Should you upgrade from a Canon 5D to a 5D Mark II? Part I

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As a friend pointed out a few months ago, it used to be that you bought a camera that you liked, and you used it for years and years, if not the rest of your life. While you might change films regularly, and experiment with new processing techniques, once you’d chosen a camera, it was a tool that you committed to for the long haul. Like me, my friend has been shooting with a 5D for years, and we were discussing how, if we had to use that camera and only that camera for the rest of our lives, we’d actually be content, and would not be limited in our ability to create great images. (At least, not limited by our camera choice.) Then Canon released the 5D Mark II.

My first digital SLR was the Canon EOS D30, in 2000. At $3000, it was the first "affordable" digital SLR, and packed an expansive 3 megapixel image sensor! Since then, I have worked through many Canon replacements, but the 5D seemed to be the camera that I could grow old with. With its excellent low-light/high ISO performance, the Canon interface that I love, and that ineffable difference that the full-frame image sensor makes, I’ve been very happy with this camera.

But, like a lot of 5D owners, it’s hard not to look at the Mark II and think "ISO 6400? Almost twice as many pixels? Interface improvements? Do any of these really matter? I haven’t been unhappy with my 5D, do I need to upgrade?" Unfortunately, there’s only one way to find out, so I bought the Mark II, and in this 2-part article, I’ll tell you what my experiences have been since making the switch, and try to help you determine if upgrading is a good path for you.

This first part of this article will cover changes to the 5D interface, as well as coverage of new features. While the Mark II looks to be just a 5D body with a few extra features and a different sensor, the fact is there are LOTS of changes and differences between these two cameras. I have not found any of them to be deal-breakers, but you’ll want to consider them before taking the leap. In the second part, we’ll look at image quality differences, and how your current lens collection will fare on the new camera.

Body Changes

While the Mark II has seen a number of subtle changes to its design (more on these later) there’s very little – if any – difference in feel when you hold the camera. Like it’s predecessor, the Mark II is heavier than a typical cropped sensor camera, due to its larger body. Because of its full frame sensor, the Mark II requires a large mirror chamber and prism design, and this equates to a physically larger, heavier camera.

Like the 5D, the Mark II has a rubberized body around the grip, and a smooth finish on the top of the camera. The Mark II’s smooth finish has a slightly more pebbled texture (either that, or my camera’s finish is very worn from use, but I think the Mark II is actually a different finish). And while you can see subtle changes in shape if you set the cameras side-by-side – a curvier bit here, a squared off angle there – none of these changes make the camera feel any different in your hand. The 5D is not the heaviest camera out there, but it’s noticeably beefier than a cropped-sensor camera like the Canon 50D. The Mark II is the same way.

In setting up the camera, one of the first big differences you’ll encounter is the Mark II’s change in battery type. While the 5D uses the same type of battery that Canon has used since the EOS D30, the Mark II uses a larger, more powerful battery that offers better consumption feedback, making for allegedly improved battery meters on the camera and possibly more efficient use.

In practical terms, this means that if, like me, you have a collection of batteries for your 5D, when you un-box your Mark II you’ll be facing a single usable battery. If you want, or need, to carry multiple batteries, you won’t be able to bring your 5D collection forward, so you’ll need to factor the cost of extra batteries into your buying decision.

The next big difference that I encountered concerned the shape of the bottom of the camera. Canon has made some slight changes to the design of the camera’s base, and I feared at first that my Acratech tripod plate would not fit on the camera. With the new design, my plate looked at first like it would be less stable, but after mounting it and tightening it down, I feel confident that it will work fine. If there’s a chance that your tripod mount won’t work with the new model, then that will be another additional expense to consider.

There’s one hugely important body change that you won’t be able to see when you look at the camera, and that’s Canon’s addition of weatherproofing seals to vulnerable parts of the body. As someone who shoots lots of landscapes, and tends to hang out in dusty, windy, desert areas, I find this to be a tremendously important change. Canon has long reserved weatherproofing for its high-end cameras, most likely as a way of differentiating the different parts of their line-up.

