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Photography

A Complete Field Review of the Canon EOS 5D Mk III

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Sensational, statistically impressive, solidly constructed… sexy? If you're hoping to describe your next camera with any of these words, you should keep reading. We've got these and many more "s" words in store for this camera.


The EOS 5D Mark III is a tool for professionals, it does not make you a professional. Or a better photographer.

The battle 5D Mk III vs. D800 is only in the mind of those that don't have Canon or Nikon systems. No one in their right mind, after having invested so much into lenses, will jump ship unless there's a very good reason. I don't see one now. Better, I see two good reasons for Canon and Nikon owners to be happy. Competition keeps going on. This said, I just tried the Canon 5D Mk III, so this text is about it.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III can be explained in a simple way: it's an advanced EOS 7D with a full frame sensor. It has almost the fps rating of that model and nearly double, at 6fps, of the previous 5D MK II, what says a lot about what Canon did. The AF system that evolved from the 7D to the new 1D X is present here, with 61-point AF sporting 41 cross-type sensors.

The processor in the 5D Mk III, DIGIC 5+ is 17x faster than the DIGIC 4 used in the 5D Mk II, and 30% faster than the DIGIC 5 that most new cameras will use. The numbers are astounding, but if you just want numbers, please go elsewhere. The following lines are about a hands-on review. For over two weeks, I had the chance to photograph with a 5D Mk III. And I used it for most of the photography work I had to do. That's a good way to test a camera. So, here we go.


The sound of the shutter in DSLR is usually too noisy for wildlife animals shot close, but the EOS 5D Mark III has a silent mode.

S is for Silent

Do not awake the wild boars! Well I did not. In fact, I did not disturb many wildlife animals (and others) when I photographed them. Contrary to what is normal for most of us, this time I could be quietly taking pictures not having the deer and wild boar looking back at me with each click.

Canon has used on the 5D Mark III a system similar to what they use on the 1 series: a silent mode that lets you shoot a single-shot or at 3 fps (instead of 6 fps) but that is almost imperceptible. The proof is in the pudding, pardon, the picture: I could shoot a sleepy wild boar, from a close distance, without the animal even making a wink. I love that. I used the 5D Mark III extensively with wildlife these two weeks, along with a EOS 600D, and could see the different reactions from the animals.

I don't understand why Canon does not transfer this function to more affordable models, the APS-C line. After all, back in 1991 they had a model, the EOS 100, that had a motorized belt drive for film winding and rewinding (much more complicated then) so silent that photojournalists working at television studios and theatres loved the camera. I used to take pictures of classic music concerts then, and it was terrible to hear the "clang" of my camera.


I spent a whole afternoon shooting gliders, a good way to test the AF. It works fine, if you know what you're doing.

S Is For Speed

At six frames per second, the EOS 5D Mk III is fast, considering it's a full frame 22.3 megapixels sensor. The new DIGIC 5+ is very responsible for that. In practical terms, shooting themes like paragliding, I had no trouble getting the images I needed where and when I needed them.

Like the gliders with the moon close by. It was a framing that I wanted and I've got a lot of pictures like this one, with different gliders. I just had to follow them and shoot a series of images when they passed over me. Enlarging each single picture to the maximum resolution, I found a tack sharp photograph where everything works, exposure included.


A total of 61 AF sensors on the viewfinder does not necessarily mean that you can shoot and forget.

S Is For... Sorry I Missed AF

The speed itself is great, and AF speed too. But the fact you have 61 AF points to play with does not mean you can just shoot and hope for the best. I've seen people make the same mistake on the EOS 7D, whose system is the base for the one present on the 1D X and now on the 5D Mk III, and complaining that the AF does not work.

They're wrong. The focusing system is fantastic. Let me rephrase that: FANTASTIC! With a wider area of coverage, and 61 AF points, it is going to be a challenge for people used to the 9-point AF (with 6 AF Assist points). It can be modified, through the menu, for different types of shooting, and adapted to the preferences and needs of each photographer. It gives a lot but asks a lot from the user in terms of learning the system and understanding how it works.

Having used the EOS 7D previously I felt at home with the 5D Mark III. It's even more sophisticated, but it's a cinch. And being able to choose each different AF-point or a group of them just rocking the joystick on the back, becomes second nature.

Remember one thing: if you don't know what you're doing or are slouch and let the camera do the hard work, like guessing where you want to focus, you'll end saying the AF doesn't work. It works, but needs someone trained to guide it.


