Since the introduction of the original Canon 5D, the series has ruled the market. Three newer generations have come out, and until recently, they were unrivaled.
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What Is the Canon EOS 5D Series?
The EOS 5D came out in 2005. It created the market for consumer-grade full-frame cameras. Until then, you had two options: buy the massive and expensive Canon 1DS series or go with smaller sensors.
Soon after, the second generation followed, which introduced video recording. Doubling up on resolution and adding 14-bit raw depth, the 5D MkII pitched as a fantastic all-rounder camera. Countless professionals bought it and built their entire gear around it.
Then, 2012 came, and Canon introduced the 5D MkIII. It offered significant improvements in autofocus and ergonomics. A new sensor, extensive weather sealing, and other incremental updates also made their way into the camera. In the years after its release, the MkIII dominated the market.
But a few years passed, and the full-frame market became very saturated.
A year later, the 5D MkIV arrived in stiff competition. For the first time, it wasn’t the obvious choice for full-frame newbies. Still, it promised to be a competent camera with 4K video and incremental upgrades in every aspect.
What Photographers Are The EOS 5D Cameras Best For?
Canon aimed the 5D series at enthusiasts looking for top image quality.
Casual videographers also loved them, especially the MkII and MkIII models. For almost a decade, these two models led the DSLR video field.
Let’s take a look at the core features of the two later models, the MkIII and the MkIV.
A Quick Comparison
Canon released the 5D MkIII in 2012.
It features a redesigned body, a blend of the 5D MkII and the 7D. It’s very ergonomic, intuitive, and sturdy. It’s a camera that feels like they made it for your hands. That is the result of heavy testing and continuous redesigning.
You get a 22.3MP full-frame sensor with great colors and impressive low-light performance. Its dynamic range is not remarkable for a full-frame camera, but not terrible either. Highlights are well preserved, but pulling up shadows can result in visible banding.
The autofocus system is from the 1DX. You can choose from 61 points, 41 of which are cross-type. They are sensitive and better than those of the 5D MkII. The system tracks subjects well for a DSLR. The points cover enough of the frame to be practical in most situations.
Once you switch on live view, the wonders vanish. Contrast detection AF is your only option, but it’s slow and does not have continuous focus. You can also choose Quick mode, which flips the mirror to enable phase detection every time you focus. It’s faster but very annoying.
The MkIII holds two memory cards, a CF and an SD. This a must-have feature in a professional camera. Cards rarely fail, but you have to prepare for every scenario.
In terms of video, you can shoot 1080p in 30fps with ALL-I compression. It can output a clean video signal via HDMI, so you can also record externally.
One considerable advantage over the 5D MkIV is the availability of Magic Lantern. With ML, you can use focus peaking, set an intervalometer for time-lapse, shoot raw video, and much more. It’s not (yet) developed for the newer model.
In general, the 5D MkIII is a well-designed, efficient, all-rounder camera.
Released in 2016, the 5D MkIV offers a gradual upgrade to the MkIII.
The body is very similar but slightly more prominent. In my humble opinion, this camera has the best grip ever designed. But this, of course, varies from hand to hand.
It arrived as the most expensive 5D camera to date. Its features justify that price, but it lacks in some respects.
The specification sheet looks great. The new sensor offers images with 30.4MP resolution, and you can shoot 7 frames of that every second.
Further notable differences to the 5D MkIII include:
A new AF area selection button. Located next to the joystick, this is a feature borrowed from the 7D MkII. It’s a welcome improvement that makes switching AF area modes quicker. I find myself changing areas more often on the 5D MkIV and 7D MkII because the operation is more convenient.
Touchscreen. This feature is one that I didn’t know I needed. It makes camera operation much faster in some scenarios. You can surf through the menus. When reviewing photos, it also supports the same gestures like your smartphone.
Extended focus area. It has the same amount of points as the previous model, but they are more scattered across the frame. This might not seem like a big deal. In reality, though, it gives you more options for composition. Tracking is also better since the camera can follow the subject longer in the frame.
Dual Pixel Autofocus. This feature is the most significant improvement. Phase-detection AF points embedded in the sensor enable fast focus across the frame. It’s useful and accurate. In video mode, it gives you smooth focus pulls. In low light, it’s more sensitive than the points in the viewfinder. It tracks faces and moving subjects, and compensates for hand movement.
GPS and Geotagging. GPS is a handy addition, especially for travel, landscape, and wildlife photography. If you turn it on, every single file has accurate GPS data embedded into it. So, you can view your photos on a live map, showing where you captured them.
4K DCI video recording. While Canon finally included 4K in their top full-frame camera, it comes with a significant constraint. It’s only available using a 1.3x crop.
Wider dynamic range. Although it’s not the best on the market, the 5D MkIV offers a significant improvement. Shadows look much cleaner, and banding is not an issue.
Higher ISO performance. Noise levels have improved by roughly one stop at higher values. With the MkIII, I would comfortably go up to 6400. With the MkIV, it’s around 12800. On paper, both are expandable to 102400, but that looks terrible.
Negative Features of Both Cameras
I can’t write a review about Canon products without mentioning their limitations. Some of these are not huge issues. But they cause headaches for photographers who have already invested in Canon gear.
The SD slot is slow. Of the double slots, one is a UHS-I SD in both cameras. When burst-shooting at high framerates, this becomes a severe problem. The slot is not fast enough to handle the bitrate of 6 or 7 RAW files every second. After the camera runs out of buffer (which happens after a few seconds), you can’t shoot at high speeds. The CF slot is fast enough, but Canon should have opted for a UHS-II SD slot.
The lack of in-body image stabilization. Video creators mostly miss this feature. Photographers would welcome it for sure, as well. Other manufacturers, for instance, Pentax, can include IBIS effectively in their pro bodies. It’s not a technological problem.