While I can’t say if the Mark II is as weather-proof as the 1DS series, the new seals should make the camera more dust and water resistant, which is a great relief if you travel through harsh climes.

As you raise the camera to your eye for the first time, you’ll be struck by a few other changes. First, the buttons on the back are different. Second, the LCD screen is much larger, and third, the viewfinder is a little bit different. Canon claims the viewfinder has wider coverage, but I couldn’t really tell a difference there. However, when you use the cameras side-by-side, you realize that the 5D has a slightly yellow cast to the image shown in the viewfinder, whereas the Mark II is more neutral. Or possibly even whiter. It’s a subtle difference, and probably one you wouldn’t notice unless you use them side-by-side.

As you half-press the shutter button for the first time and see the new in-viewfinder status display, the first thing that will probably strike you is the addition of a battery meter on the left side. While not something that’s going to ease the process of shooting any particular type of image, having the meter stuck right in your face like that might just help you stay more cognizant of how much power you have left. (And now that I have only one usable battery, this is probably a good thing.)

I’ve never felt slighted by the 5D’s LCD screen. It’s been big enough for me to judge my compositions, and I’ve never had a problem reading the histogram or status information, and the menus have been clear enough to easily navigate. With all that in mind, LCD size is not really that important, right? That’s easy enough to say, and even feel kind of self-righteous about, until you see the Mark II’s screen. It’s not just that it’s bigger. It’s brighter, more saturated, and dramatically clearer and sharper, thanks to a four-fold increase in resolution over the 5D’s screen. Assessing sharpness is much easier than on the 5D, and he screen now has an ambient light sensor that allows it to automatically adjust its brightness level. Really, the screen is just a great luxury improvement that’s very satisfying.

Finally, you will press the shutter button for the first time. I’ve never been crazy about the 5D shutter sound. Personally, shutter sound-wise, I think Canon peaked with the 20D’s quiet shutter with its cool electronic undertones. While not necessarily LOUD, the 5D had a very pronounced mirror slap sound that could be a little jarring. The Mark II has a very different sound. It seems a little quieter, lacks the slappy sound of the 5D, and has a nice electronic-y finish. And I promise, this is as weirdly nerdy and obsessive-compulsive as I’ll get in this article.

Control Changes

I’ve been shooting with the 5D for a while now, and it was interesting to start using the Mark II and realize how many things there are on the 5D that I simply know by feel, without even thinking about them. When you switch to the Mark II, you’re going to have to do a little thinking for a while, and you will most likely not be able to move as quickly and effortlessly as you might be used to, due to some control changes that Canon has made to the Mark II’s interface. Personally, I think most of these changes are for the better, but if you upgrade, expect to spend some time getting your fingers and brain working differently.

The most significant change is to the three top-mounted buttons. On the EOS system, most critical configuration functions are controlled by the three buttons above the camera’s top-mounted LCD screen. Each button controls two parameters. The first parameter is altered by turning the control knob on the top of the camera, and the second parameter is changed using the rear control wheel. With the Mark II, Canon has re-arranged the functions. Not only are some functions on different buttons, but some have changed so that they are now adjusted with the front, instead of rear wheel (and vice versa).

The top-mounted buttons on the 5D.

The top-mounted buttons on the 5D Mark II.

The most significant of these is ISO. ISO sat on the middle button on the 5D, and with the Mark II it has been moved to the right-most. The good part about this change is that it’s now easier to find the ISO control while shooting. Without taking your eye from the viewfinder, you can simply move your finger back from the shutter button to the ISO button.

The downside to the change is that ISO is now altered by the front wheel instead of the rear. Personally, I have an easier time turning the rear wheel, whether I’m holding the camera to my eye, or not. Of all of the top-mounted functions, ISO is the one I use the most, so this is a fairly significant, jarring change for me. It would be very nice if Canon offered a custom function that let you reverse the wheels. Until then, I’ll be struggling to get used to the new system.

Canon has also moved the status display light switch. Where it’s on the left side on the 5D, it’s now directly behind the top control wheel on the Mark II. I find this a little strange, as your finger runs into it when looking for the ISO button. If you’re looking through the viewfinder, you’re not going to need to turn the light on, so this change is a little strange.

