joystick; this will mean much less key presses and quicker access, once you find out where everything is. I didn’t spend a great deal of time looking through the menus, but I liked what I saw overall.
The buttons didn’t show any surprises, as they are all visible on the leaked images. The new Rate button is pretty much as you’d expect, you press it once for 1 star, twice for 2 stars and so on up to 5 stars. The Rate system is designed to be fully compatible with the likes of Lightroom and Photoshop. The other new button, is the edit button. This allows in camera editing of RAW images. We didn’t go into too much detail, but I could see it being a useful feature for the likes of photojournalists, if they ever decided to shoot in RAW. I didn’t look at the new Creative+ mode on the new dial. I also completely forgot to try out the new lock. The zooming into images will probably also take a bit of getting used to, but there are various options in the menu to adjust the zoom behaviour, allowing direct view at the pixel level if required, with a single press of the zoom and turn of the top dial.
This is probably the hottest topic in the 5D MkIII. It was very difficult to do any real testing, but it seemed more responsive than the MkII in the same conditions (hardly difficult to achieve). Here the rep gave us some insights. He was saying that one of the hardest things for any camera to focus on, is a series of vertical lines, such as those found on radiators. This isn’t something I’ve paid much attention to (it simply doesn’t match any type of shooting I would normally do). He didn’t say exactly what his test was (but I suspect it involved radiators in low light), but apparently, he has devised a very demanding test of the autofocus system in low light conditions. He said that only one (Canon obviously) camera has passed that test, with the ability to focus most of the time and that was the 1D X, but it took it about 1 second to lock on. The 5D MkIII also failed, although he seemed to suggest that it was able to lock focus almost half the time. At this point, one of the others asked about the speed of the AF on the MkIII in comparison to other cameras. The first comparison was to the 1D X. The rep said that the 5D MkIII has slower AF than the 1D X (unsurprisingly), but he said the main reason was the fact that it only has a single DIgic 5+, instead of the three processors in the 1D X. However, he said it is the fastest focusing non-1 series camera. Someone then asked about the 1Ds MkIII as a comparison, to which he replied that the 1Ds MkIII was slightly quicker for a single point. Whether that means he hadn’t compared multi-points or whether the 5D MkIII was faster for multi-points I’m not sure.
Then came the inevitable question, the issue of f/8 focusing. This was where, he had a prepared explanation, that had been explained to him and as it was discussed, he offered his own personal viewpoint and impression, based on what he’d been told. He explained that the new focus sensors were larger, which enabled much more accuracy in low light compared to the 1D MkIV and other cameras. It was the enlargement of these sensors that has led to the compromise of losing f/8. His impression was, that it was a physical limitation and not firmware, but he didn’t know for sure and couldn’t rule out the possibility. However, he did say, that if it could be adjusted by a firmware update, then it would likely affect low light AF accuracy in his opinion. It was at this point, that the person asking about f/8 AF stated that it was always a bit iffy anyway and couldn’t be guaranteed in any way. The rep said, if the accuracy was only 20% would it be acceptable and I think the consensus was no. In low light, the 5D MkIII should have the most accurate low light focusing of any Canon camera, with the excecption of the 1D X.
Next came the new AF presets for different scenarios. He went through them, with the comment from the wildlife photographer, that wildlife is always missed out. The reply was, that there is supposed to be a firmware update in the future, with a preset for wildlife scenarios.
ISO Sensitivity and Noise
This was something that I couldn’t test in the demo, but I did manage to make some quick and dirty comparisons to my 5D MkII afterwards, in the same lighting conditions and similar images. However, some impressions and comments from the rep first. Canon are stating that there is a two stop improvement in noise levels compared to the MkII. I asked for clarification on whether that was with noise reduction or with noise reduction switched off. The slightly cryptic reply was, that he always leaves NR switched off. He also stated that the 1D X has an extra 1 stop over the 5D MkIII. In addition, they are still tweaking, so that could improve further in the released version. Apparently, earlier groups seemed to think that the MkIII had a 3 stop advantage over the 5D MkII.
My impression from the quick testing I did, based on the image on the LCD screen (the card slots were taped up), seemed to show that the MkIII had slightly more noise at ISO 25,600, than the MkII did at ISO 6400. I would therefore suggest an improvement of around 1.5 stops, but that is still pretty good, even if it doesn’t match the 2 stops claimed and it could be that I was mistaken or that the new screen allows visualisation more easily. Also, I had the 24mm f/1.4 MII on my 5D MkII, with the 24-70 (original) on the MkIII, so the comparison was skewed slightly towards the MkII, due to the higher quality lens. Incidentally, the focus accuracy looked to be ok.