A deer photographed on a grey day, under shadow, at 25600 ISO, shows how the Mark III as evolved when compared to the 5D Mark II.

S Is For Sensitivity

There's a rage going on these days about using high ISO, so camera makers show numbers like the 102.400 ISO that 5D Mark III can reach. I was used to shooting transparencies, back in the seventies, so I am old school. I still try to keep ISO as low as I can. Slides were 100 ISO at most.

I guess the maximum speed I ever used with film was 3200 ISO, on a special emulsion Konica had, for astrophotography. And it had so much grain you had to look really close to find the stars on each frame. People are not really aware of how things have changed with digital. I shot with the 5D Mark III all the way up the scale, but I am not showing the higher ISO images. I do believe they can be used if you need a document, but don't expect more than that.

This said, the image above was shot at 25600 ISO and is what I consider acceptable if you're shooting in dark conditions and need to have a shutter speed to keep blur away. It can be the only choice when you use long lenses handheld on moving animals or any other action image. I can live with that if I need to.

Looking at the images I shot the past two weeks, I would say that 6400 ISO is the sweet spot on the 5D Mark III. You can get away with fantastic images if you need to work at that sensitivity. Still, I will rather stay at 100 ISO as much as I can. But it's good to know you can go higher and still return home with pictures. For some photographers, that's very good news.


The National Palace of Sintra is a monument I use to shoot regularly when trying cameras, as I know the results to expect.

S Is For Slow Shutter

I guess it comes as no surprise to anyone, but it's good to know. Keeping with a slow ISO and using a tripod, gets you long exposures at night that have almost no noise. This 3.2 seconds exposure at f/8 of Sintra's National Palace, shot during a workshop I was leading on night photography, tells you all.

I mean, looking at the small image here you cannot see much, but you have to believe me: the big size photo is fantastic with great detail, light, texture, everything. Of course, the palace helps. And the fact that after a rainy day we had a sunny end of afternoon just made it better.

This is a straight on exposure: no filters, no ND, nothing. Just a "point and shoot" example of what the 5D Mark III can do. With a photographer behind the camera, that is.


For many subjects, you don't really need to use high ISO. This picture was made at 400 ISO. Made, not taken.

S Is For Seashore

The picture above was shot at 11 p.m. at a coastal area in Portugal. It's here to show that you don't need to go to very high ISO sensitivities to get what you need. It's a 30 seconds long exposure at f/5.6 and 400 ISO. Taken on a 100-400mm lens, on a tripod, I counted on the fact that fishermen do not move much to get this image, part of my collection about the relation of people with the sea, something I call my Atlantic Realm project.

The sand is lit by some big lights on the coastal road, but it's darker than seen here. The dark background was barely seen but the camera recorded enough of it to show the placement of the fishermen.

For best results, even with a professional camera like this, you cannot just point and shoot. You need to know how the camera will interpret the existing light. In fact, the dark area to the right (sea) and behind the fishermen asked for a much longer exposure.

Remember, even this professional tool just reads everything as a 18% grey card. So if you don't know what you're doing, you'll get almost the same result as using a EOS 1000D. It's not the camera, it's the photographer!

Flowers are a special subject for me so I had to try the 5D Mk III with them. I love the results.

S is for Studio

I used the camera to photograph in the studio, both with the new radio flash system and with my flash system. I photographed flowers for personal projects and for a client, and loved the level of detail you can get on the files. For this type of photography I would not say the Mark III is superior to the Mark II, but when you buy a new camera there's more than just the quality at base ISO.

The Mark III has a better response when you need to raise ISO, it's faster, more versatile in terms of focusing system, even for studio work, and it's more friendly in terms of interface with the user, and works better with flashes. So every photographer will find one of various reasons to upgrade. Logical reasons, I mean.


Conclusion

I've used the EOS 5D Mark III as I use any other camera, during the two weeks I had it around. I used it to do pictures I needed for various reasons, from studio shots of flowers to photojournalistic work. For me that's the best test I can do.

The results I got are what I expect and my clients want. I would not expect less from this new model from Canon. But using the camera to its full extent asks for someone able to understand that even with the most complex systems there are always limitations. This is photography, not magic.

To make a long story short, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a tool that sits close to the top of the Canon offerings. It's a fantastic camera, but it needs investment from the user to really show its best side. Buying it in hope that your photography will get better is putting the cart in front of the horses.

One last note. Get the EOS-1D X AF Settings Guidebook to understand the AF system, as it is similar to the one present on the EOS 5D Mark III. It's free.

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