As you can see from the above images, many other functions have been assigned to a different button or wheel. These will most likely be the changes you struggle with the most.

The rear of the camera has also seen big interface changes, largely to accommodate the larger LCD screen, but also because of the addition of some additional buttons.

The back of the 5D.

The back of the 5D Mark II.

For me, the most significant change is the re-positioned delete button. Where it used to sit directly below the LCD, it now sits at the very bottom of the stack of buttons that runs along the left side of the camera. The problem is not that I need to easily find the delete button, but that I’m very used to simply finding the bottom button to activate playback mode. Now playback is the second-to-last button. This is still easily found by feel, but I’ll have to change my habit.

The button stack on the Mark II includes an additional button. Wedged between the Menu and Info button is a new Picture Styles button. As a raw shooter, I never use Picture Styles, so I feel fairly confident that this will now be the least-used button on the camera (that honor used to go to the Direct Print button, but it now has actual value). It’s too bad that Canon did not offer an option to program this button for something else. An Auto-Bracketing button would be MUCH more handy than a silly Picture Styles button.

The last big change to the rear of the camera is the addition of the AF-On button, located just to the left of the Exposure Lock button. In addition to the 5D, I also own a Rebel XSi, which also has this button, so this addition feels fairly comfortable. It doesn’t interfere with any other controls, so you shouldn’t find this change jarring.

The Mark II’s top-mounted status display has not seen any significant changes, but the Mode dial on the top of the camera has seen some additions, which we’ll get to shortly.

New Menus

The Mark II’s menu system is profoundly different from the 5D’s, and personally I love the changes. The 5D menu system was definitely showing its age. It had been cumbersome from the outset, and was way behind the improvements that Canon had made in more recent cameras.

On the 5D, a single menu housed every function, which meant you had to do a lot of scrolling to find a particular parameters. With the Mark II, menus are now arranged into tabs. You can jump from one tab to another using the joystick on the back of the camera, and scroll up and down that menu using the rear wheel.

Most importantly, no menu has more items than will fit in a single screen, so you can read an entire menu’s worth of items without any additional scrolling. This makes it very easy to very quickly find the parameter you’re looking for.

Many items are no longer altered directly in the menu where they are housed. For example, on the 5D, if you wanted to change Auto Exposure Bracketing, you selected the item, and then altered the setting right away. With the Mark II, when you select AEB, you’re taken to a separate screen to alter the setting. This does not slow anything down, but there is an important change: where before you used the rear wheel to alter the actual setting, you now use the top wheel.

Like ISO, this change really throws me for a loop. On the 5D, I knew exactly how much to turn the rear wheel to get the bracket settings that I use the most. I could very quickly and easily change the settings by feel, so I’ll have to re-learn that. One nice thing about the separate setting screen, though, is that Canon now gives you a hint: it shows the wheel that alters the parameter. Also, note that the bracket can extend in four stops in both directions.

The reason for this change is that the rear wheel is used to adjust exposure compensation, so now you can use the upper wheel to set the bracket size, and use the rear wheel to change the exposure compensation, all in one screen. It used to be that you had to wait until you’d set the bracketing setting, before you could shift it up or down with exposure compensation. Again, this is a change that makes sense, and is fine for the new user, but tricky for the upgrader. (Fortunately, this hassle is largely offset by a new feature, which we’ll see later.)

Custom functions now get their own dedicated menu, and are further divided into separate categories. This makes it much easier to find a specific function, and this is a welcome change.

Also welcome is the new My Menu page, which allows you define a single completely customized menu that contains only items you want. With My Menu, you can gather up your most-used functions, and have them all in one place. If you’re thoughtful about how you configure My Menu, you might never need to use any of the other parts of the menuing system. This is a great addition that can make for much more efficient, speedier camera use.

I defined this custom menu, which contains only the items I want.

All-in-all, the menu changes to the Mark II are fantastic, very welcome, and a great improvement over the 5D.