Cropped 4K recording. Many other cameras shoot 4K with the whole area of the sensor. Canon probably wants to protect the EOS C cinema camera lineup. So, full-frame 4K not included in any of the EOS full-frame cameras. This lag didn’t get fixed until very recently with the upcoming 1DX MkIII. But that camera will cost more than a small car.
The dynamic range is worse than the competition. It’s a problem in situations when you can’t shoot bracketed. I respect that Canon doesn’t borrow Sony’s tech, but develops its own sensors instead. Nonetheless, it needs to catch up. The dynamic range of recent Canon cameras is 1-2 stops worse than Sony’s comparable ones. Nikon buys Sony’s sensors, so they are ahead, too. The new 90D and M6 MkII look very promising, though.
ISO invariance. This feature is probably the least important. Still, it would be nice to have. Most of the competition (Fujifilm, Sony, Nikon) already has ISO invariant cameras. It means that you can shoot at any ISO. Then, you push the raw image during editing without losing tonal detail. It doesn’t matter if you set the ISO on the camera or your computer.
The 5D series, especially the MkIV with its higher price, faces intense competition. There are comparable DSLRs and MILCs, often costing less. I list three obvious ones below, but depending on your camera preferences, there are many more.
Canon’s mirrorless full-frame camera might be a proper competitor for the 5D MkIV. It comes at a much lower price but has notable drawbacks.
First, it only has a single SD card slot, which poses a threat to your data. If you back up often and buy quality memory cards, you can minimalize the risk.
Second, the body is small and lightweight. If it’s what you’re looking for, great. But for some, it might feel uncomfortable or unbalanced.
It also has the same sensor as the 5D MkIV, with its same limited dynamic range.
But there are undeniable advantages. Being a mirrorless body, it has a short flange distance. Thanks to that, you can adapt practically anything to it, from old Soviet Helios lenses to modern EF glass. The one exception is other brands’ mirrorless lenses. Finding adapters for uncommon mounts is hard, but that will change.
It also comes with Canon’s new RF mount and accepts RF lenses. There are not a lot of them yet, but they are amazing. Their optical performance sets them apart, but of course, their price matches that.
Sony’s all-rounder full-frame MILC is a very viable option instead of the 5D MkIV. You can get it at a substantially lower price, too.
Of the few disadvantages that the A7 has, I would highlight two.
First, the sensor does not have protection from environmental elements. So, whenever you switch lenses, dust can freely fall onto the sensor. This issue is because of the lack of a mirror. Canon, however, has overcome this problem by closing the shutter every time the camera is turned off, or a lens is detached. If you’re buying any Sony MILC, expect to clean the sensor often.
The other one is the slightly uncomfortable grip. The camera is small and light, just like the EOS R. It’s an obvious tradeoff: you have to choose between size and ergonomics.
The A7 III has impressive advantages, though. Its sensor has a lower resolution, but a wider dynamic range than the 5D MkIV’s.
You get in-body image stabilization, too. With stabilized native lenses, this means double efficiency. It also stabilizes vintage lenses.
Its autofocus is superior to any of the EOS 5D cameras. In videos, it’s not so apparent, but with stills, the Sony system wins. It tracks flawlessly, covers the whole frame, and has outstanding eye detection. Portrait photography has never been easier.
The D850 is the 5D MkIV’s most direct competitor. Their prices are similar.
It lags behind the 5D in live view focusing. Dual Pixel is very hard to beat. When using the optical viewfinder, the two systems are equally impressive.
The D850 has a 45.7MP sensor. It’s twice the resolution of the 5D MkIV with a better dynamic range, too.
Should You Buy a 5D Series Camera in 2020?
As with everything, there’s no single right answer to this question. It depends on numerous factors — compatibility, image quality, autofocus, and handling all influence your choice. But I’ll help you decide.
Should You Buy a 5D MkIII?
The price of the 5D MkIII dropped in 2019, which makes it a very appealing offer. If you have enough experience to buy used, it’s even better.
The MkIII is still very suitable even for professional work. I use it as my primary camera. When I need more (which rarely happens), I borrow or rent other cameras.
So, when is the 5D MkIII an excellent choice for you?
- It is perfect for an enthusiast Canon user stepping up to full-frame. Presumably, you already have some full-frame compatible lenses. If your budget is moderately limited, and want better than the 6D or 5D MkII, it’s an obvious choice.
The 5D MkIII gives you a professional interface with dual slots, useful features, and excellent durability. It’s a great, balanced stills camera, with respectable, but not extraordinary, video features.
- If you’re a type of photographer (like me), who appreciates a bigger, more comfortable camera, the MKIII is for you. There is nothing wrong with small, portable mirrorless cameras, but I prefer a sturdy grip.
Should You Buy a 5D MkIV?
The 5D MkIV is the best Canon offers for photographers who don’t want the enormous 1DX MkII.
There are alternatives. But if you’re a long-time Canon user, you won’t go wrong with it.
This camera, too, is a joy to use. It’s reliable and all-proof.
It fits your hands, and despite its size, it’s not a pain to carry around all day. At least if you don’t put a three-pound lens on it.
Canon designs the most intuitive interfaces and controls. So, if you want a professional camera that’s as straight-forward as it gets, the MkIV is the right choice.
To answer the question at the beginning: Yes. The Canon EOS 5D MkIII and 5D MkIV are very much relevant today. Despite the mirrorless revolution and technological advancements, they are still viable options.
Choose your camera wisely, as it will accompany you at your most memorable experiences. Invest in it well, but don’t overinvest in features that you don’t need.
Keep one thing in mind. All cameras are just cameras. When it comes down to it, you take the photos, and the camera in your hand is only a tool. Use a camera that brings the best out of you.