Sensor, Image Quality and Dynamic Range
Let’s get the hot topic out the way first. I’m sad to say, I was slightly distracted, through playing with the menus, when he was asked about DR, so I didn’t hear the full answer. I did hear that he hadn’t had a chance to test the DR on the 5D MkIII, but I think he said, that the 1D X has a 1 stop improvement in DR, but I could be wrong there.
He went into quite a bit of depth on image quality. While he didn’t mention Nikon, it was obvious who he was referring to when he mentioned a 36 MP camera. Canon have developed the philosophy that 22 MP is good enough at the moment, as high resolution sensors require faster shutter speeds to prevent motion blur. He commented that many people who had been using the 5D MkII and then used the 7D had this problem, realising they needed to use faster shutter speeds to freeze the motion of even relatively slow moving subjects (he went on to explain shutter speeds that were required to freeze a bride walking down some stairs, that seemed a little spurious, but the main point was valid). He also mentioned that many of the older lenses wouldn’t cope with high resolution sensors and that Canon didn’t want their customers to have to replace large numbers of their lenses, just because they were getting a high resolution camera. He then went on to say that lenses released in the last 4-5 years would be able to cope with a high resolution sensor (i.e. in the 36 MP range). This supports my theory that Canon may be waiting to upgrade more of their lenses before releasing a higher resolution sensor.
Next, he mentioned the thinner anti-alias fliter. This has allowed an algorithm within Digital Photo Professional (DPP), that essentially reverse-engineers the blur caused by the filter and lens, by following the light path, allowing higher levels of sharpness and greater definition, this is called Lens Optimizer. There is also in camera chromatic aberration correction (probably JPEG only).
I won’t say too much about the metering, other than it is less sophisticated than the 1D X and the same as the 7D. Apparently, it was motorsports shooters who asked for the colour metering, to help with the difficult metering of reds and greens. The rep mentioned that Ferrari red was notoriously difficult to focus on. It is also linked to the AF points to improve metering of the subject.
When asked about weather sealing, he stated it was at the same level as the 7D. When asked what that meant, he mentioned that he likes to shoot timelapse photography of thunderstorms (each to their own I suppose :P). With the 1 series cameras, he is happy to leave them out all night in heavy rain. The 7D, he is happy to leave out for 3-4 hours, while the 5D MkII, he wouldn’t leave out for half an hour. This was carried through to the new battery grip. On the MkII, you could see daylight between the grip and camera, but the new grip has a much tighter seal with the camera body and is moulded to the shape of the bottom of the camera. This helps to prevent the use of the grip being a weak point in adverse weather conditions.
The sound quality of the shutter is much improved over the MkII. It is a softer and higher pitched sound. Also, the MkIII has a silent shutter mode, which is unique, as even the 1D X doesn’t have it. It is much quieter than the normal shutter (ten times quieter in fact). He was then asked how it worked. In the 5D MkII, a motor raised the mirror, which was then allowed to fall by gravity, but the MkIII mirror is raised and lowered by a motor. There are a couple of downsides to the silent mode (one I’ve forgotten, it was that important), the frame rate drops to 3 fps. This is still almost as quick as the MkII and I would say that it’s unlikely that you would need a fast frame rate in situations where the quiet mode was important (I remember having the feeling that the second downside wouldn’t be a hardship in those situations either).
One other thing I’ll mention in this section, involves the viewfinder. Like the 7D and 1D X, it uses a transmissive LCD overlay. Now I find the 7D harder to focus manually, but he said that the MkIII is easier to focus than the MkII, only by using it will we find out if this is true.
During the short time I was able to see the 5D MkIII, I was very impressed with the overall feel. The ISO sensitivity and noise levels stand out as some of the main features, but also of course the AF system. This is exactly the same as the 1D X, but is slower due to only having the single processor. For wildlife, I think it is ideal. It isn’t often that the motor drive is needed, I think I can count on both hands in two and a half years, the number of times that I have needed it on the 7D and if the AF matches the specs, then that will be a huge improvement, as will the IQ from the full frame sensor. The downside is the loss of reach from the crop factor, but I can keep the 7D to cover that problem. For landscapes, it will give me what I have now and probably a bit more too, especially if the DR is improved. If I was shooting primarily landscape photography, then it probably wouldn’t be worth the upgrade, but for wildlife, it will expand on what I can achieve, with improved AF and improved ability to shoot crepuscular subjects in low light.
For those who want full frame, but either can’t afford the 1D X or don’t need the extra features the 1D X has and shoot anything other than (or as well as) landscapes, then the 5D MkIII is the obvious upgrade path, but if you need the weather proofing bullet proof AF or any of the other features of the 1D X (such as the new anti-pixel blur), then that is the only option. Many who had ordered two 1D X’s, are now considering changing their pre-orders to one of each camera.
I’m sure there are some things I missed (we elected to skip the video bits) and there are other things that will come to light as more people see the camera and reps become more used to it, but hopefully this gives some insights into my first impression.
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