New Features

While HD video shooting is the feature that gets all of the press, the new feature that I like the most is the ability to define custom mode settings. If you’ve used a 50D, or Rebel XSi, you’ll already be familiar with this feature.

In addition to the 5D’s modes, the Mark II now includes three additional modes, C1, C2, and C3. These allow you to store custom camera configurations, making it possible to switch a very specific camera setup by simply changing the mode dial.

Configuring a custom mode is very simple. Just set up the camera the way you want, and then use the Camera User Setting command to register a specific Custom mode. Now, whenever you change to that mode, that configuration will automatically be made.

For example, to facilitate HDR shooting, I defined a custom mode. I set my camera to Aperture priority, set an aperture of F11, set the drive mode to burst, Auto Exposure Bracketing to one stop over and under, and ISO to 200. I then registered those settings to mode C1. Now, switching to C1 is instantly configures the camera, just as if I’d set each of those parameters by hand. All of them are adjustable after the fact – if I want to switch to ISO 100, for example, I can, though I can’t change out of aperture priority mode (but I can change aperture).

Even custom functions can be assigned to a mode dial. Though Canon still refuses to put the mirror lock-up command in an easily accessible place (it’s still a custom function) I can easily assign it to a custom mode, for quick access. (You can also put custom functions in your My Menu page, which makes them easier to access.)

Custom Modes and My Menu are HUGE improvements over the 5D, and make the Mark II an extremely compelling upgrade.

When Live VIew first started appearing on SLRs, I was skeptical. If I wanted to look silly, with a camera held at arms length in front of me, I’d shoot with a point-and-shoot camera. One of the great appeals of an SLR is the incredibly clear, accurate viewfinder that allows you to block out the world, see the entire dynamic range of your scene, and to focus on composition.

But as I worked with some Live View-capable cameras, I began to miss it when I returned to my 5D. If you ever shoot from a tripod – something I do a lot as a landscape shooter – then Live View is a fantastic feature. I tend to do a lot of product shots with the camera pointed straight down, which makes using the optical viewfinder difficult. Live View makes tripod-mounted shooting much simpler.

The other great advantage of Live View is the ability to hold the camera over your head, or down low at strange angles. If you find yourself shooting in an extremely quiet environment, then Live View’s silent mode might prove useful. In this mode, the mechanical shutter is not used to expose the sensor. Instead, the sensor is simply turned off and on for the appropriate duration, making for an exposure that’s completely silent. Live View is not something you’ll use every day, but when you need it, it’s a very welcome addition, and one that I’m glad to now have.

The formerly useless Direct Print button now doubles as the Live View toggle. As with Canon’s other Live View-capable cameras, autofocus in Live View is a bit cumbersome, (there’s no real-time autofocus in Live View, you have to jump through a few hoops to get the camera to focus). Since I don’t use Live View for shooting fast-moving situations, I don’t find the mechanism to be a hassle. Canon has added a face detection focusing option to Live View, a feature I doubt I’ll ever use.

Sensor dust is a problem for all SLR shooters, and like many 5D owners, I was surprised to see that the 5D seemed to suffer from sensor dust to a greater degree than any SLR I’d ever owned. I’m not sure yet how much of a difference the integrated cleaning system will make in the Mark II, but I’m glad it’s there. It can’t hurt.

Auto ISO is a welcome addition. The Mark II can now automatically change ISO as it sees fit, to ensure a fast shutter speed. Of course, you can disable this feature, but for situations where I need to move quickly, and don’t have particular artistic goals in mind, this is a welcome, convenient addition that I’d been missing on the 5D.

Burst speed has always been a bit of a drag on the 5D. The pokey three frames per second was not only slow for shooting action, it also bugged me when auto bracketing. The Mark II is noticeably faster, offering roughly an additional frame per second. While this may not sound like much, if you regularly shoot bursts, you’ll notice the change right away with the Mark II. Still, it’s frustrating that the 5D doesn’t provide the burst speed of Canon’s higher-end cameras.

A further boon for tripod-based shooting is the new Quick Control screen, which provides a single screen interface to every essential shooting parameter. These parameters can be altered using the joystick on the back of the camera. If you’ve positioned your camera in a way that makes accessing the top-mounted controls difficult, you’ll find this to be a very handy feature.

Raw+JPEG shooters will appreciate the ability to define any combination of raw and JPEG parameters. As we’ll discuss in Part II, the Mark II now offers three different raw formats, and the ability to mix and match these with any level of JPEG setting is very handy. I don’t shoot Raw+JPEG, so this feature has not had much of an impact on me.

Finally, the Mark II now provides one additional automatic mode. CA, or Creative Auto. This is basically the normal Full Auto mode, but with a few additional manual overrides, most noticably, Picture Styles.

As someone who’s never used the Full Auto mode of the 5D, I’m sure I won’t touch the CA mode on the Mark II.

The Mark II includes a few additional new features that are related to image quality, and I’ll cover those in Part II.

Finally, there is the new video feature. Video on a small point-and-shoot camera is a lot of fun, just because it’s so easy to quickly grab small clips. That kind of shooting with the Mark II is a little more cumbersome, because of the size of the camera, as well as the lack of autofocus while shooting video. Video shooting with the Mark II is akin to shooting with a film movie camera. You must assess focus for your shot, and make sure your camera and subject don’t move in a way that will sabotage your focus. For the casual movie clip, then, the Mark II is not as easy to work with as an inexpensive point-and-shoot.

If you feel like your business could be expanded by the addition of video, then the Mark II might be very compelling, especially if you want the ability to shoot in low light. However, the Mark II’s video features are no substitute for a professional video camera, so if you really think that video production is a market you need to push into, then you should do it right and push into that new field with an actual video tool.

I hear people talk about the potential to shoot video and then grab stills, so as to kill two birds with one stone. In addition to being a very complex workflow that may not be worth the hassle, it’s worth noting that you don’t shoot video the same way you shoot stills. Personally, I don’t visualize, identify, or frame shots the same way when I’m shooting video as I do when shooting stills, so I feel like this idea of "shoot once, get both video and stills" to be a little idealistic. That might just be me, but you’ll need to think about your own methods and visual sense before you invest a lot of money with this goal in mind.

Cost of Upgrade

At the time of this writing, used 5Ds are going for $1000-1200 on eBay. If you can find a Mark II body only, then your upgrade cost will be close to $2000. So far, it seems to be mostly Mark II kits in the channels, which adds a hefty chunk to the upgrade price, but gets you the wonderful 24-105 f/4L. Unfortunately, I already own that lens, so now I’ve got a second one I need to unload. Hopefully, that won’t be too difficult.

Are there $2000-$2500 worth of new features in the 5D? That’s obviously a very personal decision. If you make your living off of the camera, then the more streamlined operation provided by the new customization features might offer tremendous advantage. Similarly, if you have use for simple HD video capability, then this camera might be ideal.

However, I will say outright that Canon is still lagging way behind Nikon in the features department. At $1800, the Nikon D300 offers a tremendously larger menu of features. Most importantly, the D300 is astoundingly customizable. My Mark II has at least one button on it, the Picture Styles button, that I’ll never use, and I’d love to be able to re-progam it. Same with the Info button. While custom modes and My menu help, I’d like to be able to re-program buttons, reverse control wheels, and do the sorts of things I can do on a D-300, a camera that’s substantially cheaper.

At $3500, the Mark II’s auto bracketing feature is pathetic. Again, less expensive Nikons offer brackets of 2 to 5 steps, while Canon continues to sit at 3. With the rise of HDR shooting for both still images and 3D rendering work, the continued insistence on such a limited bracket is very annoying. With a less expensive Nikon model, I get better bracketing, as well as an intervalometer and many other features that should be included on a camera that’s as pricey as the Mark II. In these terms, the camera is a big disappointment.

But, new features aren’t the only changes in the camera. The image quality changes with the Mark II are huge, and add a lot of value to the upgrade. In Part II, we’ll look at those changes, and the impact that these changes have on lenses and final image quality.

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